Colour Photos of World War One

Collecting Casualties


This photograph and caption appeared in the Daily Mail Weekend magazine in 2007

A fleet of military ambulances picking up wounded men from a ruined French village recently captured from the Germans - probably during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. World War I was the first conflict in history in which deaths from wounds outnumbered deaths by disease - thanks to improved hygiene (the trenches were lice-infested but `resting' soldiers had their uniforms deloused in giant steam laundries), as well as medical advances. Most wounds were caused by shell splinters, followed by bullets; the much-feared poison gas (chlorine, phosgene and mustard) killed only three per cent. All soldiers carried first aid kits, and the seriously wounded were carried from the battlefield by stretcher­bearers (often Quakers who refused to bear arms). Many survived their initial wounds, only to die later from `gas gangrene - post-wound infections. Casualties were treated at field-dressing stations just behind the lines: further back, military hospitals were staffed by women volunteer nurses - or VADS - the nearest women were allowed to the front.

The luckiest casualties were those suffering `a Blighty one' - a survivable wound serious enough to warrant evacuation home by train and hospital ship. World War I was the first war in which combat stress - then called `shell shock' - was recognised as a genuine condition, though some still called it `malingering'.