THE role of Scots nurses and doctors in one of the First World War’s largest British battles will be the focus of a major project to use innovations of wartime healthcare to shape the future of the Scottish NHS.
How medics helped patients to navigate the perilous journey from the blood-steeped fields of France to Lothian hospitals will be discussed in a lecture by Edinburgh historian Yvonne McEwen ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos on Friday – the largest British battle on the Western Front.
It is estimated that 30,000 Scots soldiers were involved in the devastating battle, and of the 21,000 British soldiers killed at Loos, more than 7,000 were Scottish.
The conflict was the first time the British Army had used poisonous gas as a weapon, but the chlorine gas blew back towards the attackers and the tide of the battle turned leaving many casualties in its wake.
McEwen, director of Scotland’s War Project, said: “I am going to be discussing the process of casualty care from the Western Front. The whole chain from stretcher bearer to casualty clearing station, from clearing station to the ambulance trains, from trains to field hospitals, to hospital ships transporting the casualties back home.
“The battle created an enormous challenge for the medical services and the transport services to remove them. There was pioneering work being carried out in the clearing stations to try to save lives.”
Using sources including diaries from the most humble stretcher-bearer to senior doctors, McEwen has pieced together a picture of the medical innovations that were made in the course of the war.
She said: “So many of the things that are important today originated during the First World War.
“Of course the Greeks looked at some of the origins of surgery thousands of years ago but much of what we know about orthopaedics, for example, came from surgeons working on men losing their legs to gangrene.
“These innovations were not just on the Western Front but at home as well.
“Medicine owes a lot to the First World War. From so much killing, there have also been big benefits due to the kind of work surgeons have had to perform on trauma patients.”
When the war began there was no infrastructure for transporting casualties back home, nor the hospitals to cope with sudden influx of wounded men.
Major centres such as the Edinburgh War Hospital – known as Bangour Village Hospital in peacetime – and the Second General Military Hospital, in Craigleith (later to become Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital), could not cope with the demand and so 116 auxiliary hospitals were established during the war years across Scotland.
Thousands of people offered to pay £50 to fund a bed for a year in one of these facilities.
NHS Lothian aims to channel the spirit of medical advances by encouraging staff to explore their wartime history and to come up with new ideas as part of ‘The Researching the Past to Innovate for the Future’ project.
“So many interesting things were done in the First World War, and I thought if we could make a connection between then and now, we could look at some of the challenges we face in a new way,” said Grahame Cumming, innovation champion at NHS Lothian.
He said: “We wanted to highlight what happened during this important period of history, and to learn from it.”
The Lothian Health Service Archive will be exhibiting an array of historical artefacts at the event.
These include autograph books, photos and copies of the Craigleith Chronicle, a newspaper produced at the Second General Military Hospital, Craigleith, which provide a valuable insight into life as a soldier, patient or member of hospital staff during the Great War.
The project will launch on Thursday at 6pm in the Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital.