The slow violence of bombing

When I spoke at the symposium on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ in Utrecht before Christmas, one of my central arguments was about the slow violence of bombing.  The term is, of course, Rob Nixon‘s, but I borrowed it to emphasise that the violence of sudden death from the air – whether in the air raids of the First and Second World Wars or the drone strikes of the early twenty-first century – neither begins nor ends with the explosion of bombs and missiles.

Paul Saint-Amour speaks of ‘traumatic earliness’: that dreadful sense of deadly anticipation.  The sense of not only preparation – communal and individual – but also of an involuntary tensing.  I described this for the First and Second World Wars in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’, which you can download from the TEACHING tab, but here is A.L. Kennedy who captures it as well as anyone:

Add to that the blackouts, the new landscape of civil defence with its sandbags and shelters, the new choreography of movement through the war-time city, the air-raid sirens and the probing arcs of the searchlights.

Perhaps this seems remote, but it shouldn’t.  Modern technology can radically heighten that sense of foreboding: calibrate it, give it even sharper definition.  Here is Salam Pax, counting down the hours to US air strikes on Baghdad:

Fast forward to drone strikes.  The sense of dread visited on innocents by multiple US drone programmes is readily overlooked in the emphasis on ‘targeted killing’, on what the US Air Force once called its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and on the individuation of this modality of later modern war.  ‘The body is the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou argues.

I’ve written about all those things, but there is a powerful sense in which the battle space still exceeds the body: for in order to target the individual these programmes also target the social, as this set of slides from my Utrecht presentation tries to show:

Here too, surely, is traumatic earliness.  (I’ve discussed this in more detail in ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ [DOWNLOADS tab], and I’m indebted to Neal Curtis, ‘The explication of the social’, Journal of sociology 52 (3) (2016) 522-36) for helping me to think this through).

And then, after the explosion – the shocking bio-convergence that in an instant produces the horror of meatspace – the violence endures: stored in the broken buildings and in the broken bodies.  In the Second World War (again as I show in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’) the landscape was made strange every morning: buildings newly demolished, people driven from their homes and their workplaces, roads blocked by hoses and ambulances, by craters and unexploded bombs, rescue workers still toiling in the rubble to remove the dead and the injured, hospitals still treating and caring for the casualties.

And the violence of a drone strike lingers too: not on the same scale, but still the destroyed houses, the burned-out cars, the graves of the dead and above all the traumatized survivors (and their rescuers), some of them forced into newly prosthetic lives (see here and here).  The explosion is instantaneous, a bolt from the blue, but the pain, the grief and the scars on the land and the body endure.

These effects have a horizon that is not contained by any carefully calculated blast radius.  The grief spirals out through extended families and communities; and – depending on the target – so too do the casualties.  As I’ve said before, power stations in Gaza or Iraq have been targeted not for any localised destructon but because without power water cannot be pumped, sewage cannot be treated, food (and medicines) stored in refrigerators deteriorates.  And hospitals have been systematically targeted in Syria to deny treatment to hundreds and thousands of sick and injured:

The work of enumerating and plotting air strikes, in the past or in the present, is immensely important.  But those columns on graphs and circles on maps should not be read as signs of an episodic or punctiform violence.

Ice Cold in Alex

I think most of my research on medical care and casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War is now complete, though there are still some loose ends to tie up and some more interviews/oral histories to listen to on-line courtesy of the wonderful Imperial War Museum.   So I spent much of the summer working on the very different situation in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War: the material – at the IWM and the Wellcome Institute – is just as rich, though much less worked over.

If the First World War was the first industrialised war yet still  fought, for the most part, at short range, the campaigns in North Africa involved mechanised war fought over vast distances.  I had anticipated some of this in ‘The natures of war‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), particularly since some of my evidence was drawn from vivid accounts by volunteer ambulance drivers from the American Field Service working with the Allies, but now I’m finding that early essay on the entanglement of the desert terrain and the soldier’s body needs to be supplemented – often dramatically so – once the wounded body is brought into the centre of the frame.

The Battle of Egypt, 1942: New Zealand and Indian Infantry Casualties (Art.IWM ART LD 2722) image: Interior of a tent with casualties lying on stretchers, main figure with arm and leg in makeshift
traction Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/11555

For the Western Front I’ve experimented with how to bring together the systems of evacuation that were put in place (with all their delays and dangers, imperfections and improvisations) with the wounded bodies that were moved through them, and – as regular readers will know – I’ve tried to incorporate the imbrications of those bodies with the changing and highly variable technological apparatus that made all this possible.  You can see some of my first attempts in Anatomy of another soldier

At the end of that essay, I worried about two issues: an anthropomorphism and a functionalism (in which everything that is pressed into service works inexorably to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain).

The spur for all this was Harry Parker‘s remarkable Anatomy of a soldier (see here and ‘Object lessons‘: DOWNLOADS tab), about the experience of a young British soldier who suffers traumatic blast injuries from an IED in Afghanistan.

But I’ve now found another, much earlier example that speaks directly to my work on North Africa.  And while the anthropomorphism remains a problem, as you’ll see the functionalism is much less secure – and for that very reason.

I’ve just finished Christopher Landon‘s Ice-Cold in Alex, a novel published in 1957 that provided the basis for J. Lee Thompson‘s celebrated film the following year, starring John Mills, Harry AndrewsSylvia Sims and Anthony Quayle.  (For a reading of the film, see Michael Leyshon and Catherine Brace, ‘Men and the desert: contested masculinities in Ice Cold in Alex’, Gender, place and culture 14 (2) (2007) 163-182).

The story describes a desperate drive in a British military ambulance from Tobruk, where the Afrika Korps is closing in, across the trackless desert to safety in Alexandria (and to a bar where the beer is always ‘ice-cold’).  Landon served with the 51st Field Ambulance and the Royal Army Service Corps in North Africa during the war, and knew what he was writing about.

Before the party sets off, Landon describes the Sergeant-Major lying underneath a lorry:

‘Above him, the bowels of the engine – gleaming crankshaft and loosened connecting rods , tied to the sides of the crank-case with wire – seemed to be grinning.  It was a challenging grin – “what’s wrong with me?”  He started back, up at the glint of metal, framed in the black space where the sump had been removed.  “It’s easier for doctors,” he thought.  “Patients can talk.  But machinery goes on uncomplaining, until it breaks.”‘

Later he has a similar conversation with one of the nurses they have been ordered to escort to Alexandria:

‘”Not so difficult, or different from your job.  They’re like humans, really.  If you give them the right food and drink – a dose occasionally – and don’t overwork them, they obey all the rules.”  He was moving the fan blades to and fro, feeling with the other hand behind it.  “The only trouble – and difference – is they can’t talk.  So that by the time you know they have a pain, it’s usually too late.”

But between these two passages Landon has given the ambulance a voice.

I’m going to be rehearsing these issues at a seminar tomorrow at the Wall – I’ll be interested to see how this year’s Scholars can  help me think this through….  And I’ll be posting more about my work on the Western Desert in the months ahead.

Blackout

I vividly remember reading Joachim Schlör‘s Nights in the Big City when it was first published almost twenty years ago – an extraordinary reflection on the impact of illumination and the perception of night in Berlin, Paris and London between 1840 and 1930.  It joined Wolfgang Schivelbusch‘s elegant Disenchanted Night on my bookshelves, a text whose subtitle – ‘the industrialization of light in the nineteenth century‘ – concealed as much as it revealed the richness of Schivelbusch’s narrative.

