Few people alive today (at least in the USA) fully understand what the phrase ‘in the trenches’ meant during World War I. This photo, from an upcoming exhibit at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, UK, illustrates the vulnerability of the soldiers who fought in that terrible war. Deep earthen walls protected bodies, but left heads and faces unprotected, resulting in deadly and disfiguring injuries.
New Zealand surgeon Harold Gillies, sent to France in 1915, radically changed the previous approach to these injuries, which had involved little more than stitching up the wounds. While treating his patients, Gillies developed techniques which ushered in the modern era of plastic surgery: drawing flaps of healthy skin into tubes to grow more skin for grafting; using bone and cartilage to provide structure under the skin; instituting grafting procedures that involved stages rather than one massive graft.
“We remember the dead, but we don’t remember the wounded, the people who had to go on living,” exhibition co-curator Samantha Doty says.
The NAM exhibit features previously unseen images of these literally faceless men, and documents Gillies’ work. For these soldiers, appearance was far more than a matter of self-regard, or of vanity. The crudity of previous methods of treating these injuries not only resulted in death, but created such severe disfigurements in survivors that the ‘cure’ actually caused disabilities. Gillies’ field work, though not always as successful as shown in these pictures of William Spreckley, changed the way these injuries were treated forever.
Faces of Battle opens on November 10; the BBC online has a series of images from the exhibit.
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