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.

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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.

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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).

For King and Countryside

Richard Harpum/Tommy

‘For the British soldier in the First World War, nature was always a matter of life and death’:  John Lewis-Stempel

When I was working on ‘Gabriel’s map’, and later on ‘The natures of war’ (both available under the DOWNLOADS tab), I immersed myself in the ways in which industrialised war violated the rural landscapes of Belgium and France on the Western Front during the First World War.  But I also noticed there (as in other war zones) the redemptive possibilities of ‘the natural world’:

A few miles behind No Man’s Land lay an agrarian landscape that would have been familiar to most European troops – though not to the considerable contingents from other continents – and many of them took refuge in a reassuring rurality whenever they were removed from the front line. Moving up to the trenches from Belancourt on a glorious June afternoon in 1916 the young Max Plowman exulted in the scene:

‘The tall corn is ripening, and between its stalks poppies and cornflowers glow with colour. Through the valley we are descending a noisy stream finds its way, and on the hills beyond, great elm-trees stand like wise men brooding. It is a lush green country, full of beauty. The war seems far away.’

Pastoral conceits like these – and they were by no means uncommon – were testaments to the horrors that closed in as the troops neared what Plowman later called ‘the palsied zone’. As he and his men marched towards Fricourt, they crossed the old front line. ‘The country here is stricken waste: the trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire.’ Later still, he described the sun glaring down ‘on earth that has lost its nature, for, pitted everywhere with shell-holes, it crumbles and cracks as though it has been subject to earthquake.’ As the landscape ‘lost its nature’ – a loss for which the all too human violence of war was responsible – so it also appeared less human. Yet even there, in the midst of all that, it was still possible to find sights and sounds that evoked the pastoral: the cornflower blue sky, the crimson rose, the fluting song of the lark. But these were all fleeting moments, and when he was finally relieved Plowman wrote that ‘it is cheering to be going westward: the farther you go in this direction the more human the world becomes.’  The opposition between the ‘un-natural’ and the ‘human’ really pits the savage against the domesticated, but passages like these are double-edged. They form a repertoire of ‘Arcadian resources’ in Paul Fussell’s resonant phrase, which function as what he saw as a characteristically ‘English mode of both fully gauging the calamities of the Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them’. Protection here is about more than solace, I think, because opposing these imaginative geographies works to repress the transformation of the domesticated into the savage which confirmed what Claire Keith saw as ‘the frightful interdependence of human death and environmental death’.

where-poppies-blow

Those redemptive, even Arcadian moments have now been gathered and pressed within the pages of a new book: John Lewis-Stempel‘s Where Poppies Blow: the British solider, Nature, the Great War (2016):

Where Poppies Blow is the unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on.

At the most basic level, animals and birds provided interest to fill the blank hours in the trenches and billets – bird-watching, for instance, was probably the single most popular hobby among officers. But perhaps more importantly, the ability of nature to endure, despite the bullets and blood, gave men a psychological, spiritual, even religious uplift.

Animals and plants were also reminders of home. Aside from bird-watching, soldiers went fishing in village ponds and in flooded shell holes (for eels), they went bird nesting, they hunted foxes with hounds, they shot pheasants for the pot, and they planted flower gardens in the trenches and vegetable gardens in their billets.

In an interview, the author explains:

When the poet Edward ‘Adlestrop’ Thomas was asked why he was volunteering for service in the Great War, he picked up a handful of earth and said, ‘Literally, for this’. Men went to fight for King and Countryside, as much as King and Country. Nature worship was almost a religion in Edwardian England.

And when men arrived in France, they lived in trenches – inside the earth. ‘Certainly I have never lived so close to nature before or since’, Corporal Fred Hodges of the Lancashires observed, in words that spoke for the generation in khaki.

