Oh for a doctor!

The topic of medicine in the First World War seems to be very popular in 2017, and it just happens to be a theme GWAA is focusing on too, although when a few of us started looking at it, there wasn’t so much happening generally – one of those interesting coincidences.

Something which struck me when reading Gregg Adams’ King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey 1916) was the role of fire and its impact on fighting. He quotes Mzee Ali (Bror McDonnel) in this regard which surprisingly passed me by when I read the book – I was focusing on other themes at the time. What is striking about the role of fire and the description given is that I don’t recall having read about doctors treating burns, or burns being listed on the catalogue of reasons men were evacuated by hospital ship to South Africa between 1916 and 1917 listed in the Appendices to the Pike Report (WO 141/31).

In On Call in Africa (NP Jewell), we read of an ammunition store catching fire but not the bush fires. There is also reference in some sources to Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck using scorched earth policy as a military tactic but this implies controlled fire and the devastating effect of this in terms of famine and starvation is recorded. But, the fires caused by weapons firing and sudden sparks turning into flames is not a feature in memoirs and diaries. Snakes get more of a mention, as do attacks by bees.

Were many lives lost to these fires? If so, ow were they recorded and where? How did doctors deal with them especially when water was scarce? (Jewell mentions sterilizing hands with iodine as there was no water available). What was the impact of the hot African sun on the untreated burn injuries? (Pike notes that sunstroke/burn was not a major issue for the medical services). Why is there little record of burns in the medical records? I’m not sure we’ll get answers to many of these questions, but as noted by Adams, this was a significant difference of fighting in certain parts of Africa compared with the Western Front.

You can see the transcription of the Pike Report and other relevant medical links on the GWAA Medical Archive.