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My grandfather, the Great War and Medicine

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1942, aged 45.

My mother said his death was linked to his war experiences, that he’d been gassed and lost a leg, but that was all I knew about him. I’ve got just the one photograph of him, (the one alongside) taken in about 1928 with my mother and her older brother on his knee. A close look at the photograph reveals that he’d lost fingers from his hand too.

I suspect I wouldn’t have tried to find out more if I hadn’t been editing and writing a small group pf books for the new Edexcel GCSE spec. I have no links to Edexcel – it was simply that Hodder asked Dale Banham and myself to tackle three of the five elements of the Edexcel spec and we wanted to see if we could develop Dale’s teaching approaches featuring Visible Learning in textbooks.

Even then I hadn’t thought of writing the Historic Environment unit on medicine on the Western Front (not the proper title but that’s too long to keep typing) until the distant memory of my grandfather’s war popped into my head. And then it seemed obvious – apart from the fact that at that stage I knew almost nothing about him and knew relatively little about the Western Front, certainly not enough to feel confident writing a GCSE book. But that of course meant I was undertaking my own enquiry, in just the way students would be expected to do – maybe I could write it in a way that revealed what I learned as I went along rather than sounding like the usual know-all textbook writer!

Arthur William Mansley, my grandfather, was born in 1896 in Liverpool, the son of a shoemaker and had left school by the time the 1911 census was taken, to become his father’s assistant. What then transformed my enquiry, made it possible, was downloading his wartime Service Record (below) from the National Archives. I’d never seen one of these records before and at first it was bewildering – so many sets of initials, so many abbreviations. Confusingly every entry has two dates – the first one when the entry was made, the second the date of the event being recorded.

What did it all mean?


Resources are:

• His service record [ here ]

• His photo [ here ]

• ‘The Development of British Surgery at the Front’ by Surgeon-General Sir Anthony Bowlby, published in the British Medical Journal in June 1917 [ here ]

I downloaded this lengthy interesting summary article from the BMJ website –

You can get a free fortnight’s access to root around and see what’s in the archive – all the wartime editions of the BMJ are there. Most of it is incomprehensible to non-doctors but simply creating a list of article titles can help students see the kinds of work being done to improve treatments of the wounded.

• War Diaries entries from the battalion war diaries for the periods when my grandfather was with his battalions. Id like to thank Andrew Payne at the National Archives for sending me this material [ here ]

The Basics

My grandfather’s rank is given as OS (Ordinary Seaman) and then AB (Able Seaman) and the Date of Entry says he joined the RNVR – the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve for the RND – Royal Naval Division. It sounds as if he was a sailor but no ships are mentioned in the document and all the places listed are on land. So was Arthur a soldier or sailor? The answer is – both. In 1914 the navy had far too many men so the Royal Naval Division was created, using those sailors as soldiers to fight on land – but they kept their naval ranks and anyone who joined later (as Arthur did) was given a naval rank even though he fought on land as a soldier.

He enlisted in December 1916 and on 22 June 1917 he received orders sending him to the 4th Reserve Division at Blandford, Dorset. In October 1917 he joined Nelson Battalion of the RND and in April 1918 he was transferred to Anson Battalion.

I then explored his experiences in the sequence of topics in the spec – starting with what kind of place the Western Front was and how the terrain and conditions had particular effects on illnesses, wounds and medical care. And this stage also made me think differently about this particular unit. Until then I’d been a bit pompous about the Edexcel approach to the Historic Environment unit – the British sector of the Western Front didn’t seem a proper ‘site’, not like a castle or an abbey. Its presence in the spec just seemed an excuse to include some more 20th century history. But the more I read the more I realised that this was a worthwhile site to explore – the nature of the site had significant and particular effects on illnesses, wounds and medical care and within the site there were significant variations which had to be taken into account. Most notably the British army’s previous recent experiences of war had been in hot, dry landscapes but now it was faced with a very different terrain – in South Africa wounds had healed with minimal care, in France and Belgium the bacteria in the soil (the product of centuries of farmland being manured) caused gas gangrene, a phenomenon the army medical services were initially poorly-placed to deal with. Clearly the Western Front was not just a ‘geographical expression’ but an integral contributor to the particular medical experiences of soldiers, doctors and nurses.

From there I explored the medical problems my grandfather experienced in 1918 and how typical his experiences were. First in January came the mysterious PUO.Sev which stands for Pyrexia of Unknown Origin – Sev I assume means ‘severe’. Pyrexia is the medical name for the illness known as trench fever. Then came the entry for 16 April 1918 which says he was admitted to the General Hospital at Aubengue with NYD.N.Mld on 10 April, only two weeks after he returned to duty from having trench fever.  What was NYD.N? Answer - NYD.N was the army code for shell-shock. It means ‘Not Yet Diagnosed. Nervous.’ ‘Mld’ presumably means ‘mild’. Both experiences led me to find out a lot more than I knew (which hadn’t been much anyway) about these very different health problems.

