A note on our header photograph


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The picture you see on the header was taken after a long hot day at Wrest Park – the English Heritage site in Bedfordshire.  We were a little weary because of the huge flow of members of the public over an excellent Bank Holiday weekend – we were kept really busy talking to a wonderful variety of people.  If you do make it to our events please do come and chat and don’t be put off by the photo and slight sombre faces!!!!

We love the opportunity to demonstrate wound dressing, splints, injections – although the injections are demonstrated on pig-skin rather than people (Health and Safety gone mad I know!).  So if you fancy a closer look at an amputation saw please do come along and talk to us!

Some of the photos are taken by me but the high quality ones, including the header, are taken by Great War Society member and author Rob Langham.  Rob has two books out (so far) on the North Eastern Railway in the Great War and the Handley Page bomber (Bloody Paralysers)  (http://www.google.co.uk/search?tbo=p&tbm=bks&q=inauthor:%22Rob+Langham%22).


Artillery Casualties (Warning – slightly gory black and white picture!)


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The vast majority of deaths and wounds in the Great War were caused by artillery fire.  Gun shot wounds accounted for many casualties during attacks – the impact of machine gun fire and rapid fire from magazine fed rifles is frequently cited in histories – or from sniper fire.  Snipers had access to weapons that could be accurately fired over long ranges with the assistance of high quality optical sights.

However, in this industrial war of attrition, it was the capacity of artillery to inflict large numbers of casualties that had the greatest and most important impact.  The military medical services developed the skills to deal with the complex wounds caused by artillery fire, and also from munition delivered gases.  Modern plastic surgery has its roots in the exceptional work done by surgeons rebuilding faces shattered by shrapnel.


Despite the lack of antibiotics to combat the threat from gangrene caused by dirt being driven into wounds by shrapnel, a remarkable number of limbs were saved.  Once the dead flesh had been excised, wounds were irrigated with fluids such as hydrogen peroxide to prevent infections developing.  Whilst amputations were not infrequent, the removal of limbs was not the automatic or first choice for surgeons as they had been in earlier wars.

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An amputation saw made by Evans. This firm made the saw that was used to cut off Nelson’s arm over one hundred years before the Great War. Nelson did not enjoy the benefit of anesthetic (unless you count alcohol) as the soldiers of the Great War did. Death from post operative infection or shock was also a greater risk during the Napoleonic wars. The saw’s basic design did not change – it is made entirely of metal so that it can be sterilised, and the saw edge is perfect for cutting bone. Flesh will have been cut away using a scalpel.

Treatment of gas wounds was a new medical discipline.  Mustard gas caused internal and external blistering.  Phosgene and chlorine gases were lung irritants that caused a patient to ‘drown’ from the build up of fluids in the organ.  External damage could be treated by washing the skin, dressing the burns and treating the patient for shock caused by fluid loss.  Dressings had to be changed every two or three hours.  Oxygen was provided for casualties to aid breathing – the impact of the gas being likened to asthma in some cases.  Obviously the degree of exposure dictated the level of injury and the potential for full recovery or enduring disability.

As the war progressed improved gas masks (respirators) mitigated the impact of gas attacks.  But at the same time the method of delivery improved from the first gas attack by the Germans in April 1915 in Flanders.  Rather than feeding hoses out into no-mans-land and turning on gas tanks (when the wind was in the right direction), the chemicals were incorporated into artillery shells.  Thus a short artillery salvo with gas and shrapnel shells could have a greater effect than simply using shrapnel shells.  A well-constructed trench and good dugouts could afford a good degree of protection to the inhabitants from shrapnel shells.  But gas shells were more pervasive with the heavier than air gases seeping into the trenches and dugouts.

Artillery shells of all types continue to pose a threat throughout France and Flanders (and on other Great War battlefields).  The Daily Telegraph article linked below provides an excellent description of the ongoing daily work of Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts.  This work is done at considerable risk – modern casualties of the unexploded ordnance are treated as war dead and wounded.  Gas shells remain potent and a threat to life.

Remarkably visitors to the battlefields ignore advice to leave dug up shells alone.  I stopped one small English school boy from kicking a shell large enough to blow up a coach-full of school children close to the Lochnagar Crater on the Somme.  It would have been interesting to see the school’s Risk Assessment for their battlefield tour!

The bottom line is take pictures not munitions!


Wipers Times – Daily Telegraph Article


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Another quick post.  This link


takes you to an excellent article on the creators of the Wipers Times and the planned TV series co-written by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop and starring Michael Palin.

The most refreshing news is that the TV series will not trot out the “Lions Led by Donkeys” libel that consistently labels every officer as an ineffectual chinless wonder set on killing as many of their own troops as possible.

