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Hodder History Expert Blog

Waterloo 200, part 2
By Michael Crumplin
10 Jul
I am a curator at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and have taken on the mantle of education co-ordinator for the Waterloo200 Committee. The committee’s website gives some idea of the many aspects of conflict available for study - medical, cultural, military strategy and tactics and their controversies, the camp followers, life on the home front, political change and ultimate efficiency and cohesion, the maintenance of a strong Royal Navy, also, agriculture and food production to an unimaginable scale.

What has been a fascinating journey was the attempt to understand the practice of the craft of surgery. One soon fully appreciated that all that we have today in the way of relative comfort and safety just wasn’t there - also understanding how patients and medical men alike could tolerate, by our standards, such crude and difficult medical practice of 200 years ago.

Over the long wars with France (1792-1815), there were some healthcare advances.  In the Royal Navy, there were significant public health measures achieved by 1805, adequate food delivery most of the time, improved clothing, hygiene and the virtual eradication of smallpox and scurvy. These were achieved by dedicated reformers, mutinies and also many commanders who cared about their men.  The superiority of the British fleets reflected these successes, coupled with strict discipline. In six major sea battles, (1794-1805), British naval casualties numbered 5,749, compared with 38,970 French and Spanish killed and wounded. Our navy lost 10 capital ships, the enemy - 377 vessels.

The British Army had a tough start in the 23-year long war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, losing around a third of its total losses in the first few years of the war. These losses reflected the difficult defence of the rich Caribbean trades (Yellow Fever being the great killer) and the attempts to oust the French forces from the Low Countries, in difficult weather conditions, during 1794/5 and three further failed military (and medical) expeditions to the Netherlands. In the Peninsular War (1808-14), Sir Arthur Wellesley and his slowly expanding army struggled to vanquish various French forces several times their size. With good intelligence support from the Spaniards, and massive logistical efforts to import grain, meat and other supplies from Britain, America and the Baltic, and establishing advanced supply depots, Wellesley fought his way to and fro in Spain and Portugal until he gained the Pyrenees and defeated the French at Toulouse, in the spring of 1814.

During the Peninsular War the Army Medical Department grew in stature under the brilliant guidance of Sir James McGrigor, a resolute Aberdonian doctor. Also, there was an increasingly experienced group of medical men, who probably achieved as much as was feasible before the advent of that knowledge and those advantages we enjoy today. After Toulouse the average casualty mortality in hospital was impressively around 12%. These wars went some way to enhance the reputation and status of surgery and many of the experienced surgeons who had served in the armed forces went on to be significant achievers in their profession.

The unexpected escape of Bonaparte from Elba and the Battle of Waterloo ended the long war. The cost of the conflict had been high - a greater proportional population loss for the UK than that suffered in the First World War, 
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