On the Horror of War
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
Among a few photographs of family members I have on my desk is one of two half-brothers of my paternal grandmother; Louis and Douglas Solomon. The photograph was taken in October 1915 in the Strand Studio, London while they were in England recuperating from injuries sustained in the Gallipoli debacle. In the photograph the two boys appear young, fresh-faced
but pensive and somewhat subdued, rather different, I would imagine, from how they might have appeared in a photograph taken a year earlier before they had experienced the horrors of war.
Louis, served in the 2nd Field Ambulance and was wounded on 22 August 1915. He may have participated in the Battle of Hill 60, which had been launched the day before. It was the last major assault of the Gallipoli Campaign. On the day he was wounded, the attack had been reinforced by the Australian 18th Battalion, which consisted of newly arrived troops who were inexperienced and ill-equipped. Attacking at dawn and using only bayonets, they suffered 383 casualties. After his recuperation Louis remained in service. He subsequently served in France where he was injured again on 23 March 1918.
Douglas was a reinforcement in the 10th Battalion. He is recorded as having fallen ill, probably with dysentery or typhoid fever, both of which were rife among members of the battalion, and on 13 July 1915 he suffered a back injury. But his early discharge in 1916 at which time he is recorded as suffering from "shell-shock and loss of power of limbs" is rather more telling. Shell shock was a new "disease" in 1915, increasingly common but hardly understood. Soldiers suffering from it were often returned to the battlefield, and on occasion were put on trial and even executed, for cowardice or desertion.
The horrors of the First and Second World Wars and of more recent conflicts, being nearer to us in time and so much more extensively recorded, often seem somehow more appalling than battles of the more remote past. A photograph of rotting bodies lying in a muddy trench in Flanders, even if somewhat distanced by shades of sepia, still evokes a deeper emotion than do many battlefield accounts in ancient sources. But every so often the emotion comes through in words so powerful as to rudely jerk us into the reality they describe. Here is an account of Hattin after the battle was over, written by Imad ad-Din, a historian who accompanied Saladin on his expedition against the Franks in 1187:
The dead were scattered over the mountains and valleys, lying immobile on their sides. Hittīn shrugged off their carcasses, and the perfume of victory was thick with the stench of them. I passed by them and saw the limbs of the fallen cast naked on the field of battle, scattered in pieces over the site of the encounter, lacerated and disjointed, with heads cracked open, throats split, spines broken, necks shattered, feet in pieces, noses mutilated, extremities torn off, members dismembered, parts shredded, eyes gouged out, stomachs disembowelled, hair covered with blood, the praecordium slashed, fingers sliced off, the thorax shattered, the ribs broken, the joints dislocated, the chests smashed, throats slit, bodies cut in half, arms pulverized, lips shrivelled, foreheads pierced, forelocks dyed scarlet, breasts covered with blood, ribs pierced, elbows disjointed, bones broken, tunics torn off, faces lifeless, wounds gaping, skin flayed, fragments chopped off, hair lopped back skinless, bodies dismembered, teeth knocked out, blood spilt, life’s last breath exhaled, necks lolling, joints slackened, pupils liquefied, heads hanging, livers crushed, ribs staved in, heads shattered, breasts flayed, spirits flown, their very ghosts crushed; like stones among stones, a lesson to the wise. (translation from F. Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades, London, 1957, p. 135).