Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care, is a new exhibition opening at the Science Museum on 29th June that explores some of the remarkable medical responses and innovations of the First World War through the personal stories of those who were wounded and those who cared for them. Many of the objects in the exhibition are part of the Science Museum’s First World War medical collections including stretchers adapted for use in narrow trenches to made-to-measure artificial arms fitted back in British hospitals.
The exhibition tells the often untold story of how medics facing new forms of physical and mental wounding on a scale that had never been seen before, had to develop strategies to deal with the wounded. For medical personnel near the front line treating blood loss and preventing infection was the immediate priority in order to save lives.
However it was the scale of the conflict that provided enormous and unprecedented medical challenges. There were 57,000 casualties were sustained by British Forces on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and during the First World War over twenty million combatants were wounded and millions were left disabled, disfigured or traumatised by their experiences. These medical challenges on the battlefields and field hospitals were replicated back in Britain as large institutions were taken over for military use to cope with the wounded. In the exhibition is the famous pastel drawings of facial injuries by Henry Tonks, from the Royal College of Surgeons and a painting by John Lavery in 1914 that captures the arrival of the first British wounded soldiers at the London Hospital.
A large number of medical technologies, techniques and strategies were pioneered or adapted throughout the war to help the wounded along each stage of rescue and treatment. However after the war, it soon became clear that longer term treatment and care would be needed for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who came back home with life changing physical and mental wounds. The exhibition illustrates how the post war period saw the creation of new medical and welfare institutes and organisations and gradual improvements in the specialist forms of care and rehabilitation became available.
At the end of the war, treatment and attitudes towards psychological issues amongst the wounded varied greatly and often the ‘stigma’ related with these issues led to a reluctance amongst soldiers to seek outside help. Although warfare has changed over the last one hundred years, there are still similarities in how the wounded have to deal with issues relating to their military experiences. The final part of the exhibition is a section that focuses on Army veterans who served in Afghanistan and have since been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The veterans worked with the museum to co-curate a section of the exhibition, shaping the contents (objects), and creating a short-film illustrating this ‘hidden’ wound.
This is a fascinating and important free exhibition that concentrates on the reality of the industrialised warfare of the First World War. Whilst much was made of the ‘sacrifice’ of the soldiers at the time, the grim reality of providing long-term care and treatment to the hundreds of thousands of casualties imposed a massive strain on medical institutions. In the post war years, there was a realisation that it was a ‘lost’ generation in more ways than one. The huge loss of those killed was compounded by the enormous psychological cost of those who survived but had to live with being disabled, disfigured or traumatised.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information and book tickets, visit the Science Museum website here
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