War Wounds and their treatment

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This field bandage is in a collection held in the archive (GB127.M198).The collection consists of papers from William John Pegge, who survived the war and later had a significant involvement in local government in Salford and Manchester.
His experiences of serving in the First World War will be the subject of a future post.

This particular item turned up in the boxes of his notebooks and papers. If bandages could talk, it certainly would have a tale to tell.
Whilst it is unused, it is not in pristine condition. How and why did it survive? Did it become an object of superstition?  A kind of good luck charm? The emergency bandage that never needed to be deployed?
Why was it still among this man’s papers in 1974, when they were deposited by his widow?
Its cover is filthy and mud stained. There must have been a time when it was regarded with distaste or even disgust!

The GMCRO holds records for operations performed at Withington Hospital, Nell Lane, during the First World War. Volunteers have been transcribing these so that at some point in the future they can be indexed and accessed. They also include records relating to German patients.

The dates of admissions and operations, continuing right through until 1919, raised questions as to why men continued to be treated for gunshot wounds long after the end of the war.
Lesley Oldham, one of the volunteers on the GM1914 project, has a background of involvement in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). She  passed on a copy of a contemporary article from The Lancet regarding wounds in war.
The Bradshaw Lecture on Wounds in War was delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons of England on December 20th 1915. The speaker was Surgeon-General Sir Anthony Bowlby, K.C.M.G., A.M.S, Surgeon-in- ordinary to H.M. The King; Consulting Surgeon to the British Expeditionary Force in France; Surgeon to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
It is a long and very detailed lecture, illustrated with photographs and images of microscope slides.
His experiences in the Boer War  hadn’t prepared him and his medical corps colleagues for the very different conditions in France. South Africa was an uncultivated terrain, supporting few people or domestic animals. The soil was dry and sandy, uncontaminated by manure. The climate was breezy and hot. Pathogenic organisms were not widespread in the soil.
The situation in France was the opposite. Rainfall was heavy and the vegetation luxuriant. It was heavily populated and farming supported cattle and pigs. Every form of microorganism could flourish in the soil.
The design of bullets also created a different type of entry and exit wound. Shells, bombs, hand grenades and shrapnel created terrible wounds to tissue, bone and muscle. New and different missiles created injuries never before seen in wartime medical experience, and certainly beyond any domestic medical experiences.
In France soldiers were living in mud and manure. Their uniforms were contaminated.Their skin was unwashed. Corpses of animals and men rotted in the trenches.
Any wounds introduced bacteria and infection to the body. Wounded soldiers might be left lying out between opposing trenches. Carrying them through flooded trenches for transport to clearing stations could exacerbate their injuries.
There are graphic descriptions of cases seen and observed, for the benefit of the professional medical personnel present at the Bradshaw lecture.
The condition of the wounded soldiers is also commented on. Cold, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, in shock from loss of blood and injury, they had also been coping with the terrible environment of the trenches.
When discussing secondary complications of wounds, he refers to Alexander Fleming’s work on bacterial infection. Gas forming anaerobes resulted in gas  gangrene, a life threatening condition.The original  injury may have been treatable, but the rapid infection caused by staphylococcal and streptococcal bacteria swiftly took hold and destroyed the system.
War time experiences accelerated the medical professions’s understanding of sepsis and infection. New treatments and approaches were developed for all types of conditions, from shell shock to loss of limbs.

Once you realise that these wounds mentioned in the Withington records were full of infection and slow to heal, you can see why Military Hospitals continued to treat men for ‘old’ injuries well into 1919.

an operation to remove shrapnel

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