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100 years of military health experience

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Medical care for our wounded soldiers has improved dramatically since the First World War

As we commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, it is timely that we reflect on the experiences of military health practitioners and the care they have provided our wounded and sick soldiers.

The Great War, which on many fronts pursued a static trench warfare strategy of attrition, was costly in terms of Australian casualties. Of the 416 809 who enlisted, more than 60 000 Australians died and 156 000 were wounded1 — a death toll nearly twice that of the Second World War (39 000 deaths),2 and difficult to compare with the 40 killed and 261 wounded in action in Afghanistan. Apart from obvious ballistic and blast-fragmentation wounds, our Great War soldiers were also confronted by conditions such as trench foot, frostbite, trench mouth, pneumonia, dysentery and tuberculosis.3 They faced chlorine and mustard gas poisoning, and suffered shell shock or war neurosis. The descent from health to neurosis was explained by the constant exposure to death and destruction, the apparent pointlessness of the fighting, lack of information, and the inhumanity of the conflict. Our forward medical teams were equipped with splints and bandages. Evacuation by stretcher from the battlefield to initial medical treatment at an aid…