‘Cancelled’: The Blinded and Disfigured British Soldier of the First World War

Today’s guest post is by Gary Haines. Gary is currently finishing his MPhil history of art thesis ‘and he had such beautiful eyes’ The cultural discourse of the blinded British soldier of the First World War, 1915 – 1939 with Birkbeck College where he also occasionally teaches.  He is fascinated by the outsider in history and  aims to give them a voice. His essay The most gruesome picture ever painted: Otto Dix and the Truth of War is to be published by Reaktion publishing in A Global History of Art in Modern Warfare, November 2017. Gary is archivist for the V & A Museum of ChildhoodGary can be reached on Twitter @gjhhistorybloke

 

He went downstairs. Isabel was alone in the dining-room. She watched him enter, head erect, his feet tentative. He looked so strong-blooded and healthy, and, at the same time cancelled. Cancelled – that was the word that flew across her mind. Perhaps it was his scars suggested it.[1]

This excerpt is from the D. H. Lawrence short story, ‘The Blind Man’, and describes Maurice, a blinded veteran of the First World War. Maurice is also facially disfigured with a scar on his forehead. Maurice was not alone in his combination of blindness and facial disfigurement.

Sightless soldiers were a unique group among the blind in Britain. There were some 30,850 men discharged from the British Army during the First World War with damaged or defective eyesight caused by war. Of these nearly two thousand were fully blind. Of the others, many would find that their sight would worsen over the coming years due to exposure to gas. These men were, in the most part fit, young and healthy. Their blindness had not been caused by being born blind or illness or by old age but through exposure to gas, bullet or shell.[2]

Due to the nature of the wound one would expect that facial disfigurement would be a natural effect of blindness caused by impact of metal on flesh but on many occasions it was just the eyes that were affected. This lovely image of members of St. Dunstan’s relaxing with VADs does show that blindness caused by bullet or shell does not necessarily result in facial trauma.

Image 1 Nurses and members on a seesaw

Image 1. – Members of St. Dunstans with VADs. © Blind Veterans UK

There is evidence that 13 blinded veterans from St. Dunstan’s were transferred to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup. It was here between 1917 – 1925 that plastic surgery on the face was pioneered by Harold Gillies.[3]

The common held view of the blinded veteran was summed up by an appeal in The Times, published on the 17 April 1915.

The Most Pathetic Victims of War

An Appeal to Help our Blinded Soldiers and Sailors

Blinded for life, whilst still young and active! Previous education, previous training – everything – in vain! Surely this is the saddest and most pathetic fate that can befall the British soldier or sailor who offers limb and life in the cause of his country. It is almost worse than death itself… hundreds of gallant fighters will be doomed to everlasting darkness, not all necessarily by bullets or shell fire, but some as the result of shock, concussion, and other circumstances associated with the hell of war through which they have bravely passed — for our sakes.[4]

Sir Arthur Pearson was determined to fight against the perception of blindness being ‘a pathetic fate’. He was himself blind due to glaucoma and in 1915 set up the aforementioned St. Dunstan’s, a charity to assist Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. It is to their records we turn to now to investigate some biographical history of those blinded in war.[5]

George Eames worked for Lever Bros, Port Sunlight and along with 4068 other employees of the Company was caught up in the excitement of the age and enlisted. He was 28 at the time. During action on the 18/19 July 1916 at Tronen Wood, Eames was hit and rendered ‘dark blind’. One eye was removed. Eames also suffered wounds in his left arm making it ‘virtually useless’. Eames, now blind and with one ‘useless’ arm, returned home to his wife and three children. His local community heard of his plight, rallied round and collected money for him and his family.

In August 1916 Eames arrived at St. Dunstan’s for training and in 1917 passed his typewriting and braille test, common training for the blinded veteran. However, Eames would not earn money for his family this way. In an entry for April 1918 on the medical record for George we read:

‘Home for a fortnight’s holiday, during which time he received an offer to perform at Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, and at the Wigan Hippodrome at £12 a week. Received enthusiastically and as a result was offered many more engagements’

Eames however refused these other engagements as he was anxious to complete a poultry-farming course which he eventually did. Poultry farming was another common training option offered by St. Dunstan’s to their members. The whole ethos behind the training and sports offered by St. Dunstan’s was to instill a renewed sense of pride and independence in these men who many would view as unemployable following sight-loss.

Image 2  Farming class 300dpi.jpg

Image 2: Poultry Training. In this image facial disfigurement is evident. © Blind Veterans UK

One can surmise that George Eames was not comfortable with the spotlight and wished to be left alone with his family and chickens. This was however not to be.

Image 3 Eames unveiling

Image 3 – George Eames after unveiling War Memorial. Frame from film footage of the unveiling of the Port Sunlight Memorial © British Pathe News

This film shows the unveiling of the Port Sunlight Memorial, which commemorated the 503 Port Sunlight employees that were killed during the conflict, many of whom George would have known. George was picked to unveil the memorial as a symbol of the cost of conflict and of hope for the future, as suggested by the title of the film: ‘A Blind Hero Unveils Memorial’, 1921.

