Few battles of World War I epitomise the tragedy and futility of the Western Front more than Passchendaele, 1917. In this edited extract from his new book Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth, Paul Ham looks at how the wounded and stretcher bearers of the battle coped.
The battles of August and September posed an unprecedented challenge to the stretcher parties: the sheer concentration of casualties, scattered across a moonscape of mud.
Never before had the bearers encountered so many wounded inside a few square miles. There was about one stretcher case to every three walking-wounded; and for every man killed, three or four were wounded. Eight thousand more stretchers were sent for, and thousands had to be replenished when they broke up, were blown apart or lost. Relay teams were organised to carry men over terrain that was impossible for mule or cart.
The wounded soldier’s journey home often began in a shallow shell crater in no man’s land, into which he had crawled or been blown. His first thoughts were ‘to save himself, if possible, from further harm’, wrote one medical officer. ‘If he is able, he will walk, crawl, or drag himself to the nearest position of comparative safety, and there wait to be picked up by the stretcher-bearers.’
Many had spent the night in severe pain, and the appearance of a stretcher-bearer through the smoke and fire had a near miraculous effect. The bearers breathed hope into the soldiers’ spirits while tending to their mutilated bodies:
‘What [the bearer] can do for the physical hurt is little: a bandage, an improvised splint, and perhaps a tourniquet are his only aids. But what he can do for the mind is incalculable. Even if he does not speak a word, with a pair of strong arms he can raise a man from hell to heaven in half an hour.’
Not in all cases: Private Edward Lynch witnessed a stretcher party trying to carry away a young soldier who’d been buried alive in a collapsed dugout:
‘They lay him on the stretcher and start off. He sits straight up and laughs hysterically; louder and louder he laughs as he is borne away. . . we see the bearers trying to force him down on the stretcher again. . .’
Others seemed to endure the horror of being buried alive, such as the case of a buried soldier who, on being exhumed, smiled, dusted himself down and asked whether the men had saved his cherished Primus stove.
A unique kind of courage accompanied the stretcher-bearers’ deliberate, slow and methodical work. They were not infantrymen charged with adrenalin. No starburst in the hypothalamus drove them to commit these acts of recurrent courage. They simply set off into no man’s land again and again in search of the wounded, whom they bundled up and carried back, in and out of craters, along ridges, within sight of the enemy.
Both sides often broke the unwritten rule not to fire on stretcher-bearers, whose work demonstrated ‘a peculiar and. . . unnatural quality; not the instinctive response of the courageous animal to attack, but an acquired and “conditioned” inhibition of the instinct to flight’.
An astonishing example of this selfless courage was Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, the English medical officer, doctor and former Olympic athlete who helped bring in the wounded during the opening battles of Third Ypres. His bravery earned him the accolade of being the only man in the Great War, and one of three of all time, to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice.
He received the first in October 1916, for treating the wounded all day under heavy fire. The second, or Bar, he received ‘for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ when in action from 31 July to 2 August 1917:
‘Though severely wounded . . . whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Capt. Chavasse refused to leave his post, and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.’
During these searches, hungry, worn with fatigue, and faint from blood loss, Chavasse ‘helped carry in a number of badly wounded men, over heavy and difficult ground’. Chavasse later died of his wounds.
The famous photo, by John Warwick Brooke, of a stretcher party wading knee-deep through slime carrying a wounded man epitomised the experience of thousands of bearers. It was utterly exhausting work.
After a day of this, the bearer would fall to the ground, dripping with sweat, roll over and sleep ‘in his equipment in the adjacent mud’.
Private RL MacKay, temporarily attached to a bearer section, recalled that his party ‘could scarcely move one foot after the other’. He confessed that he would rather join the attack than carry out another body: ‘I hope to goodness it is my last — [I] prefer going over the top.’
The medical officers saw a dark dimension to the generals’ much-touted victories. The ‘great success’ at Polygon Wood, for example, was ‘not without disturbing features’, a medical officer wrote to his division’s deputy director. ‘As the morning wore on our casualties were mounting up, and stretcher-bearer after stretcher-bearer was shot down,’ said Private GL Davidson. The casualties in his unit, about 70, raised the question of who would bear the bearers: ‘If losses are severe during any further offensive it is likely that there will be a grave shortage of stretcher-bearers.’
For the severely wounded, the journey home was gruelling in the extreme. Many died of their wounds on the way (or weeks or months later). The experience of Lieutenant Arthur Edmett, of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, offers a shocking example: fresh back with his battalion after a long convalescence for a severe thigh wound, he joined the attack on the Menin Road on 21 September.
Shot through the abdomen, he ‘lay for 12 hours without shelter or protection in the midst of a terrific barrage with shells bursting all around him’. He survived the journey home, by stretcher, lorry, train and ship, and endured three major operations in French and British hospitals. His heart failed on 16 March 1918, six months after his second wound.
Or consider Private William Harkeness Evans, who, having survived wounds to the head and knee in 1916, found himself back at the front in time for Third Ypres. On 17 August 1917, he fell wounded in 14 places, in his head, arms and legs. Hospitalised for months, he was discharged from the army on 20 December 1918. His body gave up in hospital, on 11 January 1919, a year and a half after his second wounding.
Junior officers’ average life expectancy was six weeks, and shorter during the great offensives of 1917. Consider Lieutenant Norman Collins, a 19-year-old subaltern in the 4th Seaforth Highlanders (51st Division), who survived an officer’s six-week ‘life’ span — on three occasions. He was wounded on the Somme in December 1916, after six weeks’ service; wounded a second time in May 1917, five weeks after returning to France; and wounded a third time in mid-July, at the start of Third Ypres, six weeks after returning to his unit.
In all, Collins spent 17 weeks at the front and 14 months in hospital, giving him ‘a lifetime of pain that no disability pension could compensate for’. Yet he lived to the near miraculous age of 100, and died in 1998, truly the ‘last man standing’ of his unit, as he named his memoir.
To extract these and thousands of others, the bearers formed relay teams, each of which covered a distance of 500–800 yards. They were passed through a succession of aid posts and dressing stations, situated in concrete dugouts or under corrugated iron ‘elephant’ cupolas.
Severe cases were treated in 15 casualty clearing stations, which had expanded by 1917 to a size that ‘staggered all precedent and expectation’, 14 treating lachrymatory gas cases, head injuries, abdominal and severe chest wounds, compound fractures of the thigh and not-yet-diagnosed nervous cases (i.e. ‘shell-shocked’).