But even then I thought there was another, later story to tell: what happens when people who have become used to the (more or less) brightly lit city are precipitously plunged back into darkness?

I was thinking of the blackout during the Second World War.  This week I’m back at Radboud University in Nijmegen, preparing for a public presentation on aerial violence, and my thoughts have returned to my old question.  I think it’s an important one because we know so much about bombing – about crouching under the bombs, seeking cover in shelters, recovering the bodies of the dead and the injured, and then ‘carrying on’ –  but we often forget that its horror is not confined to the experience of an air raid, to what Pat Barker memorably describes in Noonday as ‘a stick of bombs … tumbling down the beam of a searchlight onto a building fifty yards ahead, an extraordinary sight, like a worm’s eye view of somebody shitting.’  Others turned to the shattered language of the sublime to capture the aw(e)ful sensation of a city – their city – in flames.

But my point is that these surreal scenes of sound and light and fury were dramatic punctuations in a pervasive atmosphere of anticipation and a larger landscape of terror that together constituted what we might think of as the slow violence of bombing.  Sarah Waters captures this (and much more besides) brilliantly in her novel The Night Watch:

‘It was always disconcerting, in a black-out, leaving the places you knew best.  A particular feeling started to creep over you, a mixture of panic and dread: as if you were walking through a rifle-range with a target on your back.’

Like Noonday, The Night Watch is the product of careful research as well as a luminous literary imagination; yet historians themselves have made remarkably little of the black-out, content to leave it in the shadows and direct attention to the pyrotechnic displays of the bomber’s art.  So what follows are merely notes, and even then confined to Britain, waiting a larger project. (In fairness, there is an important PhD thesis by Marc Wiggam, The Blackout in Britain and Germany during the Second World War (Exeter University, 2011), but his main concerns are policy and policing, and the discussion of cultural formations is largely confined to contemporary literary and film representations and says little about everyday life).

Britain had introduced a limited blackout in 1915, when its cities were menaced by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers.  In 1937, keenly aware of Stanley Baldwin‘s bleak injunction in his speech ‘A Fear for the Future’ that ‘the bomber will always get through’, the British government was already making plans for air raid precautions.

Ludgate Circus, London, 11 August 1939

A blackout was introduced in London on 11 August 1939, and a universal blackout imposed on the whole country by a ‘lighting order’ issued under Defence Regulation No 24 on 1 September 1939:

‘… every night from sunset to sunrise all lights inside the buildings must be obscured and lights outside buildings must be extinguished, subject to certain exceptions in the case of external lighting where it is essential for the conduct of work of vital national importance. Such lights must be adequately shaded.’

Felicity Goodall describes how journalist Mea Allan witnessed the introduction of the blackout:

‘I stood on the footway of Hungerford bridge across the Thames watching the lights of London go out. The whole great town was lit up like a fairyland, in a dazzle that reached into the sky, and then one by one, as a switch was pulled, each area went dark, the dazzle becoming a patchwork of lights being snuffed out here and there until a last one remained, and it too went out. What was left us was more than just wartime blackout, it was a fearful portent of what war was to be. We had not thought that we would have to fight in darkness, or that light would be our enemy.’

It was, as Geoff Manaugh notes, ‘a different form of camouflage, one that hid the city against the surrounding landscape by plunging its streets and buildings into darkness.’

AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS AND CIVIL DEFENCE IN WARTIME BRITAIN, 1942 (D 10588) A woman pulls closed the blackout curtains in her home before going to bed. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205199623

Households were required to make special blackout curtains; they could not be washed, because this would let the light through, so housewives (sic) were enjoined to ‘hoover, shake, brush then iron them.’  The windows had to be closed to secure the blackout too, so rooms soon became airless. Chris Hill has the reaction of a teenage girl living in Romford, recorded in her diary for Mass Observation:

Friday 1st September – “…our makeshift blackout arrangements involve the use of a light so small that it strains the eyes. It’s only ten but I’m going to bed.”

Sunday 3rd September – “I decided we could not stop indoors; the blackout curtains made the rooms stuffy, and the light bad. We went into the town ‘to see what was going on’… Evidently, others had come out for similar reasons, so every street corner was ornamented with little groups of people…”

In short order a new city of ‘dreadful night’ was conjured into being.   John Lehmann later recalled that

‘London had become two cities.  The one, the daytime city where we went about our business much as before, worked in our offices and discussed what plans we could make for the future…  The other London was the new, symbolic city of the blackout, where one floundered about in the unaccustomed darkness of the streets, bumping into patrolling wardens or huddled strangers…’ [cited in Amy Helen Bell, London was ours: Diaries and memoirs of the London Blitz].

Blackout (Art.IWM ART LD 2913) image: Night scene of a city street with pedestrians carrying torches, a vehicle with masked headlights and a very dim
street light. The shapes of darkened buildings can be seen lining the street. Copyright: � IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/5477

The sensibility Lehmann describes – the floundering and bumping about and the attendant disorientation and disorder – may explain, in part, why war artists made so few attempts to capture the blackout.  This was not, as you might think, simply or even primarily the product of a collective reluctance to produce a near-black canvas.  In his War Paint, Brian Foss remarks that, ‘despite its status as the most universally experienced aspect of home front life,’ the blackout

‘is the subject of a mere handful of war pictures.  Of these, only one, purchased from Joan Connew [above], a hitherto virtually unknown painter from Kent, exploits both the rich tonal potential and the incipient visual confusion of a blanket use of brown and blacks.’

He argues that the absence from the War Artists Advisory Committee of blackout paintings was the product of a sort of counter-blackout that expressed ‘the psychological need for orientation points and beacons.’

So as the blackout was carefully calculated and disseminated (above), I think it important to register the attempts to impose an order upon and within its envelopment of the city.

Street lights were switched off, and drivers of vehicles had to mask their headlamps using thick cardboard discs,  obscure all other lights to the side and rear, and mark their bumpers and mudguards with white paint.  Sarah Waters imagines roads even in the capital becoming almost empty – she’s writing about Holborn – ‘with ‘only the occasional cab or lorry – like creeping black insects they seemed in the darkness, with gleaming, brittle-looking bodies and louvred, infernal eyes.’  That wasn’t a pure flight of the novelist’s imagination.  Pedestrians had to mask their torches too, and  Mrs Peg Cotton confessed that, as she walked home one night,

‘The tissue came off my torch and since the light is prohibited thus, I hid it under my coat.  The light shining out from below my skirts thus made me look like a crawling lightening-bug’ [in Felicity Goodall, Voices from the Home Front]

The blacked-out city was an unfamiliar one but also a dangerous one.  ‘The density of the blackout these cloudy moonless nights is beyond belief’, recorded Phyllis Warner:

‘No one in New York or Los Angeles can successfully imagine what it’s like.  For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched’ [Goodall, Voices]

When leaving the dimmed but illuminated interior of a house, a railway or a tube station, travellers were advised to close their eyes and count to fifteen to prepare for the abrupt plunge into darkness.

Wait! Count Fifteen Slowly Before Moving in the Blackout (Art.IWM PST 0096) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19630

Here is Sarah Waters:

As she opened the door she said, ‘I hate this bit. Let’s close our eyes and count, as we’re supposed to’—and so they stood on the step with their faces screwed up, saying, ‘One, two, three …’ ‘When do we stop?’ asked Helen. ‘… twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—now!’ They opened their eyes, and blinked. ‘Has that made a difference?’ ‘I don’t think so. It’s still dark as hell.’

