Book Review:
Wellington's Doctors

By Dr Martin Howard


With all the colourful uniforms and moments of glory in the Napoleonic Wars, we tend to forget the troubles of men wounded at a time when antibiotics and anaesthetics were unheard of.

Those soldiers often suffered appallingly and even reasonably enlightened commanders such as Wellington placed the needs of the wounded behind those of being able to fight the next battle.

Hospitals were basic, transportation to medical care was crude and often agonisingly slow, there were too few medical staff to look after casualties and if a man had to lose a limb - and many did - then the best that could be offered was a pint of rum to help dull the pain.

If you want to have a detailed and fascinating look at the British medical scene during the Napoleonic Wars then Dr Martin Howard's Wellington's Doctors is just the ticket.

It is a highly readable overview of how the British army's doctors fitted in with the military and adds in wonderful depth of colour and detail through personal accounts from those who were unfortunate enough to be wounded in battle.

Some of the tales are horrendous - such as Sgt Thomas Jackson of the Coldstream Guards who had to endure half an hour of agony as a surgeon tried to cut through his thigh bone with a blunt saw - and the descriptions of conditions in the carts carrying wounded men and then the hospitals themselves will make your hair curl.

Howard has broken his book up into seven major areas of focus and these are The Army Doctor, In Battle, Transport, Hospitals, Surgery, Disease and On Campaign. In addition, there are seven excellent appendices that have terrific detail on things such as regimental medical chest contents, surgical instruments, hospital stores, surgical facts and figures and causes of death in British army hospitals.

He also looks at the determined fight of the head of the medical department, Dr James McGrigor, to improving the lot of wounded soldiers. This often brought McGrigor into conflict with the Duke of Welliongton who, despite his narkiness at the surgeon's persistence, admired and held him in high esteem.

Howard has also included some rare - and pretty graphic - watercolours from Sir Charles Bell that depict wounds suffered at Waterloo.

Wellington's Doctor's is a must-have for anyone serious about study of the Peninsular War as it offers us a really good reminder that those on the casualty lists of battles had far more to get through than just surviving the clash of arms.

- Richard Moore



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