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.

This patient, a British soldier called Wanstall, suffered a gunshot wound to the skull, causing brain damage. Bell’s paintings give us unusual insight into wounds and potential treatment for such victims. 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 need to break through layers of the brain exposed Wanstall to infection and unsurprisingly he died of a meningeal infection.

The second image illustrates a British dragoon who has had his left arm ripped off by round shot (cannon ball). In this painting, we see a scantily clothed soldier who is clearly in pain. In his remaining hand he grasps a rope to pull himself up the bed. His terrible wound, caused by a cannon ball tearing off his arm near the shoulder joint, has not been ‘tidied up’ by the surgeons. Hopefully, the wound would be left open, as it would have been difficult to close it with so much swelling. An interesting feature is that it shows an arterial ligature (tie) applied to the main artery supplying blood to the soldier’s arm. This was probably an emergency procedure performed on the field. The third image shows an unknown soldier whose arm was blown off by a howitzer shell.

Charles Bell was born and grew up in Edinburgh. In 1809 he dashed down to Haslar Hospital in Hampshire to help with the returning victims of the Peninsular War. His 15 oil paintings of some of the wounded soldiers he encountered there were rather naïve in comparison to the later Waterloo watercolour images.

After running the Windmill School of Anatomy in London, in 1814 he was appointed consulting surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital. He visited the Waterloo battlefield 10 days after the action. The watercolours were painted later, being constructed from about 45 charcoal and red ink sketches, drawn on site. There is commentary on each of the paintings, which were used in London and Edinburgh for teaching purposes.

Find it here

This object is in the collection of Army Medical Services Museum