the wounds of the first world war -- 3/22/23

Today's selection -- from The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris. The destructiveness of the weapons of the First World War caused hundreds of thousands of disfiguring wounds, the likes of which had never been seen before:
"[British soldier Percy] Clare's own platoon continued to advance, passing through the carnage on the way to its intended target: a strongly fortified trench protected by a wide belt of barbed wire. As they drew closer, the Germans began raking them with bullets, their machine gunners and riflemen firing from several positions at once. Suddenly, Clare felt woefully underprepared. '[H]ow absurd it seemed to be ad­vancing just one thin line of khaki, against the immensely strong entrenchment from which now belched a continuously increasing rifle fire.'

"Clare inched forward, weighed down by the heavy pack of sup­plies that all infantrymen were required to carry. These packs, which could weigh as much as sixty pounds, contained everything from ammunition and hand grenades to gas masks, goggles, shov­els, and water. Clare negotiated tangles of barbed wire, keeping low to the ground to avoid the shower of bullets flying overhead.

"Then, seven hundred yards from the trench, he felt a sharp blow to the side of his face. A single bullet had torn through both his cheeks. Blood cascaded from his mouth and nostrils, soaking the front of his uniform. Clare opened his mouth to scream, but no sound escaped. His face was too badly maimed to even arrange itself into a grimace of pain.
"From the moment that the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: Europe's military technology had wildly surpassed its medical capabilities. Bullets tore through the air at terrifying speeds. Shells and mortar bombs exploded with a force that flung men around the battlefield like rag dolls. Ammunition containing magnesium fuses ignited when lodged in flesh. And a new threat, in the form of hot chunks of shrapnel, often covered in bacteria-laden mud, wrought terrible injuries on its victims. Bod­ies were battered, gouged, and hacked, but wounds to the face could be especially traumatic. Noses were blown off, jaws were shattered, tongues were torn out, and eyeballs were dislodged. In some cases, entire faces were obliterated. In the words of one battlefield nurse, '[T]he science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.'

"The nature of trench warfare led to high rates of facial injuries. Many combatants were shot in the face simply because they'd had no idea what to expect. 'They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets,' wrote one surgeon. Others, like Clare, sustained their injuries as they advanced across the battle­field. Men were maimed, burned, and gassed. Some were even kicked in the face by horses. Before the war was over, 280,000 men from France, Germany, and Britain alone would suffer some form of facial trauma. In addition to causing death and dismember­ment, the war was also an efficient machine for producing millions of walking wounded.

Re-educating wounded. Blind French soldiers learning to make baskets, World War I.

"The loss of life was also greater than in any previous war, due in part to the development of new technologies that enabled slaughter to occur on an industrial scale. Automatic weapons allowed sol­diers to fire hundreds of rounds a minute at distant targets. Artil­lery became so advanced that some long-range weapons required their operators to take the curvature of the earth into consider­ation in order to remain accurate. The Germans' largest siege can­non, the dreaded 'Paris Gun,' pummeled the French capital with two-hundred-pound shells from a distance of seventy-five miles. Infantry weapons had also advanced considerably in the years lead­ing up to the First World War, providing many times the rate of fire of those used in previous wars. The military historian Leo van Bergen notes that this, in combination with advances in artillery, meant that a company of just three hundred men in 1914 could 'de­ploy firepower equivalent to that of the entire 60,000 strong army commanded by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.'

"Beyond developments in the traditional hardware of guns, bul­lets, and shells were two ghastly innovations brought on by scien­tific advances. The first was the Flammenweifer, or flamethrower, which produced an appalling shock for the uninitiated. It was first used by the Germans, most notably against the British at Hooge in 1915. The portable device belched forth a stream of burning oil that destroyed everything within range, sending men scurrying from the trenches like mice from burning haystacks. Its jets of liquid fire left victims with severe burns over their entire bodies. One soldier watched in horror as flames seared a fellow comrade: 'his face [was] black and charred like a cinder and the upper part of his body scorched and cooked.'

"The second and perhaps more psychologically devastating inno­vation was chemical weapons. The first large-scale lethal gas attack came on April 22, 1915, when members of a special unit of the German army released 160 tons of chlorine gas over the battlefield at Ypres, in Belgium. Within minutes, over one thousand French and Algerian soldiers were killed, and a further four thousand wounded. Most of the survivors fled the battlefield with their lungs burning, leaving a large hole in the trench line. One soldier wit­nessed the horror from afar: 'Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas-soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades.' Even as gas masks were rushed to the front, offering varying degrees of protection, these chemical weapons be­came immediately synonymous with the savagery of World War I.

"Tanks were also a new addition to the battlefield. First devel­oped by the British, they were given their name in an attempt to conceal their true purpose from the enemy. Under the pretense of their being water tanks, these steel beasts were meant to protect those inside as they advanced their cannons and cargo inexorably toward enemy lines. In reality, they were vulnerable to shell fire, leaving their crews susceptible to all kinds of injuries, including burns from unprotected gas tanks that could ignite when hit."



Lindsey Fitzharris


The Facemaker


Farrar, Straus, and Giroux


Copyright 2022 by Lindsey Fitzharris


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