I love this painting, to me it epitomises all that it means to be a combat-carer in time of war; the threat of death or injury, the sheer physical hardship and the willingness to place oneself in harms way for the benefit of others.
Not only do I love this painting, I know it well, for it used to take pride of place on the wall of the Officers’ Mess at the Defence Medical Services Training Centre, Keogh Barracks near Aldershot. When I was based there as a student and later as an officer instructor, I would spend much time regarding this work of art, marveling at the detail. The actual painting is large – large enough to warrant the installation of a wooden balustrade to protect it from the high spirited antics of junior officers on Regimental Dinner nights. The sheer size of the painting is what enables the artist to convey the detail.
The bearers are under heavy shell fire and it is clearly not the height of summer, but this is dangerous, hard physical graft. The lead bearer is wrapped in a sheepskin jerkin and he appears to be wearing extra layers of fabric over his battledress trousers, yet he wears his sleeves rolled-up, ready for graft, the strain of the carry showing in the rigid tension of his muscular triceps and forearms.
As anyone who has taken part in a military log race or stretcher race will be able to tell, the angle of both men’s arms indicates that they are not hanging around. The front man is pulling hard, the exertion is clear on his face while the rear man is driving forward too; leaning in to the weight of the stretcher and casualty.
The stretcher bearers have two good reasons for moving as swiftly as possible. The first is the bursts of shellfire that are impacting on the parapet of the trench as they pass through it. In this section of line, the parapet seems to run at little more than head height , perhaps indicating that they are in a communication trench rather than a forward trench. The shallowness of the trench here renders the bearers more vulnerable to devastating fragmentation injuries to the head, neck and chest. The second is the condition of the wounded soldier. In painting the face of the casualty, Rogers has captured perfectly the waxy, ashen faced appearance of a man who is in the advanced stages of hypovolaemic shock and is struggling on the verge of circulatory collapse. If the two bearers do not get their patient to a surgeon soon, the chances are that he will die.
As a combat carer in a more recent and far less intense conflict, I can identify with every aspect of the painting. Not for the first time I am confronted by an image with which, barring differences in uniform, weapons and equipment, I am instantly familiar. This underlines the enduring and fundamentally human nature of war.
As we approach Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day in the UK and Commonwealth and Veterans’ Day in the USA, please take a moment to think of the courageous and compassionate Medical Services personnel of all Armies who have placed their lives in danger and all too often made the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live.
Major Barry Alexander is the author of ‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’ the true story of his experience providing medical support on the ground in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.