A LITTLE known Scots surgeon has emerged as one of the forgotten heroes of the battle of Waterloo in a harrowing, blood-and-guts account of the bloody conflict.
Former political journalist Colin Brown has uncovered the medical notes of Renfrewshire-born physician Dr John Robert Hume from the archive of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh (RCSE), which provide a remarkable insight into the 1815 victory against Napoleon and its aftermath.
Brown’s new book, The Scum Of The Earth – named after a remark made in anger by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington – features essays on common soldiers.
One chapter, “Guts And Glory” focuses on the work of Dr Hume, who acted as personal physician to the duke and became a lifelong friend.
After the battle, Hume describes Wellington’s response when he told the duke that his chief aide-de-camp, Sir Alexander Gordon, had died.
The doctor recalled: “He brushed them [his tears] suddenly away with his left hand, and said to me in a voice tremulous with emotion, ‘Well, thank God, I don’t know what it is to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.’”
He actually became the duke’s personal physician for the rest of his life, so you could say he was an important figureColin Brown
His papers reveal in grisly detail how surgeons were forced to work in filthy and over-heated conditions, conducting amputation after amputation, with limbs piling up on the floor.
At one point Hume entered Wellington’s headquarters at a nearby inn, where a fellow surgeon, Sunning, was amputating the arm of Lord FitzRoy Somerset.
Apparently William, Prince of Orange, who was lying wounded in the next room, only realised the operation had been performed when the arm was thrown on to a pile of limbs outside and Lord FitzRoy called out: “Hey, bring my arm back. There’s a ring my wife gave me on the finger.”
Brown said: “Surgeons like Dr Hume really are the outstanding forgotten heroes of the battle. I am just a journalist, so I was looking at things that historians perhaps weren’t. I wanted to build a picture of what happened around the battle and afterwards, not just the fighting itself. Hume’s account did make me wince when I read it. He relates in exciting detail all of the things he was dealing with, even describing himself sawing away at an arm.”
Only fragmentary details exist of Hume’s life. He was born in 1781 and studied medicine in Glasgow and Edinburgh until 1797, when he joined the army’s medical service, according to papers from the RCSE.
“He actually became the duke’s personal physician for the rest of his life, so you could say he was an important figure.” The doctor even loaded the pistol for the Duke of Wellington in a duel, said Brown.
Scots hero Ensign Charles Ewart also features in the book. He rose to prominence after capturing a regimental eagle, used as a standard, from the enemy forces.
The Scum Of The Earth is published by The History Press