There was no escape from Nature 1914-18. Skylarks, say, buoyed men’s spirits -one Scottish miner said about the Western Front ‘What hell it would be without the birds’- and some Nature killed the soldiers. We think of the Great War as the first modern war; actually, it was The Last Ancient War. Disease, courtesy of rats and lice, was diabolical.

But I suppose, above all else, Nature healed the mind. Men looked at the poppies growing in the mud and the swallows which shared their dug-out and saw hope – a future for themselves and humankind.

You can capture exactly that sense in some of John Masefield‘s poetry, written when he was serving as a medical orderly – the book begins with his ‘August, 1914’ – and you can read more in the Preface and the first chapter of Where Poppies Blow (the splendidly titled ‘For King and Countryside’) available here.  As the remark I’ve used as my epigraph makes clear, though, there was always (and remains) a desperately dark side to the entanglements with a militarised nature.

War Stories

The video from our War Stories event in Vancouver last month – including Farah Nosh‘s narration of her wonderful photographs, a superb capsule genealogy of PTSD from Ann Jones, my discussion of casualty evacuation over the last hundred years, a drama staged by veterans from Afghanistan and directed by George Belliveau, Contact! Unload!, and a lively Q&A with the audience moderated by Peter Klein is now available here.

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My lecture, Precarious journeys, has also been carved out for the Peter Wall Institute website here. The idea behind the event was, in large measure, to think through the multiple ways in which modern war is narrated, which is why we had such a rich and diverse portfolio of performers and why I take the turns I do…  Regular readers will probably recognize that the arc of my presentation draws on my current research on evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War, on evacuation from Afghanistan today, and on my admiration for Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a Soldier (see my ‘Object lessons’ here and the slides available under the DOWNLOADS tab).

More in an interview with Charlie Smith from the Georgia Straight here.

Empire, faith and war

My time in the archives at the Imperial War Museum this summer was very productive and I made considerable headway in completing my work on casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War and from North Africa in the Second – more on that later.  In the letters and diaries written from Belgium and France I found many, scattered references to the presence of non-Caucasian troops, especially from North Africa and India; as I’ve noted before, it was not all white on the Western Front.

 

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But apart from the heroic work of scholars like Santanu Das there have been few attempts to piece these fragments together.  I’ve now discovered a website, Empire, Faith and War, that aims to put the contribution of Sikhs literally on the map (though it’s much more than an exercise in cartography):

As the world turns its attention to the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18, the ‘Empire, Faith & War’ project aims to commemorate the remarkable but largely forgotten contribution and experiences of the Sikhs during this epochal period in world history.

From the blood-soaked trenches of the Somme and Gallipoli, to the deserts and heat of Africa and the Middle East, Sikhs fought and died alongside their British, Indian and Commonwealth counterparts to serve the greater good, gaining commendations and a reputation as fearsome and fearless soldiers.

Although accounting for less than 2% of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up more than 20% of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities. They and their comrades in arms proved to be critical in the early months of the fighting on the Western Front, helping save the allies from an early and ignominious defeat.

Wartime generations and their stories fading fast, and current and future generations losing vital links to this monumental past.

There’s probably not a single Sikh in the UK who doesn’t have a military connection in their family history. It is often because of those links to the armies of the British Raj that many Sikhs now reside in the UK.

And yet the role of Sikhs in World War One is a largely unknown aspect of the Allied war effort and indeed of the British story.

By revealing these untold stories we aim to help shed much needed light on both their sacrifice, but also on the contribution of all of the non-white allied forces from across the British Empire.

This is possibly our last opportunity to discover and record the stories of how one of the world’s smaller communities played such a disproportionately large role in the ‘war to end all wars’.

Apoorva Sripathi has a good account of the background to the project here.

