What was medicine like during World War One?

The war was a time of change for the treatment of injuries and illness.

Injured and sick soldiers needed to be treated quickly so they could go back to fighting as soon as possible.

Casualty stations were set up near battlefields, some by the Red Cross.

Women on the front line

Female volunteers worked as nurses and drove ambulances.

Most worked 14-hour days and sometimes even longer when there were lots of injured soldiers.

llustration of Red Cross nurses by Fabien Fabiano for French magazine 'La Baionette' in 1915
Red Cross nurses by Fabien Fabiano for French magazine 'La Baionette', 1915

What did soldiers suffer from?

Soldiers not only took injuries in battle. They also suffered from illnesses and diseases caused by the dreadful conditions in the trenches.

Soldiers wearing gas masks during World War One

Poisonous gas was used as a weapon

Gas could affect someone in just a few minutes so protective masks were given to all soldiers. Many soldiers suffered from the effects of gas attacks for the rest of their lives.

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Triage

The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) was set up to care for British troops.

It used a special system called 'triage' where sick soldiers were put into one of three possible groups:

  1. Slightly injured. Soldiers who did not need much care. They were quickly given treatment wherever they were and then carried on fighting.

  2. Need hospital. Soldiers who needed to be transported for treatment. They were taken to the nearest hospital base.

  3. Beyond help. Soldiers who did not have much chance of getting better. They were made comfortable but little treatment was given as others had priority.

Newly developed motorised ambulances and trains made it easier to reach and treat injured soldiers.

Allied soldier being treated in a field hospital during WWI in 1915

Medical advances

A double image: an X-ray showing a bullet in the body and blood transfusion apparatus
Left: an X-ray showing a bullet in the body. Right: blood transfusion apparatus, 1914-1918.

X-ray technology helped surgeons to detect where a bullet had penetrated. Many operations were performed during the war thanks to this.

Blood was first stored successfully during World War One. Doctors could now give blood transfusions to soldiers. Before, soldiers with burns, tissue damage and contagious diseases would have usually died.

What was Spanish flu?

Spanish Influenza (flu) was first reported in March 1918. It was called "the greatest enemy of all" because it infected half the world's population.

It became known as Spanish Flu because Spain was one of the first countries to be hit by the disease.

What was to blame?

Some people thought the outbreak might be caused by poison gas. Today we know it developed in animals and birds then spread to humans.

Influenza moved around the world on ships trading goods with other countries.

Soldiers lived closely together in camps and trenches which helped the infection to spread.

How did the world change?

40-50 million people died from Spanish flu. This was many more people than the war itself.

A cartoon from 1918 showing a French woman suffering from Spanish influenza
1918 illustration: a French woman suffering from Spanish Influenza
A drawing of a variety of people in a street in 1918 suffering from Spanish Influenza

Where next?

World War One