Imperial War Museum Podcast


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Just a quick post – check out this Imperial War Museum podcast (or read the transcript) on Women’s War Service.  There are some interesting descriptions of the living conditions and poor food ‘enjoyed’ (in common with the men) by ladies deployed to the front.


The Great War Society uses the same bell tents as those described in the podcast but fortunately our living history usually extends no more than three days at most.  Long enough to understand the difficulties of keeping clean and dry in a war zone.  Little wonder that some VADs cut their hair short in an effort to stay clean and avoid lice!  I presume that the fashion for short hair in post-war Britain might have had its roots in this effort at personal hygiene!

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)


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The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is to maintain the stunning British and Commonwealth war graves and cemeteries across the world.  Check out their excellent website at http://www.cwgc.org/ – it also has a search facility for those looking for details of the those killed in conflicts since the Great War.

The CWGC is still doing burials – like this group of three in Tyne Cot cemetery when the Great War Society visited recently.  The three were all unidentified South African servicemen of the 4th Regiment, South African Infantry who died on 20 September 1917.

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More from Zonnebeke


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A few more pictures from the Zonnebeke event.IMGP3453

On the left is a professional nurse of St John Ambulance Society and the right is a professional nurse of Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) (QAIMNS(R)).  Unlike the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD)  personnel (who were not professionally qualified nurses), the professional nursing staff would deploy close to the front line with the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS).  A CSS was the third step in the casualty evacuation process for a soldier wounded on the battlefield.

First line of treatment and triage was the Regimental Aid Post in the front line trench manned by a Medical Officer (a qualified doctor responsible for a battalion of about 1000 personnel).  A soldier requiring further treatment would be quickly moved by Regimental stretcher bearers to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS).  Here a doctor would dress wounds sufficiently to allow further evacuation to the CCS by motor or horse drawn ambulance – possibly only 2-5 miles behind the front line.

The CCS might be accommodated in a tent or, more often, any available building.  The CCS was not immune from attack either by aircraft (if the Red Cross flag was not observed) or artillery fire.  Minor operations would be undertaken at the CCS with the main aim of preserving life long enough for a soldier to be treated at the larger base hospitals in France and Flanders, or even be evacuated back to the United Kingdom.  Evacuation of a soldier from the front line in France and Flanders to Charing Cross in London could take only 24 hours for some of the wounded.

IMGP3496Our St John Ambulance nurse being ‘subverted’ by Belgian Suffragettes!  The British Suffragette organisations basically stopped their respective campaigns once war was declared, and supported the war effort (Although some, like Sylvia Pankhurst, were pacifists).  Indeed by the end of the war the so-called ‘weaker sex’ had demonstrated remarkable resilience and successfully mastered a host of ‘male’ occupations.  But at the war’s end they were expected to surrender their jobs to returning servicemen and return to their traditional roles and occupations.  Despite being granted limited voting rights in the United Kingdom, equal employment and pay rights were not granted to women until the 1970s.

Enough radical politics – something for the chaps – a bicycle.  Boy’s toys World War One style!  Cyclist battalions were first used by the British in the Boer War (1899-1902) providing mobility.  Easier to maintain than a horse, the bicycle probably requiring less training time and skills than those required for horse riding.  Their value as an aid to mobility ceased when trench warfare dominated – whilst they enabled movement behind the lines, there was little prospect of breaking through the frontline on a bicycle.


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And finally, some shots of the gentlemen of the Middlesex Regiment in the museum’s trenches on a particularly hot day.  The popular image of the Great War in France and Flanders is often one of mud and rain, but the sun could make life equally unpleasant.  Look closely at some pictures of the dead of the first day of the battle of the Somme (1 July 1916) and you can seem the swarms of flies on the corpses.

A fantastic online resource for Great War photographs is the Imperial War Museum’s online archive found at http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search

Zonnebeke – Memorial Museum Passchendaele


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The Great War Society and Hospital attended the re-opening of the Memorial Museum Passchendale (http://www.passchendaele.be/eng/homeEN.html) in Zonnebeke just outside Ypres (Wipers in British Army slang).  The museum has developed excellent underground dugouts and now extended them into accurate copies of both German and British trenches.  If you are in Belgium the Museum is well worth a visit.

We joined a host of living history groups, in the grounds of the museum, representing Allied and Central powers units.  We we fed by the excellent 29th Field Kitchen (http://www.freewebs.com/29thfieldkitchen/) throughout the weekend and had the opportunity to attend the Menin Gate, Ypres for the 2000 hours Last Post ceremony, and also to travel up to Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery and Memorial (Just 1.3 miles from Zonnebeke.  http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/85900/TYNE%20COT%20MEMORIAL).

