The Faces of War
October 1, 2007 7:08 PM   Subscribe

The Faces of War, a fascinating document of the prosthetic masks used to cover serious facial injuries from the battlefield. Before plastic surgery was widely practised and used to reconstruct the horrific facial injuries of the First World War soldiers, men with the most serious facial injured were often hidden away from society.

Men such as those recorded in watercolour, and in pastels (warning: some may find these images disturbing); patients of Harold Gillies, pioneer of facial reconstruction at Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, the wars major centre for facial reconstruction and plastic surgery.
posted by chrisbucks (24 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. Lest we forget. (though we have forgotten, it seems)
posted by Rumple at 7:20 PM on October 1, 2007

men with the most serious facial injuries were often hidden away from society. others took up residence in opera theatres.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:20 PM on October 1, 2007

first link seems to be borked
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:22 PM on October 1, 2007

By the way, this link worked better for me than your first one.
posted by Rumple at 7:22 PM on October 1, 2007

Ah must be cached here... opps. Cheers :)
posted by chrisbucks at 7:24 PM on October 1, 2007

It's interesting the process was documented by pastels and watercolours which were widely used for scientific illustrations at that time, rather than photography, which was widely used for portraiture. Obviously, colour film did not yet exist, but it also seems that these are a record of scientific specimens as well as one of individual humans.
posted by Rumple at 7:28 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

The very nature of trench warfare, moreover, proved diabolically conducive to facial injuries: "[T]he...soldiers failed to understand the menace of the machine gun," recalled Dr. Fred Albee, an American surgeon working in France. "They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of bullets."

Ironically, that would actually sound about right coming out of the mouth of Captain Blackadder, too.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:28 PM on October 1, 2007

I look at those watercolors and wonder how they survived such horrific injuries. I didn't know medicine was that advanced by WWI.
posted by schroedinger at 7:39 PM on October 1, 2007

When I came across these pages I was reminded of Johnny Got His Gun, the Dalton Trumbo novel/film (more so the latter), and the lines "death has a dignity on its own". The number specified as being patients at Queen's Hospital was 5000 in the facial reconstruction ward, I often wonder what facilities there were in German hospitals.

In reference to JGHG, I expect that perhaps many victims of horrendous facial injuries may have been left to die, or hidden away intentionally to hide the true face of war.
posted by chrisbucks at 7:51 PM on October 1, 2007

Those pastels are just incredible. There's a weird balance between the horror of the injuries and the beautiful execution of the drawings that makes them more compelling than just a photo.
posted by Mcable at 7:55 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Les Gueules Casseés (The Broken Faces) is a graphic French site [Flash — start at the Introduction and use the page navbar at the bottom] that shows surgical and mask-making efforts for disfigured WWI veterans.

War is literally engraved in soldiers' faces, hearts, and minds. From the Fall 1999 issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Remembrance and Redemption, A Social Interpretation of War Memorials:
The second memorial, less well known but no less real, is the social bonding effected between disfigured men, men with “broken faces,” disabled soldiers with horrific casualties—what the French call “gueules cassées.” Situated on the borderland of private and public recollection, this type of memorial is characterized by poignant isolation. Those who had the war almost literally engraved upon their faces were marked and isolated by their wounds. Their road back to civilian life was so obstructed that many gave up entirely the struggle to demobilize, to return home and to resume their lives. Instead, they turned to each other, in lonely brotherhood. Doing so, they formed organizations that pressed for their rights and created places where they could go without embarrassment—without frightening others. Thus they constructed a social reality through which they could experience—remember—the simple dignities of daily life that they had lost and would never recover on their own. Kinship here meant survival in the most straightforward and mundane ways.

Such groups existed in every combatant country. But their language was not national but personal and private. They acted socially, to be sure, but in ways that confirmed their status as pariahs. They were themselves sites of memory, but as such so extraordinary that many people had trouble even looking at them. It is a sad paradox: these men bore the marks of war so directly that they—and the particular price of war that their experience embodied—could not be confronted.
What if the statues in war memorials resembled these men?

