First Aid During World War 1: A Fight For Progress

Stretcher bearers during World War I

In honor of the 11th minute of the 11th hour on the 11th day of November 1918, we have a guest post from Time Jones about first aid during WWI.

The Great War of 1914-18 is to this day remembered as a time of great sacrifice. Advances in military equipment resulted in an unprecedented number of deaths and casualties – a loss which still scars Europe to this day. But from this most savage of conflicts, some good was to emerge in the shape of developments in first aid.

The first aid used by medical corps and regular soldiers on both sides of the frontline underwent significant changes over time – changes for the better. From the discovery of fundamental first aid techniques that remain in place to this day, like triage, through to more effective ways of dealing with common injuries, the war lead to first aid innovation.

Of course, that’s in no way to diminish the horror that faced the men on the front. With its filthy waterlogged trenches and treacherous boggy treeless landscapes, the field of conflict in World War 1 presented a truly nightmarish vision. In that hellish landscape, disease prospered which, combined with ineffective methods of treating battle injuries, led to many wounded or sick men needlessly losing their lives in the early part of the war.

But human beings adapt. And so it was with first aid. Life-saving discoveries in first aid were soon being made which over time, reduced the death rate. For example:

  • The Thomas Splint – World War 1 saw the development and introduction of a metal splint frame to which by 1917 to hold broken leg injuries in place. This increased chances of survival to up to 82%.
  • X-Ray – at the start of the war, head or chest injuries caused by bullets or shrapnel were bandaged and left to heal, usually resulting in infection and or/death. With the advent of X-Ray, doctors behind the front lines were able to locate and remove foreign objects successfully.
  • Triage and the Golden Hour – French soldiers recognised the importance of prioritizing patient care on the battlefield, with the more injured getting attention first (triage). They also recognised the importance of early treatment of an injury, with attempts made to get men off the battlefield and treated within the hour.

These were just a few of the innovations that emerged from the conflict. But what of the day-to-day reality of first aid during World War 1? Well, it can broken down quite easily:

Generic ‘Small First Aid Kit’

The so-called ‘Small First Aid Kit’ was the standard issue basic field dressing carried by normal soldiers, carried in a special pocket in their uniform. It was a sealed waterproof pack containing two identical dressings, for use on the entry and exit wound of a rifle shot – to be applied by a comrade-in-arms. If you were lucky enough that is.

‘Medium First Aid Kit’

This was the kit used by stretcher-bearers. These soldiers were tasked with following the fighting men into battle, putting themselves at risk too, then treating and ferrying injured men back through no-man’s land. Their kit contained more types of dressing for bigger or more severe wounds and the stretcher-bearer usually had a little medical training.

‘Top First Aid Kit’

The top of the range first aid kit – if we can call it that – was the one used by the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO). Most RMOs were fully qualified doctors and their kit carried a wide range of dressings, splints, syringes and shots of morphine. Their job was to stabilize the injured and make them ready for transport to treatment.

These first aid measures were tragically to prove futile against the barbed wire, hails of bullets, gas attacks and shelling. But as we’ve pointed out, at least from the terrible challenges, came new first aid that would lead to life-saving medical breakthroughs.

Time Jones runs first aid courses in Edinburgh and Glasgow and is a big history buff. He hopes like-minded people will find this article interesting.

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