Sometimes Living Was Worse Than Dying for Soldiers Who Survived the Front Lines


A compassionate World War 1 nurse, Winifred Kenyon, did all she could for the many wounded soldiers she treated every day. For some, all she could do was pin a small satchel of lavender to the pillows of the severely wounded and near dead. She later recalled that the sweet fragrance seemed to calm the men, as the smell reminded them of a better time. A time when they were home with their loved ones. A time where they weren’t in the midst of a war zone.

It also hid the rank odor the gangrene caused emanating from their infected bodies.

Nurses like Kenyon who dealt with the wounded and dying also kept a hefty supply of handkerchiefs. These were for the men who awake to missing limbs due to amputation. These men were broken and distraught. Often times the grown men wept in the nurses arms while being comforted as best as could be by the compassionate nurses who cared for them.

It was a terrible time between 1914 and 1918 for the wounded. Often times these men were just an oversight and their plight was forgotten.

Nearly a million British soldiers were memorialized with cenotaphs.

Of the million who died, twice as many were wounded during battle. Often times these men were wounded while still in the trenches or making advancements into enemy territories. The men who survived only survived by a slight chance. Many of the men sustained life altering injuries due to the more advanced weaponry of the early 1900s.

Powerful rifles and machine guns used bullets that had a point so that they would move quickly, hit hard, and ran deep into the target, bringing with it dirt and other bacteria that can easily cause infection.

Shrapnel fragments from shells would create a jagged wound that caused massive bleeding that could not be stopped. If the victim didn’t die from the impact, surely they would bleed out. If they were to survive the ordeal entirely, the wound would be a free for all environment for bacterial infections and sepsis.

One sight an Army medic could never forget was when he lifted the tunic of one patient. Uncertain how the young man was still alive, the medic was able to peer straight through the young man’s chest. The wound was caused by flying shrapnel.

A centenary of the 1914-18 war approached the next year, Emily Mayhew focused on the heroic, yet futile, efforts to keep the severely wounded alive.

Stretcher bearers where an under-appreciated group who picked up the pieces (sometimes literally) after a battle took place. One of these men wrote: ‘it was one thing to do gallant deeds ‘with arms in hand and when the blood is up’, but courage of a different order ‘to walk quietly into a hail of lead to bandage and carry away a wounded man’.

The men who carried the stretchers could always be easily identified by their severely calloused hands or the deep wheals on their backs from shoulder straps as they trudged through the mud and chaos, still carrying their loads.

After an attack, these men would crawl in the dark from shell hole to shell hole into a vast open field, searching for the wounded. They often times had to hurry back to safety to avoid a snipers bullet–all while carrying the wounded or dead on their backs.

Them, they would repeat this trip many times through the night. ‘We are always under fire and can’t dump our stretcher and run for a safe spot,’ one wrote in his diary. ‘We have to plod on.’

It was believed that these carriers of the wounded and dead learned more about death than those on the battlefields fighting. They had to learn quickly who was alive and who was dead, how to turn from those who were dying with no chance of survival so that they could help the men with a better chance of survival.

They had to learn how to watch a man die, how to offer compassion with a last cigarette or a few tablets of morphine. The hardest part of the job was carrying back a wounded man, only for him to be dead on arrival; or  when a surgeon decided a wounded man was a hopeless case and was left to die in the “moribund” ward.

These men had learned not to mind this aspect, nor having to remove the dead bodies from stretchers that were needed by the living.

Those who were able to survive thus far, the next stop was the hands of doctors and nurses who worked in the field hospitals behind the front lines. That is, if they could survive the journey to the hospital. The threat of being killed during transit by a German attack or the being in agony due to the rough ambulance journey made the trip that much more harrowing and painful.

Even if they survived journey, the hospital was not like the sturdy and clean buildings from home. These field hospitals were squalled tents or requisitioned buildings that were often times over stretched. The rows of stretcher carriers slowly made their ways to the makeshift operating rooms and in those rooms, there was barely enough time to administer an anesthetic. During the most horrific of military pushes, these tents would seem to come straight from a slaughter house. the blood soaked surgeons used saws to cut through bones, hurriedly stitched arteries, cut back damaged flesh, and repaired broken abdomens and faces… All at incredible speeds.

