At the recent Industry Committee meetings held at AUA Headquarters, I got a chance to speak with AUA President, Dr. Edward Messing, about the upcoming 2023 exhibit Battlefield Urology. He advised me to read All Quiet on the Western Front – a book about World War I that I somehow missed in high school - recalling for me the scene of a soldier shot in the pelvis who cries for help two long days while Second Company searches for him. On the third day, they hear his “one last gurgling rattle.”
Since there was a waitlist at my online library, I purchased the Kindle version for 99 cents and started reading on my phone. The Battlefield Urology exhibit includes images and diary entries from urologist George Gilbert Smith (AUA President in 1936), who served as a medic behind the front lines in France in 1915, so I was intrigued to read more. All Quiet on the Western Front delivers the powerful perspective of a 19-year-old German soldier.
George Gilbert Smith, MD, in Compiégne, France, 1915.
Images courtesy Smith’s grandson, Ken Rush.
The book opens with a very good day: protagonist Paul Bäumer’s company was just relieved after fourteen days at the front and, thanks to English heavy artillery that killed half the men, everyone remaining receives double rations of sausage, bread and cigarettes. Paul muses, Katczinsky is right when he says it would not be such a bad war if only one could get a little more sleep.
As one expects, the story quickly turns dark and dreadful as new recruits at the front burrow into the earth and cry, wounded horses scream in terror, and gas creeps over the soldiers:
These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death: is it air-tight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots.
The gas mask in the Battlefield Urology exhibit takes on new dimensions in my mind.
The book includes many scenes in the hospital, which Paul describes:
On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the kidneys, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realizes for the first time in how many places a man can get hit.
Like the Battlefield Urology exhibit, Paul looks at war’s tremendous cost in terms of the wounded:
And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
“A hospital alone shows what war is.”
Take Dr. Messing’s advice and read this book. It is short (less than 200 pages in the Kindle version) and yet hammers home the understanding that those who serve in war are forever changed.