H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

How many lives were saved by the Medics and the Corpsmen?

The long way to recovery.

World War II was one of the most lethal conflicts in history. The belligerent sides had to scramble to develop a system that allowed as many wounded soldiers to be saved as possible. Based on British experiences in World War I, the U.S. Army developed a system of echelons: a casualty would move through larger and larger facilities, further and further away from the battlefield, ushered on as fast as possible, until he reached the level of care he needed.

A medic treating a wounded glider pilot near the wreckage of his plane during Operation Varsity in March, 1945

A freshly wounded soldier would, if lucky, have one of his unit’s medics crawl up to him within minutes. The medic would use the casualty’s own first aid kit: he would pour antibiotic sulfonamide powder on the wound, apply bandage, administer morphine for the pain and add a tag with a slip of paper detailing the treatment. After this, litter bearers would carry him to Echelon I: the battalion or regimental aid station, whichever was closer, some 300-500 yards behind the frontline. The aid station could be as little as a patch of ground with a red cross symbol, ready to pack up and move with the front.

A battalion aid station in Normandy

Once stabilized, the soldier would be picked up by a collecting company and taken by ambulance or litter, depending on terrain, to the collecting station some two miles behind the front and Echelon II. There he would receive emergency treatment and transported to a clearing station 4-10 miles from the lines. There, they would be sorted: those who could return to service in a few hours were held for that duration, while others were sent on Echelon III facilities.

Triage at a clearing station on Utah Beach, June 7, 1944

Echelon III consisted of 750-bed evacuation hospitals, which were essentially immobile, 400-bed semi-mobile evacuation hospitals that could be packed up in 8-10 hours once emptied of patients and deployed in 4-6 hours at a new site, and field hospitals. Field hospitals could be deployed either as a single 400-bed facility or three 100-bed installations, making it very versatile. These facilities had specialized surgeons, nursing care, X-rays, labs and pharmacies. Field hospitals were ideally within 30 miles of the front and received casualties within of hour of being wounded. Evacuation hospitals treated less urgent cases and could recondition soldiers to return to the front. Soldiers who made it to a field hospital had a 94% chance of survival.

One of several tented wards at a British mobile field hospital in Normandy

After a day or two at an Echelon III facility, a soldier could be transferred by rail, ship or plane to an Echelon IV institution: a hospital with 1,000-2,000 beds. Here, doctors would assess his status and try to determine if he could be returned to duty within a time limit dictated by policy and circumstances, typically 90 days, but this could be as little as 30 or as many as 120. If rehabilitation within that time seemed possible, the soldier would be treated, typically at a general hospital. These hospitals were often grouped into hospital centers and, despite the name, often specialized in one type of injury or illness: craniocerebral, eye, spine, chest, neuropsychiatric care, etc.

The 18th General Hospital on New Zealand in 1942, shortly before it was transferred to Fiji

Less serious cases could be treated at station hospitals instead, which had 25-900 beds and were usually attached to a specific post or garrison. The third type of Echelon IV institution was the convalescent center, designed for soldiers who would receive medical discharge when their recovery was as complete as possible. All Echelon IV hospitals had the same purpose: returning their patients to service without them having to leave the theater of operation.

Convalescent patients during rehabilitation at a station hospital

If a soldier was not likely to recover or was clearly incapable of it within the time limit, he would be sent home to the United States and placed in an Echelon V hospital. These were named general hospitals (Echelon IVs were only numbered), Veterans Administration facilities or civilian hospitals. If a soldier’s wound couldn’t be treated overseas, he would typically return to America two weeks after his injury.

Valley Forge General Hospital, an Echelon V hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania

The British and German systems were generally similar, both having been formed by the same experiences in World War I. The quality and specifics of German medical treatment, however, greatly depended on the situation. During the invasion of the Soviet Union, for example, aid stations often just couldn’t treat people at all, since they constantly had to be on the move. Battlefield conditions, of course, sometimes also affected the Allies. In North Africa, British troops sometimes outpaced their medical personnel so much that aid posts were left 50 miles behind the front. Americans suffered from similar problems in the Pacific, where the lack of roads and airstrips on islands made the use of ambulances and air transport impossible. Another difference was in triage: while American and British practice prioritized serious wounds over light ones to save as many lives as possible, German doctors treated light injuries first to return them to duty as quickly as possible, while seriously wounded soldiers had to wait more and, as consequence, sometimes didn’t survive even though they could have been saved.

Evacuation of German casualties in the Caucasus Mountains

You can learn more about the day-to-day experiences of soldiers on the battlefield on our historical tours to EuropeRussia and the Pacific!