Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict at Imperial War Museum North

By Richard Moss | 16 October 2012
a black and white photo of a First World War army padre with a wounded soldier on a stretcher
A padre gives a drink to a badly wounded soldier near Potijze (September 1917)© IWM
Exhibition Preview: Saving Lives - Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict, Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, until September 1 2013

“Even though I didn’t feel any pain I knew something violent had just happened. I looked across and this finger was hanging off, so I kind of kept hold of that. I thought I’m not losing that as well, keep that.”

The words of triple amputee Corporal Andy Reid of the 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, vividly describe the moments after he became the victim of an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2009, and they go some way in bringing home the extreme violence and remote surrealism of the battlefield. 

Afghanistan continues to highlight the terrible price war inflicts on soldiers and civilians, so it is perhaps apt that visitors to Imperial War Museum’s first ever in-depth examination of medicine on the front line are greeted by the sound of Chinook helicopter rotor blades.

The dramatic life-size recreation of the rear of the British Army airborne workhorse, which is widely used to evacuate casualties from the front line in Afghanistan, makes for a dramatic beginning to a story that travels from the mud of Flanders in 1917 to the dust of Afghanistan in 2012.

A series of impressive objects accompany this journey, and they are typically evocative; they range from the X-Ray of a soldier who literally came back to life during World War One to the medical case of VC and bar winner Noel Chavasse, whose courageous exploits – and death – brought home the bravery of the combat medic during the First World War.

The case notes of Siegfried Sassoon give an insight into the psychological effects of war and dramatic footage, audio and specially commissioned filmed interviews with medics and casualties, such as Corporal Reid and the volunteer territorial medics of 207 (Manchester) Field Hospital, deliver powerful insights into what it must be like to be wounded and to try to save lives in war.

The story of how war and conflict has contributed to some of the most important medical developments of the past 100 years also reveal how, in the words of IWM North’s Director Graham Boxer, “war and medicine are contradictory. One damages and ends people’s lives; the other seeks to find ways to save lives.”

Also on display, and forming a huge centrepiece of the exhibition, is a war ravaged Land Rover ambulance used by British forces in Iraq in 2007. Badly damaged by mortar fire at Basra airbase, the vehicle graphically demonstrates how medics often have to work in the most hazardous of settings.

The world of the frontline combat medic is, for most people, a thankfully distant place. But this exhibition brings this uninviting realm of life and death that little bit closer.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed December 24-26). Admission free. Follow the Imperial War Museums on Twitter @I_W_M.

More pictures:

a black and white photo of an Australian soldier carrying a comrade across his shoulders
An Australian carrying his wounded mate down to the beach for treatment at Gallipoli (1915)© IWM
a black and white photo of a stadning line of soldiers, some with dressings across their eyes, holding the shoulder of the soldier in front
British troops blinded by tear gas wait outside an Advance Dressing Station near Bethune© IWM
a black and white photo of a British soldier with a bandaged head cheerfully holding aloft his steel helmet which has a large shrapnel hole through it
A wounded British soldier holding his steel helmet, which has been pierced by a piece of shrapnel, during the advance on the Somme Front near Hamel (December 1916)© IWM
a photo of two US Army medics attending a wounded soldier on a beach
Two US Medical Corps men administer blood plasma to a wounded American soldier at a first aid station on a Normandy beach© IWM
a colour photo of stretcher bearers transferring a casualty from a helicopter to a field ambulance
A casualty is transferred from a Chinook helicopter to a waiting field ambulance in Afghanistan© IWM
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