In the Blackout – Pause As You Leave the Station’s Light (Art.IWM PST 3456) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23861

As that vignette suggests, the very choreography of the city was altered and even regulated.  So, for example, pedestrians were advised to wear white at night (gloves, hats, armbands, buttons: Selfridge’s did a roaring trade in selling ‘blackout accessories’) –

Wear Something Light – Carry Something White (Art.IWM PST 14921) Copyright: � IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19637

– and they were instructed to walk on the left to avoid colliding with one another:

It was even more difficult for drivers, especially those rushing to provide emergency help at the scene of an air raid.  Again, Sarah Waters is brilliant at conjuring the experience of her volunteer ambulance drivers during the Blitz.  Often, the flames cut through the darkness to provide hideous illumination.   ‘You didn’t need any lights or maps to find the way,’ one City of London fireman observed, ‘you just headed for the glow in the sky’ (below).

But it wasn’t always so simple.  Here’s another firefighter:

‘It’s no joke finding your way about in a vehicle during the blackout through back streets in a district you and your driver have never been in before! As we were now some distance away from the fires, and Jerry being overhead, we were proceeding without lights – except side lights which are so dimmed as to be useless for illuminating the road. The pump in front of us had turned round a corner. We followed and suddenly the tender bumped, lurched and went along with two wheels on the pavement. We had only just missed dropping into a crater about twenty feet across by ten to fifteen feet deep. The first pump had swerved the other way from us and was stuck with its nose in a heap of debris’ [Goodall, Voices]

By the beginning of 1940 more people had been killed in road accidents than by enemy action. Ironically one of the first was a council employee hit by a vehicle as he painted a white line on a curb near Marble Arch – these lines, marking curbs and steps, were intended to help people navigate the darkened city.

In addition, as Geoff Manaugh demonstrates, both the flow and the fabric of the city were reconfigured: a 20 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed, blue lights marked public air raid shelters, and new white markings appeared on roads to guide the traffic:

Unusual markings in the roadway at Piccadilly designed to help motorists at night during the blackout in World War II. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

You can find more photographs of London during the blackout at mashable here and, of course, via the Collections page of the Imperial War Museums.

The imposition of the blackout was remarkable successful – though once the flares and the bombs sailed down, the bombers quickly found their mark (if rarely the precise target they were aiming for).  So let me leave you with this exquisite exchange that captures the interplay between the blackout and the bombs; it comes from John Strachey‘s account of his days as an ARP warden, Digging for Mrs Miller:

‘As he put his head out, a man said “Warden,” out of the dark. “Warden”, went on the voice irritably, “Come and see these dreadful lights. Don’t you think you ought to put them out at once?” Ford went down the street a few yards and found a man in a trilby hat pointing towards the trees in Bedford Court. There were the lights all right, two of them behind the trees, and as they watched three more came slowly drifting and dropping through the higher sky, red, white and orange. “I’m afraid I can’t put those lights out,” Ford said. “You see, those are flares dropped from German aeroplanes.”

Academics against the arms trade

Yoked to my previous post – and a distant echo of one of my earliest posts on ‘The death merchants‘ – is an important message from the editors of Critical Military Studies:

Dear academic friends and colleagues,

As many of you will know, from September 12th-15th the DSEI [Defence and Security Equipment International] arms fair will take place at the ExCeL Centre in East London. DSEI is one of the largest arms fairs in the world, with over 1500 companies and representatives from more than 100 states. As you can imagine, it also generates a lot of opposition. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition have called for a week of action before the arms fair begins, and as part of this we’re organising an academic conference, on Friday 8th September, that will take place in front of the ExCeL Centre. The conference will cover a series of issues related to militarism, with a series of talks, workshops and performances co-organised by activists and academics. Topics for workshops include:

–    Militarism and (gendered) embodiment
–    Recognising and resisting border militarism within universities
–    Militarism and contemporary colonialism
–    The purpose of radical theory

The team behind the workshop did this two years ago when the arms fair last happened, and the event was a huge success, providing participants with the opportunity to meet new people, have some wonderful conversations about the nature of militarism and the purpose of academic practice, and put academic ideas into action in an exciting and unusual manner. You can read a write-up of that event by Chris Rossdale in Critical Military Studies. There is a website for this year’s event here and Facebook event. Updates and logistics information will be available on both of those, but you can also get in touch with Chris Rossdale at C.Rossdale@lse.ac.uk if you want more details.

If you can’t make the conference (and even if you can), we are also currently circulating an open letter for academics to sign, signalling opposition to the arms fair. This will be published in a media outlet around a week before the action. We would be very grateful if you could sign it and circulate it to people and networks you think might be interested. You can find the letter here.

You can find more details (wherein the devil lurks) at DSEI’s website here, including this gem:

‘DSEI Strategic Conferences take place on 11 September (Day Zero) … 2017 brings Brexit and a change of US government, this combined with a competitive global defence & security market means DSEI can promise a conference and seminar programme that will challenge day to day thinking. Both events will tap into the ideas and theories of the people who drive the defence and security sector forward in pursuit of innovation and long-term economic prosperity…’

In case you’re wondering, admission is now £1,150 for ‘Industry/Academia’ but a snip at £150 for students….

Other Dunkirks

The web is awash with reviews and commentaries on Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Dunkirk.  ‘A tour de force’, wrote Manhola Dargis in an extended review for the New York Times:

“Dunkirk” is a World War II movie, one told through soldiers, their lived and near-death experiences and their bodies under siege. Names are generally irrelevant here; on the beach — and in the sea and air — what counts are rank, unit, skill and the operation, although more important is survival, making it through another attack and somehow avoiding exploding bombs. Mr. Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid; even in some opening explanatory text, the enemy isn’t identified as Nazi Germany. The soldiers, of course, know exactly who they are fighting and perhaps even why, but in the field the enemy is finally the unnamed stranger trying to kill them…

Mr. Nolan’s unyielding emphasis on the soldiers — and on war as it is experienced rather than on how it is strategized — blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view. “Dunkirk” is a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique, but one that is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. Mr. Nolan closes that distance cinematically with visual sweep and emotional intimacy, with images of warfare and huddled, frightened survivors that together with Hans Zimmer’s score reverberate through your body.

In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw also made much of the film’s visceral quality, rendered aurally as much as visually (and we surely know that the sound of war is crucial to its horror):

It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.

In the Telegraph, hardly surprisingly, Robbie Collin lauds the ‘Britishness’ of the film and also (significantly) its presentness.  He writes about this as an aesthetic –

there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket

– but, as readers of the Telegraph will surely have realised, this is also a matter of politics.  In one of the most perceptive essays I’ve read on the film, Anthony King describes this sensibility as an ‘arrogant insularity’ (he intends it as a criticism, of course, but Telegraph readers probably differ).  For him, Nolan seeks to ‘revive Dunkirk as a national myth in the 21st century’:

The drama focuses on five sinkings: a hospital ship, two troop ships, a fishing boat, and a Spitfire are all immersed. In each case, British soldiers or airmen have only moments to escape before they are drowned. Each sinking re-enacts the British predicament at Dunkirk: the desperate race of British soldiers to get home before they are inundated.

In this way, home — and the race for it — becomes the central motif of the entire film. The noun, “home,” recurs in the dialogue articulated by all the major actors. Indeed, the irony that soldiers in Dunkirk can practically see home with its White Cliffs and, yet, cannot reach it, is pointedly commented upon on two separate occasions. Home is the only redemption from the alienating emptiness of the French coast. Moreover, in order for British soldiers to escape, home has to come to them. No one else can save them.

