Health & Wellbeing

How the ANZACs still save lives today

Many soldiers who left Australian and New Zealand to fight in World War I couldn’t have known that their sacrifices would continue to save lives today. Desperate conditions created the need for greater developments in medicine – many of which are still used by health professionals today.


Getting injured on the Western Front in the early part of World War 1 didn’t leave a soldier with good prospects of health or survival. Even if he survived with his life, he may have sustained a terrible injury from heavy artillery fire. The ensuing bacterial infection would prove more damaging than the initial wound, made worse by the muddy, dirty trenches. Amputation was a common means of preventing the spread of infection, but was carried out in the field and without anaesthetic, and resulted in almost twice as many Australian soldier fatalities than there were in World War II..

As the war progressed, so did the support for war efforts from participating countries. Doctors and nurses were forced to try options which hadn’t been attempted before. According to a smh.com.au article on the subject, “amid the death and horror, combat has also ushered in breakthroughs in the treatment and care of the sick and injured.” Fighting together in a global war united medical experts from around the world, and mobilised resources from the home front.

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How has medicine changed in the last 100 years?

The emerging popularity of the motor car meant there were automobiles which could be used as ambulances, taking soliders away from the battleground and into environments where they had greater chances of survival.The scale and volume of the injured soldiers meant medical resources needed proper logistics. Better organisation lead to improved storage facilities, including developments in blood preservation in ‘blood banks’. Field hospitals which mobilised all available medical resources laid the foundation of the healthcare system we have today.

Once a soldier had made it to the field hospital, the usual antiseptics, like iodine, weren’t effective against wounds in trench conditions. Desperate for solutions, Henry Dakin, a British biochemist, mastered the formula for sodium hypochlorite—an antiseptic strong enough to kill bacteria without destroying the surrounding flesh. Dakin’s innovation saved thousands of lives. Dakin also worked with French surgeons to develop anaesthetic that could put a patient to sleep, but not into shock, enabling medical professionals to carry out the required surgery.

A range of conditions in World War I created a framework that was both fatal for soldiers and fertile for innovation. Warring factions brought new types of weaponry to the fight (heavy artillery, machine guns and long-range canons) and medical science had to keep up. Maxillofacial techniques were honed to repair faces and noses shattered by artillery. Broken thigh bones were a common injury but necessity popularised the ‘Thomas splint’—an orthopaedic technique still used in war zones today. There were huge advances in prosthetic limb technology, to meet the needs of the many amputees returning home. Rehabilitation and continuing care for returning soldiers, previously carried out by family members in homes, were bolstered by better education and organised health services from experienced medical professionals

We learned much of what we know today about hygiene and everyday fitness because of the sacrifices made by the soldiers. Those who practiced good hygiene survived the longest. And those who had the physical stamina to endure long marches fared better than their weaker counterparts on the battlefield. Observations of soldiers at war lead to public education about hygiene and physical education in public schools.

All the ANZACs are gone now. Alec Campbell, the oldest surviving ANZAC, died in 2002. Their memories live on with us, through the stories we tell and the artefacts they left behind. As you reflect this ANZAC Day on the men and women who gave their lives to our country, consider the difference they made to our medical and healthcare system too.

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