AUGUST 20, 2014
THE NUMBERS continue to astound. Of the more than 47 million men mobilized by the five great powers in 1914 (Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom), about 18.5 million would be injured in battle. If we include the shocking number of those who died before the war’s end as a result of wounds sustained in battle — perhaps 10 million from these same states — then it would be easy to agree with Emily Mayhew that being wounded was one of the most shared experiences of combatants.[i] Given her assertion that wounding was the common denominator of the war, it is astonishing that it has taken this long for the story of the wounded and, more importantly, the variety of actors who came into contact with them during this conflict to gain the full attention of scholars. Mayhew’s Wounded is thus, as advertised in its original subtitle (A New History of the Western Front in World War I; changed for the paperback to The Long Journey Home From the Great War), a “new” history of that most evocative battle zone of the First World War: the Western Front.
To some extent, of course, all wars are about injured bodies. What may be more familiar to most students of the First World War are the enormous death tolls that resulted from the waging of this modern war, the last major conflict in which the numbers of combatant dead would overwhelm those of civilians. From that point forward, the proportion would be reversed. By intermingling voices from the documents that are our lifeline into the past with depictions of more speculative encounters with injured bodies, Mayhew helps put the most recognizable stories of the war alongside those of the unfamiliar and unknown.
In part, Mayhew achieves her aim because although she starts with the stark sense of injury and death, the numbers that almost circumvent analysis, she quickly leaves the aggregate behind to focus on the deeply personal. She uses the accounts of 32 carefully selected individuals to illustrate what the damages inflicted by this war meant to both those who experienced them and those who witnessed and treated them. Mostly, this book foregrounds the wounded by focusing almost exclusively on those who sought to help them, such as nurses, doctors, stretcher-bearers, and orderlies. Mayhew also includes chaplains and noncombatant volunteers, and tries to give space to all those who aided the wounded on their journeys from the trenches of northern France and Belgium to the casualty clearing stations to the ambulance trains to the vital care centers at railway terminuses.
Aside from four chapters that each succinctly trace the story of one wounded individual in 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918, the rest of the book is organized into group case studies of individuals who shared a common task or worked in a common location such as an ambulance train, the Furnes Railway Station, or the London Ambulance Column. The book carefully traces what wartime encounters with maimed bodies did to these men and women, and Mayhew’s brief epilogue traces the postwar history (when available) of those who survived.
Mayhew has benefited enormously from the skillful selection of her rich eyewitness voices. Paraphrasing, rather than quoting directly, Mayhew lets us feel the anguish of Nurse Elizabeth Boon as she wrote letters to the bereaved, recounting the last moments of their dying sons, but not reporting to the families that she always carried a comb in her pocket as many “were so weak they couldn’t brush the hair out of their eyes” in wards where “dying men slept silently, with no raving or weeping, their shallow breaths occasionally catching before resuming.” Mayhew takes us through the weekly ordeal of Chaplain Cyril Horsley-Smith, who, upon burying the dead, “carefully recorded each man’s name, dates and the location of his grave for the bereaved families and the authorities. […] There was no joy or fulfillment, just dread and fear and the cold touch of death on his hand, night after night.” Mayhew’s prose alternates between the prosaic and the lyrical, but the overall impact is of a historian doing her utmost to pay homage to her subjects.
Its tight focus is one of the strengths, and one of the limitations, of Wounded. As advertised, it is very much about the celebrated war of the Western Front, about the stories of participants from the British Isles who were articulate enough to have left a record of their experiences. Despite the recent attention of scholars to the colonial dimensions of this war — including those of imperial subjects fighting in Europe — and to the other theaters of this war, the world that Mayhew reveals is hauntingly familiar to those who have read any of the heralded literary accounts of this war from a British perspective, especially the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In part this is due to the canonization of their works and the absence of equivalently celebrated accounts by colonial or even commonwealth soldier-authors that captured the postwar or indeed wartime imagination.[ii] Mayhew’s subjects show us rats, mud, rotting bodies, gaping shell holes, barbed wire, and the ever-present stench of death, reinforcing rather than challenging the iconography of this war’s most famous battle zone.
Further, Mayhew is less concerned about what happened to the injured once they made it beyond the purview of their institutional caregivers. Thus a reader may wonder about the thousands and thousands of family members (mainly women) who had to cope with, and minister to, the men in their lives who had been greatly, at times permanently, altered by their wounds. Mayhew provides evidence of, but says little about, how integral those on the so-called home front were to the ability to sustain the war effort, including tending to the wounded. The men and the few women in Mayhew’s story often poured their hearts out to their (mainly) female relations at home, but their relationships to these people on the home front do not receive sustained attention. Her book allows us to witness afresh the heartbreak that accompanied the damaging of young lives and the toll such losses took on those who treated, comforted, carried, stitched, wiped, bandaged, and buried them. But although the book follows trends in recent scholarship that seek to connect the war at home with the war of the battle lines, Mayhew’s approach to her subject falls just short of its potential to reveal fully the ways in which the wounded body intimately connected the lives of civilians and warriors, of women and men.
Moreover, readers seeking to learn fully the larger context for why wounded men suffered, what motivated them to participate in this conflict, or even what pressures were put upon them culturally or politically will need to look elsewhere. As Mayhew acknowledges in her introduction, her book is more akin to a novel filled with impressions and gripping details that may lead the curious to other versions of this war that elaborate on why it happened and what it meant. It will be a long time, however, before a careful reader of this book will forget details like the lavender sachets that arrived from Norfolk, which nurses used to mask the smell of rot and gangrene in the wards, or that one could tell a stretcher-bearer by his hands, “a mix of blisters and calluses, first rubbed raw and then scar-cracked and worn.”
During the centenary, there will be many books, conferences, and public lectures on who started the war and who won it, on which side had more inept or more skilled military and political leaders, and on whether we owe all the woes of the 20th century to this conflict or just a specific few. What Emily Mayhew has given us at the start of this four-year process is a humane and intimate look at the toll those grand political and military schemes took on the men and women who felt and tended the mangled bodies of the millions of wounded.
[i] Figures here are drawn from Table 6.1, Aggregate Military Casualties and Civilian Deaths of the Belligerents 1914-18, in The World War I Databook, eds. John Ellis and Michael Cox (London, 2001), 269-270. All such numbers are estimates, approximate and still in dispute. The dead are usually listed as “dead and/or missing,” and determining the exact cause of death — injuries alone or injuries compounded by disease or disease itself — is also not available in every instance. Nonetheless, the sheer scale is undeniable.
[ii] As works by Richard Fogarty, Joe Lunn, David Omissi, Richard Smith, and Tyler Stovall have demonstrated, the participation of colonial troops raised crucial questions about masculinity, about racial hierarchies, and about the contrast between imagined ideas of ideal soldiers and idealized landscapes and the varied conditions of battle zones and the conduct of the war. Furthermore, what we know of their experiences in their own words comes mainly from letters and oral histories rather than novels or poems that dominate the cultural memory of this war.