- Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918
In Before My Helpless Sight, Leo van Bergen attempts to answer the question "what can happen to a soldier between the moment he steps onto a train or ship bound for the theatre of battle and the point at which he is evacuated, wounded or. . .buried in the ground" (1). Divided into five chapters - Battle, Body, Mind, Aid, and Death - the result is a powerful and humane exploration of how the Great War impacted the bodies and minds of those who served on both sides of the Western Front as combatants and healers. As unpleasant as it is powerful, Before My Helpless Sight forcefully illuminates a world of almost constant fear, fatigue, cold and hunger; a world of unbearable noise and overpowering stench; a world where death, disease, disfigurement, and distress - both mental and physical - were ever present.
The study is not based on new, original research. Rather, it brings together primary and secondary material from a wide variety of countries and languages. Far from detracting from the work, this is one of its great strengths. By [End Page 427] amalgamating material from a variety of sources, van Bergen both effectively challenges the linguistic singularity that often characterizes the study of the FirstWorld War, and also presents scholars with a useful tool to navigate the literature on this subject. In a multilingual field of study with a volume of work that has been described as "dizzying in its magnitude," such a work deserves to be welcomed by scholars with open arms.
Although all of Before My Helpless Sight's chapters are compelling, it is the fourth chapter - entitled Aid — that is the most gripping. In this chapter van Bergen deftly demonstrates the truth behind Erich Maria Remarque's observation that "only a military hospital can really show you what war is" (326). Van Bergen lays bare both the suffering of men wounded in combat and the long-term impact of their wounds. In doing so he also explores the frequently bipolar character of military medicine during the conflict, and shows how the war affected the medical professionals charged with the often impossible task of saving and reconstructing the human wreckage produced by the conflict. The result is a chilling exposé of the horrific effects that can be visited on the human body and mind by modern weaponry and of the human and scientific limitations and weaknesses of military medicine during the FirstWorldWar. Of particular import amongst this litany of human suffering is van Bergen's highlighting of the fact that many doctors and nurses were as much victims of the conflict as those they treated. While a number of medical professionals were callous, many suffered terribly as a result of their experiences. Overwhelmed by the mass of maimed and mangled men they were required to tend, more than a few doctors and nurses physically and mentally broke down. As van Bergen indicates, the indifference to the horrors confronting them exhibited by some medical professionals was part coping mechanism, part symptom of their own, less obvious wounds. Likewise, the seemingly pitiless decisions to send a barely recovered solider back to the front, to amputate a limb, or not to provide aid to a severely wounded man were more often driven by military and medical necessity than a cold heart.
Van Bergen employs a number of images to support his text. Amongst stock images of muddy trenches, gasmask-wearing machine gunners, cemeteries, and heavy artillery, van Bergen has also included a number of graphic depictions of individuals physically and mentally maimed as a result of the conflict. The most disturbing image in the work does not depict the suffering and/or death of soldiers at all. Rather, it is a picture of two young Belgian girls who had been killed by artillery fire. This image draws our attention to casualties of the "war to end all wars," that are often overlooked, if not forgotten: civilians. While those who...