When I was a serving soldier, inter-corps rivalry was everything. The British Army encouraged soldiers to take a fierce pride in each level of the structure, right down to platoon or section level. This was done for entirely practical reasons. Men and women who were loyal to – and proud of – each other would go to great lengths to ensure that this trust was never betrayed.
A by-product of this was an equally fierce disdain for the units of which you weren’t a part. Logically they couldn’t be as good as us because we’d been told that we were the best. It was daft but effective, as the competition ensured that all soldiers would train and strain to be that bit better than the next man.
Only certain units were exempt from this categorisation and principal among them were the staff of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps). Despite the fact that we sometimes used to joke about what the initials stood for (Run Away Matron’s Coming and Rob All My Comrades), everybody knew that the RAMC was the most important part of our military family.
My own corps, the Royal Signals, would ensure that the radio networks functioned, and the infantry would conduct the face-to-face battle, but if something terrible happened to you it was the skill of the medics that could decide whether you were going to make it back home alive.
I was very lucky that I never needed their services in my 11-and-a-half years career, but I’ve shared a beer and reminisced with men who are only alive because of their skill and dedication.
It starts with the First World War when the sheer numbers of those injured and killed – statistics that will always retain the power to stagger – allowed medical personnel to refine and improve their skills with amazing alacrity. From here it takes us through the 20th century and right up to the present day conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Throughout the exhibition, two of the obvious war contradictions are displayed to startling effect. The first is that necessity being the mother of invention, times of conflict have been the catalysts for great innovation and invention. Whilst some people were developing better and more efficient ways of killing people, others were developing better and more efficient ways of keeping them alive. It is arguably too high a price to pay but the legacy endures. The story of Sir Archibald McIndoe and his colleagues is a perfect example. They operated on RAF bomber and fighter crews who’d been horribly burned in their downed aircraft and developed methods of reconstructive surgery from scratch that went on to be adopted and refined by their plastic surgeon descendants, to the continuing benefit of mankind.
The second contradiction is that in war we see the awful things that humans are prepared to do to each other, usually for a nebulous cause that never seems to justify the horror. At the same time we also see some of the greatest human attributes of compassion and bravery. The exhibition shows various examples of this.
The story of Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse brought a lump to my throat as I read it. One of only three men to have won the Victoria Cross, he died of his own wounds after spending two days and nights tending to other injured men, in the terrible conditions of the front line in 1917.
Andy Reid’s story of astonishing fortitude brings us right up-to-date. He lost both legs and his right arm in Afghanistan in 2009 and talks of the immediate aftermath and his subsequent recuperation. It’s perfectly natural to want to pity Andy for what’s happened to him, but his own stoicism makes you embarrassed that you felt that way at all.
The exhibition is thought-provoking in the extreme and I found myself having to sit quietly from time-to-time while I processed the conflicting feelings that Saving Lives generated within me.
It’s not an easy walk round. It will challenge some of your pre-conceptions about soldiers, war and how people deal with injury, both physically and psychologically. It will give you that slightly shameful feeling of relief that this is never going to be your story.
In the week since I visited I found myself haunted by a picture that I’d seen. It was of seven British soldiers recovering from their injuries at Roehampton hospital during the First World War. In particular, it was the lad on the left who seemed impossibly young to have had this grave injury inflicted upon him. The combination of sadness and optimism on his face made me very emotional at the time and has left me wondering how his life turned out and the odds that he and his friends must have fought against in the following years.
Review by Charlie Bell
What: Saving Lives: Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict
Where: The Imperial War Museum North, The Quays, Salford
When: until August 28, 2013
More info: www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-north