Emily Mayhew’s ‘Wounded’


Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 tackles the story of First World War battlefield medicine in an ingenious and effective way. Instead of giving top-down history – describing the development and structure of official military and medical organisations – it tracks the likely progression of a wounded man from the mud of Flanders to a London Hospital, giving an idea of the very various men and women who would help him on his journey, and who would do their best to preserve his life.
Successive chapters deal with stretcher-bearers, regimental medical officers, surgeons, nurses, orderlies, chaplains, those who served on the Ambulance trains that crawled though France, and the volunteers who helped with the London Ambulance Column that took wounded men from the railway to hospital. Interspersed with these chapters are accounts of individual wounded soldiers. We are left in no doubt about the terrible results of high-velocity bullets and jagged fragments of shrapnel, or about the difficulty of treating the wounded under adverse conditions.
Emily Mayhew has done her research thoroughly, and the book makes effective use of the Imperial War Museum archive, as well as memoirs by participants in the War. She is at her best when describing the physicality of military medicine: In her reminder, for example, that stretcher-bearers’ hands were ‘a mix of blisters and calluses, first rubbed raw and then scar-cracked and worn’, or in her depiction of the exhaustion of an Ambulance volunteer, doing this demanding work after finishing her day job.
The story she has to tell is of men and women coping with unprecedented situations, improvising a response to a medical emergency greater than any had imagined. It is a story well worth telling, and she tells it in a style as immediate and readable as a novel.
Occasionally this novelistic immediacy worries me. Emily Mayhew often takes on the privileges of a novel’s omniscient narrator, and has a habit of telling us, very definitely, what people were thinking:

Young thought he had never seen anything worse [….] But Young kept steady, reassuring the wounded men they’d all son be in a nice warm hospital bed or back in Blighty, not to worry. But all the while he knew that many of them would end up on the amputation table or in the moribund ward.

What she typically does is to take a first-person account, from a letter, or a memoir written some time after the War, and turn it into dramatic (and effective) free indirect discourse. The effect of this is to make the writing immediate, but it can disguise from the reader that what she is telling us comes from a document that may or may not be the complete truth and may or may not have been written for a particular purpose. Perhaps I’m being picky, but several years of looking at WW1 documents of various kinds has made me wary. Can one ever be quite certain that a document is telling the exact truth about someone’s thoughts at a particular time? Letters are written for a particular audience and with a particular intention; they may be less than the complete truth; they may be trying to impress, to console or to shock. Memoirs written later may be subject to the fallibility of memory, and the memories described may have been subtly altered by later understandings of the events described.
Rather often, Emily Mayhew seems to be taking her sources at their own valuation. Probably this does not matter in most cases, but I was particularly uncertain in the chapter on chaplains. She presents half a dozen accounts of exemplary chaplains: dedicated, heroic, useful, humble, loved by all. One does not need to read far into the literature of the Great War to discover that many chaplains were not seen as fitting this template (a nickname for the chaplain in some quarters, apparently, was ‘the unnecessary evil). Wartime and postwar accounts of chaplains often have an axe to grind, sometimes a denominational one, and I think that in this chapter some scepticism about sources might have been useful. In the description of John Lane Fox, for example, Emily Mayhew takes material from Patrick MacGill’s The Great Push, without revealing that this is a novel, or that it had originated as a serial in the Daily Mail. (And she refers to Patrick MacGill as Pat, for some reason.)
So, to sum up, this is a very readable and informative account of how casualties on the Western Front were treated by the medical personnel. I learned a lot from it, and so will most people. Parts of it may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, though.

The American edition has a different, and potentially misleading, subtitle.




  1. janevsw
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    George – may I ask a favour? Can you check whether any Royal Naval Division surgeons are mentioned? Particularly interested in E.L. Atkinson and/or G.Murray Levick.

    Many thanks,


    • Posted October 15, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      No, neither of these is mentioned. Emily Mayhew does not give a general survey, but closes in on a few examples for each type of medical personnel.

      • janevsw
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for taking the trouble to look, and forgive me for asking on the off-chance.

  2. Posted October 15, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    “The effect of this is to make the writing immediate, but it can disguise from the reader that what she is telling us comes from a document that may or may not be the complete truth and may or may not have been written for a particular purpose.”

    I know what you mean, but on the other hand, more than a few sentences of “perhaps he may have thought …” or “it’s possible that at this point …” quickly deaden the immediacy of the prose. Historians are occupationally averse to saying anything without hedging it with qualifications and caveats, but readers (and editors) don’t have a lot of patience for this sort of thing, which makes some kind of compromise between accuracy and literary technique inevitable if you want to produce a popular, readable book.

    • Posted October 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      This is true – and perhaps the solution is direct quotation from the document, making it clear that the account of feelings was in a letter to the man’s wife, or in a memoir written fifty years later. Lyn Macdonald manages this sort of thing well. In her introduction, Emily Mayhew says that her book will be different from fictional accounts like Regeneration and War Horse – but her use of novelistic techniques (especially the omniscient narrator who can see into people’s heads) means that she sometimes crosses the line between factual accuracy and fictional reconstruction.

  3. Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious as to whether the book intervenes in any way with the ‘lions and donkeys’ question. I’m much more familiar with British military medicine in the Second World War than in the First, and the story there is one of quiet efficiency, with the RAMC emerging as exemplary of Army organization done well. Does Mayhew’s book depict the medical authorities in the earlier world war as equally successful?

    • Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      The book doesn’t take an explicit line on this, presenting battles as challenges to the medical staff rather than as successful or failed military actions.
      Since the focus of the book is on the most serious casualties of war, however, it certainly lends itself to the arguments of those who consider the War futile.
      Mostly, Emily Mayhew presents her medics as heroic individuals, struggling to save lives in a hostile environment, and often having to improvise responses to life-threatening problems. There is little on the military framework in which they operated, and little on the organisation and staff-work required to keep them supplied. The emphasis is always on the contribution of the individual, not the organisation.
      Often I wished for more about the relationship between these medics and the Army. For example, there is a good section about the work of a member of the Friends Ambulance Unit and his work on an Ambulance train. It would have been even better had the reader been given some context about the distrust with which military authorities viewed the FAU. They were on the trains because, after the early years of the War, the authorities preferred to keep them away from the front.

  4. Posted October 17, 2013 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    I look forward to reading Emily’s book.

    I,too,am an historian, and after several unsuccessful experiments with voice and tense,settled for first person present tense. It took me five years to stop thinking like a historian and allow my imagination full rein. It confers the gift of immediacy and allows an author to access the interior experience of a protagonist but there are limits to

  5. Posted October 17, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    In a curious coincidence, I’m a historian who earlier this year e-published a book entitled: Wounded: a Great War novel (and my daughter’s name is Emily).

    It’s based on my father’s experience as a soldier in the the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in France and Belgium 1917-18.

    I can relate to the difficulties a historian faces identifying the right voice and register in treating factual detail plausibly but engagingly in a fiction. It took me five years to stop thinking like a historian and develop sufficient confidence to permit my imagination free rein in first person,present tense, thereby gaining an immediacy and spontaneity in the narration and access to the protagonist’s interior world.

    I look forward to reading Emily’s new book and wish her well with it.

    Gary Lewis

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