The Italian mobile surgical units in the Great War: the modernity of the past

Contardo Vergani, Marco Venturi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Medical services in WWI had to face enormous new problems: masses of wounded, most with devastating wounds from artillery splinters, often involving body cavities, and always contaminated. Tetanus, gas gangrene, wound infections were common and often fatal. Abdominal wounds were especially a problem: upon entering the war the commanders of all medical services ordered to avoid surgery, based on dismal experiences of previous wars. Surgical community divided into non-operative and operative treatment supporters. The problem seemed mainly organizational, as the wounded were rescued after many hours and treated by non-specialist doctors, in inadequate frontline settings or evacuated back with further delay of treatment. During initial neutrality, Italian Academics closely followed the debate, with different positions. Many courses and publications on war surgery flourished. Among the interventionists, Baldo Rossi, to provide a setting adequate to major operations close to the frontline, with trained surgeons and adequate instruments, realized for the Milano Red Cross three fully equipped, mobile surgical hospitals mounted on trucks, with an operating cabin-tent, with warming, illumination and sterilizing devices, post-operative tents and a radiological unit. Chiefs of the army approved the project and implemented seven similar units, called army surgical ambulances, each run by a distinguished surgeon. Epic history and challenges of the mobile units at the frontline, brilliant results achieved on war wounds and epidemics are described. After the war they were considered among the most significant novelties of military medical services. Parallels with present scenarios in war and peace are outlined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)565-572
Number of pages8
JournalUpdates in Surgery
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Ambulances
  • Disease outbreaks
  • Mobile health units
  • Surgery
  • World War I
  • Wound and injuries

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery


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