The first blood transfusion
On 28 July 1917, Second Lieutenant Cyril Edwards was leading his platoon from 2/7th Battalion The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) on a mission to scout the enemy wire in no-man’s-land near Bullecourt. His men came under attack from enemy grenades.
Cyril caught the first one and threw it back at the Germans before it could explode. The second fell a short distance away. But the third grenade landed among his men.
Cyril acted quickly and selflessly, stamping the grenade into the soft ground. It exploded, shattering his leg. But he had saved the lives of his men in the process.
Members of Cyril’s platoon swiftly dragged their wounded commander back to safety, where he apparently reported the information he had gathered on the enemy line.
News of Cyril’s daring action spread quickly. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in early August. His general even delivered the medal ribbon in person to Cyril at Rouen, pinning it to his hospital pyjamas.
But Cyril’s leg was far more seriously damaged than his resolve suggests. His bleeding was so severe that when he arrived at the front-line hospital, his heart had almost stopped beating.
Fortunately, Cyril came under the care of Arthur Rendle Short, who had been studying remedies for surgical shock. Rendle Short had taken an interest in the early experimental blood transfusions that had been conducted at base hospitals to treat wounded servicemen. When Cyril arrived at his hospital, Rendle Short had no choice but to improvise in order to save him.
At that time, little research had been done about blood groups, or incompatibilities, and there were no blood banks either. So Rendle Short simply selected a donor and brought him alongside Cyril. He then made a cut to both men’s arms and transferred the blood using a tube and needles.
Miraculously, this crude method worked, and Cyril’s pulse strengthened significantly. When his condition stabilised, surgeons were able to amputate Cyril’s wounded leg.
Two weeks later his brother, Captain Harry Edwards, who was also in the West Yorkshires, heard that Cyril had survived the pioneering new treatment. He wrote to Rendle Short expressing his thanks. The surgeon replied: ‘It is one’s principal joy in life, almost, to see patients one cares about get better.’
Cyril was not the only soldier to undergo experimental procedures during the First World War. The scale and severity of injuries caused by trench warfare pushed forward the development of many new medical treatments.
Around the time that Cyril survived his blood transfusion, the British began to introduce the treatment for routine use. But medics soon realised that the technique had limitations, as blood had to be taken from the nearest person.
Captain Oswald Robinson finally provided a breakthrough in 1917 when he found a way to store blood by mixing it with sodium citrate to prevent it congealing. This meant that blood could be stored and administered when needed.
Blood transfusions, along with other treatments like facial reconstructive surgery which were pioneered during the war, are still regularly used in modern medical practice today.
By Dr Matt Thomas of the National Army Museum
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