A long day’s journey…

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A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

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Divisions of Life

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My main presentation at the AAG in Chicago was part of a session organised by Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton on Remnants of No Man’s Land: history, theory and excess (more on their larger project here).  Here is an extended summary of what I had to say, together with some of my slides, but bear in mind that this all had to be done in 20 minutes so there wasn’t much room for nuance.  Neither was there time to discuss civilian entanglements, both volunteers and victims, nor the sick: the presentation focuses on the wounded, even though the problems of trench foot, ‘trench flu’, and a host of other diseases were also extremely important.  They do all receive attention in the larger project from which this is extracted.  One last, geographical qualification: my discussion is limited to the evacuation of British and imperial troops from the Western Front.

My starting-point was the strange disappearance of the wounded from the field of battle.  As John Keegan wrote in The Face of Battle, in most histories the ‘wounded apparently dematerialize as soon as they are struck down’; he was writing specifically about General Sir William Napier’s account of the battle of Albuera in 1811, but the point is a sharp one that can be enlisted as part of a more general critique of military history.

In the case of the First World War, the emphasis on those who lost their lives – on the dead not the wounded – derives not only from the sheer scale of the slaughter but also from the enduring landscape of memorialisation and commemoration.  When John McCrae‘s elegaic poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ is recited every Remembrance Day – ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row’ – it is all too easy to forget that he wrote those lines not only to commemorate the death of a close friend but that he did so at Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station:

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What lies behind those haunting lines – and that medical outpost – is a vast canvas of wounded men, which Christopher Nevinson captured as ‘The Harvest of Battle’ (below).  The dead occupy the foreground, but behind them is the endless, moving panorama of the wounded whose precarious journeys took most of them far beyond ‘No Man’s Land’.

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In fact, as Emily Mayhew reminds us, ‘being wounded was one of the most common experiences of the Great War’: on the Western Front, she writes, ‘almost every other British soldier could expect to become a casualty’.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, for the first six months of the war the British Expeditionary Force was unprepared for the scale of casualties, and even with the help of civilian volunteers and aid societies – Nevinson briefly served as a medical orderly with the Friends Ambulance Unit, for example – the remarkably long time it took to evacuate the wounded combined with the perilous nature of their improvised journeys to increase the mortality rate.

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And so what Mark Harrison called the military-medical machine had to be speeded up – and moved closer to the field of battle.

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Before every major offensive elaborate plans for medical support were prepared: casualties were ‘cleared’ down the line as far and as fast as possible to make room for the newly injured, casualty clearing hospitals moved closer to the line, ambulances and stretcher-bearers made ready, and ‘down’ trenches designated for the efficient removal of the wounded (below).

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Soldiers wounded in ‘No Man’s Land’ – a term never recognised by the British General Staff, who insisted that they controlled the field of battle right up to the enemy front lines – were often immobilised and disoriented; some crawled into shell holes, seeking refuge below the field of fire, but it could take hours, even days before they were discovered and rescued (I’ll devote a later post to a detailed discussion of some of those cases).

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Sometimes their mates came to their rescue, sometimes the regimental stretcher bearers.  But they too had to find their way through a dangerous and devastated terrain, often with no landmarks to guide them and on occasion made virtually impassable by the thick, cloying mud that was always –  disconcertingly – much more than mud.

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By now, they were in the care of the Royal Army Medical Corps’s Field Ambulance, and their first objective was an Advanced Dressing Station.  

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Treatment at ADS 1917

Those that needed anything beyond simple treatment or emergency surgery were sent on by horse or motor ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station (a field hospital).

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It was usually here that their first surgeries took place.  The journalist Philip Gibb was shown around a CCS at Corbie and the experience haunted him for years:

After a visit there I had to wipe cold sweat from my forehead, and found myself trembling in a queer way. It was the medical officer—a colonel—who called it that name. “This is our Butcher’s Shop,” he said, cheerily. “Come and have a look at my cases. They’re the worst possible; stomach wounds, compound fractures, and all that. We lop off limbs here all day long, and all night. You’ve no idea!”

