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Professor Jay Winter on the plight of soldiers who suffered facial injuries.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: You’ve talked about how the artillery can ruin a man’s face in a second, and one of the stories we’ve got is of Gordon Wallace, whose face was torn apart by this kind of shrapnel. We were wondering if you could talk to us about the plight of these kind of faceless men who return after the war with an injury that is so stark and unforgettable for the man himself, and also for the society that he returns to.
JAY WINTER: The story of the men without faces is a story of war that becomes so massive that war itself ceases to have a face. That is to say, the cavalryman’s war is one soldier against another. The artillery war was one human being against a gun probably 20 kilometres away. And the definition, therefore, of heroism was transformed by the industrialisation of violence, but so were the wounds inflicted by that artilleryman’s war. In some respects, the story of the men without faces shows that there are 100 stories in every country that fought in the war, and that the men who suffered these wounds in the Australian war effort had brothers all over the world.
And they all had the same terrifying life to lead, a life in which they would expect young children to be terrified of them, in which the business of recognition of fellow soldiers, veterans who share the same experiences, was not at all to be assumed. Most of us don’t have a lot of training in dealing with horribly mutilated men. In the French case, they bought their own beaches so that they wouldn’t frighten little children when they went swimming. The people without faces were given extraordinary treatment by surgeons, some of them dental surgeons, some of them medical surgeons, who used techniques of transplant of their own flesh to create what might be described as a face.
But most of those who lived through these wounds were permanent pariahs in their own minds, perhaps in the minds of those others too ashamed to admit that they couldn’t stand the face of the men who were wounded in this manner at war. I feel that they signify something about the dehumanisation of wars. It’s loss of a face, loss of recognition of one human being fighting another. The First World War made that impossible. And these men who lived through the interwar years and afterwards, with the effects of the artillery war, literally embodied memory of the Great War, were among the most difficult men to look at.
To see the face of war was to see their face– and no one wanted to do that.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And just you saying that, like that even the soldiers who returned themselves who didn’t have to deal with that ordeal, feeling that was a reminder that it could’ve been them, definitely comes through in Gordon Wallace’s story, as well.
JAY WINTER: We should recognise the humanity of veterans. They had the power of brotherhood, but they had the weaknesses of those of us who are not handicapped facing those wars. And the way in which these men were treated varied in different places, of course, and different times. But one aspect of “The 100 Stories” that seems to me to be most intriguing is the extent to which these men who were physically disabled were almost always psychologically disabled, without that ever being inscribed on their medical records.
Which leads to an inevitable conclusion that there is a vast underestimate of the psychological toll of physical wounds, the kind produced by those pieces of metal that were white-hot and could shear an arm, a leg, genitals, a face, eyes, off at the speed of light. So what we’re looking at, when we look at people who were mutilated, are people whose psychological injuries worsened the business of recovery and have never been acknowledged.
LAURA JAMES: During the production of “The Great War and The Shaping of the 20th Century,” you were faced with the choice of what to call the battles of 1916. Our understanding is that the producers preferred the term “sacrifice” to describe the carnage at Verdun and on the Somme, and you instead insisted on using the would “slaughter.” Can you tell us a little bit more about your reasoning behind this choice?
JAY WINTER: “The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century” was a film of eight hours, a history of the First World War, probably the first cultural history of the First World War ever put together for documentary television, and was first done in the United States and then done in Britain. In the United States, I had no trouble whatsoever with the title of the fourth hour, which was called “Slaughter.” It was title of the episode from the very beginning of our planning to the presentation of it in 1996, in November, on the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
When the series was reversioned for the BBC, I got a phone call from the governor’s office of the BBC, someone who’s not supposed to have anything to do with production. And he asked me, as a co-producer of the series, would I mind terribly if they changed the title of episode 4 from “Slaughter” to “Sacrifice.” And I said I would mind a great deal, and in fact, if required, I would resign, and they’d have to get someone else to finish the series. Because the word slaughter is in the French soldiers’ letters. “Boucherie” is what they called it. Verdun was la boucherie, la grande boucherie.
And to sanctify the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun by using a word with religious connotations, that seemed to me to violate the spirit of the documents, the soldiers’ letters themselves. The secretary said, I’ll pass on the message, and then a week later wrote back, saying, you can have the title. But in television series, a producer gets only one victory of this company, and you just had yours. We’re going to change whatever we want from then on. They didn’t. They didn’t change anything. But it was a classic moment where political pressure challenges historical authenticity. And unfortunately, there are historians who believe that being on stage, as it were, being on screen, matters more than accuracy.
But I’m not one of them.

Watch Professor Jay Winter talk about the plight of soldiers who suffered facial injuries and discuss the language used to describe war.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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