Pain through the prism of war

From tales of stoic acceptance to frenzies of screaming, the way soldiers have reported their suffering has been transformed over the past 150 years, according to Joanna Bourke...

A nurse on the French Eastern border treats a wounded soldier during the First World War. (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

When an elderly Carlos Paton Blacker sat down to write his war memoir, he had one aim in mind: “Nobody should be allowed to forget” the physical pain men suffered, he told his son. He wanted his readers to know what it was like to lie wounded in a hospital marquee at Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai during the First World War. The marquee was like “a torture chamber”, he recalled, “in which spasms of pain were being inflicted by invisible tormentors”. He described how one patient emitted a “howl of pain as he tried to move a limb”, only to have his screams echoed by another tortured patient and “then another until it seemed that all the prostrate men on the packed stretchers were wailing in unison”.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now