(This is precisely why what Anthony calls the ‘radiant harmonies’ of Elgar’s Nimrod dissolve the dissonance noted by Peter Bradshaw to preside over – to celebrate in something like the religious sense – the climax of the film).

What is lost, in consequence, is both context and also composition.  The first is intentional, and Nolan makes a good case for wanting to convey the sense in which soldiers experience war in shards, torn from any larger context.  ‘That’s why we don’t see the Germans in the film,’ he says, ‘and why it’s approached from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’  As the historical adviser to the film, Joshua Levine (an historian whose work I’ve long admired) tells it:

[M]aking the threat faceless frees the event from its geopolitical ramifications –it becomes a timeless story of human survival. [Nolan] didn’t want to take a classic war film approach because in so many ways, the story of Dunkirk is not the story of a conventional battle. ‘It was death appearing from the sky,’ he says. ‘U-boats under the Channel that you can’t see. The enemy flying over and rising up through the waves to pick people off, to sink ships.’ The soldiers cannot understand their own predicament, and the audience experiences the same horror. This is why the action never leaves the beach. ‘If you’re continually showing the Germans as Germans and generals in rooms talking about strategy, you are lifting the veil.’ The audience would then be more informed than the soldiers. ‘Standing on a beach, trying to interpret what’s going on, “How do I get out of here? Should I stand in these lines? Should I go into the water?” That’s the experiential reality I want the audience to share.

But the second is, I think, unintentional.  I’ve written elsewhere about the myths of the First World War that continue to stalk the British political imaginary – see ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here – and several commentators have made the same point about Dunkirk.  Here is Sunny Singh in the Guardian:

What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.

To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.

But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.

And here is Yasmin Khan in the New York Times:

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.

The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain….

The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.

 Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did…
The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit.
Ironically, in Joshua Levine‘s Forgotten voices of Dunkirk those other voices are absent – forgotten – too.
There are several other commentaries that sharpen similar points – see, for example, Yasmin Khan again here [and more generally her The Raj at War: a people’s history of India’s Second World War],  Ishaan Taroor here and Robert Fisk here (for a clumsy attempt to blunt those points, see Franz Stefan-Gady here); also the contributions to We Were There Too – but I’ll end with these observations from John Broich:

In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE 1940 (F 2478) Members of a mule transport company of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on parade, 10 February 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205204868

The latter has been much on my mind because for much of the summer I’ve been in the archives immersed in medical care and casualty evacuation in both those theatres.

But I’ll leave that for another post, because I want to close with a reminder that – given what I’ve been saying about the ‘present-ness’ of Dunkirk – there is at least one other version that should be brought into focus.  And for that you need to read Jacob Albert on ‘The Fire in Dunkirk‘ at Guernica.  Here he is describing young Kurdish refugees – about the same age, I suspect, as many of those soldiers on the beach in 1940 – stranded in a camp outside Dunkirk (it burned down after he left):

Sometimes, they went to English class, offered four times a day in a damp Red Cross tent. I taught there occasionally. Everyone took their shoes off when they entered, but kept their coats. The head teacher was an Englishman with stinking socks who asked his pupils several times each week, since they were always vanishing and new ones always arriving: “Where? Is? The? Statue? Of Liberty?”

Everyone loved that one, even though no one was heading for the United States, because the Statue of Liberty is like Coca-Cola: both universal symbols, one of immigrant striving, the other of friendship and global happiness.

“Amrika! Atlantic! New York! California!” they’d shout. The teacher would smile and ask: “What does the Statue of Liberty rep-re-sent?” And the young men would look at him with glazed eyes, because they truly could never understand this guy, never felt like they were learning any English, and the English teacher would hem and haw: “What does it mean? What does it sym-bo-lize?” until finally, someone who spoke a little English, someone who had a brother in Leeds, would explain to the others, in Kurdish, what the guy meant, and everyone would shout: “Amrika! Freedom! Money! Barack Obama!” and the English teacher with the stinking socks would nod somberly at each and every one of them, and say, “It represents a Warm Welcome. Which I know doesn’t feel like the case. So, to better times, guys. To better times.” And with that, the English teacher would clap his hands, and the bored young men would stream out into the wind or rain…

There was nothing for them to do but think of leaving. That’s how anyone endured anything: boredom, filth, cold, fear. You can endure anything if you’re on your way to somewhere else.

In this case, it was England, which I discovered wondrous new things about. I learned that the Brits had an incredible welfare system, the best in Europe. I learned that minimum wage there was higher than in France. I learned that once you received British asylum, you were given a free house. I was told that the UK was full of good jobs, that it was less racist than any other European nation. That none of this was true didn’t dampen anybody’s incredible enthusiasm for the place. …

There were convincing reasons, too, with some basis in reality, for this fevered dreaming of Britain, which I had a hard time squaring with what these hopeful Kurds were putting themselves through to get there. It is easier to live invisibly in Britain, on the margins of things, than in France. In Britain, you don’t have to carry around photo ID. In Britain, you can easily find work in a kitchen or on a construction crew, if you’re open to being paid a pittance.

But facts are one thing, and narratives, another. The city of Dunkirk itself looms large in British mythology because of this very split. Over the course of one miraculous week in 1940, the British Navy managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops trapped on its beaches as the Germans drew close. Yet a few days later, Churchill delivered his rousing speech on the British virtues of endurance and determination (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. . .”), and Dunkirk, the site of failure averted, was turned into one of national victory. It was Britain that now occupied such a place in the story of Kurdish exile.

You may think I’m making too much of this.  But when Joshua Levine asked him about ‘modern parallels’, Christopher Nolan explained that he saw his film as ‘a survival story’ and continued:

One of the great misfortunes of our time, one of the horrible, unfortunate things with the migrant crisis in Europe, is that we are dealing once more with the mechanics and the physics of extraordinary numbers of people trying to leave one country on boats and get to another country. It’s a horrible resonance but it’s very easy in our technologically advanced times to forget how much basic physics come into play. Reality is insurmountable. If you have a vast number of people in one place and they need to get someplace else and they can’t fly and they have to get on boats –to overcrowd the boats, with that human desire for survival . . . it’s unthinkably horrible to see it on our front pages in this modern day and age. But it’s there. With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.

The final arbiter

There have been many interviews with ‘drone operators’ but most of them seem to have been with sensor operators serving with the US Air Force.  Some of the most cited have been ‘whistleblowers’ like Brandon Bryant while some reporters have described conversations with service members allowed to speak on the record during carefully conducted tours of airbases.  Some have even been captured on film – think of the interviews that frame so much of Sonia Kennebeck‘s  National Bird (though I think the interviews with the survivors of the Uruzgan drone strike are considerably more effective) – while others have been dramatised, notably in Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is The Best.

But over at Drone Wars UK Chris Cole has just released something different: a detailed transcript of an extended interview with “Justin Thompson“, a former British (Royal Air Force) pilot who flew Reapers over Afghanistan for three years from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  He also spent several months forward-deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the Launch and Recovery element: remember that missions are controlled from the continental United States – or now from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – but the Reapers have an operational range of 1, 850 km so they have to be launched in or near the theatre of operations.

