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Leo van Bergen - Before My Helpless Sight
Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front,1914-1918

Despite the numerous vicious conflicts that scarred the twentieth century, the horrors of the Western Front continue to exercise a particularly strong hold on the modern imagination. The unprecedented scale and mechanization of the war changed forever the way suffering and dying were perceived and challenged notions of what the nations could reasonably expect of their military.


Examining experiences of the Western Front, this book looks at the life of a soldier from the moment he marched into battle until he was buried. In five chapters - Battle, Body, Mind, Aid, Death - it describes and analyzes the physical and mental hardship of the men who fought on a front that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.

Beginning with a broad description of the war it then analyzes the medical aid the Tommies, Bonhommes and Frontschweine received - or all too often did not receive - revealing how this aid was often given for military and political rather than humanitarian reasons (getting the men back to the front or munitions factory and trying to spare the state as many war-pensions as possible). It concludes with a chapter on the many ways death presented itself on or around the battlefield, and sets out in detail the problems that arise when more people are killed than can possibly be buried properly.

In contrast to most books in the field this study does not focus on one single issue - such as venereal disease, plastic surgery, shell-shock or the military medical service - but takes a broad view on wounds and illnesses across both sides of the conflict. Drawing on British, French, German, Belgian and Dutch sources it shows the consequences of modern warfare on the human individuals caught up in it, and the way it influences our thinking on 'humanitarian' activities.

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Review: Before My Helpless Sight
Victor W. Sidel, MD - Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine - Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine - Bronx, New York

Leo van Bergens book, Before My Helpless Sight, is an extraordinary achievement on at least three levels. First, the book provides an invaluable trove of information on the history of war and on the history of medicine. Richly footnoted and indexed, with an extensive bibliography, it will be an important source of information for future historians and analysts of the role of the healing arts in relation to armed conflict.

Second, the book presents a moving description of the Great War, supported by 20 remarkable illustrations. Rarely has there appeared such a readable narrative on the heroic and tragic ways in which a war was fought and the dedicated yet at times inept ways in which medical workers attempted to tend the dying and treat the wounded.

Third, and most importantly, the book holds clear lessons for our own times. The policy mistakes in the planning and the execution of the war, the military mistakes in strategy and tactics, and the medical mistakes in triage and treatment during the Awar to end all wars must be remembered or they will undoubtedly be repeated in future wars. The descriptions of the dysfunctional and shameful ways in which combatants were sent into battle and of the suffering not only through physical wounds but also through what was then called shell shock and is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome, are directly relevant to the discussions of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This book is the most recent example of a long tradition of work in the Netherlands on medicine and its relationship to war, a field known as medical polemology. One of the leaders of this field of study and action was Dr. J.A. Verdoorn, whose pathbreaking book, Arts en Oorlog (Medicine and War) awakened many military and medical policy makers to the folly of modern warfare. The establishment of the Dutch Medical Association for Peace Research (NVMP), the affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in the Netherlands, has supported and strengthened this work.

English language readers, including members of Medact and readers of Medicine Conflict and Survival, will have access to this invaluable book because of the clear and evocative writing of the author and the excellent translation into English by Liz Waters. This book is an important contribution to an understanding of medical consequences of war and a much-needed contribution to the prevention of future wars.

Review: Before My Helpless Sight
by Christopher Albon (hhtp://

Leo van Bergenís book, Before My Helpless Sight, is a history of suffering in World War I, a description the author readily admits: ďAt the roots of the book lies the question of what can happen to a soldier between the moment he steps onto a train or ship bound for the theatre of battle an the point at which he is evacuated wounded, or whether dead or alive, buried in the groundĒ (pg. 1). Needless to say, the book is not a light read. Read more.......


Review: Before My Helpless Sight
A.W. Purdue (

The First World War gave war a bad name and, as the rather chilling title of this book forewarns, Leo van Bergen is keen to tell us why in grisly detail. No doubt a stroll around the battlefields of Agincourt or Flodden immediately after opposing armies clashed would have been grisly, but the total war on the Western Front was characterised by its industrial scale, the huge numbers involved and its perseverance with no breaks for the seasons or the harvests. The industrial image of the conflict is brought home not just by the machinery of war, the artillery, barbed wire, gas and the tank, but by van Bergen's concept of hospitals for the wounded as repair factories, putting men together again so that they could go back into action. Read more.......


WFA East Coast Chapter - Books on medical care

... I highly recommend this book to all who are students of that war and the wars of today because the real horrors of war are not on the battlefield but in the aide stations and hospitals then as now. Read more.......

Before my Helpless Sight - an excellent work
by Onne Eling (

Drawing from sources in four different languages the Dutch medical and military historian Leo van Bergen has written an excellent work on the wounds and diseases ravaging the World War I soldier at both sides of the front, and the aid he did or did not receive. He paints a rather grim picture of medical care, more driven by military and political arguments than humanitarian and closes with a chapter on the encounters with Death and the (impossibility of) burying following such encounters. Before my Helpless Sight - naturally a line from Owen's poem Dulce et Decorum but also referring to Kollwitz's statue of the Grieving Parents shown on the cover - is beautifully written, beautifully composed and - of course - horrible in content. It makes it a `must have' for all interested in topics of war and medicine, especially of course World War I

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