Lessons Learned

By Andrew Robertson In   Issue Volume 18 No. 3 .

One of the important lessons that all military health personnel should learn early on is that, as originally expostulated by George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I have recently reviewed some old letters from my Great-Uncle Captain Gordon Ochiltree Robertson, who served as the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) for the 57th Battalion A.I.F from 13 March 1918 until the 24 April 1919. His RMO’s report for the month of October 1918 was enlightening, as follows:

“On the night of 1st/2nd we were relieved from the line running just west of ESTREES and proceeded back to the canal bank north of BELLICOURT.  On the 2nd October we marched back to TEMPLEUX. We then moved back to PERONNE and on 8th/9th we entrained to MARTAINNEVILLE and marched to our present position in three villages. Some of the billets were found to be good but some are only dirt floors and very poor walls and roofs.
There was an absolute absence of sanitary arrangements when we first arrived and ablution troughs and latrines had to be provided from biscuit boxes and tins salvaged and collected from canteens. After about 2 weeks ablution troughs came to hand through Brigade to whom application had been made from the start.  The sanitary section were unable to provide much material owing to the general shortage.
Illness since in this area has been practically normal except for influenza, of which a fair number of cases have been evacuated.
Owing to lack of suitable accommodation a sick hut is not established but minor cases of boils, impetigo and similar cases are being treated in the lines.  A few cases of venereal disease have been evacuated during the month but in every case the men were infected while on Paris or English leave.  The men now are in better condition than when they left the line but are by no means completely restored to their normal mental and physical condition.
Stretcher bearers are being trained as much as possible under the circumstances but owing to our being billeted in 3 different villages I have been unable to lecture to the bearers as frequently as I wish to and have had to entrust the bulk of the training to my N.C.O.’s.
I have attended to about 20 cases of illness among the Civilians (French).  One case of broncho pneumonia which died in Hospital in ABBEVILLE, one maternity case and the remainder influenza of greater or less severity.”

Even in this short report from near the end of the war, we see the important issues of sanitation, bacterial skin infections, sexually transmitted diseases, logistics, first-aid training, mental health, pandemic influenza (although they probably did not know it at this stage) and even obstetrics addressed. All of these issues remain important considerations in the health management of fighting troops and, although we have far better pharmaceutical options than in Captain Robertson’s time, I wonder if we really have sorted out the broader environmental health, logistic, mental health and training issues in 2010.

Sixty years ago, on 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Australian forces were committed immediately and were to be involved in the fighting over the next three years. In remembrance, the Journal is intending to publish a Korean War themed issue in April 2011. I would encourage all our readers who have had an involvement with the Korean War, through veterans, family or a general interest in the conflict, to consider submitting an article on this theme. As always, other articles on the military and veteran’s health theme are most welcome, as represented by the excellent calibre and range of articles in this issue.

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