CCS Corbie

I had no idea, but I did not wish to see its reality. The M.O. could not understand my reluctance to see his show. He put it down to my desire to save his time—and explained that he was going the rounds and would take it as a favor if I would walk with him. I yielded weakly, and cursed myself for not taking to flight. Yet, I argued, what men are brave enough to suffer I ought to have the courage to see… I saw and sickened. These were the victims of “Victory” and the red fruit of war’s harvest-fields. A new batch of “cases” had just arrived. More were being brought in on stretchers. They were laid down in rows on the floor-boards. The colonel bent down to some of them and drew their blankets back, and now and then felt a man’s pulse. Most of them were unconscious, breathing with the hard snuffle of dying men. Their skin was already darkening to the death-tint, which is not white. They were all plastered with a gray clay and this mud on their faces was, in some cases, mixed with thick clots of blood, making a hard incrustation from scalp to chin. “That fellow won’t last long,” said the M. O., rising from a stretcher. “Hardly a heart-beat left in him. Sure to die on the operating-table if he gets as far as that… Step back against the wall a minute, will you?” We flattened ourselves against the passage wall while ambulance-men brought in a line of stretchers. No sound came from most of those bundles under the blankets, but from one came a long, agonizing wail, the cry of an animal in torture. “Come through the wards,” said the colonel. “They’re pretty bright, though we could do with more space and light.” In one long, narrow room there were about thirty beds, and in each bed lay a young British soldier, or part of a young British soldier. There was not much left of one of them. Both his legs had been amputated to the thigh, and both his arms to the shoulder-blades. “Remarkable man, that,” said the colonel. “Simply refuses to die. His vitality is so tremendous that it is putting up a terrific fight against mortality… There’s another case of the same kind; one leg gone and the other going, and one arm. Deliberate refusal to give in. ‘You’re not going to kill me, doctor,’ he said. ‘I’m going to stick it through.’ What spirit, eh?”…

“Bound to come off,” said the doctor as we passed to another bed. “Gas gangrene. That’s the thing that does us down.” In bed after bed I saw men of ours, very young men, who had been lopped of limbs a few hours ago or a few minutes, some of them unconscious, some of them strangely and terribly conscious, with a look in their eyes as though staring at the death which sat near to them, and edged nearer. “Yes,” said the M. O., “they look bad, some of ’em, but youth is on their side. I dare say seventy-five per cent. will get through. If it wasn’t for gas gangrene—“

He jerked his head to a boy sitting up in bed, smiling at the nurse who felt his pulse. “Looks fairly fit after the knife, doesn’t he? But we shall have to cut higher up. The gas again. I’m afraid he’ll be dead before to-morrow. Come into the operating-theater. It’s very well equipped.”

By now the bureaucratic machine had been activated: labels had been attached to the wounded and field medical cards (‘tickets’) completed; telegrams had been sent to advise families, and nurses had often written letters home on their patients’ behalf.

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The next stage for the most seriously wounded was evacuation by ambulance train to  a base hospital on the French coast.  There was a considerable bureaucracy involved in planning these movements, but for all the neatness and symmetry of the organisational diagrams – part of Clausewitz‘s ‘paper war’ – there were all sorts of delays.

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Priority was given to trains rushing reinforcements, supplies and ammunition to the front, and ambulance trains were frequently marooned in sidings waiting for them to pass so that journeys that might have taken hours could take days.  It was not uncommon for an ambulance train to arrive at a base hospital to find that there was little or no room for new patients and all but the most grievous cases had to travel on to the next.

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Many patients were treated at the base hospitals, but those with more serious wounds were evacuated by hospital ship to Britain.  This stage of the journey was no less dangerous than the previous one: as the war continued, there was an increasing danger of mines and submarines in the Channel.

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A distinctive  geography of the wounded emerged.  If they arrived at Southampton, the most critical cases were taken by train straight to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, which treated as many as 50,000 patients during the war.  According to Lyn McDonald,

 ‘Those who could not be accommodated, and those who were seriously wounded but likely to survive a longer journey, were sent on by train to Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester, Norwich and Plymouth.  But seven out of every ten hospital trains were directed to London, and during the first days of the Somme they rolled in almost every hour to Charing Cross and Paddington stations.’

