- Leo van Bergen, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
- Series : The History of Medicine in Context
Despite the numerous vicious conflicts that scarred the twentieth century, the horrors of the Western Front continue to exercise a particularly strong hold on the modern imagination. The unprecedented scale and mechanization of the war changed forever the way suffering and dying were perceived and challenged notions of what the nations could reasonably expect of their military. Examining experiences of the Western Front, this book looks at the life of a soldier from the moment he marched into battle until he was buried. In five chapters - Battle, Body, Mind, Aid, Death - it describes and analyzes the physical and mental hardship of the men who fought on a front that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.
Beginning with a broad description of the war it then analyzes the medical aid the Tommies, Bonhommes and Frontschweine received - or all too often did not receive - revealing how this aid was often given for military and political rather than humanitarian reasons (getting the men back to the front or munitions factory and trying to spare the state as many war-pensions as possible). It concludes with a chapter on the many ways death presented itself on or around the battlefield, and sets out in detail the problems that arise when more people are killed than can possibly be buried properly.
In contrast to most books in the field this study does not focus on one single issue - such as venereal disease, plastic surgery, shell-shock or the military medical service - but takes a broad view on wounds and illnesses across both sides of the conflict. Drawing on British, French, German, Belgian and Dutch sources it shows the consequences of modern warfare on the human individuals caught up in it, and the way it influences our thinking on 'humanitarian' activities.
Contents: Introduction; Battle; Body; Mind; Aid; Death; Afterword; Bibliography; Index.
About the Author: Dr Leo van Bergen is a medical historian working at the Vrije Universiteit Medical Centre in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His main focus is on the relationship between war and medicine. Dr van Bergen is a member of the editorial board of Medicine, Conflict and Survival.
Reviews: Prize: Awarded the 'Dr J.A. Verdoorn-award' for excellent scientific work on the topic of medicine and war 2009
‘Rarely has there appeared such a readable narrative on the heroic and tragic ways in which a war was fought and the dedicated yet at times inept ways in which medical workers attempted to tend the dying and treat the wounded.’ Medicine, Conflict & Survival
‘… this truly beautiful and magnificent book. … In short: buy, read and tell others.’ From a review by Menno Wielinga, published on the Western Front Association website
‘The book is impressively well researched (and cited), including qualitative and quantitative sources in numerous languages. … Before My Helpless Sight is a powerful counter to the innumerable discourses on WWI tactics and strategy. Van Bergen pulls back the curtains of glorious offensives and magnanimous generals, revealing the grim, muddy reality of life on the Western Front. It is a story of pus, rats, hunger, dirt, disease and madness. You do not know World War I before reading this book.’ War & Health
‘… the book serves as a powerful reminder of the terrible human suffering endured, both during and after the war, by those who bore the physical, mental and emotional scars of the conflict. Van Bergen leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of the human tragedy inflicted by industrialised warfare and mass killing.’ The Social History of Medicine
‘The translation of this book from Dutch into English is to be welcomed for making available a Belgian viewpoint on the Great War. It is an accessible and engrossing, if at times gruesome and grim, read.’ Journal of Military History
‘…an extraordinary volume describing the horrific injuries, deaths, and battlefield environments confronted by WW I soldiers…paints an almost unbelievable word picture. Recommended.’ Choice
‘… a major achievement and a landmark in the medical historiography of the Great War.’ Medical History
'Van Bergen's pacing allows one to move smoothly through almost 500 pages of text, some gruesome illustrations, and casualty tables that can leave one staggered. If one can take the subject, this book is definitely worth the reading.' St. Mihiel Trip Wire. The online newsletter of the Great War Society
‘... an extremely useful reference work for academics and students who research the First World War. ... The overall feeling that one is left with after reading this book is one of having been on a journey. Ostensibly, this is a book about the body at war in the First World War on the Western Front, yet Van Bergen has also produced a meditation and a morality tale on the nature of warfare.' War in History
‘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”. … 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.’ Histoire sociale/Social History
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