Advancing troops were not allowed to stop and care for wounded soldiers. All men carried an emergency field-dressing and if possible attempted to treat their own wounds. The wounded soldier then had to wait until the stretcher-bearers arrived. Once the injured soldier had been picked up by the stretcher-bearers, he would be taken to the Regimental Aid Post that was usually based in the reserve trenches. The Regimental Medical Officer and his assistants cleaned the wounds, applied dressings, and gave injections. The injured man was then taken to the Advanced Dressing Station. Wounds were again treated and sometimes emergency amputations took place. The wounded soldier was now moved to the Casualty Clearing Station where surgery, if needed, was carried out.
Harold Chapin worked in a Casualty Clearing Station. In a letter written on 15th April 1915 to his wife he described one of the operations he took part in: "I had a nasty spell last Monday, stood by at a long (hour and a half) operation on the skull and braintrephining it is called. I nearly fainted twice but pulled myself together and went back as soon as I had got a breath of fresh air and a drink of water outside the room. The blood did not affect me at all. The infernal snoring and groaning of the poor devil under the anesthetic seemed to hypnotise me. Moreover the room was very hot and I was holding a bowl of Mentholated spirit - the smell from which is no help to a faint-feeling man. It was touch and go with the man. A piece of shell and some fragments had penetrated the skull. After the operation hope was expressed that he would be only paralysed. The next morning he was reading "Punch"! I felt better than I've felt for years when I saw him holding the paper in both hands."
I am with an operating team about 100 miles from our own Base Hospital, closer to the fighting lines. I'll sure have a lot to tell about this experience when I get home. I have been here three weeks and see no signs of going back yet, although when we came we only expected to be here a few days. Of course, I didn't bring much with me. Had two white dresses and two aprons, and two combinations. Now can you imagine trying to keep decent with that much clothing in a place where it rains nearly every day.
We all live in tents and wade through mud to and from the operating room where we stand in mud higher than our ankles. It was some task, but dear old Major Harte, who I am up here with, got a car and a man; to go down to our hospital and get us some things. He brought me six clean uniforms and aprons, beside heaps of notes from all the nurses, letters from home and all kinds of fruit and cake.
We made the trip up to this place in an auto-ambulance 100 miles through France. Oh I shall have books to tell when I get home.
I had a nasty spell last Monday, stood by at a long (hour and a half) operation on the skull and braintrephining it is called. I nearly fainted twice but pulled myself together and went back as soon as I had got a breath of fresh air and a drink of water outside the room. The blood did not affect me at all. The infernal snoring and groaning of the poor devil under the anesthetic seemed to hypnotise me. Moreover the room was very hot and I was holding a bowl of Mentholated spirit - the smell from which is no help to a faint-feeling man.
It was touch and go with the man. A piece of shell and some fragments of hat had penetrated the skull. After the operation hope was expressed that he would be only paralysed. The next morning he was reading "Punch"! I felt better than I've felt for years when I saw him holding the paper in both hands.
The surgeons and doctors here are first class and, outside rush times when the cases come in in dozens, a man stands as good a chance here as he would in England.
How badly we were wounded we didn't know. We were covered with blood and mud. All that mattered was that we were still on our feet, with our wits about us, and we stumbled back the way we had come. The company commander took one look at us and said, "Get back as best you can, and find a dressing station".
We began the long trek back, floundering through the mud, through the stench and black smoke of the coalboxes (howitzer shells) that were still coming over. Here and there were other walking wounded, mainly in pairs, supporting themselves pitifully with arms around each other's shoulders. Many were so badly wounded that they could barely drag themselves along, but to save themselves was their only hope. There was no one else to save them. How many survived I don't know. We saw some fall and lie prostrate in the mud. We could only hope that they went on again when they had rested.
It seemed hours before we reached a dressing station, then only by a lucky chance. It was a ramshackle tin shelter amid a dump of sandbags that once had been a gun emplacement. The doctor was treating anybody who managed to find his way there. A lot of men were lying around, and some stretcher-bearers were sorting out the living from the dead. The doctor swabbed the wounds on our hands and faces and tried to see through the holes in our uniforms where pieces had gone in. "You don't seem to have got anything very deep," he said. "Can you go on?"
The casualty clearing stations were frequently the scene of the most distressing sight which human eye can witness, that is the re-wounding and killing of already wounded men by an enemy's bomb dropped suddenly in the dead of night. There was hardly a moonlight night that the Hun did not visit our neighborhood and drop bombs. We dug below the level of the ground to form shallow graves, two by six, by eighteen inches deep, which were dug through the floor of our tents, and when the anti-aircraft guns were shooting and particles of the exploded shells were falling, we partly closed over a section of the floor of the tent which was hinged and which had a piece of sheet iron nailed on the underside.
I was impressed with the bravery and fortitude of the women nurses. Night bombing is a terrifying thing, and those who are not disturbed by it possess unusual qualities. I believe the nurses showed less fear than anyone. In 1920 I had the opportunity to visit this casualty clearing station area again, where I found only a few of the metal huts standing, but was able to locate the nurses dug-out, and the holes in the ground where they slept.
During the Somme we practically never stopped. I was up for seventeen nights before I had a night in bed. A lot of the boys had legs blown off, or hastily amputated at the front-line. These boys were the ones who were in the greatest pain, and I very often used to have to hold the stump up in the ambulance for the whole journey, so that it wouldn't bump on the stretcher.
The worse case I saw - and it still haunts me - was of a man being carried past us. It was at night, and in the dim light I thought that his face was covered with a black cloth. But as he came nearer, I was horrified to realize that the whole lower half of his face had been completely blown off and what had appeared to be a black cloth was a huge gaping hole. It was the only time I nearly fainted.
Patients arrive at all hours; generally in twos and threes - frequently in fives and sixes (the last invariably at meal times). They are carried into the dressing room where boots etc. are removed (this saves the operating theatre from dirt), and then transported to the operating theatre where their wounds are inspected and dressed and where every man receives an injection of antitetanus anti-toxin. Septic wounds never go into the theatre at all but are dressed in the dressing room. Nasty things they are. We evacuate our cases pretty fast. The medical wards are quite independent of our surgical. B section looks after them---they get a lot of work. We have a so-called infectious ward but the more infectious cases, like measles, diphtheria, etc. go to a special hospital by special "yellow" ambulances. I fancy our "infectious" ward contains nothing more dangerous than scaby cases. It didn't a day or so ago anyway.
My chief work to-day has been unbooting wounded heroes and giving them beef tea. Though this afternoon I donned the white gown of a grand inquisitor, sublimated my hands and assisted with a couple of dressings; shrapnel (beastly stuff) wounds all over the place.
"Hold that stump", said the Sister, and the poor chap must have felt dreadful because I grabbed his leg well above the knee, and as the solution of Eusol and Peroxide was poured on to the stump, the pus was pouring over my hands. Then I saw two stumps, two Sisters, and I must have started to sway because I was carted away and someone said: "Put your head between your knees and you'll be all right."
It's amazing what you get hardened to. But the pain the men suffered was frightful and we had nothing to give them. Aspirin was not much good but there was nothing, no pain killer, between that and a morphine injection at the other end of the scale, which they got if they were very bad. But that made them unconscious, so it was only given in very extreme cases.