This is a watercolour painting by Charles Bell, a British Army surgeon who helped to treat the wounded after the Battle of Waterloo. His haunting paintings are stark reminders of what early 19th century battle injuries were like. They are rare images executed by a practising surgeon and artist, which was an unusual combination. While his portraits show the agony and trauma experienced by these young men, they also describe their wounds with anatomical accuracy.

This entry includes graphic illustrations of war injuries which some may find upsetting.

Charles Bell (1774 – 1842) was born and grew up in Edinburgh. While studying medicine at Edinburgh University, he also took drawing classes to develop his artistic skills. In 1804 he moved to London where he would become an accomplished surgeon and anatomist.

10 days after the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815, Bell joined the military surgeons working tirelessly to treat the thousands of soldiers suffering from terrible wounds inflicted by cannon and musket balls, sabres and other devastating weapons of war. He documented his experiences through sketches, and used these to later paint detailed watercolours. In the absence of photography, Bell’s illustrations and accompanying notes were used for teaching both military and civilian medics.

The main image shows a British soldier called Wanstall, who had suffered a gunshot wound to the skull.  The cross wound in Wanstall’s head with the perfect circle in the centre is evidence of trepanning. In this procedure, the surgeons would cut a circle out of the skull to remove pressure on the brain.

The second image illustrates a British soldier whose left arm has been shot away by a cannon ball. In this painting, we can see he is clearly in pain. In his remaining hand he grasps a rope to pull himself up the bed. His terrible wound is still open and would have been difficult to close because of the swelling. The image shows an arterial ligature (tie) applied to the main artery supplying blood to the soldier’s arm to stem the bleeding. This was probably an emergency procedure performed on the field.

The third image shows an unknown soldier with a chest wound.

 

Did you know..?

During the battle of Waterloo, the Earl of Uxbridge survived having his leg shot away by a cannon ball. The prosthetic leg made for him was highly sophisticated for the time – it bent at the knee and the foot flexed up at the ankle, preventing the toes catching on the cobbled streets. These ‘articulations’ were controlled by strips of kangaroo tendon.

Watch our video about anatomy and the work of Charles Bell.

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This object is in the collection of Army Medical Services Museum