By then I was becoming intrigued by the absence of any reference in Arthur’s Service record to him being gassed and I began to hypothesise that he had never been gassed but had told the family and others that he’s been gassed because it was easier than telling them about shell-shock. And I put this in the text I was writing for students:

What is particularly interesting from my point of view is that there was no family talk of him having shell-shock but my mother said he was gassed – and there is no reference to gas poisoning in his record. I now wonder if he invented the story of being gassed as a cover-story when he got home in case the symptoms of shell-shock reappeared. It would be much less shaming to say he’d been gassed than he’d suffered from shell-shock – but, of course, I cannot prove this.

I felt quite proud of myself for finding a solution to the anomaly of gas not being mentioned in his record.

And so I continued, exploring how he would have been helped, when wounded, from the front to hospital, who would have tended him, the nature of weaponry and its impact and finally to how he would have been treated when wounded. First came the ‘mild’ bayonet wound to the scalp and then, in August 1918 the GSW – GunShot Wounds – which led to the amputation of his left leg. What became clear at every stage was that if he had to be wounded then being wounded in 1918 was far better than in 1914 because huge strides had been taken in effective evacuation, medical care, methods of antisepsis and surgery, the use of technical apparatus, all of which meant that men wounded in 1918 had a far higher chance of survival than in 1914.

And along the way I learned more about how victims of gas poisoning had been treated. Brought up on extracts and images which were chosen to illustrate the worst effects of gas I hadn’t realised that in many cases the effects of gas – blindness, loss of taste and smell and coughing – were short-lived and disappeared after two weeks of treatment. Doctors near the Front (rather than in hospitals well behind the lines) gave sufferers oxygen to reduce breathing problems and washed the skin thoroughly to remove traces of poison gas.  Most of those who feared they had been blinded recovered their sight. And this meant I included this paragraph, a couple of pages after pronouncing that I didn’t think Arthur has been gassed:

In the section on shell-shock on page 000 I came to the conclusion that my grandfather was probably not gassed because there was no reference to being gassed in his service record. However, reading about the impact of gas has led to me rethinking this conclusion. Until now I had seen gas as a particularly dangerous weapon which led to death or major health problems in most cases. I thought that if Arthur had been gassed he would have been in hospital and that would have appeared on his record. Yet the evidence I have read suggests that many men affected by gas were never admitted to hospitals so perhaps I need to revise my conclusion that Arthur was not gassed. It’s quite possible he may have been gassed but that it doesn’t appear in his record because he was treated close to the front line without hospitalization. To find out more I would need to find out more about the battles he took part in but I’ll say more about that later on page 00.

Shock, horror, textbook writer makes a mistake! Great opportunity for some hypothetical language though. And that was one the advantages of writing this step by step as I did the enquiry myself – I couldn’t write it in a cut and dried way which would give students an entirely false impression of how history is investigated.


Of course that’s a snapshot of what, in 42 pages, is a longer, more detailed enquiry, replete with tasks and all the other things you’d expect of a GCSE enquiry. In the end I felt that pursuing my own real enquiry had much enhanced what I was doing although. I did wonder as I went along whether the enquiry would make me feel closer to my grandfather. However my honest reaction is that he still feels like someone from history to me – someone I am interested in but the ‘blood connection’ doesn’t feel any closer. I’ve studied many other individuals from the past, especially from the Wars of the Roses and I don’t feel any closer to Arthur than I do those people in the 1400s. Not sure what to make of that!

On the other hand in the week I wrote the conclusion we visited York Minster, somewhere we’ve often visited before. This time I realised I was paying much closer attention to World War One memorials to individual soldiers and to regiments. In my mind I was asking questions such as ‘Did he get help at a Casualty Clearing Station or Aid Post?’ ‘How many stretcher-bearers did it take to carry him?’ The enquiry had created the ‘scenery’ in which I can now imagine the people in the memorials. Tucked away, sadly hidden in a corner, is the memorial in this photograph, listing all the women who were killed in the war – although the immense Five Sisters window is dedicated to those women. The lists of names on the boards begin with Queen Alexandra nurses but there are many others too, including women from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa and a long list of names of munitions workers.

So there we are – GCSE spec teaches aged historian something new!

The finished text may be a different approach to writing a GCSE enquiry but maybe something different will be helpful – and maybe it will be interesting even to those not teaching that part of the Edexcel spec and even those teaching other specs!

Later …

… after I had researched and written up the enquiry I obtained copies of the War Diaries of the Battalions my grandfather served in. You can find extracts [ here ]. Their main interest for me is that they provide brief details of the attacks in which he was wounded. From a medical point of view there’s a single reference to gas being used against the section of the front line he was in as well as more numerous references to medical inspections and bathing when out of the front line.

Other Information

If anyone teaching this Edexcel Hist Env unit would like more information about the full enquiry do get in touch.

Other useful links (just a few there are loads!):

Imperial War Museum

The RAMC in the Great War


The Long, Long Trail - section on the medical treatment of casualties www.1914

The BBC website has several valuable items in various places

Finally Tony Hier at Thomas Tallis School has begun collecting and collating resources for this enquiry at


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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The Basics


Other Information