July 1 2016 marks the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and is being commemorated across Britain and Europe. 1 July 1916 saw the single highest casualty toll in British military history: 57,000 Commonwealth and 2,000 French casualties, including over 19,000 deaths. New Zealand-born surgeon Harold Gillies ran the specialist facial injuries hospital at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, which was established as a direct response to the large number of facial injuries caused in trench warfare. After 1 July 1916 alone, the hospital received almost 2000 face patients. Suzannah Biernoff, who spoke on the experiences and representation of such men in a keynote at our conference, quotes Gillies’ description of ‘Men without half their faces; men burned and maimed to the condition of animals’ after the Somme (‘Flesh Poems‘).
Several of the Effaced team have written on the experiences of soldiers with facial injuries, and World War One is noted as a major turning point in the history and development of plastic surgery. The experiences of these men and their doctors, friends and families have become better known following exhibitions such as Henry Tonks: Art and Surgery (University College London, 2002–2003), Faces of Battle (National Army Museum, London 2008–2009), and Faces of Conflict (Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, 2015) which involved Effaced’s David Houston Jones and Marjorie Gehrhardt. We hope that further work in the project on the World War One experience in wider historical context can do service to the memory of the casualties of this and (as Eleanor Crook’s sculpture, ‘And the Band Played On‘ [below] reminds us) other conflicts.