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Museum marks Somme centenary with tribute to ‘inglorious wounded’

Related: Somme trench recreated in Welsh castle to salute battle’s centenary[1]

Scraps of ribbons, figurines and toys, and religious medals are among a collection of charms carried by soldiers a century ago at the Battle of the Somme that will go on display in an exhibition at the Science Museum[2] on Wednesday. The display commemorates the anniversary of the conflict as well as the human and medical cost of injuries during and beyond the first world war.

Clement Boland, a private in the Territorial Army when he was sent to Helmand province in 2007 with the 4/2 Mercian, was shaken by some of the cheap medals exactly like the St Christopher medal that went to Afghanistan with him.

Museum Marks Somme Centenary With Tribute To 'inglorious Wounded' Bottle of Ner-Vigor, with instructions, in its original carton. Photograph: Iris Fernandes/Science Museum

The medal was given to him by a friend and, with no particular religious faith, Boland fastened it to his dog tags on the chain around his neck. When at one point he lost the medal, he panicked until it was found again. Boland returned after seven months with no visible wounds but, like many of the men of 1916, including hundreds shot for cowardice or desertion, mentally gravely injured. His post-traumatic stress disorder[3] was finally diagnosed after years of anger, exhausted depression and bouts of manic energy. He was treated by Combat Stress[4], an organisation descended from a charity founded to help the men of the first world war, including many who had been locked away in padded cells in mental health hospitals.

On 1 July 1916, the first of 141 days of the Battle of the Somme, there were 57,000 British dead and injured, overwhelming the medical resources. Many who survived would never fully recover.

Museum Marks Somme Centenary With Tribute To 'inglorious Wounded' Set of 50 glass eyes in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Photograph: Jaron Chubb/Science Museum

Boland, who now has a wife and one-year-old daughter, and is taking a design course, said: Before, because I was only a reservist, I never really quite believed I was going to war. Afterwards one of the worst times was when I came to think it was all for nothing, we had achieved nothing worth while. Emily Mayhew, historian in residence in the blast injuries studies section of Imperial College London[5], who worked on the exhibition, said: We hear so much in these centenary events about the glorious dead, but come now and see the inglorious wounded. Then as now anyone who sustains serious injuries in battle is going to need treatment for many years, if not for life. The first object in the exhibition is a bloodstained stretcher, a reminder, Mayhew said, that the most crucial treatment was often the most simple. If you can t stop a wounded soldier from bleeding out, there s no point going out to get him off the battlefield at all, because he s going to die.

Museum Marks Somme Centenary With Tribute To 'inglorious Wounded' Above-knee prosthesis with metal shin, central knee control mechanism, with standard foot, ankle and toe joints. Made in 1924, the prosthesis weighed 5lbs (2.2kg). Photograph: Jennie Hills/Science Museum

A simple Victorian leg splint saved many more lives: before it was reintroduced 80% of those with fractured thigh bones died from blood loss as they were carried from the battlefield over rough ground. Bleeding was often staunched with wads of sphagnum moss, which was highly absorbent and naturally antiseptic: squads of boy scouts and girl guides joined in gathering it for the war. Volunteers rolled miles of bandage strips to be sent to the front: on one on display somebody wrote neatly merry Xmas . Sticky tape was used to hold dressings in place, but the German version was considered superior and commandeered whenever possible. Before the discovery of antibiotics, preventing infection was a matter of life or death: one victim recalled the surgeons scooping out his infected flesh as neatly as removing a section of orange .

Museum Marks Somme Centenary With Tribute To 'inglorious Wounded' John Scott Haldane s oxygen mask, designed for four people. Photograph: Sarah J Duncan/Science Museum

To Mayhew, one of the tragedies told in the exhibition is the abandonment after the war of the research and the advances made by scientists such as Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antisepsis, who spent most of the war working in an attic laboratory in France, or the plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, who invented techniques to rebuild shattered faces.

Advances were made in everything from blood transfusion and oxygen masks to mobile x-rays and anaesthesia to pain control and prosthetic limbs. It limped on for a few years after the war, but by the 1920s it had largely just collapsed. It was taken up again in the second world war, and then fed into the National Health but to this day there are people suffering the consequences of that long gap in research.

Museum Marks Somme Centenary With Tribute To 'inglorious Wounded' Protective mask made from leather and chain mail, worn by tank crews, probably British, in 1917-18. Photograph: Claire Richardson/Science Museum


  1. ^ Somme trench recreated in Welsh castle to salute battle’s centenary (
  2. ^ an exhibition at the Science Museum (
  3. ^ post-traumatic stress disorder (
  4. ^ Combat Stress (
  5. ^ London (
  6. ^ Harold Gillies (

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