Review: Wounded (Mayhew)

mayhew

Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I.

Here is presented the 20th Century’s Rite of Passage: the tortuous journey of the injured BEF soldier from the Western Front to a bed in Blighty, as told mainly from the perspective of the professionals and volunteers who shepherded him on his way home. Bearers, Regimental Medical Officers, surgeons, nurses, orderlies, chaplains, ambulance trains, railway stations, and finally, the London Ambulance Column each made their own contributions to the care of the battlefield casualty. Brief accounts of three wounded men are also included.

Not everyone who served in these capacities covered themselves with glory: the commanding officer of a Casualty Clearing Station is described as habitually making “a fat ass of himself;” a chaplain endures the tortures of the damned in his assignment, and spends as much time as possible in his tent; a nurse doesn’t change the soiled bandages on a head casualty, but only adds another layer of gauze; a bearer complains about the cries of the wounded he carries, until he becomes the man on the stretcher. But there are enough tales of quiet courage, fortitude, ingenuity and dedication to renew one’s faith in humanity, during a time when the whole world seemed to have gone mad.

As usual for most factual Great War writing, the book focuses on the physically wounded: the neuro-psych casualty gets short shrift, being mentioned in sparse detail in only a few cases, such as a doctor’s memoir recalling his having served as an expert witness for the defense, when the army was prosecuting malingering or desertion cases, and when someone witnessed a shell shocked soldier’s being restrained. Most of the time, the only reference to the mentally wounded is in regard to the mysterious grey railroad carriages that sometimes made up the tail of an ambulance train.

Nevertheless, researching novelists will find a treasure trove of information that can add valuable authenticity to their historical fiction. We even learn about how an early radiography unit was established personally by Madame Curie in a hospital near the front.

The stories contain their share of gruesome details, although not as extreme as in many other memoir-based histories. Still, you may want to consider individual variation in tolerance for such descriptions, especially if you purchase the book as a gift.

The table of contents, introduction, end notes and index all pull their weight. A mix of familiar and unusual photographs help set the scene, including a good look at the contents of a Field Ambulance pannier. The book is reasonably well written, edited and proofread: I found only two or three typographic errors, and few passages of noticeably awkward grammar. It presents well in hardcover with an evocative cover, although the edition you end up with may have a different illustration on the front than mine does, pictured here.

If any book about the First World War could be described as enjoyable reading, it would be this one. Highly recommended.

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