20th February 2015, Volume 128 Number 1409

OCTOBER, 1914.

Excerpt from an Editorial published in NZMJ 1914 Oct;13(56):352–353.

“War is Hell,” and never more hellish than in this year of grace. Highly-civilised men are striving to take one another’s lives on a scale that the mind of no savage ever conceived.

We read of straw being spread over heaps of corpses and set fire to, and this cremation hardly more speedy than the making of a large cemetery by a battery of artillery. No doubt war develops courage and self-sacrifice, and leads often to a regeneration of rational virtues, but in the main its attendant barbarity and cruelty seem sadly out of keeping with the enlightenment of the world.

The only difference between the attack of Germany on Belgium and the assault of a burglar on a peaceful household is that the former is immeasurably more heinous. Where are we to find in warfare something morally in advance of previous generations, some augury that mankind progresses? Are there no Good Samaritans now? It is the medical service of the contending armies that shows that in warfare civilisation has not altogether given way. The ambulances work not only to save the lives of comrades but also fallen foes and altruism has never reached a higher pitch of perfection.

There is more glory in saving life than in taking it. The prompt relief of the sick and wounded is part of the art of war, for wounded men are valuable if promptly cured and returned to their regiments, but worse than useless if they cannot rejoin the fighting line. Thus the medical officer has a double share of honour as a practitioner of the art of war in strengthening the ranks of his country, and as one who plays the part of the Good Samaritan to friend or foe, dealing mercy and not vengeance.

Napoleon was probably the first great military leader to provide a system for prompt attention to the wounded in war, but the modern ambulance dates from the Civil War in America, and was largely developed in the Franco-Prussian War. The importance of the medical services of armies has become increasingly great by the establishment of preventive medicine and sanitation, and the mobility of an army depends largely upon the proper evacuation of the sick and wounded without undue interference with the supplies of reinforcements and munitions along the lines of communication. To successfully attain this end much skill is required and co-operation among many units, from the, medical officers with the firing line to the bearer subdivisions and dressing stations, the convoys, the clearing hospitals, the ambulance trains and ships, and the base hospitals.

Various nations have modified ambulance work in accordance with their own particular views. Thus Japan discards elaborate equipment and relies greatly on improvisation; Germany has in peace time civil surgeons properly organised to take their places with their units in the field, and has provided, as far as possible, against emergencies; France depends to a very large extent upon voluntary aid; and Great Britain has learned much from lessons in the Boer War, when the medical service was overworked to breaking strain.

In the Franco-Prussian War the British people subscribed no less than £300,000 for Red Cross work in aid of both the French and Germans, and in the present crisis there has been no want of money for ambulance work. It is a source of great encouragement to the medical profession that the work of the doctor in the field attracts the sympathy and admiration of the public mind, and an honour that to him falls duty that is congenial and humane, and both arduous and dangerous.