Show and tell on WWI battlefield medicine

Dr Andrew Kelsey

Dr Andrew Kelsey

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First World War battlefield medicine and the advances brought about is the subject of a show and tell this Saturday.

Dr Andrew Kelsey, a retired GP from Ramsey, will be showing medical photos and some medical implements during his talk in the Exploratorium at the Manx Museum, Douglas, between 2-4pm. Dr Kelsey has a special interest in the diseases, traumas and the developments in medicine and his audience is sure to be fascinated by his insight.

‘Everything about war is large and shocking and grim and horrific and I think if you try to find one mitigating thing about war it’s the large medical advances – that we all take for granted now.

‘In the space of four years medical treatment was transformed. At the beginning of the war there were 7,000 hospital beds in the UK, but by 1918 there were 360,000.

‘The British Expeditionary Force in 1914 had 140,000 men [who were originally despatched to France in August and September, at the beginning of the First World War], by 1918 Royal Army Medical Corp was bigger than this number.’

The First World War was like no other that had gone before.

‘It was trench warfare - trenches were wet, damp conditions that brought infection and illness. People were wounded by high velocity bullets, shells and for the first time people had shell-shock,’ explained Dr Kelsey.

This was at a time before the invention of antibiotics, but the prognosis for recovery from wounds improved as medical knowledge increased during the course of the war.

For example, in 1914 due to the likelihood of infection and the transportation of the soldier, a man with a compound fracture had an 82 per cent likelihood of dying, but in stark contrast by 1917 with better treatment of wounds and patient handling, there was an 80 per cent survival rate.

‘It’s a paradox of war that medical advances happen much faster than at any other time,’ said Dr Kelsey.

The war threw up other new challenges, including 60,000 men having suffered facial disfigurements, which led to advancements in plastic surgery. Dr Harold Gillies carried out facial reconstructions on First World War veterans.

‘A major problem that had never been encountered before was people with one knew what to do with these people at first,’ said Dr Kelsey.

Shell-shock was the reaction of some soldiers in World War I to the trauma of battle and how you were treated depended on who you were treated by, some thought it an excuse for cowardice, medical officers were even told not to use the term ‘shell-shock’, but others acknowledged the reality of what is known in this day and age as post traumatic distress disorder and it led to a new psychiatric approach to suffers, said Dr Kelsey.

English physician Charles Samuel Myers, who worked as a psychologist, in 1916 he was appointed consultant psychologist to the British armies in France with a staff of assistants at Le Touquet.

He took people with symptoms of shell-shock away from the frontline, but still kept them close to their unit, and he did not expect a quick recovery, but tried to encourage and comfort suffers telling them “they wouldn’t always be like this”, said Dr Kelsey.

Dr Myers became frustrated with opposition to his views during his time in the military, particularly the view that shell-shock was a treatable condition. And he was so upset by the rejection of his ideas by the military authorities that he refused to give evidence to the Southborough Committee on shell-shock.

But for Dr Kelsey the ‘unsung heroes’ of the First World War were the unarmed stretcher-bearers who were sent out after the men went over the trenches to recover the injured.

They were the first type of ‘emergency battle technicians’ with callouses on their hands and marked shoulders, they had to be very physically fit to carry the injured sometimes for miles at time.

If this has whet your appetite to learn more about the remarkable medical challenges of the First World War battlefields head along to the museum in Douglas on Saturday to hear Dr Kelsey. Entry is free.

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