The Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I by Lindsey Fitzharris - review by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport

Profiles in Courage

The Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I


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A great deal has been written on the First World War and the appalling human wreckage left by that brutal conflict, but until now little has been said about perhaps the most tragic of the war’s victims: the facially mutilated. Public revulsion at the sight of facial disfigurement ensured that many of those who suffered such wounds were kept out of sight. The Daily Mail captured a widespread feeling in September 1916 when it admitted, ‘a face ravaged by shrapnel … cannot fail to arouse a certain amount of repulsion’. In The Facemaker, Lindsey Fitzharris shines an important light on the hidden faces of the mutilated. Packed with telling and well-researched detail, her compelling narrative pulls no punches in describing in meticulous detail the horrific facial wounds suffered by many First World War soldiers and follows those courageous veterans on their journey through months and often years of surgery and rehabilitation.

The driving force behind the new art of reconstructive surgery was a modest New Zealand-born British surgeon, Harold Gillies, better known before the war for his skills as an amateur golfer. Having volunteered for the Red Cross at the age of thirty-two when war broke out, the Cambridge-educated Gillies later joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Soon after arriving at the front and encountering the terrible destruction wreaked on the human face by bombs, bullets and fire, he became convinced of the need to provide survivors with reconstructive surgery.

Gillies holds centre stage in Fitzharris’s story, but, as she makes clear, much of what he achieved in rebuilding the faces of the ‘Loneliest of Tommies’, as the Sunday Herald dubbed them in 1918, depended on collaboration. The delicate task of facial reconstruction drew on the work not

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