Daily Archives: 4 July, 2010

Guthrie’s War: A Surgeon of the Peninsula and Waterloo by Michael Crumplin

I’m not the greatest of people with squeamish stuff – graphic descriptions of nasty wounds make me toes curl. I studied ‘medicine through time’ for GCSE History, and even then medical history, although interesting, would make my stomach churn. Yet despite that, I could never deny that Medical History is interesting. Its at an intersection between history and science. And more often than not, most medical advances are inspired by war. And this book is a prime of example of a skilled medic who honed his skills during war time.

George Guthrie is one of the unsung heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Not only was he one of the most forward thinking surgeons of his time, he also kept detailed case records and statistics, which here are edited by Michael Crumplin, himself a retired surgeon.

There are some pretty gruesome cases described here. Its not surprising that terrible wounds shock us, as most Hollywood films show the hero being shot cleanly through the heart, saying ‘tell Jane that I love her’ and then lolloping his head to one side. As Guthrie shows, bullets do not make nice neat holes, neither do swords. As a Historian I would be pretty much lost trying to make sense of some of the more scientific details, so its a smart move for Guthrie’s account to be edited by a doctor.

War gives the surgeon many more opportunities to examine the human anatomy, that in peacetime would only come from dissecting dead bodies. And the opportunity to get to grips with complex trauma wounds led to discoveries and innovations – Guthrie found that when amputating limbs a tourniquet was not always necessary, and that all an assitant needed to do was apply firm pressure on the right arteries. Guthrie also developed an understanding of how to run hospitals with minimising the risk of infection and disease in mind.

We often find that the treatment and suffering of wounded during wars brings about a national outcry – particularly the Crimean War, the First World War and to a lesser extent the current Afghan War and Help for Heroes. The Napoleonic Wars might not have caused a revolution in nursing like the Crimea, nor the forming of charities such as after 1918. But its effects were more subtle – slowly, the authorities began to see the importance of good medical services to warfighting. Much as Wellington won his battles partly through solid logistical organistation, he also made medical services an inherent part of planning, and not just a bolt-on.

Interestingly, it seems that Guthrie came up opposition from his contemporaries, particularly on his policy of only amputating when absolutely necessary. If we believe other contemporary accounts – such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and also accounts of Naval surgery, it would seem that Napoleonic military surgeon’s were knife-happy butchers.

Maybe the historical convention that all Napoleonic-era military surgeons were butchers needs to be re-thought? There also seems to be a convention that the only Napoleonic doctor with any kind of forward-thinking was the Empereur’s personal surgeon, Dr Larrey. Yet this account of Guthrie’s war service suggest that medical science in the British Army was not as barbaric as we might immediately think.

Guthrie’s War is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Army (part 4)

Unlike Navy casualties, most soldiers killed in action where either buried or commemorated very close to where they fell. This allows us to analyse quite closely the battlefields on which young men from Portsmouth fought and died.

Theatres

Firstly lets take a look at the parts of the world in which Portsmouth soldiers died during the Second World War:

168 – N Europe (24.93%)
141 -UK (20.92%)
131 – Mediterranean (19.43%)
105 – Far East (15.58%)
94 – North Africa (13.94%)
17 – Indian Sub-Continent (2.52%)
10 – Rest of Africa (1.48%)
9- Middle East (1.33%)
1 – N America (0.15%)

My first impression is that Army casualties were spread far more evenly around the world than we might imagine. Also, that the second highest proportion of men died in the UK suggest just how many men were in uniform, and died of natural causes, illness or accidents while at home. An extremely large number of men died whilst serving in the Mediterranean (see below for more detail), and also in the Far East and in North Africa. The statistics for the ‘D-Day Dodgers’ and ‘Slim’s Forgotten Army’ in particular suggest both how many Portsmouth men served in both places, and how heavy their casualties were.

There are several other interesting statistics. The British Empire maintained a presence throughout much of Africa throughout the war – including a number of strategically important staging ports. Many army personnel served in India during the war, to guard against civil unrest and also to provide a base for the war in Burma. The campaigns in Syria and Iraq are frequently forgotten, and many British troops also served in Palestine.

Countries

141 – United Kingdom (20.92%)
110 – Italy (16.32%)
103 – France (15.28%)
46 – Tunisia (6.82%)
32 – Egypt (4.75%)
31 – Holland (4.6%)
30 – Singapore (4.45%)
23 – Burma (3.4%)
22 – Germany (3.26%)
17 – Thailand (2.52%)
17 – Hong Kong (2.52%)
16 – Greece (2.37%)
14 – India (2.07%)
9 – Algeria (1.34%)
9 – Japan (1.34%)
8 – Belgium (1.18%)
7 – Libya (1.04%)
6 – Malaysia (0.89%)
4 – Malta (0.59%)
4 – Syria (0.59%)
3 – Indonesia (0.44%)
3 – Israel (0.44%)
3 – Kenya (0.44%)
3 – South Africa (0.44%)
2 – Iraq (0.29%)
2 – Poland (0.29%)
2 – Sri Lanka (0.29%)
1 – Canada (0.15%)
1 – Czech Republic (0.15%)
1 – Ethiopia (0.15%)
1 – Gambia (0.15%)
1 – Nigeria (0.15%)
1 – Norway (0.15%)
1 – Pakistan (0.15%)
1 – Sudan (0.15%)

Again, its noticeable that more men at home in the UK than in any other country. Also, that more Portsmouth men died in Italy than in France is at first glance surprising. But once look at the reasons, it doe make more sense. Fighting took place in France for around a month leading up to Dunkirk, then from June until late August 1944. Whereas the war in Italy began with the invasion of Siciliy in 1942, and ended in May 1945 after a long fought slog up the spine of the country. Also, several Hampshire Regiment Battalions fought in Italy, whereas only one fought in North West Europe, and none in 1940.

Another surprise might be the number of men killed in Tunisia, but this was where the Hampshire’s who later fought in Italy got their first taste of action as part of Sir Kenneth Anderson’s First Army. Tunisia also saw heavy fighting, after Hitler ordered the Afrika Korps to fight to the the last man rather than evacuate.

High casualty rates are noticeable in the Far Eastern Countries. This was no doubt caused by the harsh treatment of Prisoners of War by the Japanese, and the resulting high mortality rates – particularly on the Burma Railway in Thailand, and after the surrenders at Singapore and Hong Kong. By comparison, very few men died whilst prisoners of the Germans – six, as far as I can tell, including one Engineer murdered by the Gestapo in Norway.

Another observation has to be the number of countries in which men were serving – this truly was a global war. This shows not only the several theatres that we often overlook, but also the wider importance of the British Empire and its lines of communications to the war effort.

My final observation, however, has to be the number of men who died not on the battlefield, but at home, or in far-flung outposts. They may not have died in battle, but they were serving their country at the time of their death. In many cases their deaths may have been caused, or at least not helped by war-time factors – malnutrition, accidents, industrial or tropical diseases, possibly? Therefore, they deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two