By this time George was known by another name.

Image 4 Postcard

Image 4 – George Eames ‘The Blind Baritone’ from author’s own collection.

He had found fame through his singing. By June 1918 it was reported that he would, ‘continue with Music Hall Engagements of which he has several on hand, until suitable land and cottage have been procured for him by his old firm as promised.’ George then undertook more training as a poultry farmer. He then disappears from the records of St. Dunstan’s. He shows us that blindness did not mean the end. It was the beginning of another career. Although a reluctant star he used his talent to help his family.

Those who were blinded and in many occasions disfigured lived. Charles Henry Brown, one of the blind veterans sent for plastic surgery at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup undertook poultry training. He died in 1978. Life continued for ‘the cancelled man’.

Image 5 HP

Image 5 – Henry Perrett  © Blind Veterans UK

This is Henry Perrett holding a picture of himself when in uniform. Henry was a member of Blind Veteran’s UK and served with the Wiltshire Regiment, enlisting in 1915. He saw action in the Somme and went to Ypres in 1917. In Henry’s own words: “We went forward just for two nights to get the lie of the land, but on the first night, I copped it. A German trench mortar pitched into our bay and all seven of us were knocked out. I was blinded and seriously injured by shrapnel.” ….. when a nurse spoke to him as he recovered his consciousness he remembers his first words being, “Oh what have they done with my eyes?” Henry lived into his nineties.

We return finally to Lawrence’s Maurice:

‘Your head seems tender, as if you were young,’ Maurice repeated. ‘So do your hands. Touch my eyes, will you? – touch my scar.

Now Bertie quivered with revulsion. Yet he was under the power of the blind man, as if hypnotized. He lifted his hand, and laid the fingers on the scar, on the scarred eyes. Maurice suddenly covered them with his own hand, pressed the fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets, trembling in every fibre, and rocking slightly, slowly, from side to side. He remained thus for a minute or more, whilst Bertie stood as if in a swoon, unconscious, imprisoned.[6]

It is the man that is unscarred who is imprisoned.

We must not forget that behind each image we see, every statistic we read regarding blindness and facial disfigurement was a real, living, breathing man, blinded in war with his life left to lead. They are not ‘symbolic’ representations of the futility of war, a statistic to study, to feel sorry for. They are flesh, they lived with the scars of war in a world of darkness and they achieved and in the case of Eames, sung.

You might enjoy these other posts about World War I on Effaced from History?.

© Gary Haines, June 2017

[1] Lawrence, D. H., ‘The Blind Man’ in Lawrence, D. H., England, My England, London: Aziloth Books, 2010, pp. 35 – 48. ‘Cancelled’ quote appears on page 42 of this version.

[2] Statistics from A Souvenir Programme of the British Broadcasting Co.’s Symphony Concerts, Proceeds in aid of St. Dunstan’s, c. 1923. Message From Captain Ian Fraser p.1 and also p.23 quoting Ministry of Pensions UK figures. From the Armistice of 1918 to the mid-1920s St. Dunstan’s, the blinded veterans charity, received 598 new applications. See also The Times, 27 April 1920, p. 14, ‘a considerable number of soldiers whose sight was damaged in the early days of the war, and who left hospital feeling that they had eyes good enough to carry them through the world in the ordinary way, have had this precious sense deteriorate or disappear.’  In 1950–51 St. Dunstan’s received 47 new cases of men who had lost their sight due to their service in the First World War, 18 of these cases were due to being exposed to gas. Information received from Rob Baker, Information & Archives Officer, Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan’s).

[3] Information from Rob Baker.

[4] The Times, ‘The Most Pathetic Victims of War’ 17 April 1915, p. 10.

[5] The following biographical information is used with permission of Blind Veteran’s UK. The medical records held are an incredible source of information. With my thanks to Rob Baker, Information & Archives Officer for his help and permission.

[6] Lawrence, D. H., ‘The Blind Man’ in Lawrence, D. H., England, My England, London: Penguin Books, 1973, p. 73.

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2 Responses to ‘Cancelled’: The Blinded and Disfigured British Soldier of the First World War

  1. Kerry Neale says:

    Thank you for your blog, Gary – very interesting research. In his work at the Queen’s Hospital, Harold Gillies observed that blinded patients were often easiest to deal with as they were only ones, according to him, who ‘kept their spirits up through thick and thin.’
    For blinded disfigured veterans, it seem that their blindness more easily defined their needs and determined the services that were made available to them. In the case of a New Zealand Rifleman treated at Queen’s Hospital, Gillies wrote that ‘Fitted with an external prosthesis, at least he was presentable enough to become a blind man’ – suggesting that blindness was more publically acceptable than disfigurement. A sad observation, but perhaps with some truth to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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