Injured Soldiers and Veterans Essay

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Ward Muir, an orderly who worked at the London General Hospital during the First World War, vividly recalls how: ‘I never [before] felt any embarrassment … confronting a patient, however deplorable his state, until I came in contact with certain wounds of the face’. In The Men with Broken Faces, Marjorie Gerhardt examines the experience of civilians, patients, and surgeons from France, England, and Germany who were faced with shocking cases of facial disfigurement both during and after the Great War. The wounded face, as Sanger Gilman postulates, is in no way equivalent to the wounded body. Instead, it presents the trauma of mechanized warfare as a loss of identity and humanity. Unlike amputees, these men were never officially celebrated as wounded heroes, proving that being human is an aesthetic matter as much as it is a biological one.

Technological advances during World War I brought about industrial-scale warfare, with new methods of fighting leading to huge numbers of casualties. In this climate, disfigurement and mutilation were pervasive on the Western Front. Yet at the same time, medical advances meant a higher chance of survival even with these devastating wounds. Gehrhardt effectively demonstrates that a cultural history of these ‘men with broken faces’- derived from the French expression Gueles cassées- provides engaging insights into wider English, French, and German perceptions of identity, disability, and normality. The book is split into two parts. The first describes both the response of the medical community and society as a whole to the affected soldiers, by detailing their journey from battlefield hospitals to their attempted return to ‘normality’. In the second part, Gerhardt identifies and analyses the representations and reactions to the disfigured men through visual arts and literature in the post-war period.

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Utilizing the published and archival writings of hospital staff and patients, Gerhardt traces the experience of facially injured soldiers and those who came into contact with them as they attempted to ‘rebuild’ both literally, with the emergence of plastic surgery and prosthetics, and metaphorically. Gerhardt is highly effective in demonstrating how the relationships formed between surgeons, nurses, and soldiers played a crucial role in patients’ physical and psychological recovery.

As patients left the ‘transitional space’ of the hospital and began the process of reintegration into society, the response to facial disfigurement was dominated by a particularly visual anxiety. Facially injured men would confront horror and fear, but sympathy and admiration too, as children fled from their fathers and patients refused to see their families. As this was happening, the press coverage of these men often aimed to present them as either victims or heroes. Published photographs frequently revealed a highly disingenuous view of recovery, with men posed going about normal daily activities, but with dressings to conceal any permanent disfigurement,

and, more importantly perhaps, suggest a process of healing. These propagandistic attempts by some newspapers to normalize injured veterans could have been explored further by Gehrhardt, particularly as journalists emphasized the extent to which the burden of sacrifice was lessened by the idea of the marvels of modern medicine, or the fantasy of prosthetic repair, which was far from the truth.

Gehrhardt’s book emphasizes the importance of veteran organizations in providing men with ways of connecting that were not available to them through relationships in wider society, as well as facilitating the shaping of a collective identity. By devoting a chapter to the Union des Blesses de la Face (UBF), the book can assess how French veterans actively engaged with how they were perceived by society and attempted to assert control over this. Created in 1921 by Colonel Yves Picot, it was an answer to the moral and physical distress of the disfigured men outside of the hospital, providing support for and by facially injured former soldiers. Perhaps an additional comparison with Germany and England would have been useful in explaining why Gueles Cassées became such a key symbol of the French wartime experience. Although Gerhardt notes how the different political cultures of the three countries affected how veterans were treated by the government, more explanation of this may have helped to clarify why similar organizations were not as prominent in England or Germany.

After examining the topic of injured soldiers through a medical and social lens, Gerhardt moves on to analyze this phenomenon through art and literature. The inclusion of numerous photographs and artistic reproductions proves effective in conveying the experience of patients where the written word alone would not suffice and adds another dimension to the book. Medical photography merely attempted to record the objective process of healing and reconstruction and to work as a promotional tool, as seen particularly in the works of Lobley, who depicted groups of soldiers during the process of rehabilitation. As Gerhardt explains, “the choice to depict injured soldiers as men in professional training, rather than as patients, indicated the positive discourse that authorities sought to promote through these images”. More artistic interpretations however were aimed at capturing more personal stories and the emotions involved. The book details how the depiction of the injured soldiers was closely connected with the postwar political views of the conflict in that country. The men with broken faces “became symbolically loaded figures in all three countries, but different aspects were emphasized depending upon national context”. In Germany, for example, the disfigured soldiers were used as a metaphor for a broken society by disillusioned artists, and pacifists such as Ernest Friedrich used photographs of the injured to expose the impact of war.

In the final section of the book, Gerhardt analyses post-war literature, and makes a persuasive argument to the inclusion of this topic, as many of the themes discussed in earlier chapters, from veteran reintegration and the work of the UBF can be revealed from these fictional works. By combining the study of art and literature with solid historical analysis, Gerhardt’s Men with Broken Faces proves an important addition to the scholarship on Great War disability history and highlights the complicated variety of responses to disfiguring facial wounds. Gehrhardt’s work joins more recent historians of U.S. veteran care, such as Beth Linker and John M. Kinder, and follows touchstone pieces like David Gerber’s Disabled Veterans in History, and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914. The book also provides an opportunity for further comparative scholarship on wounded and disabled veterans of all wars.

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