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The Face of “The Great War”

Artists fashioned masks to conceal the ghastly wounds.

Could they also heal?

On Veteran's Day 2019, we are remembering World War I, officially ended a century ago, with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. . Remembered as The Great War, and "the war to end all wars," the First World War left the world shell-shocked.

Veteran sound essayist on art, culture, music and media, Sara Fishko, examines the seismic changes perpetrated by WW I upon all aspects of society in her brilliant podcast, Shell Shock 1919.

The first fully industrialized conflict was a wanton slaughter of innocents, and innocence worldwide. None were more shattered than the boys who fought from a 6-foot ditch scarred into scorched earth at the front.

It was, writes author William Boyd in a New York Times editorial, “a conflict between 19th-century armies equipped with 20th-century which millions of soldiers on both sides slogged through...a 500-mile line of meet their deaths in withering blasts of machine-gun fire and artillery...." Eager boy soldiers faced “a battlefield dominated by tanks, machine guns, howitzers, aircraft and poisonous gas...," exposed from the neck up.

Facial Disfigurement

Facial disfigurement was the signature wound of WW I. Unimaginable, mutilating butchery, that in an earlier time would have been mercifully unsurvivable. In the lingering Victorian aesthetic of 1917, they were unspeakably hideous.

In her article, “The Rhetoric of Disfigurement,” social historian Suzannah Biernoff writes that an estimated 60,500 British soldiers suffered head or eye injuries... [A]t the specialist hospital for facial injuries...over 11,000 operations were performed on some 5,000 servicemen between 1917 and 1925.

"Many soldiers were shot in the face simply because they had no experience of trench warfare," one contemporary surgeon wrote. "They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets....”

One who had seen the carnage first hand was Harold Gillies, a battlefield medic who returned to Britain in 1916 to devote his life to finding a way to restore to these patients the “perceived loss of humanity.” Gillies would become known as the “father of modern plastic surgery."

But in that first year—after the Battle of the Somme, when he expected 200 casualties and got 2,000—even the physician felt "fear, disgust and shame surrounding facial disfigurement, both for the men who suffered these injuries, and for those...who came into contact with them....”

Subsequent blogs will explore how Dr. Gillies, and the post-war world with him, came to terms with the bodily and spiritual carnage in the wake of The Great War, what it has meant to the science of facial reconstruction, and how it has shaped 21st century concepts of beauty and worth.


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