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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books


A Surgical Artist at War: the Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809 – 1815

Crumplin, M.K.H. and P. Starling.  A Surgical Artist at War: the Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809 – 1815. Edinburg: Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 2005.  96 pages. 60 images. £15 ISBN#: 095462131X

A Surgical Artist at War Cover

"At the close of the war, when we returned to England, if our battalion did not show symptoms of its being a well-shot corps, it is very odd: nor was it to be wondered at if the camp-colours were not covered with that precision, nor the salute given with the grace usually expected from a reviewed body, when I furnish the following account of the officers commanding companies on the day of the inspection, viz.:

Beckwith with a cork-leg -- Pemberton and Manners with a shot each in the knee, making them as stiff as the other's tree one -- Loftus Gray with a gash in the lip, and minus a portion of one heel, which made him march to the tune of dot and go one -- Smith with a shot in the ankle -- Eeles minus a thumb -- Johnston, in addition to other shot holes, a stiff elbow, which deprived him of the power of disturbing his friends as a scratcher of Scotch reels upon the violin -- Percival with a shot through his lungs. Hope with a grape-shot lacerated leg -- and George Simmons with his riddled body held together by a pair of stays, for his is no holiday waist, which naturally required such an appendage lest the burst of a sigh should snap it asunder; but one that pertained to a figure framed in nature's fittest mould to 'brave the battle and the breeze!”[1]

When the Sir John Moore’s shattered army returned to England in 1809 after its disastrous retreat to Corunna, the British military establishment was incapable of dealing with the large number of sick and wounded – estimated to be over 5,000.  A call went out for civilian doctors to come to Portsmouth to help treat the soldiers.  One of those who responded was Sir Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon who made his living drawing images for medical texts, when he was not performing surgery.  In addition to being a talented artist and surgeon, he was also an anatomist who discovered the VII nerve, which if damaged will cause facial paralysis – or Bell’s palsy – which is named after him.  During his spare time in Portsmouth, Bell made black and white etchings of the wounded, at a later time he would make water color paintings from his drawings.  In 1815, when word reached London of Waterloo, Charles Bell once again volunteered to go and help treat the wounded.  When he was not helping the wounded, he was making sketches. 

A Surgical Artist at War is divided into two parts.  The first covers 15 paintings of wounded from Corunna in 1809, while the second section covers the Waterloo wounded.  In addition to the sketches, Charles Bell also left notes about each painting describing what it is.  For the Corunna paintings, the patients are anonymous and there are notes only about the wound that is shown.  However for the Waterloo images, his notes are more extensive and often he provides the name of the soldier.  Mr. Crumplin and Mr. Starling do an excellent job of analyzing and explaining Charles Bell’s paintings and even do a critique of his surgical abilities.

There are 15 paintings in the Corunna section. They are:

1. Gunshot wound of the humerus
2. Old standing gunshot fracture of the shaft of the humerus
3. Bullet wound of the skull
4. Sketch of a gunshot wound of the thigh
5. Gunshot entry and exit wounds of the chest
6. Old gunshot wound of the fibula
7. Gunshot wound, testes
8. Gunshot wound of the head
9. Gunshot wound of the elbow
10. Gunshot wound of the clavicle and the scapula
11. Tetanus following gunshot wounds
12. Gunshot wound of the humerus
13. Sketch in oil of a man wounded in the chest
14. Bullet wound of the skull
15. Sketch of a wound of the abdomen

Bell drew 45 images in his sketchbook and the authors provide 17 of them:

1. (Head) Trooper 1st or Royal Dragoons
2. (Head) Domenic (sic) de Lorraine, 1st Regiment de Ligne
3. (Head) Samuel Pritchard, 4th Regiment of Foot
4. (Head) Wanstell 17th Regiment of Foot
5. (Face) Two  Figures
6. (Neck) Sword wound: penetration of the oesophagus. Trois  Louis Celesatime, 21st Regiment de Ligne
7. (Neck) James Alexander, 1st Regiment, Royal Dragoons
8. (Chest) Albrecht Heifer, King’s German Legion
9. (Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers
10. (Upper extremity) Gunshot wound of the left shoulder (anonymous soldier)
11. (Upper extremity) James Ellard, private, 18th Hussars
12. (Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier
13. (Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier
14. (Upper extremity) Serjeant (sic) Anthony Tuittmeyer, 2nd Line Battalion, King’s  German Legion
15. (Upper extremity) Anonymous trooper, Brunswick Hussars
16. (Upper extremity) Voultz, King’s German Legion
17. (Lower extremity) An anonymous soldier

It should be noted that the Bell paintings are of wounds that are two weeks old or older.  They are of the soldiers who were wounded and made it to a hospital.  Many are of amputations and he shows them head on – the reader will be looking into a gaping wound – seeing the damage to the tissue and the bones. As gruesome as these paintings are, most are of the fortunate soldiers who survived their wounds – but some are of soldiers who would soon die from their wound.

Tetanus Following Gunshot Wounds
Image is Copyrighted by The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and is used with their permission.


A picture is worth a thousand words.  Charles Bell’s paintings are the closest things we will ever have to contemporary photographs of the wounded of a Napoleonic battle. His paintings were meant to educate other medical professionals and thus are quite graphic.  I strongly recommend it for all readers. Bell’s pictures show the cost of a battle in terms of human suffering.  However, it is not for those who can not tolerate detailed images of mangled bodies.

On a personal note, in the summer of 2007, I spent many hours at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., visiting a severely wounded soldier from my son’s unit in Iraq.  Visiting him was the toughest thing I had ever done.  It brought the Iraq War home to me unlike any newspaper report could have.  These images had a similar effect on me.  It personalized Waterloo.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2008



[1] Kincaid, John. Adventures in the Rifle Brigade and Random Shots from a Rifleman. Glasgow: Richard Drew, 1981. P. 285