Wounded and damaged soldiers then and now: Honest History Factsheet

This small collection highlights the trauma that is associated with all wars in all eras in all countries. It was provoked by an article in The Independent highlighting the photographs made by Bryan Adams of wounded British soldiers from Afghanistan. The photos are from Wounded: The Legacy of War, Photographs by Bryan Adams, and an accompanying exhibition at Somerset House in London.

The photographs are confronting (this is a polite warning, not an apology) but should be viewed. The average age of the 13 soldiers in the article is 24 years. On being asked whether he felt the weight of responsibility in capturing traumatic personal narratives, Adams responded, ‘I just thought I should try and be as honest with them as possible, because they were being honest with me’.

In his new book, Wounded: The Legacy of War, Bryan Adams presents portraits of young British soldiers who have suffered life-changing injury in Iraq and Afghanistan or during training. His lens bears witness to their scars, disability and disfigurement. This unexpected directness challenges the viewer. At the same time the images reveal the sheer grit and bravery of the victims who, despite personal sacrifice, live each day with resolute vim, vigor and dignity. What we see are staggering portraits of inspiring individuals who whilst not faltering have stood the test of war and lived to tell the tale. The images come with haunting interviews which provide a narrative to each personal journey to recovery. (blurb from the book)

Honest History is investigating whether there any plans as part of Australia’s centenary to highlight war wounds and illness. Kerry Neale has researched facial injuries of Australian soldiers from World War I. There is a guide to Australian sources here.

Meanwhile, for what is happening in the United Kingdom, see Joanna Bourke’s review of Emily Mayhew’s book Wounded (the same title as Adams’s), a review of an exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons in London on war, art and surgery plus an article on amputation-related pain. There is also this article on World War I and military psychiatry. The authors, Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely, say:

The vigorous debates that arose in response to controversy about the nature of psychiatric disorders and the discussions about how these disorders should be managed remain relevant to the trauma experienced by military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The psychiatric history of World War 1 should be thought of as an opportunity for commemoration and in terms of its contemporary relevance—not as an opportunity for self-congratulation.

Jones and Wessely’s point is reinforced by this more recent story.

Then, given the importance of medical work on the Burma Railway, as depicted fictionally in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it is appropriate to find in The Lancet a review by Joanna Bourke of the book.

War medicine is harrowing [writes Bourke]. In 1942—43, around 180 000 Asian labourers and 60 000 Allied prisoners of war worked as virtual slaves constructing the Burma—Thailand Railway, which stretched 415 km between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon in Burma. 90 000 Asian labourers and over 12 000 Allied prisoners of war died of starvation, disease, and over-work. Medical officers and orderlies did their best, but against harrowing odds. Operations took place in filthy huts or outdoors. Catheters had to be cut out of green bamboo, water was sterilised in kerosene tins, and homemade anaesthetics were unreliable. Kitchen saws and butcher knives served as the amputation implements.

Finally, see also the school materials prepared by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War and the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria: The Enduring Effects of War.

Soldier On.


16 November 2014 and updated


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