The hospital as a military hospital is a place which receives its function only because of the war and loses it again at the end of the war. Military hospitals are places which are solely transitional and can therefore appear in many different forms. Schools, sanitariums and administrative buildings can serve as military hospitals as well as church naves and opera halls which are converted into treatment rooms or dormitories. Field hospitals must be movable. They are often established in tents. Hospital trains and hospital ships are also movable. They bring the wounded home from the front and mark the transition from a healthy person to an invalid
Order and Chaos
The military order that structures the soldiers’ daily routine is also present in the hospital, particularly in those facilities far away from the front where soldiers are sent for further treatment and convalescence. A strict timetable and compliance with duties and regulations are essential elements for the convalescence of soldiers and the perpetuation of discipline. The soldiers have to realise that even everyday life in the hospitals is subject to military order.
This strict perpetuation of military orders stands in contrast to the efforts of the medical employees to hold on to civilian – mostly middle-class - regimes of everyday life. Thus the creation of photo albums or collections of memorabilia by nurses are attempts to hold on to one’s own pre-war life. The photos from military hospitals portray an assumed regularity.
In contrast to this „ideal world“, everyday life in hospitals consists of chaos caused by improvisation, blood, death and dirt. In times of intensive combat the hospitals close to the lines are quickly filled up with hundreds of wounded soldiers. First aid and medical care are very often improvised and not in accordance with the strict rules. Therefore, hierarchies and traditional role models are challenged amongst the medical staff and also in their respective societies.
Fight against the death
During the First World War more soldiers die of injuries than of epidemics or diseases, as was common in previous wars. This is due both to the increase in mortal injuries caused by modern weapons like machine guns and poison gas and to medical progress from the pre-war years which helps prevent epidemics like typhus and cholera. The war itself enables medical scientists, particularly epidemiologists, to gain knowledge through mass application of experimental treatments
The interaction of war and medical science is clearly apparent in the case of blood transfusion. Injuries involving great loss of blood could for the first time be treated with this relatively new procedure on a large scale due to the blood typing of millions of soldiers. Thus the war creates a necessity but also a precondition for blood transfusion, which becomes standard medical practice after 1918.
Alongside physical injury, mental trauma is often treated in military hospitals. War neuroses, especially “shell shock”, are recognized as diseases but are often attributed to a weakness of character. Treatment methods such as electric shocks, starvation diets and isolation are used in an attempt to restore the willpower of the patient.
Life, Death, Survival
The wounded arriving at the hospitals suffer different levels of injury. A lot of them will not survive. The deceased are often buried at cemeteries nearby. Many who return home as invalids will never again live a normal life. For them the hospital was the transition to a life with a damaged body, sometimes changed beyond all recognition. Men with mental disorders have a hard time readjusting to the structure of their former lives.
Many soldiers stay in military hospitals for the treatment of common diseases, epidemics or just for delousing. For them, as for the soldiers who are only slightly wounded and can be medicated easily, hospitalisation is a break from the war in the trenches and a time for leisure activities. They play cards or music and recover from the strain of battle. Nevertheless, they must prepare themselves to return to the front.