The horrors of war: the gueules cassées

I believe gueules cassées is French for ‘broken faces’ or ‘broken jaws’ (I know not which) and is the term used for the French men who had their faces blown off in the Great War.

Some 15 million men were crippled by the Great War.  In the UK alone by the late 1930s there were still over half a million men receiving pensions for physical disability caused by that war (National Archive).  And then there were those who remained in hospital for the rest of their lives.

The nature of trench warfare is such that the face is often the most exposed part of the body meaning the Great War – with its shrapnel and grenades – was the cause of a huge increase in the number of severe facial wounds.  Also, battlefield medicine began to improve during that war increasing the likelihood of wounded men surviving terrible wounds that would have previously been fatal.

But what happens to a young man with no lower jaw or a hole in his skull where his nose was?  And in France losing ones face was not considered a disability so they received no pension, despite being unable to go out in public.

Léon Dufourmentel (1884 – 1957) was a French surgeon responsible for caring for the gueules cassées and was innovative finding methods for repairing facial wounds by transferring flaps of skin from the scalp to, for example, the chin.

Apparently five of his patients were taken from the hospital to the Palace of Versailles for the signing of the peace treaty in 1919.

Such people are still supported in France – because soldiers are still being shot in the face – through the Union des Blessés de la Face et de la Tête (Union for those with Facial and Head Injuries) and the Foundation for Gueules Cassées are.  They organise international events to raise awareness and funding.

Whether you choose to do a Google image search for the term is up to you.  They are seriously horrid pictures.  They are the sort of images the media are prevented from portraying during a war for fear of upsetting morale.  Whether you call that sensible censorship or propaganda is up to you.

Alternatively view the war memorial in Trévières to the dead of 1914-18.  She was herself maimed in the Second World War and now stands as an inadvertent representative of the broken faces.

The War Memorial at Trévières with her lower jaw blown off

The War Memorial at Trévières. Taken from Traces of

As I write this, there is nothing on the English language Wikipedia about the gueules cassées.  Nowadays plastic surgery is commonplace, even expected of the rich and famous – every day the newspapers and news web sites are littered with such ‘news’.  But nothing much is said about those who suffered and made it necessary for innovative techniques in surgery to be invented.  Perhaps a little more exposure to the horrors of war, and a little less commercial censorship, rather than glorifying and sanitising war by  the media and search engines, might not go amiss.