Friday, February 21, 2014

Lady Helena Gleichen: British Radiographer on the Italian Front

It was November 1916. The Italians had already lost tens of thousands of men during their battles with the Austrians along the Isonzo River, the main area of the Italian front. But the recent sixth Battle of the Isonzo—otherwise known as the Battle of Gorizia—had been different. Although just as costly as the previous battles in terms of the loss of Italian lives, this conflict had provided the surviving Italians with an enormous boost in morale: they had finally been able to take Gorizia, a city within the border of Austria-Hungary that was home to many ethnic Italians. Capturing this territory was part of the reason the Italians had entered the war.

            The enormous number of Italian casualties from that battle had kept radiographers Lady Helena Gleichen and Nina Hollings frantically busy as they tried to assist the surgeons in locating deadly pieces of metal embedded within the bodies of wounded men.

            But the fighting continued, so the women were still working hard several months later as they attempted to cross the Isonzo River on their way to a hospital on the other side. They were stopped by Carabinieri (Italian police) who told them that the bridge was being shelled and was too dangerous to cross. As the women waited in their transport, chatting with others who were also waiting by the riverbank, an orderly suddenly came running through the crowd shouting: “Badly wounded men at the head of the bridge—is there an ambulance?” Someone needed to be willing to turn around and take the wounded men away from the river to the nearest field hospital.

            The women turned to the ambulance driver standing next to them. He shook his head: his transport was already full. There were no other suitable transports available in the crowd except for the women’s car. Without further hesitation, they quickly emptied it of their precious X-ray equipment, asking a soldier to watch over it while they were gone. The shells headed for the bridge were increasing. Nina went to see if she could help with another wounded man waiting near the river as Helena tried to turn their car around. She managed to do so just as eight wounded men—two of them serious “stretcher cases”—were shoved into the back of the car.

            Racing through the twisted road back into Gorizia, Helena and the wounded passed some men on mules and horses who shouted, “You can’t pass this way! The road is being shelled!” But one of the seriously wounded men was bleeding so badly he would die if he didn’t receive immediate medical care. What could Helena do?

Opening paragraphs from "Helena Gleichen: X-Ray Expert on the Italian Front" from Women Heroes of World War I.

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