Battlefield Sanitation Improvements Due to the Great War

Published: 9 February 2024

via the Roads to the Great War website

Field sterilizer at an American hospital in WWI

Field sterilizer at an American hospital in Europe during World War I.

The First World War caused upheavals in many spheres of life but especially in medicine, where it acted as a giant field trial.

British Motorized Bacteriological Laboratory

A new feature amongst the many problems caused by so great and widespread a conflict was the medical  administration and sanitation of vast armies. This prompted American Fielding Garrison author of the History of Medicine to state that:

Viewed after the lapse of a decade, the medical innovations and inventions of the war period seem clever, respectable, but not particularly brilliant. The administrative achievement was, however, truly remarkable. 

There was a general lack of preparedness (except Germany) for war and following the outbreak of hostilities the medical services of the Allied nations were expanded on an unprecedented scale. The United Kingdom drew 11,000 civilian practitioners, France mobilized the whole of the medical profession, and the United States expanded the medical services 20-fold, enrolling 29,602 doctors as reserve officers.

Napoleon is quoted as saying “Three fourths of mankind never do the necessary thing until occasion arises, and then it is just too late.” Fortunately, it was not too late, and the medical services responded well and learnt many lessons.

The full version of this article makes the salient point that there was a vast improvement in the percentage of deaths of wounded men from previous wars. “The point we need to realize is that the mortality amongst the wounded of 10%  [in WWI] was very low as compared with previous wars, i.e. 39% in the Crimean, 32% in the Russo-Turkish, and 25% in the Franco-German wars.”

[In Britain] sanitation was an area in which the Director General Army Medical Services Lt General Sir John Goodwin could not be accused of falling prey to Napoleon’s dictum. In 1904, he read a paper at the Royal United Services Institute” and stated:

The future success of an army in the field must, and will, to an enormous extent, depend on the efficiency with which measures for the prevention of disease can be carried out. 

Read the entire article on the Great War website here:

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