I recoil from militarism – but a Museum of Military Medicine in Cardiff could have a worthy tale to tell
Various arguments have been put forward against the planning application to site the Museum of Military Medicine in Cardiff Bay. Some are based on the proposed location by Britannia Park. Others object that to site anything connected with the Armed Forces next to Butetown is insensitive to the many people there whose ancestral countries were forcibly colonised by those same British forces.
On these issues, I would not presume to speak on behalf of the residents of south Cardiff, whose wishes and interests should figure highly in the decision on the planning application.
There is, however, another angle of objection on which I do claim a right to offer an alternative view – the pacifist argument that Cardiff should not host any institution connected to the Armed Forces (see for example Mererid Hopwood’s eloquent exposition).
I would be quite prepared to accept this viewpoint on any other military museum, but the Museum of Military Medicine is another matter. The main point here is not about taking lives, but saving them.
My father, the sculptor and artist Jonah Jones, was a pacifist. During the Second World War he was registered as a conscientious objector, and worked in forestry for almost three and a half years. As the war continued, in May 1943 he decided to enlist as a non-combatant. Eventually, he realised his wish to become a medic in the airborne forces, and was accepted into the Royal Army Medical Corps in November 1944. He served in 224 Parachute Field Ambulance, within the 6th Airborne Division, in the Ardennes and Germany (where he took part in the airdrop over the Rhine on 24 March 1945).
Altogether 224 PFA treated 2,665 casualties and performed 251 operations in Normandy, the Low Countries and Germany – about 5,000 enemy casualties were also treated. On 15 April troops of the 6th Airborne, including my father, were among the first Allied troops to enter Belsen concentration camp; he spent two days treating the inmates, amid a typhus epidemic. He ended the war in Wismar on the Baltic, where he nursed German casualties in an abandoned Luftwaffe hospital. He noted that the COs in 224 PFA played an invaluable role both during the Rhine airdrop and at Wismar in getting German POWs to help willingly with tending the wounded of both sides.
The story of the military field ambulances is one that deserves honour, and should be drawn to the attention of the public. As 224 PFA’s record shows, enemy casualties were treated in the same way as Allied wounded – as with all medical services, the only thing that mattered was saving lives. The PFAs were the forerunner of today’s air ambulances for civil casualties, and indeed the latter have learned from military medicine in the practice of bringing surgical staff to the accident site for the initial provision of urgent treatment.
Pacifists will assert that men like my father made the waging of war possible by their presence on the battlefield. Responding to this argument, he wrote to his friend Mona Lovell before joining up: “If, as I hope, it is the RAMC [that I join], I may have the chance to be positive, if I can help to save lives or heal wounds. That is an ideal to live for, and I reject the old idea that it is patching soldiers up to send them back into the front line. If that is so, are we to leave them to die?”
Like many others, I recoil from the militarism that manifests itself repeatedly in British life. The history of military medicine is a different matter, and a story worthy of attention.
If the MMM does come to Cardiff that will not be out of keeping with Wales’ proud record of conscientious objection.