Dr Kerry Neale works in the Military Heraldry and Technology Section of the Australian War Memorial. She completed her PhD thesis through the University of New South Wales on the experiences of disfigured Great War veterans in Britain and the Dominions. She is currently preparing her thesis for wider publication. This blog is from a forthcoming chapter of a Museums Victoria publication to support the WWI: Love and Sorrow exhibition. You can contact Kerry via email , her LinkedIn profile or Twitter @kreativekurator.
This Friday, 18 August 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Queen’s Hospital for the treatment of facial wound cases at Sidcup, Kent, in England. During a war that saw the rapid advancement of weapons and mass casualties, the number of facial wounds sustained by British and Dominion forces was unprecedented.
I fell upon this topic after listening to a radio talkback program in 2006 – who would have thought all these years later I would still be so intrigued and moved by the stories of these men. The program was discussing the battle of the Somme, and a man rang in saying that he had series of photographs of his grandfather, who had lost his nose during the battle. These photos charted his grandfather’s facial surgery journey. Two things struck me – firstly, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the results of facial surgery during the First World War would look like. The other was a comment by the grandson – that in each of the photos, even though his grandfather’s nose was being reconstructed, his eyes seemed to ‘dim a little’, that he ‘lost his spark of life’. I couldn’t understand this – if his appearance was being repaired, shouldn’t life have been coming back to his eyes as he regained confidence? And so my search for answers began…
What I found were stories of incredible innovation carried out at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, which had been established specifically for the treatment of severe facial wounds. Begun primarily as a British endeavour under the direction of Harold Gillies (a New Zealand surgeon working with the British Red Cross), the hospital attracted surgeons and staff from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and later, a small unit from the United States; and took in patients from all those countries. Between the hospital’s opening in 1917 and its closure in 1925, surgeons there treated over 5,000 servicemen, and carried out more than 11,000 major operations. Work at the Queen’s Hospital was mainly focused on gun-shot and shrapnel wounds (approximately 80 per cent of all cases treated there); most patients arriving from the Western Front rather than other theatres of the war.
One of the patients who benefited from the remarkable treatment carried out at the Queen’s Hospital was Private William Kearsey from Inverell in NSW. At the outbreak of the First World War, William’s two older brothers, Jack and Stanley, had volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force, but both were found medically unfit for service: Jack suffered from asthma and Stanley had a hearing problem. So when William, a 24-year-old coach builder, went to enlist, we can imagine how frustrated he may have been to find that he was also rejected, because of problems with his eyes. Determined to play his part in the war, he underwent eye surgery in Sydney during 1915. He successfully enlisted with the 33rd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, in April 1916.
During the third battle of Ypres, on 3 October 1917, Private Kearsey was in the path of an exploding shell. The wound to his face was so devastating he was initially left for dead. It was only through the efforts of a fellow soldier, Jack Gaukroger, that William made it to an aid post to begin his long journey of repair and recovery.
William spent more than 18 months at the Queen’s Hospital, undergoing more than 25 major operations to repair his face. Returning to Australia in 1919, he spent another six months in Keswick Hospital in Adelaide under the care of surgeon Henry Newland, who had returned to Australia in 1918 after heading the Australian section at the Queen’s.
Once his treatment ended, William returned to Inverell and, after some early struggles, built a solid reputation for himself as a hardworking wool grower. While he remained single for much of his life, he married at the age of 59 to a woman called Verdun – named for the Western Front battle in 1916, the year she was born. They dedicated many years to bringing out needy children from the United Kingdom under the Big Brother Movement in the 1950s and 60s – thus helping 26 boys find a future in Australia. The last of these they would adopt. William died in 1971, aged 80.
William has become a personal link for me to the experiences of the thousands of disfigured Great War veterans I have investigated. His was one of the first series of photographs I viewed at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Melbourne, and the watercolour painted by Daryl Lindsay depicted such gentle eyes, that I was drawn to the story behind them.
Just a week after first seeing his records, I found myself speaking to William’s niece, Beryl Taylor. At 87 years of age, Beryl still had the warmest and most vivid memories of her ‘Uncle Bill’. Beryl had responded to my notice asking for relatives of disfigured Great War veterans to contact me for my research. It turns out that William had grown up in Inverell – the very country town in rural New South Wales where I had spent the first seven years of my life. It gives me a chill to think that the steps leading to the Post Office (built in 1904) that I remembering running up and down as a child were the very same ones that William walked.
In a strange way, William followed me on my PhD journey. When searching for images of the hospital ship on which William returned to Australia, I never expected to see William’s face. But lo and behold, of the hundreds of men on the ship, there he was staring straight at the camera.
In late 2013, I visited Belgium, and while walking through the galleries of the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, I stepped into an enclosed obelisk, unsure of what I was to see. With nothing displayed on the walls, I turned my gaze to the ceiling – who should be staring down at me but William.
The stories and experiences of facially wounded veterans are only now beginning to be told – for almost 100 years, they were forgotten or (worse still) overlooked in the writing of Great War histories. But William is no longer forgotten – and indeed, he has become more than just a familiar face to me. I have spoken to his family; I have met his adopted son. William’s story currently features in Melbourne Museum’s First World War centenary exhibition, WWI: Love and Sorrow. His is only one story, but he represents a ‘face’ for so many of the ‘faceless’.
You might enjoy these other posts about World War I on Effaced from History?.
 For some further reading see Harold Gillies, Plastic Surgery of the Face: based on selected cases of war injuries of the face including burns (Frowde : Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1920); Harold Gillies & D. Ralph Millard, The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery (Butterworth & Co. (Publishers) Ltd, London, 1957); Reginald Pound, Gillies: surgeon extraordinary (Michael Joseph, London, 1964).
 Kearsey’s service record and repatriation files are available through the National Archives of Australia. NAA: B2455, KEARSEY WILLIAM; NAA: C138, R55422, KEARSEY William [WW1 repatriation file] [box 16052]