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January 17, 2006

Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War - Mark Harrison

Posted by Jeremy Black

Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War
by Mark Harrison
Pp. xiii+320. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
Hardback, 50

Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War is an important and archivally well-grounded study at the intersection of military and medical history that points to a marked improvement in the provision of British medical care during the course of the conflict. Defeat in the early years of the war led to many problems. The level of care available in the field was affected by the disruption attendant on defeat and rapid retreat.

In no theatre of the war, however, did the medical services suffer a complete collapse. The planning of medical arrangements left much to be desired, as in Norway and Malaya, but there was no need for commissions of inquiry, such as those which followed the campaigns in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia during World War One.

Harrison argues that, although the early campaigns of World War Two permitted little in the way of innovation, they at least provided some valuable experience. During the campaigns in Norway and France, it became apparent that blood transfusion apparatus needed to be available in all forward units, and not just in specialist ones.

The early campaigns also indicated that larger field hospitals were of limited use in mobile warfare, and this led to a later emphasis on field ambulances and mobile specialist units. As Harrison shows, by 1944 most British casualties were receiving treatment within hours of wounding, due to the increased mobility of field hospitals and the extensive use of aeroplanes as ambulances.

As he demonstrates, the care of the sick and wounded had also been transformed by new medical practices and drugs, such as active immunization against tetanus, sulphonamide drugs, and penicillin. In contrast, the Germans lacked antibiotics, so that many of their wounded suffered from severe sepsis. Penicillin permitted a British offensive not only against wound infections but also against the debilitating inroads of venereal disease.

Harrison argues that administrative advances were also significant. This was particularly the case with the system for blood transfusion established after the foundation of the Army Blood Transfusion Service in 1938. Again, there was a pointed contrast with the German army. As Harrison notes, although blood transfusion was carried out from the start of the war, Allied bombing hit the German programme, while the collection and storage of blood in forward areas was inadequate.

Disease-prevention was also a field in which the British had a comparative advantage, with rates of admissions to hospital from disease falling in South-East Asia, the Middle East and the Central Mediterranean. Rates of sickness were considerably lower than those in the German, Italian and Japanese armies. Anti-malarial drugs complemented an emphasis on hygienic and anti-malaria discipline.

In short, technology should not be considered separately from organisational culture. This first-rate study helps indicate how the British army was able to wage war effectively around the world. Organised by sphere of operation, it offers much to both military and medical historians.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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I can second Jeremy Black's recommendation, with the proviso that this is a rather dense read not for the faint hearted and focusing more on administrative and logistical issues that personal testimony.

Two things that struck me from the book

a) the sheer density of acronyms with which the Allies waged the Second World War. The likes of BSHC, MFTU, and DADsMS trundle through the story - one of the reasons its a dense read is the concentration required to keep track of which agency is doing what.. One suspects at times that the Axis fell because of the sheer weight of Allied acronyms against it.

b) The Nazi warrior mythos fostered a kind of perverse stoicism, which lead to the downgrading of medical services and therefore a significant Allied advantage in this area. As Harrison writes, the Western Front in WWI was the first theatre in which the British Army suffered more fatalities from enemy action than disease. Decent medical care in wartime is not only a humanitarian concern but a tactical and strategic advantage.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at January 17, 2006 10:59 PM

Medical history of the WW2 is a whole different world that has been studied but not well known to the general public. Indeed GB was ahead of other countries if refer to the medical part of the war though it shouldn't be forgotten that there were little warfare on it's territory that was a positive and helpful moment.

Posted by: Gwen at January 25, 2006 04:28 PM
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