[P.S. — Under another name, I posted a similar comment a few years ago on BagNewsNotes.]
posted by cenoxo at 8:52 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Although it's incomplete, Project Facade has several case studies of British, New Zealander, and Canadian soldiers who underwent facial reconstruction by Sir Harold Delf Gillies and his staff.
posted by cenoxo at 9:12 PM on October 1, 2007

Oh my, that Project Facade is heartwrenching. See Canadian RFC Top V. file, for example.
posted by Rumple at 9:34 PM on October 1, 2007

some may find these image disturbing?

Jesus Christ that stuffs heart wrenching.

And maybe this is unfair of me, so anyone correct me if I'm wrong, but...

These were healthy young men in their late teens and early twenties, and probably still with a tendency to be from lower classes. A pretty wife and nice family was probably what most of them dreamed of, and I would be surprised if this happened for any of these soldiers. With nothing to really fall back on, I wonder what suicide statistics were like for these.

Eck. My gut really hurts. I must leave this thread.
posted by Alex404 at 9:46 PM on October 1, 2007

Also, I would favourite this, except that I never want to see it again.
posted by Alex404 at 9:47 PM on October 1, 2007

hm, where's that delete function, again? i've flagged my own first off-the-cuff comment as offensive, although i think the blackadder reference is still spot on.

interestingly, i can't think of too many places where people with horrific injuries from the trenches have shown up in high or popular culture, other than in the paintings of Georg Grosz. i wonder if they really did just go into hiding or suicide, or if the rest of the population just wanted to shut them out from consciousness? lord knows, there must have been tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of them...
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:11 PM on October 1, 2007

Alex404 -- yes, and no doubt that was the end for many of them. But, if you look at the case of Vic. W here, and click through the photos you'll see a picture of him as an old man of 70 with what must be his grand-daughter. A tiny gleam of light in all that horror.

(shortcuts: hospital admission; treatment; discharge; with grand-child)
posted by Rumple at 10:34 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Excellent and harrowing, as it should be. Thanks for the post. The Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead was a world leader in reconstruction particularly of burns. Many of these patients are still alive and in contact via the Guinea Pig Club.
Several of them went on to marry, sometimes their nurses! There are several heartbreaking tales of the sweetheart who just couldn't hack it, but the spirit of these people is amazing.
a small exhibition of these reconstructions can be found in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

This is the Guinea Pig Anthem
The Guinea Pig Anthem
We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
“Per ardua ad astra”
We’d rather drink than fight
John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields the knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand steady
For all your surgeon’s calls:
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears

We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles. We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians -
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing

We are McIndoe’s army,
(As first verse)

McIndoe, of course was the cousin of Sir Harold Gilles, who while unemployed was invited to join his private plastics practise and the rest, as they say, is history. Two surgeons who made a huge difference in so many lives.
posted by Wilder at 3:07 AM on October 2, 2007

The Guinea Pig Club
posted by Wilder at 3:09 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Some of the Tonks pastels were on display in Tate Britain for a while. Very moving.

In a recent exhibition there on the history of British photography they featured a set of photographs of people who had facial surgery due to injuries in the Second World War. A surprising, and shocking, number where women - injured from bomb explosions during the Blitz.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:41 AM on October 2, 2007

There was a great documentary on the Guinea Pig Club on the BBC a couple of years ago.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:47 AM on October 2, 2007

Several of them went on to marry

speaking of which...
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:17 AM on October 2, 2007

Reminds me of Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest. The dude shot himself in the face with a shotgun and sadly, survived and was interviewed for the film. Brutal.
posted by mike_bling at 7:49 AM on October 2, 2007

Gillies "Plastic Surgery of the Face" is also available online with fascinating photos.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:54 PM on October 2, 2007

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