WWI soldiers’ facial injuries transformed by surgery

  • A new book has highlighted the work of young plastic surgeon Harold Gillies
  • Offers insight into early reconstructive surgery and devastating impact of WW1
  • One soldier endured 19 operations over 6 years to repair his destroyed face
  • Another returned with half his face missing after fighting on the Somme

They found themselves embroiled in a horrific bloodbath as they fought in the trenches during World War I. 

Now new photographs have emerged that reveal the horrific facial injuries sustained during battle by brave soldiers – and their astonishing transformations following plastic surgery.  

The incredible black and white images have been released in a new book charting the early development of facial reconstruction.

It highlights the work of young surgeon Harold Gillies, who repaired the faces of those who were injured and shipped back home between 1914 and 1918. 

Mr Gillies spent years restoring the dignity of men who had been prepared to sacrifice their lives. 

His incredible skill saw him use a rib to reconstruct a jaw. He also spent six years and 19 operations restoring a cheek, upper lip and nose of another soldier.  

Private Harold Page from the Norfolk Regiment before his treatment at Aldershot

How the soldier looked after surgery

Impressive before and after images of Private Harold Page, of the Norfolk Regiment, who lost an eye in the Battle of the Somme

Private Harold Page, of the Norfolk Regiment, was one of many British men thrown into the gruesome Battle of the Somme in northern France. 

He would end up one of the 57,470 British casualties of the brutal five-month campaign which saw thousands killed by German machine gun and artillery fire. 

He arrived at Aldershot just five days after the regiment’s attack on the Somme. Although he had to have his eye removed, Mr Gillies managed to achieve an impressive repair of the right side of his face. 

Private William Thomas from the 1st Cheshire Regiment was admitted to The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, East London, with the centre of his face completely missing in November 1918.

Six years later and after 19 operations – which included a cheek, upper lip and nose reconstruction – his transformation was nothing short of remarkable.

Other images show Arthur Mears, who was treated at Sidcup after losing his lower jaw in September 1917 and had a reconstruction using his rib.

Private William Thomas of the 1st Cheshire Regiment, on November 6 1918, on the first day of his admission

The soldier after 19 operations

Private William Thomas of the 1st Cheshire Regiment on the first day of his admission (left) and his final appearance (right) 

Private Arthur Mears had his jaw damaged in battle

It was reconstructed using his rib

Private Arthur Mears is captured during treatment (left) and afterwards (right) following the repair of his jaw using his rib

Horrific injuries

World War I was one of the bloodiest wars in all of human history and more Britons died in the 1914-18 conflict than any other.

In January 1916, Mr Gillies established a dedicated ward for patients with facial injuries at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, Hampshire.

After the Battle of the Somme, a new specialist hospital for facial reconstruction was set up at Sidcup.

Captain J.G.H Budd before

The soldier pictured after operations

Captain J.G.H Budd shown in May 1919 who had reconstructive surgery on his nose

Lieutenant T.H. Elderton, of the 3rd Batallion, Bedford Regiment, pictured before the war

Lieutenant T.H. Elderton, of the 3rd Batallion, Bedford Regiment, pictured before the war

The soldier when he arrived at hospital

Elderton had lost his upper jaw and eye and Gillies tried to restore his cheek contour

Lieutenant Elderton on admission to Sidcup on February 10 1918 (left) and after being worked on by Harold Gillies (right)

The interior of the Plastic Theatre at the Queen's Hospital with Mr Gillies seated on the right

The interior of the Plastic Theatre at the Queen’s Hospital with Mr Gillies seated on the right

THE GREAT WAR – THE FIRST TRULY GLOBAL CONFLICT 

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914 set off a chain of events that led to the deaths of over 18 million and 23 million wounded worldwide. 

After the Archduke’s death, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Soon Europe, and much of the world, spiralled into war as one country after another, enmeshed in a web of alliances, took sides.

They sided with either  the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) or the Allies (France, Britain, Russia and others, including, eventually, the US).

The conflict lasted exactly four years, three months and 14 days.  

The Queen’s Hospital opened in August 1917 and treated more than 5,000 patients up until the mid 1920s. 

World War 1 saw over 700,000 British and Commonwealth forces killed and more than 1.6 million wounded.

Of these, around 240,000 suffered total or partial leg or arm amputations as a result. 

‘During the Great War, facial injury became a major focus of medical attention for the first time,’ said Andrew Bamji in the book’s introduction.

‘Of all the horrific injuries suffered by soldiers during the conflict, facial wounds were the most obvious and had the capacity to cause the most reaction among those who viewed the wounded.

‘This book is about the men who suffered from facial wounds, and the surgeons who repaired them.

‘This work places emphasis on one man, Harold Gillies, whose drive and innovative approach were fundamental to these developments.’

Pictured in July 1919, Joseph Pickard, of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, who was helped by the surgeon

Pictured in July 1919, Joseph Pickard, of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, who was helped by the surgeon

These images show the outcome of his  reconstruction surgery ¿ which was certainly remarkable for the time

These images show the outcome of his reconstruction surgery – which was certainly remarkable for the time

Lieutenant William Spreckley is pictured here with his injuries before he had treatment

Lieutenant William Spreckley is pictured here with his injuries before he had treatment

The Lieutenant is shown here from each angle after he had help from Mr Gillies

The Lieutenant is shown here from each angle after he had help from Mr Gillies

Lives were changed forever 

Mr Bamji said the book captures a side to the human toll of the conflict that is often overlooked.

‘Studies of World War I often focus on the events and the fatalities of the war, or on cultural memory of the conflict,’ he added.

‘Historians, writers, artists and poet speak of heroic sacrifice.

‘However, few of them give thought to those whose lives were not ended by the conflict, but were changed forever.

‘This book talks of those who were left to grow old, and whom age did weary, and is dedicated to their memory.’ 

Faces from the Front: Harold Gillies, The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup and the Origins of Modern Plastic Surgery by Andrew Bamji and published by Helion & Company is now available to buy on Amazon for £29.95.  

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