A quote from the Belgian historian Francis Balace, paraphrasing the comment on the first lunar landing: "Two steps back for humanity, but a giant step forward in medical progress", summarizes the impact of the Great War on medicine in a few short words. While some men compete in ingenuity in an effort to annihilate their own kind, others make every effort to save them. Medicine has never progressed more rapidly than during armed conflicts. Faced with the flood of wounded and the range of injuries, physicians during the First World War had to find new reserves of efficiency and technical skill.
Unwillingly pulled into this conflict, Belgium very quickly realises its many deficiencies, particularly in medical terms. In 1914, two organisations are in charge of looking after the wounded in wartime: the Army Medical Corps and the Red Cross. In principle, the former treats the wounded on the battlefield and evacuates them into the care of the Red Cross. The mission of the latter, for its part, is to provide the materials and personnel needed for medical practices.
When the war breaks out, neither of the two institutions is capable of providing the minimum services entrusted to them. Burdened by military bureaucracy and tradition, these two organisations leave Belgium severely short of means. Faced with this dramatic finding, the improvisation and resourcefulness of the Belgians help to overcome these shortcomings.
Nevertheless, at the start of the 20th century, medical knowledge in Belgium is far from antiquated. Future physicians receive quality education, provided by talented specialists. They include the "prophetic" Antoine Depage. History will especially remember his most important work: L'Océan, the hotel in La Panne that is transformed into a major surgery hospital thanks to his genius. A true venue for scientific emulation, L’Océan will become an international model where countless international physicians will work side by side.
Medicine in 14-18 has little in common with what was seen during previous wars. Throughout the conflict, it improves steadily. Belgium becomes ground zero for fearsome experiences that will become sadly famous. Amongst other things, it's in our country that the Germans carried out the first successful gas attack in history. To combat this new weapon, physicians from the entire world must collaborate closely. Without doubt, physicians are the last ramparts of civilisation. Such scientists will have the greatest benefit of hindsight with regard to the war. As their mission is to heal at any price, there is no more thought of "friend" or "foe", but simply men mutilated by the atrocities of the conflict. But medicine will not be limited to healing the wounded; it will strive to once again give human traits to people who have lost everything.
The war will see the birth of new medical methods and concepts that will have a relatively important and lasting impact on the medicine of today. Was such a murderous conflict necessary in order to benefit from these many medical advances? No one can answer that. In any event, though this war forced the medical field to surpass itself, it also cast a spotlight on the horror employed by the belligerents in order to kill one another, while encouraging them to stop the massacre.