Medicine During The First World War: Inter Arma Caritas (Amidst the Arms, Love) is a small exhibition I accidentally came across when I was attending Hammersmith Hospital in London. It is organised by the Imperial College Healthcare Charity from the art collection and displays about 30 black and white images of the men and women of the Royal Army Medical Corps tending wounded soldiers during the Great War.
Two things surprised me about this exhibition:
I suppose taking a step back a hospital seems an obvious place to have an exhibition of medical based photographs. However in this case the pictures were along a long corridor in one of the busy wings. On the face of it a perfect place to observe the pictures with space and lighting. Yet it was in a busy thoroughfare with trollies, orderlies, medical staff, visitors and patients all rushing by. While I was there looking at the pictures not one other person stopped and looked. This is not meant as a criticism of placement but shows the fact that people were more concerned about other priorities (as I should have been). For me it raised the point that should exhibitions (in the most loose sense) be in specific exhibition spaces where what is on display can be appreciated by those who specifically want to view what is on display in a controlled environment, or are they perfectably acceptable to put them in a place where the content of the image is more akin to the location in this case medical based pictures in a hospital?
I suppose it comes down to the intent of the curator or organiser. I would suggest in what I saw the intent is to show what the Medical Corps did in the war via the medium of photography rather than be an exhibition of historical photographs. Therefore the hospital is a fitting location and viewing them will be both informative and give pleasure to those who just happened to be passing by.
2. Subject Matter
Firstly what struck me was that these were not what I would call the stereotypical of Great War pictures, that is, those of the troops, trenches and battlefields. These were behind the scenes pictures of putting right the effects of the war. I am unsure as to how much these pictures would have been made visible to the public at the time. There are mixed messages in that on one hand we see the troops receiving good care of their wounds but on the other hand they highlight the true horror of what war brings.
I would suggest that these are more record shots of what is going on rather than for general public consumption. It recorded what was actually happening rather than any propaganda exercise.
In looking at the subject matter, on the face of it we see the troops being treated. From this we get comfort in knowing that the troops are being looked after. Clearly there were the extreme wounds and loss of limbs however the main purpose on the Medical Corps was to patch still battle capable troops up as fast as possible to get them back to the front to fight again not healthcare as an end in itself. Get back to the front and do your duty. There is some irony in the fact that due to the success and advances in healthcare of the 1,100,000 men invalided home to Britain two thirds of them returned to duty to be wounded again or more than likely killed in action. Only 7% actually died of their wounds. (Click for Source)
What also was striking about the images was the sharpness and clarity of the images. Again we tend to think of photographs of the Great War as not as the best quality as photographers were working with equipment that was unsuitable for working in the trenches. But these pictures were pin sharp and of a quality that really surprised me. Therefore it is easy to conclude that each picture was set up or staged to make best use of the equipment (rather than for propaganda purposes). As result we can see detail in the pictures of what we would normally not see. Rings, buttons, and eye detail all bring the pictures to life to make and gives character in that we see the subjects as real people rather than an image recorded about 100 years ago.. In the image below we can see a wrist watch and creases in the starched nurse uniform.
Finally some of the content is surprising. We tend to think of plastic or re-creative surgery for instance as a product of the World War II yet in the image below we see a patient having a reconstructive face mask painted so it blends in with the rest of his face.
Overall my response was that I enjoyed looking at the detail within the pictures and learning new things. It did however open my eyes to the overall purpose of battlefield medicine. Probably what was most surprising was to ‘discover’ the exhibition in the first place as that was not my primary purpose of attending the hospital.
Unsure of exhibition dates (this was not made known) but was visited 5th January 2016 at Hammersmith Hospital, Du Cane Rd, London