Quote

“…the bodies of strong, young men were being poured ruthlessly into the 500 mile long gutter that was the Western Front.” (BBC, 2015, 14:55)

That came, quite unexpectedly, from the mouth of a young student about half-way through a Sherlock Holmes / Mary Russell story on BBC Radio 7.

BBC, (2015) ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’, episode 1 of 4 of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, London, BBC, [online].  Available from: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0075z3b (accessed 9 June 2015).

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 War.com

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.

Dinosaur poets

A fellow Open University student wrote in Dinosaur poets TM:

what is/are Poets

Can they die and emerge again

like Dinosaurians

?

which made me think of some of the First World War poets and haiku in response.

Brooke.  Grenfell.  Munro.
Owen.  Rosenberg.  Sorley.
Thomas.  Wilson.  Wyn. 

The Great War is history, and the poets above did not survive it.  But fragments of their work live on, typically preserved in stone, like the fossils of creatures who lived at a time before ours when great beasts roared across the earth, ripping gentler souls limb from limb in the quest for blood to spill and flesh to consume.

Which got me thinking about the metaphor of Hollywood B-movie dinosaurs as great monsters, roaring and killing like the great guns of the artillery blasting away at the soldiers in the trenches.

Children love to see reconstructed dinosaurs and stomp about roaring and pretending to be a T-Rex, chomping great chunks out of authority figures like parents and teachers and elder siblings.  Being so big and powerful that they can do as they like, ruling the earth.

Is this the childish, base desire that prompts people to like to watch war being made on the news?  Gore-porn as entertainment?  How advertisers are clamouring to get their products promoted alongside clips of people being beheaded, blown up, burning alive, shot and gently rotting in the sun?  The advertisers and media know what we like.

Civilisation is a transparently thin veneer.

Maybe the world ends with a text message

100 years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated which was the catalyst for the Great War.

That prompted someone called Night-Gaunt49 to comment on the Candorville comic strip of 27th June 2014 to say:

Seems insane that the murder of one person would start a global war, but it did. The stupidity of “entangling alliances” that Washington warned us about did them end.

The “entangling alliances” view is from pro-German revisionist thinking of the 1960s. Academia is now reverting back to its view of the time that it was about the unified Germany’s rapid growth and expansion not being matched by having a presence on the world stage. Germany would have started a war before 1918 whatever happened. The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was merely a conveniently timed catalyst. It was used by Germany as an excuse to push the Austro-Hungarian Empire to start a war (it mattered not with who) so that Germany could conduct either an expansion to the East, or, if necessary, follow the Schlieffen Plan to quickly defeat attack France and then Russia. Either would have achieved the desired effect and likely given Germany diplomatic presence on a par with France, England and Russia.

The Schlieffen Plan was ‘improved’ by a committee which reduced the size of the attacking force, which meant the German forces failed to sweep through Belgium and France as quickly as intended. That resulted in the trenches and the machine-gun meat-grinder that killed millions.

It was not one murder that started the Great War. That was just one tiny step in a long succession of events and circumstances.

It was not inevitably a global war. That was caused by Germany not following their well-designed plan, resulting in them being delayed by defensive forces, which allowed time for lots of other states to pile in to see what land or diplomatic advantage they could grab in the process.