Losing Face: Trauma and Maxillofacial Injury in the First World War

Fiona Reid, Leese Peter (Editor), Jason Crouthamel (Editor)

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    In 2012, the theatre company Bravo 22 presented The Lost World of Charlie F to considerable critical and popular acclaim throughout the UK. The actors were wounded ex-service personnel and the purpose of the play was twofold: to educate the civilian public and to act as therapy for the war wounded. At much the same time, television viewers were watching the BBC’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, a novel in which the protagonist spends many years literally unable to speak of the horrors he has endured in the First World War trenches. The widespread belief that one must tell the story to heal the wound is rooted in cultural representations of the First World War, and one of its earlier manifestations was Abel Gance’s, J’accuse (1919), in which - as in Charlie F – the actors were wounded soldiers.

    Yet some stories have remained too difficult to tell, most notably those of the facially-wounded servicemen of the First World War. During the Great War approximately 280,000 men from France, Germany and Great Britain suffered from maxillofacial injury (injury to the jawbone and to the soft tissues of the face). In France and Germany these men, or their images, became and remained culturally important. A delegation of French facially-wounded servicemen (‘les gueules cassées’) was present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, ‘men without faces’ also featured strongly in post-war German art, notably in the work of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and George Grosz, and most obviously in Ernst Friedrich’s War against War (1924).

    In contrast, these images do not occupy an important symbolic role in the British history of the First World War and so the emotional trauma of the ‘men without faces’, and the reactions of their families and communities, has remained a neglected subject. Yet during the war Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent was the centre for much pioneering reconstructive surgery as detailed medical records, photographs and paintings attest. By drawing on these records and images, on the writings of medical staff and on the testimonies of facially-wounded men this article highlights the trauma of losing face - with all its associations of losing moral worth and losing humanity - and indicates that despite contemporary celebrations of surgical ‘wizardry’, facial injury remained a fierce stigma and source of great trauma after the Great War.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationPsychological Trauma and the Legacies of the First World War
    EditorsJason Crouthamel, Peter Leese
    PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
    Number of pages318
    ISBN (Print)978-3319334752
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Nov 2016


    • first world war
    • injury
    • veterans
    • soldiers
    • trauma


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