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This is, of course, a highly abbreviated account of the casualty evacuation chain, and in the larger project from which this is derived I provide many more details.  But I think I’ve said enough to show that the chain was, in effect, a production line with an elaborate division of labour (again, in the larger study I show how class – or more accurately, rank – gender and race segmented the chain in various ways).  Indeed, in The Politics of Wounds Ana Carden-Coyne argues that what she calls ‘the Taylorist approach in modern war’ – and remember that this was industrial war on the grand (guignol) scale – ‘was particularly evident in the assembly-line style of evacuation and triage.’

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This prompts two concluding observations.

First, what was the instrumental logic that animated the evacuation chain?  After all, it was an expensive undertaking, as Arthur Empey (himself wounded on the Western Front) realised in this re-calculation of the chain:

It may sound heartless and inhuman, but it is a fact, nevertheless, that from a military stand-point it is better for a man to be killed than wounded.

EmpeyIf a man is killed he is buried, and the responsibility of the government ceases, excepting for the fact that his people receive a pension. But if a man is wounded it takes three men from the firing line, the wounded man and two men to carry him to the rear to the advanced first-aid post. Here he is attended by a doctor, perhaps assisted by two R.A.M.C. men. Then he is put into a motor ambulance, manned by a crew of two or three. At the field hospital, where he generally goes under an anaesthetic, either to have his wounds cleaned or to be operated on, he requires the services of about three to five persons. From this point another ambulance ride impresses more men in his service, and then at the ambulance train, another corps of doctors, R.A.M.C. men, Red Cross nurses, and the train’s crew. From the train he enters the base hospital or Casualty Clearing Station, where a good-sized corps of doctors, nurses, etc., are kept busy. Another ambulance journey is next in order — this time to the hospital ship. He crosses the Channel, arrives in Blighty — more ambulances and perhaps a ride for five hours on an English Red Cross train with its crew of Red Cross workers, and at last he reaches the hospital. Generally he stays from two to six months, or longer, in this hospital. From here he is sent to a convalescent home for six weeks.

If by wounds he is unfitted for further service, he is discharged, given a pension, or committed to a Soldiers’ Home for the rest of his life, — and still the expense piles up. When you realize that all the ambulances, trains, and ships, not to mention the man-power, used in transporting a wounded man, could be used for supplies, ammunition, and reinforcements for the troops at the front, it will not appear strange that from a strictly military standpoint, a dead man is sometimes better than a live one (if wounded).

Hence, for example, the orders recorded by A.M. Burrage:

The instructions given to stretcher-bearers are rather harsh. “ If you find two men wounded, and can take only one away, take away the one more likely to make a fit soldier again.” Therefore the one more urgently in need of attention must be left to die, because he would walk with a limp and would never again be able to carry a pack. Sound business, of course, but just a little hard.

Kate Luard captured another dimension of this when she wrote in January 1915:

‘The ambulance trains do so much bringing the British Army from the field that I hope some other  trains are busy bringing the British Army to the field, or there can’t be many left in the field…’

And Emily Mayhew provides this bleak vignette from a medical orderly that captures the seemingly insatiable drive of industrial war:

An ordinary train, similar to the one that had brought him to the front, was at one end unloading reinforcements, while at the other end it was filling up with wounded men.

The logic, then, was one of ‘salvage’; four out of every five men wounded on the Western Front were returned to the fighting, which was the over-riding objective of the military-medical machine.

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Second, the division of labour was also a division of life: the dead from the wounded, the dying from the ‘salvageable’, and the wounded from the unwounded or yet-to-be-wounded.  The last was not the least.  For breaching that separation could have the most unsettling consequences of all:

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 ***

What started me on this journey was Emily Mayhew‘s brilliantly conceived Wounded and an excellent series of articles by Martin Bricknell in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps: see in particular here.

