There were so many dismembered and dying bodies. They waited in rows upon rows for the trains that would take them to the hospital and, if they were lucky and survived, to Blighty, the soldiers nickname for England, home, away from the mass slaughter that was the Western Front in The Great War. But as the casualties kept coming, an endless maw of wounded, there weren't enough staff to pick them up and put them on the already full trains. So they were abandoned, left in excruciating pain until someone remembered them and picked them up.

This is how the wounded went from the Front to home: stretch bearers would go out to the Front and listen for pain and yells. They would pick up the injured soldiers, carry them to an aid post where the regiment's medic would look at them and give them first aid or other medical attention. Most often the bearers would have to administer something on site, so grave were the battle wounds. After the aid post a field ambulance would take them to the tented Casualty Clearing Stations, the CCS, which were medical faculties a little away from the action and which where staffed by doctors and nurses and had the latest equipment. After that the soldiers were taken to field hospital buildings and then the journey back home, to England. Once at Waterloo Station or Victoria, a service called the London Ambulance Column, created for the very problem of abandoned soldiers in train stations, would drive them to an English hospital. The operation did not at all run smoothly. Since there were so many casualties, there were so many who died on the way in any leg of the journey, and there were those who had to wait because the support staff was chronically short.

Emily Mayhew's remarkable Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War 1 tells the stories of the injured soldiers. But it's greatest contribution is telling the moving tales of the bearers, priests, nurses, doctors, and orderlies who took care of them. Instead of dry, analytic history, Mayhew takes individual lives and tells them as harrowing and deeply felt short stories. They are drawn from memoirs and oral history projects in the Imperial War Museum. She writes from their point of views, giving us a visceral sense of lived experience, if lived experience were in Hell.

A typical story: a nurse or chaplain desperately wants to be at the Front to serve. Some think it'll be a good adventure. When they get there, they are quickly disabused of that notion. The first day is the hardest and many do not think they can survive all the wounded and dying men. There are too many. They keep coming. They die. There is no second of rest. Nearby, the shells keep exploding, so often that people don't eventually hear them. It's madness. Some of them break down, but they always resolve to do better, to be of use. When we talk about being useful we cannot know the depth of that word. We mean generally helpful. But imagine life as a constant averting of death of thousands, where you may be the last person a dying man talks to. So the job is to help him in any way you can. Tell him positive lies that he will make it. Sing to him, pray over him, medically treat him, do this over and over and over and over until you have a nervous breakdown, one that the wounded cannot see or else they will suffer much more than they already have. That, my friends, is being useful.

All of these stories are remarkable but two stand out: the chaplain who was beloved by his men, by the name of Charles Doudney, who learned not only how to administer the last rites to a dying man but how to do everything else, including medical treatments. Then there is the story of nurse Sarah MacNaughtan, based in Belgium. She went to the train station to pick up the men to take to her hospital but saw an abandoned field, with no one tending them. So, on her own time, she set up a station in the station, where the trains full of these injured would disembark in a place people looked after them.


If you are the most rabid anti-war person out there, and think little of soldiers, this book will make you tear up for their heroism, and that of the support staff—vital in every way, literal savers of lives, bringing medicine and more importantly a kind face, a cheerful word, some hot food to the shattered men they treated.