Surgery During World War One

An example of a World War One facial wound

Surgery During World War One

An 1896 sketch on how to apply chloroform
An 1896 sketch on how to apply chloroform

During World War I, 19 million men were wounded, and an estimated 500,000 amputations were performed. As frightening as these numbers are, men who lived long enough to receive medical attention had a relatively high survival rate.

This success was due in part to modern innovations such as antiseptics.

Other medical tools included:


Since the 1840s, the two available anesthetics were ether and chloroform.

Ether numbs the patient but does not cause unconsciousness.

Chloroform works more quickly, but there is a higher risk of death if the wrong amount is used. It is applied using a mask, sponge or cloth.

Dental procedures were conducting using nitrous oxide.

Plastic Surgery

An example of a World War One facial wound
An example of a World War One facial wound

Shrapnel caused a number of facial injuries. Men lost noses, eyes, lower jaw bones, sometimes even the entire front of their faces. These men were scarred for life, and doctors sought ways to alleviate their suffering. This led to the birth of the field of reconstructive surgery.

Dr. Harold Gillies asked for permission from the British Army Medical Corps to establish a facial reconstruction hospital. Permission was granted, and Gillies treated thousands of patients. His goal was give patients as natural a look as possible.

Many techniques were discovered via experimentation. Procedures often involved multiple steps that had to be done over a period of years. There were no mirrors in the hospital, so men could not see their appearance.

A large number of the surgeries were successful, but unfortunately, many were not. Lessons learned from the setbacks was applied in future surgeries.

Often the psychological scars were worse than the physical ones of men who sustained severe facial injuries. Many had difficulty being seen in public, holding down jobs and maintaining relationships.

X-Ray Machines

A patient receiving an X-ray from a portable X-ray machine
A patient receiving an X-ray from a portable X-ray machine

X-ray machines were less than 20 years old when the war began but proved invaluable.

Portable x-ray machines allowed medical personnel to see what was going on inside a patient’s body before surgery was performed.

X-rays could be taken by doctors or nurses, but soon the new position of radiographer was born.





Updated: 26 October 2020
Melina Druga
Latest posts by Melina Druga (see all)
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

One thought on “Surgery During World War One

Comments are closed.

Back To Top