Rethinking medical neutrality and enemy encounters during World War Two: perspectives for further research

Last month, Frances Hougthon, Laure Humbert and Raphaële Balu presented papers at the conference ‘Enemy Encounters’ hosted by the IWM Institute for the Public Understanding of War and Conflict and Cardiff University. This fascinating and thought-provoking online conference organized by Prof. Holly Furneaux and Matilda Greig explored enmity and allegiances at war between 1800 and 2020 and offered a fascinating interdisciplinary range of presentations exploring all kind of conflicts, from the American Civil War to the Libyan War. (Programme available here)

In our panel, brilliantly chaired by Prof. Tobias Kelly (University of Edinburgh) the three of us focused on WW2 and examined enemy encounters in medical situations. The starting point of our reflection was the contested concept of “medical neutrality” and normative frameworks regulating medical encounters with enemy bodies. In other words, we asked how relevant was medical neutrality and impartiality (as either defined by the Geneva Conventions or medical ethics) when it came to the care of wounded enemies in such diverse medical spaces as the French resistance and the Royal Navy? This question seemed important at the beginning of our collective reflection on Allied medical practices. It echoed some of the recent discussion held during our workshop in June 2021 (summary available here).  Behind this focus on ethical norms and humanitarian principles, further questions emerged: what shaped the emotional response to the enemy among caregivers? What were the main dilemmas posed by the experiences of treating enemy bodies? How far was it possible to remain ‘impartial’ and in line with the Red Cross symbol when resources were extremely scarce? Frances questioned the traditional image attached to naval forces, according to which a common exposure to the fury of the elements would be at the origin of ‘fellow feelings’ between enemies fighting at sea. Laure asked if and how nationality, class and gender could have influenced the attitude toward wounded enemies through various battlefield. Raphaële explored the physical and psychological impact of repression on resistance’s caregivers and wondered how the traumas inflected challenged their practices and ethics.

Frances’ paper, entitled “‘All in the Same Boat’? Emotional Medical Encounters with Enemy Bodies in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945”, was based on her current research on medical care and masculine culture in Britain’s Royal Navy. She wondered “how far, from a medical perspective, enemy bodies were affectively viewed once they became part of the medical encounter in a British warship?”. Focusing on the memoirs of Surgeon Lt Ransome Wallis, a naval doctor who served at sea during WW2 and encountered many captured Germans, she considered both national stereotypes and how enemies’ bodies became “medical objects of professional interest” for the British medic. Based on encounters reported in Wallis’ memoirs, she concluded that they “reveal a complex web of shifting and conflicting emotions” and that “perhaps the key takeaway point is to think about how affective responses to enemy encounters are intrinsically mutable”.

R. Ransome Wallis, Two Red Stripes: A Naval Surgeon at War (London: Ian Allen, 1973)

Laure pursued her reflection about the International Hadfield Hospital through the prism of enemy encounters. Readers of this blog are now quite familiar with this hospital, created by Mary Spears in 1939 and which followed combatants during the 1940 campaign in France before it was reorganized in London after the French defeat and redeployed wherever Free French forces fought between 1940 and 1945. Studying this specific medical environment, Laure was able to identify different enemy encounters – whether they were Italian, German or even French – for example during the Syrian campaign in which Free French fought Vichy forces. Despite the presence of identifiable national and gendered prejudices, traces of mistreatment of wounded enemy bodies were, she argued, very rare. The numerous archives about the hospital raise many fascinating questions: “How far were emotional responses to the ‘enemy’, shaped by gender, nationality, class, pacifist convictions and religion? To what extent did medical encounters with enemy bodies change throughout the war – as the hospital operated successively through Middle East, Western desert, Italy and then France? What were the main dilemmas posed by the experiences of treating enemy bodies? How were gendered and racial stereotypes inscribed on the enemy body?” Although she had numerous elements of response, she concluded by commenting on the many silences and taboos of medical narratives of the war – making it sometimes difficult to fully grasp the complex, conflicting and changing emotions in confronting the enemy body.

Source: SHD, 12P228, Journal de Marche, Hopital Hadfield Spears, 16 June 1944.

The panel ended with Raphaële’s paper about resistance’s caregivers facing enemy encounters in WW2 France. Acknowledging the fact that resistance forces experienced war as irregular forces – even if local and national memories of the conflict remembered them as legitimate soldiers – she wondered how this reality impacted their medical helpers and how that shaped their responses to the enemy. Resistance caregivers faced the same repression as fighters and were even targeted for the medical and moral support they offered to resistance groups; they had no sanctuary spaces at their disposal to treat their wounded and were permanently at risk of being tortured, killed or deported. Thus, they were equally subject to war exhaustion, traumas and neuroses but also to revenge desire when grieving their massacred patients and comrades. The ethics of Resistance caregivers were thus challenged in many ways – not least because they were coming in majority from civilian society and were not aware of international laws (which did not apply to them anyway). In that sense, Raphaële concluded that the study of war experiences cannot be separated from the history of emotions. As all three papers highlighted, this approach sometimes demands to read between the lines of sources and overcoming stereotypical representations of medical heroism.

“The Resistance’s Army needs you!” Tract to recruit caregivers, 1944
Source: Tract appelant les soignants à rejoindre la Résistance, 1944 environ, fonds FTPF de l’Isère, Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation – Département de l’Isère

In sum, this panel paved the way for future research, which aims to address both ethical and practical questions related to medicine during WW2 on the Allied side – whether within the internal Resistance, among Free French or in Britain’s Royal Navy. The final discussion gave us much to think about, thanks to the thoughts of the participants and of our chair Prof. Tobias Kelly, who raised fascinating and pertinent questions about the normative frame of medical enemy encounters, the concept of intimacy and the issue of the enemy as an object of sympathy. He questioned whether the concept of ‘medical neutrality’ was a useful analytical devise, as historical actors rarely used the term, asking did people talk about medical neutrality, and if not, what were their normative frames?  Did the enemy patients ever change into an object of sympathy or was he always seen as the enemy patient? Beyond international laws, were such principles relevant or even applicable to individuals plunged into war, whose decisions were impacted by the violence they suffered and their prejudices against the enemies? Were such laws really at the core of medical practices in wartime or were caregivers moved by others professional principles? Here are certainly questions, which will continue to be at the center of our inquiry in the next months of the project.

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