Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I by Emily Mayhew

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: November 3, 2013

The number of soldiers wounded in World War I is, in itself, devastating: over 21 million military wounded, and nearly 10 million killed. On the battlefield, the injuries were shocking, unlike anything those in the medical field had ever witnessed. The bullets hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles in with them. Soldier after soldier came in with the most dreaded kinds of casualty: awful, deep, ragged wounds to their heads, faces and abdomens. And yet the medical personnel faced with these unimaginable injuries adapted with amazing aptitude, thinking and reacting on their feet to save millions of lives. In Wounded, Emily Mayhew tells the history of the Western Front from a new perspective: the medical network that arose seemingly overnight to help sick and injured soldiers. These men and women pulled injured troops from the hellscape of trench, shell crater, and no man's land, transported them to the rear, and treated them for everything from foot rot to poison gas, venereal disease to traumatic amputation from exploding shells. Drawing on hundreds of letters and diary entries, Mayhew allows readers to peer over the shoulder of the stretcher bearer who jumped into a trench and tried unsuccessfully to get a tightly packed line of soldiers out of the way, only to find that they were all dead. She takes us into dugouts where rescue teams awoke to dirt thrown on their faces by scores of terrified moles, digging frantically to escape the earth-shaking shellfire. Mayhew moves her account along the route followed by wounded men, from stretcher to aid station, from jolting ambulance to crowded operating tent, from railway station to the ship home, exploring actual cases of casualties who recorded their experiences. Both comprehensive and intimate, this groundbreaking book captures an often neglected aspect of the soldier's world and a transformative moment in military and medical history.

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Emily Mayhew's Wounded is the book I wish Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee's And If I Perish were. I've not actually finished latter, I got sick and tired of reading about women taking time off to court servicemen, but that is neither here nor there. I went into both books hoping to understand the conditions faced by front line medics and their staff during WWI and WWII and the point I'm trying to make is that only one of the aforementioned titles delivered.

A collection of firsthand accounts, Wounded gives rare insight to the men and women who witnessed the worst of the devastation caused by WWI. Vividly unapologetic in her descriptions, Mayhew doesn't buffer the brutal conditions in which these individuals worked or in any way soften the atrocities they witnessed. Exceedingly well-researched, I truly appreciate this piece for its subject matter, but it was the author's candor that resonated as I made my way through the text. 

A tough read, but one that is well-worth the effort, Wounded is a testament to those who gave and/or risked their lives so others might return from the horrors they faced on the Western Front. A brilliant investigation into an oft forgotten side of a war is increasingly overlooked in favor of larger conflicts. 

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It turned out that it didn’t matter that the surgeons were operating in a wooden hut or a canvas tent in earshot of the guns, or that improvisation was often the order of the day. What mattered was that they were close and undaunted and that lives were saved that would otherwise have been lost.
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1 comment:

Larry Zuckerman said...

Hello. I'm new to your website and intrigued by your interest in WWI, one of my favorite subjects as historian and novelist. "Wounded" sounds like a book I should read.

I've recently reviewed what I consider the finest historical novel about WWI, belonging right up there with Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way," which is saying a lot: Helen Dunmore, "The Lie." (Maybe you've reviewed it too.) In any case, I'd like to call your attention to my new blog, Novelhistorian, and my take on the Dunmore book. (She also wrote at least two superb thrillers about Leningrad; The Siege and The Betrayal.) You may read my review at


Larry Zuckerman