The Medical Front in WW1

The commemoration in October of one of WW1’s heroines, Nurse Edith Cavell, also highlights the pioneering work carried out in other hospitals at home and on the Front during the First World War.

One of the innovations was the use of Sphagnum moss, or Bog moss, as an effective dressing for wounds. As hundreds of thousands of dressings were required, sufficient gauze and cotton wool became difficult to obtain. An Edinburgh surgeon, Dr Cathcart, revived the use of this soft moss which can absorb up to ten times its own weight in water. Dr Cathcart established a centre for the preparation of dressings from the moss, in order to supplement medical supplies at home and on the Front. Other such centres were established.

Sphagnum Moss

The moss grows abundantly on wet moorland and mountains in colours: white, yellow, crimson, green and brown and, under the direction of the moorland keeper, local working parties were organised to collect it. In the BK 10, Brigg collection in Keighley Library, there is a dried sample with a note attached which says “Rombalds Moor – very good, Keighley Moor – good”, as well as the letter and note shown (BK10/683/9/2).

Keighley Library also holds the publication, Recollections of the War Hospital Keighley and its Auxiliaries 1916-1919. Keighley’s War Hospital was the former Keighley and Bingley Fever Hospital at Morton Banks and included local auxiliary hospitals: Spencer Street, Fell Lane, and Victoria. The brochure gives an excellent account of Keighley’s own contribution to medical advancement during the war, as the following extract shows from page 44:

The selection of Keighley War Hospital as a centre for American Surgeons to see the latest developments in Military Surgery proved interesting interludes in the daily routine. To some 30 American Red Cross Surgeons a series of lectures on modern methods of treating wounds, gas gangrene, gas poisoning, &c., was delivered by Major Brander, while in the wards demonstrations and clinical discourses on methods of dealing with the more interesting and obscure results of modern warfare were given by Majors Dobie and Brander.

Up to June 1919 – 13, 214 soldiers were admitted to Keighley hospitals, they included mostly medical or surgical cases but also 105 German POWs and 156 soldiers suffering from gas poisoning. The Keighley Surgical Supply Depot, employing local women, produced over 108,700 swabs and bandages.

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