We are now used to the sight of maimed young men in the streets and at cafés, their empty sleeves and missing legs and eyes like the windows of abandoned houses. We have learned to politely ignore an injury when conversing, avert our gaze from the hook-hand or peg-leg. We concentrate on the young man’s face, smile into it as though teaching a new song to a child.
But here in Sidcup at the Queen’s hospital in Kent, it is different. Many of the benches in the Royal Park and the village square are painted a bright yellow. The wounded men have been ordered to sit upon these benches and no others.
They have been painted this unusual color to prepare the citizens as they approach, warn them about what they will see if they look upon these wounded. We wish to prevent the citizens from recoiling in shock and horror, for this will be bad for the men’s spirits.
You see, the Queen’s hospital specializes in facial injuries. A rifle fired across the trenches will reach its target, though only a fraction of its power remains. It is sufficient to tear a man’s face off, shatter his jaw or cheekbone, yet leave him very much alive. The men arrive here masked in bandages. The bandages hide horror beyond imagination.
Our surgical techniques are improving, but they are still crude. The procedure is painful and involves many operations performed over several years’ time. I will generally advise a man so wounded to forego the operations and instead allow us to fit him with a mask modeled from a photograph of him taken before the war, painted to exactly match his skin tone.
Sometimes the man will ask me to kill him.
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, 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.