Today's Reading

In this respect, at least, Percy Clare was lucky. Despite the severity of his injury, he was still recognizable to a passing friend named Weyman. He heard a voice from above: "Hello, Perc, poor old fellow, how are you getting on?" Clare signaled with his hand that he thought the end was near. Weyman crouched down to assess the situation before alerting a stretcher-bearer. By then, the blood had started to congeal on Clare's hands and his face, even as it continued to trickle from the holes in his cheeks. The medical orderly just shook his head before ordering his men to push on. "That sort always dies soon," he muttered.

Weyman wasn't so easily deterred, however. He went in search of other stretcher-bearers as the shelling from enemy lines intensified. They, too, assumed Clare would die, and so they refused to carry him off the field. Clare was weakening by the minute and could hardly begrudge their decision. "I was so soaked with blood and looked so sorry a case that they probably were justified in believing that their long tramp . . . would be futile," he wrote.

To pick up a man like Clare, who seemed certain to die, meant leaving on the battlefield others with a better chance to survive, so decisions had to be considered carefully. Return journeys with the wounded were not only dangerous, but also physically taxing. Rescue equipment proved mostly useless in battle. Dogs trained to locate casualties were driven mad by shellfire. Wheeled carts designed to transport the injured were often useless on the blasted and furrowed ground. As a result, most stretcher-bearers had to carry men to safety with the stretcher on their shoulders. It sometimes took as many as eight people to move a single man. Nothing was easy, and nothing was quick. After Private W. Lugg picked up a man during the Battle of Passchendaele, it took him ten hours to travel through the mud before he reached help. Even when the extraction was a success, it was sometimes too little, too late. Jack Brown, a medic with the Royal Army Medical Corps, recalled that "it was then just a question of us lighting them a fag cigarette and saying a few words about the family at home until they died."

Given the location of his wound, Percy Clare faced another danger. Many soldiers who sustained facial injuries suffocated after they were placed flat on their backs. Blood and mucus blocked their airways, or their tongues slipped down their throats, choking them. One soldier recalled feeling a "smack" and then a dull thud as a bullet smashed through his face and lodged itself in his shoulder. "I was rendered speachless 'sic' . . . My friends looked at me in horror and did not expect me to live many moments." They quickly bandaged his wounds but "were unable to stop the flow of blood in my mouth which was nearly choking me." He remained in the trenches, spitting up blood for hours, before finally being rescued.

Early in the war, the dental surgeon William Kelsey Fry discovered the challenges that facial injuries posed after he assisted a young man whose jaw had been blown apart during a night raid. Kelsey Fry instructed the soldier to lean his head forward to prevent his airway from becoming obstructed. After leading him through the trenches and into the hands of medics, Kelsey Fry turned around and began making his way back up the line. He hadn't gone fifty yards when a message was relayed to him that the soldier had already asphyxiated after being laid onto a stretcher. The experience stuck with Kelsey Fry for the rest of his life: "I well remember wrapping him in a blanket and burying him that night, and I made up my mind that if I had an opportunity of teaching that lesson to others, I would do so." Only later in the war did experienced medical officers like Kelsey Fry issue an official recommendation that soldiers with facial injuries be carried facedown with their head hanging over the end of the stretcher to avoid accidental suffocation.

In spite of all the daunting obstacles to rescue, Weyman was finally able to convince a third party of stretcher-bearers to take his friend off the field. Clare had lost a tremendous amount of blood by the time he was finally lifted onto a stretcher. He later referred to the wound in his diary as a "Blighty One"—demanding specialized treatment that would require his return to Britain, or "Old Blighty."

Any relief Clare might have felt at that moment, however, was short lived. The next time he saw his face in a mirror, he received a shock. With a heavy heart, he concluded, "I was an unlovely object."

For Clare, the war might have been over, but the battle to recover had only just begun. Advances in transportation during the war had made it easier to remove injured soldiers quickly and efficiently from the battlefield. This, coupled with developments in wound management, meant that a large number of men were both 'sustaining' and 'surviving' injuries, including direct hits to the face. Improvements to sanitation within hospitals also meant that disease posed less of a threat to soldiers than in previous wars.

Injured men first received treatment at a regimental aid post, which was positioned immediately behind the fighting, in a relatively sheltered spot, or in a trench itself. They were then sent to a mobile medical unit known as a field ambulance, before being transported to a casualty clearing station a greater distance from the front. Although some casualty clearing stations were situated in permanent buildings—such as schools, convents, or factories-many consisted of large tented areas or wooden huts often covering half a square mile.

These facilities, which functioned as fully equipped hospitals, could be chaotic—especially at the start of the war.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book A TRIP OF ONE'S OWN by by Kate Wills.
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