THE WOUNDED AND THE SICK

How unbearably filthy is the army! How many wounded have they carried past us today! And what have the Italians achieved? Killed a few of their people and our people yet again, but achieved nothing. Their only accomplishment was to escalate the grief of people by a fraction – making more of us miserable yet again. When will these vile criminal actions stop? When will the army end?
Franc Rueh

The objective of every single military campaign is to neutralise and defeat the enemy. To achieve this goal, various killing machines are used to inflict serious physical and mental wounds and consequently death. In 1864, the first Geneva Convention was adopted to ameliorate the severe and tragic consequences of war, to protect the wounded and sick soldiers, and which subsequently served as the foundation for the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The first such organisation in Slovenia was founded as early as two years after the adoption of the Geneva Convention, while the first major trial it was faced with was the 1895 earthquake in Ljubljana. However, the real significance of the Red Cross and immediate medical care was not fully evident until World War I.

The Austro-Hungarian Army also included a well-organised medical service, which as soon as in the first months of the war showed its deficiencies and lack of flexibility. Following the first four years of combat, the organisation and provision of medical assistance would constantly evolve. It adapted to specific battlefields and provided emergency medical care to an endless number of wounded and sick that were generated by the gears of war. The unfavourable conditions typical of battlefields required rapid action, improvisation and the introduction of new emergency medical methods and procedures. Innovations in healthcare, resulting from mitigating the effects of war, were introduced simultaneously by every major hospital in the military rear. During as well as after the war, significant advances were made in the field of general and facial plastic surgery as well as prosthetics, while new mental diseases and conditions, unknown before the war, were diagnosed and defined. The war, which had taken numerous lives therefore served as the perfect field for learning and collecting valuable experiences, which have importantly contributed to the further development of medicine as a science.

At the front and the immediate rear, the sick and wounded were cared for, along with doctors and medical professionals, also hastily trained military medics. Their task was to collect the wounded across the battlefields and provide emergency medical care, then transport them to the nearest field hospital. Theirs was one of the most dangerous duties, and many were wounded or fell under enemy fire. Medics caring for the wounded in field hospitals were in less danger. They were often assisted by nurses or volunteers enlisted by the Red Cross or other organisations. The third category of military medics was responsible for transporting the seriously injured to the nearest hospitals. Initially, the wounded would be transported in carriages, and later driven by car or by train.

Due to the huge influx of wounded troops, medical personnel and others providing utilitarian services were constantly in short supply. There was also a shortage of suitable facilities and equipment. As a result, many soldiers from both factions that had curable conditions died because of a lack of aid in intolerable and inhumane conditions. In his rucksack, every soldier carried at least one first aid kit, while before major battles military authorities would hand out large quantities of alcohol, which served as the only remedy and medicine in dire needs and when suffering unbearable pain.

Disability and death, however, resulted not only from battle wounds but also other maladies raging through the ranks. At the beginning of the war, these were predominantly infectious diseases such as cholera and typhus, later the Spanish flu, while some fell ill to different sexual diseases, again others were paralysed by fear, terror and overwhelming mental pressure. Due to shell shock, many soldiers were driven insane or exhibited symptoms such as tremors, paralysis or absent-mindedness and the inability to speak. Initially, the conditions were attributed to cowardice and soldiers were despatched back to the front in the shortest time possible. Later, when systematic treatment was introduced, they often attempted to treat these conditions using electroshock therapy.