Today’s blog post is adapted from an article written by Caroline Alexander in 2007 for the Smithsonian Magazine. The full article may be read here:
Although much longer than my usual posts it acts as a graphic reminder of the many wounded soldiers who suffered terrible disfigurement during World War I.
The Faces of War
Wounded tommies facetiously called it “The Tin Noses Shop.” Located within the 3rd London General Hospital, its proper name was the “Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department”; either way, it represented one of the many acts of desperate improvisation borne of the Great War which claimed the lives of 8 million of fighting men and wounding 21 million more.
The large-calibre guns of artillery warfare with their power to atomize bodies into unrecoverable fragments and the mangling, deadly fallout of shrapnel had made clear, at the war’s outset, that mankind’s military technology wildly outpaced its medical. 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.”
Writing in the 1950s, Sir Harold Gillies, a pioneer in the art of facial reconstruction and modern plastic surgery, recalled his war service:
“Unlike the student of today, who is weaned on small scar excisions and graduates to harelips, we were suddenly asked to produce half a face.”
On a single day in early July 1916, following the first engagement of the Battle of the Somme—a day for which the London Times casualty list covered not columns, but pages—Gillies and his colleagues were sent some 2,000 patients. The clinically honest before-and-after photographs published by Gillies shortly after the war reveal how remarkably—at times almost unimaginably—successful he and his team could be; but the gallery of seamed and shattered faces, with their brave patchwork of missing parts, also demonstrates the surgeons’ limitations.
It was for those soldiers—too disfigured to qualify for before-and-after documentation—that the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department had been established.
“My work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed,” said sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, the program’s founder.
Born in England in 1871 he was too old for active duty when war broke out, so enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Upon being assigned as an orderly to the 3rd London General Hospital, he at first performed the usual “errand-boy-housewife” chores. Eventually, however, the realization that his abilities as an artist could be medically useful inspired him to construct masks for the irreparably facially disfigured. His new metallic masks, lightweight and more permanent than the rubber prosthetics previously issued, were custom designed to bear the pre-war portrait of each wearer. Within the surgical and convalescent wards, it was grimly accepted that facial disfigurement was the most traumatic of the multitude of horrific damages the war inflicted.
“Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.”
Wood established his mask-making unit in March 1916, and by June 1917, his work had warranted an article in The Lancet, a British medical journal.
“I endeavour by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded,” Wood wrote. “My cases are generally extreme cases that plastic surgery has, perforce, had to abandon; but, as in plastic surgery, the psychological effect is the same. The patient acquires his old self-respect, self assurance, self-reliance,…takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance. His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor of sadness to his relatives and friends.”
The journey that led a soldier from the field or trench to Wood’s department was lengthy, disjointed and full of dread. Stage by stage, from the mud of the trenches or field to first-aid station; to overstrained field hospital; to evacuation, by way of a lurching passage across the Channel, to England, the wounded men were carried, jolted, shuffled and left unattended in long draughty corridors before coming to rest under the care of surgeons.
“He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.”
Those patients who could be successfully treated were, after lengthy convalescence, sent on their way; the less fortunate remained in hospitals and convalescent units nursing the broken faces with which they were unprepared to confront the world—or with which the world was unprepared to confront them.
Mirrors were banned in most wards, and men who somehow managed an illicit peek had been known to collapse in shock.
“The psychological effect on a man who must go through life, an object of horror to himself as well as to others, is beyond description. …It is a fairly common experience for the maladjusted person to feel like a stranger to his world. It must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself.”
The pains taken by Wood to produce masks that bore the closest possible resemblance to the pre-war soldier’s uninjured face were enormous.
Once the patient was wholly healed from both the original injury and the restorative operations, plaster casts were taken of his face, in itself a suffocating ordeal, from which clay or plasticine squeezes were made.
“The squeeze, as it stands, is a literal portrait of the patient, with his eyeless socket, his cheek partly gone, the bridge of the nose missing, and also with his good eye and a portion of his good cheek,” wrote Ward Muir, a British journalist who had worked as an orderly with Wood. “The shut eye must be opened, so that the other eye, the eye-to-be, can be matched to it. With dexterous strokes the sculptor opens the eye. The squeeze, hitherto representing a face asleep, seems to awaken. The eye looks forth at the world with intelligence.”
This plasticine likeness was the basis of all subsequent portraits. The mask itself would be fashioned of galvanized copper “the thinness of a visiting card.” one visitor reported. Depending upon whether it covered the entire face, or as was often the case, only the upper or lower half, the mask weighed between four and nine ounces and was generally held on by spectacles. However the greatest artistic challenge lay in painting the metallic surface the colour of skin.
Today, the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs which, with their forgiving lack of colour and movement, make it impossible to judge the masks’ true effect. Static, set for all time in a single expression modelled on what was often a single pre-war photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless.
The voices of the disfigured men who wore the masks are for the most part known only from meagre correspondence.
“Thanks to you, I will have a home,” one soldier had written. “…The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do.”
The number of masks produced by Wood is not known. Almost no record of the men who wore the masks survives, but it was clear that a mask had a life of only a few years. Few, if any, masks survive.
Francis Derwent Wood died in London in 1926 at age 55. His postwar work included a number of public monuments, including war memorials, the most poignant of which, perhaps, is one dedicated to the Machine Gun Corps in Hyde Park Corner, London. On a raised plinth, it depicts the young David, naked, vulnerable, but victorious, who signifies that indispensable figure of the war to end all wars—the machine-gunner. The monument’s inscription is double-edged, alluding to both the heroism of the individual gunner and the preternatural capability of his weapon:
“Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.”