Today's Reading


Meanwhile, in the skies above, pilots were engaged in dogfights or were taking fire from ground forces while flying reconnaissance missions. The planes—made of wood, wire, and canvas—were not bulletproof, and most airmen were just as vulnerable as their comrades on the ground. Air combat was in its infancy when the war began. It had been a little over a decade since the Wright brothers made the first successful powered flight, and airplanes were still primitive machines. Without parachutes, pilots were forced to crash land burning aircraft or bail out and die. One pilot escaped with his body intact, but his face was so charred that none of his features was distinguishable. Most airmen carried a revolver or pistol, not to shoot the enemy but to end their own lives if their plane caught fire. So dangerous was flying in those days that many pilots were killed during training, before they ever had a chance to lay eyes on the enemy. These early airmen sometimes referred to themselves collectively as the "20-Minute Club"—the average time it took to shoot down a new pilot.

Yet for all these technological advancements, many of which were supposed to insulate the combatant from direct contact with the enemy, war was just as basic and brutal as it had been for centuries. Hand-to-hand combat broke out in scenes that would haunt survivors long after the war had ended. John Kirkham of the Manchester Battalion recalled the moment during the Battle of the Somme that he struck a German soldier with a trench club. This was a crude weapon, more redolent of medieval warfare than of the "modern" slaughter of the First World War. The standardissue version was usually a kind of mace, or a lead-cored truncheon studded with hobnails, although they were sometimes improvised weapons cobbled together from various materials in the trenches. "It sank deep into his forehead," Kirkham recounted. "In the scuffle, his helmet flew off, and I saw that he was a bald-headed old man. I have never forgotten that bald head, and I don't suppose I ever will, poor devil."

Alongside the blunt clubs used in stealthy raids was the altogether sharper bayonet. None was more feared than the German sawback bayonet—nicknamed the "butcher's blade." Soldiers used its serrated edge to yank out the entrails of their enemies, causing slow and agonizing death for those on the receiving end. It was so loathed that the French and British armies warned the Germans that any man caught with one would be tortured and executed. By 1917, it had been widely outlawed in battle. But the invention and customization of weapons continued throughout the war, often with gruesome results.

Even discarded jam tins were made deadly early in the war as soldiers began improvising bombs by filling them with explosives and scrap iron and fitting them with fuses. Given the unprecedented proliferation of efficient ways to kill en masse, it is hardly surprising that the battlefield became a wasteland. In the words of one man, "there was not a sign of life of any sort . . . Not a tree, save a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight at night. Not a bird; not even a rat, or a blade of grass . . . Death was written large everywhere."

These were just a handful of the horrors inflicted by the first of two global wars that would define the twentieth century. The conflict's human wreckage was inescapable. It was strewn across battlefields and crammed into makeshift hospitals all over Europe and beyond. Between eight and ten million soldiers died during the war, and over twice as many were wounded, often seriously. Many survived, only to be sent back into battle. Others were sent home with lasting disabilities. Those who sustained facial injuries—like Percy Clare—presented some of the greatest challenges to front line medicine.

Unlike amputees, men whose facial features were disfigured were not necessarily celebrated as heroes. Whereas a missing leg might elicit sympathy and respect, a damaged face often caused feelings of revulsion and disgust. In newspapers of the time, maxillofacial wounds—injuries to the face and jaw—were portrayed as the worst of the worst, reflecting long-held prejudices against those with facial differences. The 'Manchester Evening Chronicle' wrote that the disfigured soldier "knows that he can turn on to grieving relatives or to wondering, inquisitive strangers only a more or less repulsive mask where there was once a handsome or welcome face." Indeed, the historian Joanna Bourke has shown that "very severe facial disfigurement" was among the few injuries that the British War Office believed warranted a full pension, along with loss of multiple limbs, total paralysis, and "lunacy"—or shell shock, the mental disorder suffered by war-traumatized soldiers.

It's not surprising that disfigured soldiers were viewed differently from their comrades who sustained other types of injuries. For centuries, a marked face was interpreted as an outward sign of moral or intellectual degeneracy. People often associated facial irregularities with the devastating effects of disease, such as leprosy or syphilis, or with corporal punishment, wickedness, and sin. In fact, disfigurement carried with it such a stigma that French combatants who sustained such wounds during the Napoleonic Wars were sometimes killed by their comrades, who justified their actions with the rationalization that they were sparing these injured men from further misery. The misguided belief that disfigurement was "a fate worse than death" was still alive and well on the eve of the First World War.

A face is usually the first thing we notice about a person. It can signify gender, age, and ethnicity—all important components of an identity. It can also convey personality and help us communicate with one another. The infinite subtleties and variety of human expression comprise an emotional language of their own. So, when a face is obliterated, these key signifiers can disappear with it.

...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...