He served as a pilot of conventional strike aircraft before switching to remote operations early in the program’s development – the RAF started flying Reapers over Afghanistan for ISR in October 2007; armed missions began the following May – which gives Justin considerable insight into the differences between the platforms:

“The real difference with UAVS is persistence. That’s the big advantage as it allows you to build up a very detailed picture of what is going on in a particular area. So if you are in a particular area and a need for kinetic action arises, generally speaking you have already got knowledge of the kind of things you would need to know to assist that to happen. That’s versus a fast jet that might be called in having been there only five minutes, with limited fuel and with limited information – what it can get from the guys on the ground – Boom, bang and he’s off to get some fuel. That’s a bit flippant. It’s not quite like that, but you see what I mean.

“The big difference is the amount of detail we are able to amass about a particular area, not just on one mission, but over time. If you are providing support in a particular area, you develop a great deal of detailed information, to the point where you can recall certain things from memory because you were looking at this last week and spent two weeks previously looking at it and you know generally what goes on in this particular area. The other thing this persistence gives you is a good sense if something has changed or if something is unusual. You go ‘Hang on, that wasn’t there last week, someone’s moved it. Let’s have a look to see what is going on here.’”

Later, having discussed the Reaper’s entanglement of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) with lethal strike (‘kinetic’) capabilities, he returns to the theme:

“If you are talking about kinetic action, I think essentially they [conventional aircraft and drones] are no different. It’s a platform in the air that has a sensor on board you are using to look at the ground. The picture you seen in a [Ground Control Station] is essentially the same as you would see in a fast jet. The sort of weapons you are delivering are exactly the same sort as you would be delivering from a fast jet. Essentially all of the principles are the same…

“A lot of things are significantly better in that you get much more extensive and much more detailed information on the area you are looking at and on any specific targets. That’s not because of any particular capability, it’s just because you can spend a hell of a lot more time looking at it.

“A fast jet pilot would, say, do a four month tour in some place. He’s got four months’ worth of knowledge and then he’ll be gone. He might come back in a year or two, but we are there for three years. Constantly, every day, building up massive amounts of knowledge and a detailed picture of what goes on. We come armed with so much information, and so much information is available to you, not just from your own knowledge, but from sources you can reach out to. You’ve got the text. You’ve got phones. You have got other people you can call on and drag into the GCS. You can get other people to look at the video feed. You can get many opinions and views….”

At times, he concedes, that can become an issue (sometimes called ‘helmet-fire’: too many voices in your head):

“If you want it, there can be a lot of other ‘eyes on’ and advice given to you. If you want something explained to you, if you want a second opinion on something, if you want something checked you can say “Guys, are you seeing this?” Or “What do you think that is?” And that is really useful. You can also reach out for command advice, for legal advice. The number of people who can get a long screwdriver into your GCS is incredible and it does happen that occasionally you have to say ‘Please can you get your long screwdriver out of my GCS’. But generally speaking, it’s well managed and people don’t interfere unless they think there is a reason to.”

He makes it clear that as an RAF pilot his was the final decision about whether to strike – he was ‘the final arbiter’ –  and discusses different situations where he over-ruled those other voices.

RAF Reaper strike in Afghanistan, 2010

Justin also talks about the ways his previous flying experience modulated his command of the Reaper (and here I think there are interesting parallels with Timothy Cullen‘s experience as an F-16 pilot and his important study of USAF Reaper crews: see also here):

“… [T]here is an idea that because you are not directly manipulating the control surfaces of an aircraft by being sat in it, that somehow lowers the skill level required in order to successfully operate one of these things. It may change some specifics in motor skills, but then so does an Airbus. Conceptually, you are wiggling a stick, pushing a peddle, turning a wheel. That gets converted into little ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’, sent down a wire to a computer that decides where to put the flying control surfaces and throttles the engines of the aircraft. It’s very similar, at least technically, in a modern airliner as in a Reaper. The level of skill required is similar. Piloting has only ever been 10% hand-flying skills, 90% is judgement and airmanship…

“For me, what I was seeing on the screen was very real. In addition to that for me it was more than just two-dimensional. My mind very easily perceived a three-dimensional scene that extended out of the side of the image. Whether that was because I was used to sitting in a cockpit and seeing that sort of picture I don’t know. Someone whose only background is flight simulators or playing computer games may have a different view. I relate it to sitting in an aircraft and flying it, others may relate it slightly differently…”

There’s much more in those packed 17 pages.  You can find Chris’s own commentary on the interview here, though his questions during the interview are, as  his regular readers would expect, also wonderfully perceptive and well-informed.

One cautionary note.  The time-frame is extremely important in commenting on remote operations, even if we limit ourselves to the technology involved.  The early Ground Control Stations were markedly different from those in use today, for example, while the quality of the video streams, their compression and resolution is also highly variable.  And there is, of course, much more than technology involved.

Anatomy of another soldier

I’ve drawn attention to Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier before: see here and here (and especially ‘Object lessons’: DOWNLOADS tab).  Most of the reviews of the novel were highly favourable, applauding Parker’s experimental attempt to tell the story of a soldier seriously wounded by an IED in Afghanistan through the objects with which he becomess entangled.

But writing in The Spectator Louis Amis saw it as an object lesson in ‘How not to tell a soldier’s story‘.  He complained that Parker’s device produced a narrative

‘as if the war were composed only of its inanimate processes, either accidental or inevitable. It’s a different planet to the bloody, profane, outlaw Iraq of [Phil] Klay’s Redeployment, radiating shame, PTSD and suicide, and the unbearable awkwardness of transmitting such truths to an alienated civilian world.

Parker’s device gestures aptly towards a spreading out of consciousness, a transmutation, the scattering of the individual along some plane at the threshold of death; the sensations of depersonalisation and hyper-perceptivity associated with traumatic experience; and the soothing quiddity of simple objects, as opposed to abstract thought, for a recovering victim. But it is also a method of averting the gaze from a war’s futility and waste, and worse — and probably, therefore, too, from the true nature of any saving grace.’

I do think Parker’s narrative accomplishes more than Amis allows. It succeeds in making the war in Afghanistan at once strange and familiar; and its strangeness comes not from the people of Afghanistan, that ‘exotic tableau of queerness’ exhibited in so many conventional accounts, but through the activation of objects saturated with the soldier’s sweat, blood and flesh.  It’s also instructive to read the novel alongside Jane Bennett‘s Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things or Robert Esposito‘s Persons and things, as I’ve done elsewhere, and to think through the corpo-materialities of modern war and its production of the battle space as an object-space: but neither of these has much to say about how their suggestive ideas might be turned to substantive account.

Still, Amis’s point remains a sharp one; Scottt Beauchamp says something very similar:

Harry Parker goes further than [Tim] O’Brien [in The things they carried] in giving equal narrative play to nonhuman things. Not only do they make the plot of Parker’s novel possible, they also bear semiconscious witness to our shared reality, corroborating it. Their inability to pass moral judgment comes off as a silent accusation. If this ontological shift toward objects is the most honest way we have of talking about war, it’s still limiting: it turned its weakness—its inability to fully articulate the moral significance of war—into a defining characteristic.

But I haven’t been able to let Parker’s experiment go.  So, for one of my presentations in Durham last month – on the parallels and differences between combat medical care and casualty evacuation on the Western Front in the First World War and Afghanistan a century later – I sketched out an Anatomy of another soldier.  It’s based on my ongoing archival work; earlier in the presentation I had used diaries, letters, memoirs, sketches and photographs to describe what Emily Mayhew calls the ‘precarious journey’ of British and colonial troops through the evacuation chain – you can see a preliminary version in ‘Divisions of life’ here – so this experiment was a supplement not a substitute.  But I wanted to see where it would take me.

