For millennia, armies at war have been decimated by injuries and by disease, with physicians struggling to combat both of these enemies. The First World War saw a huge shift: fully 90% of battle-injured soldiers who made it to medical care survived and proactive measures in troop encampments and billets prevented mass illness from preventable diseases. Dr. Tim Cook, Canada’s top military historian details the 1914-1918 conflict through the lens of those who fought at this “sharp end” – the Canadian Army Medical Corps. In his newest book, Life Savers and Body Snatchers, he highlights the tremendous advances in medical care forged in the crucible that was this war and Canada’s significant contribution to them. Cook’s book also brings to light a forgotten underbelly of the CAMC: the collection of body parts from fallen soldiers – brought to Canada from the field hospitals for “education purposes” – which were obtained without consent or regard for the men and their families.
Following the chronology of the war, Cook details the birth of the CAMC, its progress through the war, the unsung work of infectious disease prevention, the evolution of care and the development of radical new techniques, surgical and therapeutic. He examines the pitfalls that soldiers faced, from diseases such as typhus and trench foot picked up in the trenches to those picked up in the brothels of France, Belgium, and England. Battle by battle, Cook lays bare the combat injuries the men suffered as weapon technology progressed, and the mental trauma of those facing the unrelenting brutality of the war. Finally, he discusses the legacy of lessons learned in camps, on battlefields and from the influenza pandemic of 1918 – vaccination, sanitation and dental hygiene – that gave rise to improved public health measures in Canada after the war.
As with Cook’s previous works, this is a highly readable book; it is not a dry academic tome, but one filled with the stories of men and personalities. It has an immediacy, that draws a reader in and engages them effortlessly. It is not light reading, and readers should beware: this is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. The stories are often excruciating in their detail. Cook does not gloss over the sheer number of dead and wounded, does not veil the horror of injuries too many men faced in the nightmare that was the “Great War”. It is, however, an incredibly important story, to this point untold and unheralded, of brave and dedicated Canadian civilian doctors and nurses who patched up the battlefield injured, often at a great cost to their own mental health and even to their lives.
TIM COOK is the Chief Historian and Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum. His bestselling books have won multiple awards, including three Ottawa Book prizes for Literary Non-Fiction and two C.P. Stacey Awards for the best book in Canadian military history. In 2008 he won the J.W. Dafoe Prize for At the Sharp End and again in 2018 for Vimy: The Battle and the Legend. Shock Troops won the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Cook is a frequent commentator in the media, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Canada.
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