In June 1809 a French military surgeon, M. Fardeau, read a paper at a meeting of the Société de Médecine de Paris. I can find little information about M. Fardeau, but he evidently served with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars, being rewarded with membership of the Légion d’honneur for his efforts.
During the War of the Fourth Coalition Fardeau accompanied Napoleon’s armies in their campaign in Eastern Europe, and was present at the Battle of Pułtusk on December 26th 1806, an encounter which took place in the bitter cold of the Polish winter – when he witnessed the following incident:
A soldier named Malva, a Voltigeur from my regiment…
The Voltigeurs were specialist light infantry soldiers. Their name means literally ‘vaulters’ – it was originally intended that they would ride into battle on the rumps of cavalry horses, until everybody involved realised this was a slightly ludicrous idea.
…was wounded in the head by a bayonet which had been unmounted and propelled by a cannonball.
The precise meaning of this sentence is not entirely clear, but I take it to mean that the blade had been placed in the barrel of a rifle or small field gun and used as a lethal alternative to a lead ball.
[EDIT]: a reader has pointed out that ‘boulet’ – which I had translated as ‘musket ball’ – actually means ‘cannonball’, which suggests a more plausible explanation: the bayonet, while still mounted to a rifle, was struck by a cannonball, dislodged and became a lethal missile as a result.
Its velocity must have been tremendous, so one would expect it to do a huge amount of damage. It struck the unfortunate soldier
on the right temple two fingers’ breadth beyond the angle of the orbit [eye socket], and a little above it, passed up to the hilt, from before backwards, and from above downwards, so as to traverse the maxillary sinus on the opposite side, and projected five inches.
The maxillary sinus is one of the cavities of the skull, beneath the cheekbone. It is also known by the rather more poetic name ‘antrum of Highmore’, which sounds a bit like a Scottish laird. The bayonet had thus passed right through the skull, entering the right temple and exiting the left cheek, with no less than five inches of blade visible beyond the exit wound. Not good, in other words.
The man was knocked down, but did not lose his senses. He made several ineffectual efforts to pull the bayonet out, and two comrades, one holding the head, whilst the other dragged at the weapon, also failed.
This doesn’t sound much fun; but worse was to come.
The poor wounded man came to me leaning on the arms of two fellow-soldiers. I endeavoured with the assistance of a soldier to pull out the bayonet, but it seemed to me as if fixed in a wall. The soldier who helped me desired the patient to lie down on his side, and, putting his foot on the man’s head, with both hands he dragged out the bayonet, which was immediately followed by considerable haemorrhage, the blood pouring forth violently and abundantly.
A surgical procedure which entails putting your foot on the patient’s head is rarely a subtle one.
The patient then first felt ill, and, as I thought he would die, I left him to dress other wounded. After twenty minutes he revived, and said he was much better, and I then dressed him. We were in the snow, and as he was very cold the whole of his head was well wrapped up in charpie and bandages.
Charpie: ‘Straight threads obtained by unravelling old linen cloth, used for surgical dressings.’ [Webster’s Dictionary]
He set off to Warsaw with another wounded soldier; went partly on foot, partly on horseback, or in a cart, from barn to barn, and often from wood to wood, and reached Warsaw in six days. Three months after I saw him in hospital, perfectly recovered. He had lost his sight on the right side; the eye and lid had, however, preserved their form and mobility, but the iris remained much dilated and immovable.
Which is not a bad outcome, if you’ve recently had a bayonet through your head.