From the chaos of the 1st war year we encounter all the aspects of medical care on and behind the front: the shortages of the beginning of the war were resolved by the commitment of a few, usually volunteers. We see the types of injuries and illnesses, the creation of evacuation routes, the specialisation in care and the development in medicine …
Chaos, improvisation, voluntary initiative…
Due to a lack of investments in dealing with and caring for the wounded, much improvisation was needed. Doctors and nurses did what they could, but had to watch as the wounded often did not reach them quickly enough for treatment. The aid staff had usually received little or no training, and there was a great shortage of drugs and bandages. There were not enough doctors on the front either. Many fatalities in those early war months were due to late intervention.
Solidarity with the victims was very high. There were many voluntary initiatives to alleviate the need on the front. Doctors and nurses - but also wealthy people - took action on behalf of the victims. Motorised ambulances were purchased, doctors and nurses were trained. The Red Cross tried to deploy those private initiatives as usefully as possible.
Both in the armies and at personal level the best professionals, Marie Curie for one, dedicated themselves to the care and treatment of the wounded.
Wounded and sick
An overview of the types of injuries and illnesses and the chances of survival. Also attention to the care for civilians as collateral damage of e.g. typhoid, gas attacks and shellings and air raids.
Psychological traumas were first medically recognised and reluctantly accepted as “shell shock” in WWI. Based on three examples we refer to Museum dr. Guislain in Ghent for the continuation of the exhibition Soldiers and Psychiatrists
Once wounded, it was of vital importance to be evacuated as quickly as possible. Stretcher-bearers and horse-drawn ambulances were deployed; and at the beginning of the war anything that could move.
The first evacuation led from the front to the railway, from where the wounded were transported further inland, via aid stations and field hospitals to the better equipped base hospitals.
The medical care shows the clearest traces in the landscape of WWI to this day. Almost any cemetery in the Westhoek originally has something to do with medical evacuation routes.
Specialisation and organisation
We meet the medical staff from the hospitals in a space filled with hospital beds. Specialisation of care increases throughout the war. But everyone remained faced with the same dilemma: casualties are treated to be sent back to possible new danger as quickly as possible. How did those involved react to this?
The Stretchers, the trace on the canvas
You often see the stretchers standing upright next to the entrance of an aid station. They usually are stretched open, ready for immediate use. Here and there you can still see imprints of the burdens they carried to this day. The suffering of war has marked the canvas. This installation of stretchers symbolises the endless suffering of war.
Plastic surgery, blood transfusion, rehabilitation, surgery....
Confrontation with new war wounds caused by modern weapons of mass destruction forced the medical science to find both creative and efficient solutions. Top scientists and surgeons endeavoured to contribute. Medical care would ultimately develop considerably during WWI through this growing professionalism and support by the many volunteers.
The last war year
It is only at the end of the war that medical organisation was more or less sufficient. Each link knew what was expected from him/her in the strictly mapped-out evacuation routes. On the British side each division now had a large contingent of medical staff compared with ’14, a highly increased number of transport means, an administration ... Various medical units were also at the ready behind the units, for evacuation and first aid in the front zones.
Besides, medical care had significantly developed - and the military organisation had recognised that a soldier can be injured psychologically too.
The big breakthrough for the treatment of physical wounds would not come until 10 years later, with the invention of penicillin …
Commemorations often end with the fatalities of war. This exhibition explicitly - besides the remembrance of the dead - calls attention to the survivors, the millions who were physically or psychologically marked by four years of WWI. And by any war.