So here are the slides; they ought to be self-explanatory – or at any rate, sufficiently clear – but I’ve added some additional notes.  I should probably also explain that in each case the object in question appeared on the slide at the end of its associated narrative.

***

I discuss aerial photography and trench mapping on the Western Front – and the difficulty of navigating the shattered landscapes of trench warfare – in ‘Gabriel’s map: cartography and corpography in modern war’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

You can find a short account of the synchronisation of officers’ watches on the Western Front in ‘Homogeneous (war) time’ here.

A shortage of cotton (combined with its relatively high cost) together with the extraordinary demand for wound dressings prompted the War Office to use sphagnum moss – the British were years behind the Germans and the French in appreciating its antiseptic and absorbent qualities, which also required dressings to be changed less often.  You can get the full story from Peter Ayres, ‘Wound dressing in World War I: the kindly sphagnum moss’, Field Bryology 110 (2013) 27-34 here.

But one RAMC veteran [in ‘Field Ambulance Sketches’, published in 1919] insisted on the restorative power of the white bandage, administered not by regimental stretcher bearers but by the experts of the Royal Army Medical Corps’s Field Ambulance:

The brown first field dressing, admirable as it is from a scientific point of view, always looks a desperate measure; and if it slips, as it generally does on a leg wound, it becomes for the patient merely a depressing reminder of his plight. A clean white dressing, though it may not be nearly so satisfactory in the surgeon’s eyes, seems to reassure a wounded man strangely. It makes him feel that he is being taken care of, gives him a kind of status, and stimulates his sense of personal responsibility. With a white bandage wound in a neat spiral round his leg, he will walk a distance which five minutes earlier, under the dismal suggestion of a first field dressing, he has declared to be utterly beyond his powers.

I borrowed the white maggots (and some of the other details of the wounds) from John Stafford‘s extraordinary, detailed recollection of being wounded on the Somme in August 1916 available here.

Carrying a stretcher across a mud-splattered, shell-blasted landscape was immensely tiring and it was all too easy to lose one’s bearings.  From ‘A stretcher-Bearer’s Diary’, 17 September 1916:

‘The shell fire, and the mud, are simply beyond description, and it is a miracle that any escape being hit. We have to carry the wounded shoulder high, the only way it can be done, because of the mud. Our shoulders are made raw by the chafing of the stretcher handles, although we wear folded sandbags under our shoulder straps. Sweat runs into our eyes, until we can hardly see. When a barrage comes we must keep on and take no notice, as even if we could find cover, there is none for the man on the stretcher….

‘…The rain has made the ground a sea of mud, and we have to carry the wounded three miles to the Dressing Stations, as the wheeled stretchers cannot be used at all. Two men using stretcher slings could not carry a man thirty yards, and I have seen four bearers up to their knees in mud, unable to move without further assistance.

By the time of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, it could take eight men to carry a stretcher half a mile to an aid post – and it could take them two hours to do it.

Even in ideal circumstances, manoeuvering a stretcher down a narrow, crowded trench was extremely difficult, ‘like trying to move a piano down an avenue of turnstiles.’  During major offensives a one-way system was in operation, and stretcher bearers were supposed to use only the ‘down’ trenches.  From the Aid Posts the RAMC stretcher-bearers of the Field Ambulance would take over from the regimental stretcher-bearers.  Here is one young novice, Private A.F. Young with the 2n3/4th London Field Ambulance:

Step by step we picked our way over the duckboards. It is useless to try and maintain the regulation broken step to avoid swaying the stretcher. Slowly we wind our way along the trenches, our only guide our feet, forcing ourselves through the black wall of night and helped occasionally by the flash of the torch in front. Soon our arms begin to grow tired and the whole weight is thrown on to the slings, which begin to bite into our shoulders; our shoulders sag forward, the sling finds its way on to the back of our necks; we feel half-suffocated. A twelve-stone man, rolled up in several blankets on a stretcher, is no mean load to carry, and on that very first trip we found that the job had little to do with the disciplined stretcher-bearing we had spent so many weary hours practising. We are automatons wound up and propelled by one fixed idea, the necessity of struggling forward. The form on the stretcher makes not a sound; the jolts, the shakings seem to have no effect on him. An injection of morphine has drawn the veil. Lucky for him.  

Stretcher-bearers changed – they worked in relays close to the front – but the stretcher remained the same.  Ideally the wounded soldier would remain on his stretcher only as far as the Casualty Clearing Station, from where used stretchers would be returned to dressing stations and aid posts by now empty ambulances.  

Twelve stretchers were supposed to be kept at every Regimental Aid Post, but supplies could easily run out.  When Major Sidney Greenfield was wounded, he remembered:

… the call ‘stretcher-bearers’, ‘stretcher-bearers’, the reply ‘No stretchers’. ‘Find one, it’s an officer.’

And it was not uncommon for those evacuated ‘in a rush’ to remain on their stretcher until the base hospital; and since ambulance trains heading to the coast were less urgent than troop trains and supply trains heading in the opposite direction the journey was usually a slow one.  If the nearest hospital turned out to be full, a not uncommon occurrence, the train would be sent on to the next available one, thus prolonging the journey still more.    

H.G. Hartnett recalled the sheer pleasure of finally being put to bed at the base hospital at Wimereux:

After being washed and changed into clean pyjamas I was lifted off the stretcher on which I had lain for five days and nights into a soft bed—between sheets.

The contrast, of course, was not only with the canvas stretcher but with sleeping in the trenches wrapped in a groundsheet.

Before the widespread introduction of the Thomas splint (above), ordinary or even improvised splints were used.  Here is Sister Kate Luard on board an ambulance train in October 1914:

The compound-fractured femurs were put up with rifles and pick-handles for splints, padded with bits of kilts and straw; nearly all the men had more than one wound – some had ten; one man with a huge compound fracture above the elbow had tied on a bit of string with a bullet in it as a tourniquet above the wound himself.

A fractured femur would turn out to be one of the most common injuries, described by Robert Jones as ‘the tragedy of the war’: if fractures were not properly splinted the soldier would arrive at the Casualty Clearing Station in a state of shock caused by excessive blood loss and pain:

‘These men required radical surgery to save their limbs and lives… Entry and exit wounds would have to be extended widely, removing all dead skin and fat… The bone ends of the femur at the fracture site would then have to be pulled out of the wound and be inspected directly [for loose fragments of bone, clothing and debris]… Wounded soldiers arriving at casualty clearing stations with a weak pulse and low blood pressure secondary to excess blood loss due to inadequately splinted fractures would be unlikely to survive the major procedure’ – let alone the amputations that were often administered.

Mortality rates in such circumstances were around 50 per cent. The Thomas splint was specifically designed to immobilise a fractured femur, and by April/May 1917 its use during the battle of Arras had reduced the mortality rate to 15 per cent, and far fewer men lost their legs: see Thomas Scotland, ‘Developments in orthopaedic surgery’, in Thomas Scotland and Stephen Heys (eds) War surgery 1914-1918.

Stretcher bearers were trained to apply the splint in the field, as in this case, but one senior officer made it clear that in any event it had to be applied no later than the Regimental Aid Post:

The Thomas thigh splint should be applied with the boot and trousers on, the latter being cut at the seam to enable the wound to be dressed. The method of obtaining extension by means of a triangular bandage has been sketched and circulated to all MOs in the Divn. After the splint is adjusted it should be suspended both at the foot and at the ring by two tapes at either end tied to the iron supports one of which is fitted to the stretcher opposite the foot and one opposite the hip.