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Treating a Tommy patient

2006-01-13 23.31.23                                Awaiting new patients outside the ward tent

2006-01-14 16.04.19                        Downtime for the Tommies – with a copy Picture Fun

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The Menin Gate, Ypres.  The crowd forming at about 1915 hours for the 2000 hours ceremony.  It is worth getting there early if you want to watch the ceremony under the gate.  However, walk up onto the ramparts above and you can still hear the ceremony without the crush of the crowd.  The excellent Cloth Hall ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum has also recently re-opened after refurbishment (http://www.toerisme-ieper.be/en/page/332-336-350-371/cloth-hall—-belfry-1.html)

2006-01-14 18.45.48Tyne Cot – looking from the memorial towards Ypres, as our contingent march back to Zonnebeke


Guardian Article – Gary Sheffield


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As every, Professor Gary Sheffield talks sense about the Great War in the Guardian article:


As much as the Great War’s poets are excellent, and later anti-war films of the 1960s such as Oh! What a Lovely War and Aces High are good quality films, they very much reflect the anti-war and pacifist movements of the inter-war and post war eras.

Not that I am in anyway suggesting war is always necessary, but this quote come to mind:

“Those that declaim against war beat the air in vain, for the ambitious, unjust or powerful cannot be restrained by such means”

Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert



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24 General Hospital joined the Middlesex Regiment and York and Lancaster Regiment detachments of the Great War Society over the late May (Whit) Bank Holiday weekend at Wrest Park, near Ampthill, Bedfordshire.  The English Heritage site was running its ‘Wrest at War’ event covering the two world wars.

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We had a fabulous weekend with great weather and thousands of visitors passing through over two days – some of whom became temporary patients as our Medical Officer (MO) and nurses demonstrated the workings of the surgical theatre and wards.

2005-11-26 23.05.53The MO demonstrates the use of the splint.

The gentleman being treated is lying on a First World War portable operating table generously donated to the GWS for our displays.  All the equipment on display is either original or carefully made exact replicas.  You’ll find no random plastic bags, cups or modern things ‘polluting’ the displays!

The MO (who also happens to be a QARANC in real life) also demonstrated the various methods of injection.  But, for obvious ethical and health and safety reasons, he made use of a piece of pig-skin rather than a human being!

2005-11-27 00.32.44The MO demonstrating the use of the syringe on tomorrow’s bacon!

For those new to Living History groups, we do not run around ‘re-enacting’ events, be they battles or battle injuries, by indulging in bad play acting with blood spurting everywhere.  This approach cannot hope to be realistic in anyway and, we feel, is rather disrespectful to those who fought and served.  Rather we endeavour to provide as authentic an experience as possible through the uniforms we wear, the equipment on display and demonstrations.  The members of the public are always welcome to ask questions and handle the equipment (except for the sharp pointy stuff that might cause injury in the hands of small children).  We also really enjoy hearing about family Great War histories from visitors, and can advise on family military history research.

We do take our living history as far as cooking our own rations (usually Bully Beef stew) on a field kitchen and sleeping in the bell tents over night.

2005-11-27 17.13.48The field kitchen and tent line – breakfast being cooked up for the troops and medical staff.

And the best bit (from this woman’s point of view) is that the chaps love doing the cooking on the field kitchen!

Recent Events

The Great War Society regularly displays at the Black Country Living Museum (well worth a visit not least for the excellent fish and chips and period pub).  Our first visit of this year was characterised by the foul weather that drove the visitors inside.  The hospital were fortunate to occupy one of the upper rooms in the Workers Institute where we displayed a part of a ward and operating theatre.  The following pictures give a glimpse of the display (Along with a guest nurse from our friends in the Warwicks).

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And a couple of shots of our Tommies taking time out from training.

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Our Tommies also found time for romance.  After asking permission from his Commanding Officer (don’t say we don’t take living history seriously), one of our young Privates proposed to one of our VAD nurses (Who accepted!).

24 General Hospital joined the Great War Society’s Middlesex Regiment and Royal Flying Corps men at Royal Flying Corps (RFC) Stow Maries in Essex on 11-12 May 13.  Our Medical Officer and St John Ambulance Sister set up a Medical Office and were able to demonstrate bandaging and suturing to the visitors to the event.  The picture here is of Anne, the St John Ambulance Sister (who is also a modern day qualified St John Ambulance First Aider) awaiting her first patient.


And sick parade treatment…


We return to the Black Country Living Museum later this year – 10-11 August 2013 – when we will set up a tented camp.  The British Infantry and Medical contingents will be joined by our German group.