Amputations in the First World War

Over 1.65 million men in the British Army were wounded during the First World War. Of these, around 240,000 British soldiers suffered total or partial leg or arm amputations as a result of war wounds. Most of these men were fitted with artificial limbs.

Seven British soldiers recovering from amputations
Seven British soldiers recovering from amputations

Primary Sources

(1) Bombardier B. C. Jones, diary entries (December, 1915 - June, 1916)

7th December, 1915: I take over duty at the Batty position. About 2.30 Germans commenced shelling near battery. One shell hit the dugout of our telephone pit. I remembered no more until I woke up in Bethune Casualty Clearing Station No 33, where I have been severely wounded. Left hand blown off, left arm ripped up 12 inches. Scalp wound 6 inches, wound on side of knee (left) 5 inches.

9th December, 1915: Operation on upper arm for gangrene (successful).

12th December, 1915: Removed to St Omer No 10 Casualty Clearing Station by hospital barge.

29th December, 1915: I am sent to England on the hospital ship Dieppe, then by train to Nottingham.

3rd June, 1916: Operated on and re-amputated in Brighton and awaiting Roehampton for artificial limb.

(2) Lesley Smith worked as a VAD at the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton during the early stages of the First World War. Later she was posted to a field hospital on the Western Front.

Day after day we cut down stinking bandages and exposed wounds that destroyed the whole original plan of the body. One man had both buttocks blown off, one arm had been amputated at the elbow, and he had a host of smaller wounds from flying metal. Another lay propped on sphagnum moss to absorb the discharge from two large holes in each thigh.

(3) Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (1929)

It was my business to sort out the wounded as they were brought in from the ambulances and to keep them from dying before they got to the operating rooms: it was my business to sort out the nearly dying from the dying. I was there to sort them out and tell how fast life was ebbing in them. Life was leaking away from all of them; but with some there was no hurry, with others it was a case of minutes. It was my business to create a counter-wave of life, to create the flow against the ebb.

If a man were slipping quickly, being sucked down rapidly, I sent runners to the operating rooms. There were six operating rooms on either side of my hut. Medical students in white coats hurried back and forth along the covered corridors between us. It was my business to know which of the wounded could wait and which could not. I had to decide for myself. There was no one to tell me. If I made any mistakes, some would die on their stretchers on the floor under my eyes who need not have died. I didn't worry. I didn't think. I was too busy, too absorbed in what I was doing. I had to judge from what was written on their tickets and from the way they looked and they way they felt to my hand. My hand could tell of itself one kind of cold from another. My hands could instantly tell the difference between the cold of the harsh bitter night and the stealthy cold of death.

(4) Enid Bagnold, A Diary Without Dates (1917)

It was the first time I had a man sing at his dressing. I was standing at the sterilizer when Rees's song began to mount over the screen that hid him from me.

It was like this: "Ah... ee... oo, Sister!" and again: "Sister... oo... ee... ah!" Then a little scream and his song again.

I heard the Sister's voice: "Now then, Rees, I don't call that much of a song. " She called me to make her bed, and I saw his left ear was full of tears.

Oh visitors, who come into the ward in the calm of the long afternoon, when the beds are neat and clean and the flowers out on the tables and the VAD's sit sewing at splints and sandbags, when the men look like men again and smoke and talk and read... if you could see what lies beneath the dressings!

(5) Florence Farmborough disapproved of some methods used by the VAD nurses in Russia.

I was surprised and not a little perturbed when I saw that tiny bags, containing pure salt, are sometimes deposited into the open wound and bandaged tightly into place. It is probably a new method; I wonder if it has been tried out on the Allied Front.

These bags of salt - small though they are - must inflict excruciating pain; no wonder the soldiers kick and yell; the salt must burn fiercely into the lacerated flesh. It is certainly a purifier, but surely a very harsh one!

At an operation, performed by the lady-doctor, at which I was called upon to help, the man had a large open wound in his left thigh. All went well until two tiny bags of salt was placed within it, and then the uproar began. I thought the man's cries would lift the roof off; even the lady doctor looked discomforted. "Silly fellow," she ejaculated. "It's only a momentary pain. Foolish fellow! He doesn't know what is good for him."

(6) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)

I see our first man hit. He is a boy of nineteen years of age. A bit of stray high-explosive shell gets him in the leg. It was almost an accident, for had he left me five seconds earlier he would have missed it. White, calm, uncomplaining, he calls for a cigarette and is carried off on a stretcher by four stalwart veterans of the Rifle Brigade. He is never to return, for amputation follows. Such is war. Constant training for a whole year and then just one day in the line! This is attrition!