Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, Kent
November, 11 1918
The war has accustomed us to the sight of maimed young men in the streets and at cafés, to empty sleeves and missing legs and eyes like the windows of abandoned houses. It has taught us a certain politeness. We have learned to ignore an injury when conversing, to avert our gaze from the hook-hand or peg-leg.
We know to concentrate on the young man’s face, smile into it as though teaching a song to a child. The faces of our young men look as they did before the war.
The citizens of our town never do this. The citizens of our town know to avert their eyes altogether. Our town is home to Queen’s Hospital, a special facility dealing exclusively in the facial injuries this Great War has produced in abundance. A rifle blindly fired across the trenches may travel a mile before reaching its target, but it can retain sufficient force to tear a man’s face off, rip away his jaw or shatter his cheekbones, all while leaving him very much alive. Such men are brought to Queen’s Hospital swaddled in bandages that hide horrors beyond imagination.
There are benches in our Royal Park painted a bright yellow. Queen’s Hospital patients are ordered to sit upon these benches and no others. The yellow benches can be seen from a great distance. They serve as a warning to the neophyte: avert your eyes from these wounded.
This is not for the neophytes’ protection, though the first sight of these ruined faces will usually make them recoil in shock and horror.
No, we wish to protect the patients themselves, for what man wants to realize he is a monster whose face is the giver of nightmares?
Our surgical techniques are improving, but they are still crude. The procedures are excruciatingly painful, the many operations performed over several years’ time.
I often advise a man so wounded to forego the surgery and instead allow us to fit him with a sculpted copper mask attached to spectacles and painted to exactly match his skin tone. Wearing this disguise he can begin to find his way in civilian life, sparing himself years of agony.
Sometimes the man will be determined to have the surgery despite the uncertain results because he does not wish to spend his life masked. Often he imagines that surgery can restore him to his prewar appearance, a delusion that weakens over time.
At a certain point it is not unusual for the man to ask me to kill him.
In honor of Armistice Day, 11/11/1918, when all war was supposed to end forever.
Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
A century ago, all of Europe was feeding its young men into a meat grinder. The battle of the Somme, which lasted from July to November 1916, killed 750,000 British and French soldiers as well as 537,000 German and Austrian troops. Neither side gained any advantage from all this carnage, and the war continued for another two years. It was so horrible that many thought we would fight no more wars, but here we are a hundred years later and still selling the idea that this is a noble undertaking. Facial injuries in particular were especially awful, since the loss of face equated to the loss of humanity. If you’re interested in the research that went into this short piece, you may click here.