You can also find more on the casualty evacuation chain from the Western Front at Beyond the Trenches here and here, the Long, Long Trail here, the Medical Front here, and the Royal Army Medical Corps site here.

My larger project examines the evacuation of casualties, combatant and civilian, from four combat zones 1914-2014: the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

There’s something in the air…

Gas attack Somme

In ‘The Natures of War’ I include a brief discussion of the ways in which chemical gas attacks on the Western Front militarised the atmosphere:

Gas warfare turned the very air the soldier breathed into a potential enemy and, to Peter Sloterdijk, inaugurated a ‘new “ecologized” war’, a battle ‘conducted in the atmospheric environment [that] was about conquering the respiratory “potentials” of hostile parties’.  Here the French and the Germans led the way. The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale but these discharged tear gas which in most cases was not lethal, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective.  These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater harvest.

They yielded their first (poisoned) fruit on 22 April when the Germans launched the first lethal gas attack at Ypres. Unlike those earlier attempts this did not involve artillery – which is how the High Command persuaded themselves they were not violating the 1899 Hague agreement that prohibited the ‘use of projectiles the sole use of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or noxious gases’  – and instead released chlorine gas from specially adapted industrial storage containers hidden in the German trenches and then relied on the wind to disperse the gas cloud. On that first, fateful evening more than 5,000 cylinders discharged 150 tons of chlorine gas. It billowed into a yellow-green cloud nearly six kilometres wide and 600-900 meters deep, which was then carried on a north-easterly wind towards two French divisions at 2-3 meters a second. The gas attacked the bronchial tubes and victims suffocated by drowning in their own fluids. German infantry advanced behind the gas cloud which had breached the French lines, and while they did not press home their advantage all sides concluded that gas was the way ‘to break the “riddle of the trenches”’ by flushing troops from cover and ending ‘the stalemate that had confounded all.’  But the reliance on wind as a dispersal vector was risky, not least because the prevailing wind on the Front was from the west – the initial attack had been postponed time and time again until conditions were favourable – and on 25 September the British launched their own gas cloud attack at Loos. This too went awry as a result of changing wind direction, and soon both sides had reverted to artillery delivery systems. They also developed deadlier agents (all derived from chlorine), and from 1916 gas of more than 60 types was in every engagement by artillery on all sides for both offensive and defensive purposes.

These gases affected more than the surface environment because they were all heavier than air. Chlorine and the far more deadly phosgene seeped into craters and shell holes, ‘corrupting the very areas of relative safety where men took refuge’. Mustard gas lingered even longer. It was designed to disable not kill – a blistering agent, it burned the skin and caused (usually temporary) blindness [see John Singer Sargent‘s famous Gassed, below] – and repeated intermittent exposure deadened the sense of smell so a man could no longer detect it. Since mustard gas remained dormant for days, it ‘consigned the soldier to a state of permanent unease’ in which ‘every puddle [became] an imagined trap’; in the winter of 1917-1918 there were reports of soldiers tracking frozen mud contaminated with mustard gas into their dugouts where it melted and gassed their companions.  Here too, the psychological effects of this militarised nature were as significant as their physiological ones. Gas turned out not to be the decisive weapon of the war; it accounted for around 1 per cent of British deaths but caused disproportionately more casualties. One of its main purposes, Tim Cook concludes, became disruption: spreading surprise, uncertainty, and fear on the battlefield. By 1918 gas made up 20-40 per cent of all shells within the artillery dumps on both sides and ‘all soldiers on the Western Front lived in an environment where gas was a daily fact of life…’

John Singer Sergeant, Gassed (1919)

The bibliographic references are in the draft text under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I rehearse all this because Sarah Everts has a richly illustrated and informative new essay on ‘When chemicals became weapons of war’ here – it’s an excellent survey.