Arms, eyes and masks: Ten chilling exhibits from the Science Museum's World War One Wounded exhibition

By Culture24 Reporter | 29 June 2016

Ten million combatants were killed during World War One. Double that number were wounded, with millions left disabled, disfigured or traumatised. Victims and the people who cared for them had to be innovative


British soldiers wearing gas masks

A photo of World War One soldiers wearing gas masks from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1917© Kodak Collection, National Media Museum, SSPL
In 1915, the first masks were little more than cotton wads soaked in chemicals. Two years later, frontline soldiers were being supplied with the box respirators on show here.

Gas warfare on the Western Front evolved into a chemical arms race. Each side developed new poisons and new levels of protection.


Stretcher-bearers behind the British front line

A photo of World War One soldiers wearing gas masks from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1917© Science Museum, SSPL
These stretcher-bearers were struggling through the mud behind the British front line near Boesinghe, Belgium. The battlefields and trench systems of the Western Front were not exactly conducive to the rapid movement of wounded men.

These teams were often overlooked during a battle. Many of them suffered further torturous delays as their stretchers struggled in the conditions.


British artificial eyes

A photo of a box containing eyeballs from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1920s© Science Museum, SSPL
Artificial eyes were hotly demanded by those whose wounds involved sight loss. Unfortunately, glass eyes became in short supply during the war as their production had traditionally depended on Germany.

All existing stock in Britain was put under the control of the Army Spectacle Depot. Between December 1916 and August 1919, it supplied more than 22,000 eyes to medical centres across the country.


Artificial arms by the Carne Artificial Limb Co

A photo of a pair of mechanical hands from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1915© Science Museum, SSPL
More than 10,000 British servicemen lost at least one of their arms during the First World War and all were entitled to a good-quality replacement.

These arms were made to measure in the USA by the company, then shipped back across the wartime Atlantic.

They were technologically sophisticated and highly coveted. They became known as ‘the officer’s arm’, as only officers – able to top up a set allowance – could generally afford them, creating a situation that led to much ill feeling.

In practice, wearers found the Carne arm heavy and difficult to master, and many soon ended up in the backs of cupboards – never to be worn again.


Leg amputees practise with crutches

A photo of World War One soldiers from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1916© Science Museum, SSPL
These guys are standing in the grounds of one of the many temporary hospitals set up in Britain to cope with returning casualties.

Powerful weaponry and the dangers from infection ensured that many thousands of British soldiers lost legs during the First World War. The numbers were so great that existing systems of artificial limb provision struggled to cope with demands.


John Scott Haldane's oxygen therapy apparatus

A photo of a world war one instrument from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1916-18© Science Museum, SSPL
From the spring of 1915, poison gas appeared on the Western Front. British medical services were taken by surprise, and because there was little knowledge of how to protect against it, casualties were high and treatment basic.

Deadly gases could take hours to kill as damaged lungs struggled to take in air. In time, it was found that the most effective treatment for such casualties was to artificially increase the oxygen concentration of the blood.

This life-saving apparatus was invented by Haldane, a scientist. Attached to oxygen cylinders, it was designed to save up to four people at a time.


‘Splatter’ mask

A photo of a World War One gas mask from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1917-18© Science Museum, SSPL
Soldiers dreaded serious facial wounds, and this so-called ‘splatter’ mask was specially designed to protect the vulnerable faces of British tank crews.

Tank numbers increased dramatically from 1916 as armies attempted to break the stalemate of the trenches. Although tanks were encased in thick armour plate, the impact from high explosives could cause a deadly spray of ricocheting hot metal fragments within the vehicles.


Bottle of a British nerve tonic called Ner-Vigor, made by the Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd

A photo of World War One pharmaceuticals from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1915-1925© Science Museum, SSPL
Mental health wounding was clearly becoming an enormous issue. Existing over the counter medicines, claiming to heal shattered nerves, found a new market among war veterans.

There was little clinical evidence of efficacy. But these nerve tonics, sedatives and supplements were often the last recourse of desperate men.


British field surgical pannier

A photo of World War One medical kit from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1914-16© Science Museum, SSPL
Looking a bit like a wickerwork picnic basket, surgical panniers such as this one were supplied to various British medical units near to the front lines.

They contained an extensive array of surgical instruments and equipment for wound care, anaesthetising and sterilising.

The ‘1905 pattern’ label indicates that the contents were based on the experiences of earlier wars. As the scale and severity of wounding on the Western Front became clear, these contents were modified.


A stretcher specially designed for narrow trenches

A photo of a World War One stretcher from an exhibition at London's Science Museum
1916© Science Museum, SSPL
A British surgeon, George Herbert Colt, proposed one solution to moving wounded men through the twists and turns of narrow, muddy trenches with this bendable stretcher.

The wounded soldier would lie semi-upright in the canvas sling suspended underneath, carrried on the bearers’ shoulders.


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three more World War One exhibitions to see

, People's History Museum, Manchester
This exhibition attempts to shed some light on the untold and unfamiliar facts and the stories of colonised people of the time – an integral and important part of hidden history. Until July 17 2016.

, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery
The museum has installed an outdoor replica First World War trench system next to the venue in the city centre. It marks the centenary of the outbreak of the war in 1914 and offers an atmospheric, thought-provoking understanding of some of the conditions experienced by soldiers on the front line. Until November 11 2018.

, Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
Exploring the contribution of the Firth of Forth to the war at sea through paintings and models of the fleet and memorabilia from the Battle of Jutland where men from the Forth area served and died. The exhibition also features a display curated by National Historic Ships UK on the role of small ships in the First World War.
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