More information on this truly vital innovation: P.M. Robinson and M. J. O’Meara, ‘The Thomas splint: its origins and use in trauma’, Journal of bone and joint surgery 91 (2009) 540-3: never in my wildest dreams did I imagine reading or referencing such a journal – but it is an excellent and thoroughly accessible account.  See for yourself here.

It was vital not to leave a tourniquet on for long.  Here is one RAMC officer, Captain Maberly Esler, recalling his service on the Somme in June 1915:

If a limb had been virtually shot off and they were bleeding profusely you could stop the whole thing by putting a tourniquet on, but you couldn’t keep it on longer than an hour without them losing the leg altogether. So it was necessary to get the field ambulance as soon as possible so they could ligature the vessels, and the quicker that was done the better.

Lt Col Henderson‘s pencilled notes on the treatment of the wounded (1916-16) urged stretcher bearers to make every effort to stop bleeding with a compress or bandage: ‘ A tourniquet should only be applied if this response fails and where a tourniquet is applied the [Regimental Medical Officer] should be at once informed on the arrival of the case at the [Regimental Aid Post].’  By May 1916 Medical Officers were being warned ‘against too frequent use of the tourniquet, on the grounds that the dreaded gas bacillus (perfringens) is most likely to thrive in closed tissues.’

A tourniquet could aggravate damaged tissues and did indeed increase the risk of gangrene; 80 per cent of those whose limbs had a tourniquet applied for more than three hours required amputation.

This was a major responsibility; sometimes the card was filled in at a Dressing Station, sometimes at the Casualty Clearing Station.  George Carter‘s diary entry for 31 August 1915 explains its importance:

‘My work consists of nailing every patient and getting his number, rank, name, initial, service, service in France, age, religion, battalion and company. That is usually fairly plain sailing, I find, but entails a certain amount of searching [extracting paybook or diary, for example] when a patient is too ill to be bothered with questions. Then I have to find out what is the matter with him, what treatment he has had, and what is going to be done with him… The reason for taking these particulars and making out forms is to prevent any man being lost sight of, whatever happens to him. If he finishes in England after taking a week on the journey, he has got all his partics on him, everywhere he has stopped, the RAMC have been able to see at a glance all about him and can turn up all about him if called on.’

But things could easily go awry.  Here is one young soldier, Henry Ogle:

I think it must have been here [at the CCS] that orderlies tied Casualty Labels on our top tunic buttons, and got mine wrong, though it may have been at Louvencourt or even Hébuterne. Wherever it had happened, it was here that I first noticed it and called the attention of an orderly to it. I had been wounded in the right calf by part of a rifle bullet which penetrated deeply and remained in but I had been labelled for superficial something or other, while Frank Wallsgrove was GSW for gunshot wound. I said, ‘Mine’s wrong, for we two were hit by the same bullet.’ ‘Can’t alter your label, chum. Anyhow it doesn’t matter. It’ll get proper attention.’ We were already being packed into a train so nothing could be done and I didn’t worry about it.

At the base hospital he tried again:

An orderly came along (it was then dark night) and threw a nightgown and a towel at me. ‘Bathroom. Down that passage. On the right. Any of them.’ ‘Don’t think I can get there. Can’t walk.’ ‘Let’s see your label.’ ‘Label’s wrong.’ ‘What do you know about that? Go on.’ ‘I know a bloody sight more about it than you do, chum, but I’ll see what I can do.’ It was not easy as the leg was quite out of action and my orderly friend had no time to watch…  On crawling back I found Frank tucked into bed. Our case-sheets were clipped to boards which hung on the wall behind our beds and, so far, the items from our tunic labels had been copied out on the case-sheets. The next morning the customary round of visits was made by the Medical Officer on duty with Matron and Sister of Ward and an orderly or two. I tried to explain that my label was wrong and Frank backed me up but we were simply ignored. My wound was dressed as a surface wound.

It was only after the swelling of his leg alarmed Matron that Henry was shipped off for an X-ray that revealed the need for an operation to remove the bullet.

‘T’ for anti-tetanus serum.  In the first weeks of the war tetanus threatened to become a serious problem: on 19 October 1915 Sister Kate Luard recorded ‘a great many deaths from tetanus’ in her diary, but two months later she was able to note ‘The anti-tetanus serum injection that every wounded man gets with his first dressing has done a great deal to keep the tetanus under.’  In A Surgeon in Khaki, published in 1915, Arthur Andersen Martin confirmed that ‘every man wounded in France or Flanders today gets an injection of this serum within twenty-four hours of the receipt of the wound’ – at least, if he had been recovered in that time – and ‘no deaths from tetanus have occurred since these measures were adopted.’

More information: Peter Cornelis Wever and Leo van Bergen, ‘Prevention of tetanus during the First World War’, Medical Humanities 38 (2012) 78-82.

Morphine was administered for pain relief, but it still awaits its medical-military historian (unless I’ve missed something).

This was Boyle’s anaesthetic apparatus, but before the widespread availability of these machines a variety of systems was in use and, in the heat of the moment, the administration of anaesthesia was often far removed from the clinical, calibrated procedures the machine made possible. Here is a chaplain who served at No 44 Casualty Clearing Station:

I spent most of my time giving anaesthetics. I had no right to be doing this, of course, but we were simply so rushed. We couldn’t get the wounded into the hospital quickly enough, and the journey from the battlefield was terrible for these poor lads. It was a question of operating as quickly as possible. If they had had to wait their turn in the normal way, until the surgeon was able to perform an operation with another doctor giving the anaesthetic, it would have been too late for many of them. As it was, many died.

The most fortunate patients were those who had little or no recollection of the procedure.  Here is H.G. Hartnett on his experience at No 15 Casualty Clearing Station (the second occasion he was wounded):

 I was destined for surgery and lay in agony on my stretcher until near 9.00 pm, when orderlies carried me into a brilliantly lit operating theatre. I was placed on the centre one of three operating tables where I lay watching doctors and nurses completing an operation on another patient only a few feet from where I lay. When my turn came my wound was uncovered and a doctor placed a mask over my face. Then he asked me the name of the colonel of my battalion as he administered the anaesthetic. I remember no more about the operation or the theatre. When I returned to brief consciousness about 4.00 am the next morning I was lying on a stretcher on the ground in a large canvas marquee, in the third position on my side of it. Others had been carried in during the night, all from the operating theatre. The fumes of the anaesthetic from their clothes and blankets continued to put us off to sleep again. The day was well advanced when I finally returned to full consciousness.  

In the early years of the war anaesthesia was not a recognised speciality – and chloroform was the most widely used agent – but as the tide of wounded surged, operative care became more demanding and Casualty Clearing Stations assumed an increasing operative load so it became necessary to refine both its application and the skills of those who administered it.   In the British Army advances in anaesthesia were pioneered by Captain Geoffrey Marshall at No 17 Casualty Clearing Station at Remy Siding near Ypres from 1915.  By then nitrous oxide and oxygen were commonly used for short operations (which did not mean they were minor: they included guillotine amputations) but longer procedures typically relied on chloroform and ether.  A crucial disadvantage of chloroform was that it lowered blood pressure in patients who had often already lost a lot of blood.  ‘If chloroform be used,’ Marshall warned, ‘the patient’s condition will deteriorate during the administration, and he will not rally afterwards.’  And while ether would often produce an improvement during the operation, this was typically temporary: ‘the after-collapse [would be] more profound and more often fatal.’   His achievement was to show that a combination of nitrous oxide, oxygen and ether significantly improved survival rates for complex procedures – from 10 per cent to 75 per cent for leg amputations – and to have a machine made to regulate the combination of the three agents.  His design was copied and modified by Captain Henry Boyle, whose name became attached to the device.  