Severed limbs began collecting in piles for disposal. The surgical instruments wore out so quickly, cutlers had to be on a constant stand by so that they could be readily available to sharpen them. A surgeon who had arrived at Ypres in the beginning never made it out of his scrubs for an entire fortnight.

John Hayward was an experienced doctor. He was shocked the first time he handled casualties who came in from the battlefield. Despite the dire situation and the insurmountable pain the wounded were in, the calmness and near silence was what truly struck Hayward. What truly bothered the doctor was having to chose who to save and who to let die. There were only three doctors working and there were one hundred patients waiting; it was inevitable that some would not survive.

When the doctor was finally able to catch some rest, he woke and decided to go for a walk to clear his mind. When he looked about, he saw hundreds of men covered in white dust, one following the other, all headed toward the medical camp. This was the first time they had ever encountered gas weaponry. Hayward set to work through another long night, cleaning, washing, bandaging, mopping up the effects of this new so-called ‘breakthrough in modern weaponry’.

And all the while he could hear more ambulances arriving.

The patients were packed to the roof on bunks and tiers of stretchers when a train finally arrived. When there was no more room to lay, the wounded were forced to lean against aisles. If the train had to stop suddenly, broken and battered soldiers went flying in every direction.  More often than not, ambulances that carried the wounded were way-laid to make room for military traffic who took precedence.  The nurses on board did their best in impossible conditions, but men like Lt John Glubb, half his face shot away, lay in the same suppurating bandages for days until he reached a ferry port for England.

It seems miraculous that anyone who took a bullet or a piece of shrapnel at the Front in those drawn-out years of fighting made it home to tell the tale. There were so many ways for the wounded to die: shock, blood loss, sepsis. Gangrene was a huge killer in those pre-penicillin days.

Private Joseph Pickard was just one example of those who wouldn’t give in. On Easter Sunday 1918, his front-line trench took a direct hit. When he regained consciousness, he was surrounded by the corpses of his platoon. He alone had survived, but he was badly wounded by shrapnel, drenched in his own blood and in great pain.  There was a large hole where his nose had been, and another in his stomach. He tried to stand but his shattered leg gave way and he fell back into the mud. On hands and knees, he crawled back towards safety.

Three fellow Tommies he knew ran to help him, and he could tell by the look of horror on their faces how bad his injuries were. They thought him a goner for sure. At a dressing station, he overheard a hard-pressed doctor list his injuries: broken sciatic nerve in his back, smashed pelvis, ruptured bladder. He was placed with the other hopeless cases to die. Through his fogged brain, he heard the chaplain administer the last rites and felt the doctor pull a blanket over his face. Friends who came looking for him were told he was beyond help and hope. They were detailed to dig his grave. He was officially dead. But the teenage Pickard – he was just 17 – refused to die, and that night a nurse noticed the blanket over his face rise and fall as he struggled for breath.

She cleaned and dressed his wounds and gave him water to suck through a straw — his first drink since he’d been hit, and always remembered by him as the sweetest medicine he ever tasted. The journey he now embarked on back to Blighty was hell every inch of the way. As he was carried from aid post to cart, and from cart to ambulance train, each jolt sent flashes of pain down his leg, up his spine and through his stomach. In a top bunk on the train, his perforated bladder failed him over and over again, and he sobbed from the humiliation as well as the pain.

A nurse perched on a ladder and held his hand, but every jerk of the train was agony. He was only semi-conscious when he was taken off the train. He passed out completely on board the hospital ship and lay for an hour on a platform at London’s Victoria Station before being taken to hospital. For hundreds of thousands of wounded men like Joseph Pickard, the war never really ended. He spent four years in hospital and was in pain for the rest of his life. He also had to endure people staring at his broken face.

One day, a child asked him what had happened to his nose. He had lost it in France, he said, and there wasn’t any point in going back and trying to look for it. His sense of humour was astonishingly intact.

He died in poverty in 1988 — ‘One more life given to the war, now finally at peace’ as Mayhew puts it in her moving book.



Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE