HHH column: Just a scratch by James Kennaway

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by another member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contribution here. This month, the floor is for James Kennaway, assistant professor at the University of Groningen. James gives us a preview of his forthcoming book, with the provisional title Just a Scratch: Empire, Race and Fortitude in Military Surgery in the British Empire, 1800-1914.

James Kennaway

“Just a scratch”The cult of heroic fortitude in military surgery 1789-1914

In the aftermath of the famous repulsed assault on the Redan bastion during the siege of Sebastopol in 1855, The Times’ Crimean War correspondent William Howard Russell recorded hearing a soldier who had undergone amputation saying “‘Had I another pair of legs, the country and you would be welcome to them!’” Russell had seen many of his friends dead and wounded, but, in the midst of the carnage and suffering, he was struck by how “the spirit of some of these noble fellows triumphed over all their bodily agonies… Many men in hospital, after losing leg or arm, said they ‘would not have cared if they had only beaten the Russians.’” In a way typical of the period, he went on to put the celebration of sangfroid in the face of misery in explicitly national terms, writing that, “Although the Russians have been justly praised for their endurance of pain, I must say I never beheld them submit to such tortures as our men experienced.”

A wounded soldier having his foot dressed by a nun, while her assistant holds a bowl of water. Coloured lithograph by J.H. Marlet, 1817. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Such sentiments involve a combination of grit and patriotic fervour that can seem extraordinary to 21st century eyes. Indeed, it is tempting to mock the whole over-the-top “it’s only a scratch” and “only a flesh wound” affect as a pose or a fraud, and it certainly presented an easy target for later comedians. However, an ideal of extreme surgical endurance was remarkably common and influential in the 19th century. While an admiration for toughness has no doubt existed throughout the history of war, this fixation on the business of surgery and amputation in battle was rather novel. That is partly because the expansion of medical services and advances in surgical technique meant that far more men survived the experience, but also because Romantic Militarism imbued warfare and patriotic sacrifice with a peculiar glamour, something reflected in memoirs by surgeons and soldiers and in countless scenes of surgical bravery in the boy’s own adventure fiction. Earlier Enlightenment conceptions of the military profession had not generally exhibited much enthusiasm for undergoing surgery, and later the experience of industrial-scale random death in the First World War seriously undermined the sense that individual grit in surgery was something glorious.

The recurring fascination with surgery sangfroid in the period between is the subject of my forthcoming book, provisionally entitled Just a Scratch: Empire, Race and Fortitude in Military Surgery in the British Empire, 1800-1914. It starts by looking at the emergence of a culture of patriotic surgical sacrifice during the Napoleonic Wars and at how it related to the shifting scientific ideas of race and masculinity. It considers the surgical discourse on what ethnic and racial groups could be expected to show emotional and physical resilience in surgery, be they “Celts” and “Anglo-Saxon” troops or the “martial races” that the British encountered on their own side or as enemies. Certain groups were supposed to have less sensitive nerves than white soldiers, meaning that their apparent courage could be discounted. Others were regarded as weak, fit subjects for colonial domination.

If you would like to read more, two articles from this project have already been published: