King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Wounds suffered on the battlefield

Plate showing stages and processes of amputations to the lower limbs, with accompanying textPlate showing stages and processes of amputations to the lower limbsThe weapons used at Waterloo included the rifle, iron musket balls, various types of cannon-ball and hand-arms such as the sword and sabre. All these were designed to inflict severe and mortal damage on adversaries.

Treatment methods for the common wounds inflicted on the battlefield were simple: for a chest or abdominal wound, the soldier might be probed for the foreign object and then stitched up to let fate run its course; for a smashed limb the soldier would know to expect amputation.

The only solace to the prospective amputee – and one which must have seemed a long way distant from the blood-soaked operating table on a foreign field – was that a wooden leg or missing arm would be an enduring badge of honour for a soldier if and when he returned home.

The book featured here examines debates among military and civil surgeons as to operating procedures and whether delayed or immediate amputation is better for the patient. At Waterloo surgeons and soldiers were in agreement that immediate amputation was best for both parties. Surgeons were naturally extremely busy and in an era before antisepsis, to prevent inflammation, infection and gangrene, immediate amputation was the generally accepted surgical technique for anything beyond a minor injury or flesh wound.

The speed in which surgical procedures were carried out was essential for both minimising the period of extreme pain to the patient and giving them the best chance of survival. Away from the battlefield, surgeons often demonstrated their skill in public and it was the despatch with which surgeons performed their work that drew spectators to marvel.

The text provides direct accounts of operations and the related techniques used in the application of ligatures and tourniquets. The plate and accompanying explanations shown here illustrate the stages and processes of various amputations to the lower limbs, including the calculations necessary to secure a good ‘flap’ (figure 2) and thus avoid ‘a bad stump, tedious of cure.’

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