More information: Geoffrey Marshall, ‘The administration of anaesthetics at the front’, in British medicine in the war, 1914-1917N.H. Metcalfe, ‘The effect of the First World War (1914-1918) on the development of British anaesthesia’, European Journal of Anaesthesiology 24 (2007) 649-57; E. Ann Robertson, ‘Anaesthesia, shock and resuscitation’, in Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys (eds) War surgery, 1914-1918.

Bovril was advertised in all these ways; the company used a sketch of the Gallipoli campaign to claim that Bovril would ‘give strength to win’ and that it was a ‘bodybuilder of astonishing power’.  In 1916 the company even published an extract from a letter purported to come from the Western Front, accompanied by an image of an RAMC Field Ambulance tending a wounded soldier: 

But for a plentiful supply of Bovril I don’t know what we should have done.  During Neuve Chapelle and other engagements we had big cauldrons going over log fires, and as we collected and brought in the wounded we gave each man a good drink of hot Bovril and I cannot tell you how grateful they were.

Oxo seems to have been less popular, and least for any supposed medicinal or restorative properties, but it was often sent to soldiers by their families at home.  One advertising campaign enjoined them to ‘be sure to send Oxo’, and in one ad a Tommy writes home to say that when he returned to his billet to find the parcel, ‘the first thing I did was to make a cup of OXO and I and my chums declared on the spot this cup of OXO was the best drink we had ever tasted.’  

The image shows a surgeon using a fluoroscope to locate the fragments of the bullet:

An early Crookes x-ray tube visible under the table emits a beam of x-rays vertically through the patient’s body. The surgeon wears a large fluoroscope on his face, a screen coated with a fluorescent chemical such as calcium tungstate which glows when x-rays strike it. The x-ray image of the patient’s body appears on the screen, with the bullet fragments appearing dark.

The ‘partner’ referred to was the Hirtz compass (visible on the left of the image).  According to one standard military-medical history:

The essential feature of the H[i]rtz compass is the possibility of adjustment of the movable legs that support the instrument, so that when resting on fixed marks on the body of the patient the foreign body will be at the center of asphere, a meridian arc of which is carried by the compass. This arc is capable of adjustment in any position about a central axis. An indicating rod passes through a slider attached to the movable arc in such a way as to coincide in all positions with a radius of the sphere, and whether it actually reaches the center or not it is always directed toward that point. If its movement to the center of the sphere is obstructed by the body of the patient, the amount it lacks of reaching the center will be the depth of the projectile in the direction indicated by the pointer.

The value of the compass lies in its wide possibility as a surgical guide, in that it does not confine the attention of  the surgeon to a single point marked on the skin, with a possible uncertainty as to the direction in which he should proceed in order to reach the projectile, but gives him a wide latitude of approach and explicit information as to depth in a direction of his own selection.

The compass built on Gaston Contremoulins‘ attempts at ‘radiographic stereotaxis’; it could usually locate foreign objects to within 1-2 mm: much more than you could possibly want here.

The reassuring scientificity of all this is tempered by a cautionary observation from a wounded officer, Major Sidney Greenfield, who was X-rayed at a Casualty Clearing Station: 

My next recollection was the x-ray machine and two young fellows who were operating it. Apparently the operator had been killed the previous night by a bomb on the site and these two were standing in with little or no experience of an x-ray machine. Their conversation was far from encouraging and was roughly like this: ‘Now we have got to find where it is … is it this knob?’ ‘No.’ ‘Try that one.’ ‘Try turning that one.’ ‘No, that doesn’t seem to be right.’ ‘Ah, There it is.’ ‘Where’s the pencil. We must mark where it is. Now we have to find out how deep it is.’ After some time they seemed to be satisfied. In my condition and knowing little about electrical machines such as x-ray I wondered whether I should be electrocuted and was more relaxed when I was taken back to bed.

Incidentally, X-rays were called Roentgen rays (after the scientist Wilhelm Roentgen who discovered them in 1895) but the British antipathy towards all things German saw them re-named ‘X-rays’ from 1915: Alexander MacDonald, ‘X-Rays during the Great War’, in Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys (eds) War surgery, 1914-1918.

In addition to these terse communications, nurses and chaplains usually wrote to relatives on behalf of their patients. It was seen as a sacred duty, but it often seemed to be a never-ending task.  On 1 August 1917 Sister Kate Luard confided in her diary: ‘I don’t see how the “break-the-news” letters are going to be written, because the moment for sitting down literally never comes from 7 a.m. to midnight.’  In the case shown here, Sister Kathleen Mary Latham had written to Lt Hopkins’s wife on 12 November 1917 from a Casualty Clearing Station to say that

‘your husband has been brought to this hospital with wounds of the legs, arms, hand and face.  He has had an operation and is going on well. Unfortunately it was found necessary to remove the left eye as it was badly damaged, but he can see with the other though the lid is swollen and he cannot use it yet.  No bones are broken.  It will not be advisable for you to write to this address as he will probably be going on to the base in a day or two.’

The telegram from the War Office is dated three days later, by which time Hopkins had reached the base hospital at Le Touquet.  Sister Latham’s earlier account of her work at Casualty Clearing Station No. 3 at Poperinghe in 1915 is here.

***

In Durham, Louise Amoore pressed me on the anthropomorphism that seems inescapable in a narrative like this; it worries me too (I’ve always been leery of Bruno Latour‘s Aramis for that very reason).  I tried removing the ‘I’ and substituting an ‘it’ but I found doing so destroyed both the operative agency of the objects and, perhaps more important, the transient, enforced intimacy between them and the soldier’s body.  That intimacy was more than physical, I think.  I’ve already cited the reassurance provided by the prick of a needle, the whiteness of a new bandage; but the mundanity of objects could also be disorientating, intensifying an already intense sur-reality.  Here, for example, is Gabriel Chevallier recalling the moment when he and his comrades went over the top:

The feeling of being suddenly naked, the feeling that there is nothing to protect you. A rumbling vastness, a dark ocean with waves of earth and fire, chemical clouds that suffocate. Through it can be seen ordinary, everyday objects, a rifle, a mess tin, ammunition belts, a fence post, inexplicable presences in this zone of unreality.

Aramis also alerted me to another, and perhaps even more debilitating dilemma: a latent functionalism in which everything that is pressed into service works to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain.  That seems unavoidable in a narrative whose telos is precisely the base hospital and Blighty beyond.  Yet we know that, for all the Taylorist efficiency that was supposed to orchestrate the evacuation system in this profoundly industrial war, in many cases the chain was broken, another life was lost or permanently, devastatingly transformed.  As you can see, I’ve tried to do something about that with some of the objects I’ve selected.

I’ll probably add more objects: this is very much a work in progress, and I’m not sure where it will go – so as always, I’d welcome any constructive comments or suggestions.  Any written version would involve longer descriptions, I think, and would probably dispense with most of the scaffolding of notes I’ve erected here (though some of it could and probably should be incorporated into the descriptions).