This caricature by Staff-Sergeant W.L. Sherwood presents a sardonic view of the Medical Boards, which decided the fates of many soldiers during the First World War. Consisting of a panel of both military and civilian doctors, the boards sat to assess the individual fitness for work, service or pension (a disability allowance) of those who had been wounded or invalided in any way. Lt-Colonel Marsh, who in 1917 was promoted from Administrator of 1st Southern General to Assistant Director Medical Services Birmingham, recorded that the number of cases steadily increased as the war progressed and that ‘daily standing Medical Boards were needed at the large General Hospitals and these were often supplemented by Special Medical Boards’.1 Senior staff presided, frequently joined by experts and Marsh clearly perceived this duty as a grave responsibility, which he and his colleagues undertook with great care and seriousness.
The view from across the table, however, was evidently quite different. In A Medical Board Sherwood depicts the President of the Board as Satan being aided by devils. The process is portrayed as both capricious and malicious, with the men appearing as lost naked defenceless souls; helpless to resist and begging for mercy, they are ruthlessly raked to their doom in one of three cauldrons A, B or C. The target of the satire here is partly the insatiable habit of the military machine to consign individuals to their destiny by grading them, irrespective of their wishes and without their co-operation. The medical boards are central to this process, being required to administer both the initial fitness categories when men enlisted and also the disability assessment of the wounded to judge readiness for further service or otherwise. This dual responsibility was so awkward that official guidelines were issued for arranging the access to waiting rooms so that recruits and convalescents would be kept apart.
Similar motifs appear in another “Southern” Cross caricature, ‘Being marked Out’2 in which Satan browses a clipboard of medical records, whilst patients are being gleefully consigned by devils to one of three huge bags, destined either to ‘Auxiliary Hospital’ or ‘Furlou’ [leave]; the third option ‘Dep’ is probably "depot", meaning either one of the four principal "convalescent depots" at Blackpool, Epsom, Dartford or Eastbourne,3 or one of the rehabilitative training camps known as “Command depots”, the Southern Command one being at Sutton Coldfield.4 What makes this activity seem particularly sinister and clandestine here is that it is being carried out while the men are asleep.
Caricature by W.L. Sherwood, The “Southern” Cross, Vol.2, No.22, October 1917
1 J.E.H. Sawyer (ed.), The Birmingham Territorial Units, (Birmingham: Allday, 1921) p.175 2 ‘Being marked out’, W.L. Sherwood, The “Southern” Cross, Vol.3 No.30, June 1918 3 http://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/hospitals/ 4 http://www.1914-1918.net/command%20depots.htm
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