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Remembering War, Heroism and Nobility

When this post is published (a day earlier than normal), it will be November 11, Remembrance Day in those countries who participated in either of the two world wars. Originally called Armistice Day (and still called that in the United States) to commemorate the end of the First World War, it is being observed this year for the 104th time.

I consider both military and public service to be among the most noble of pursuits, involving dedication to one’s country, giving to one’s fellow citizens and, on many occasions, sacrificing much for the sake of the many.

I don’t find war in itself noble and the First World War, in particular, can only be considered an egregious example of mankind’s stupidity. But conflict brings with it numerous examples of heroic action, when individuals go above and beyond the call of duty. Although such events usually occur on the battlefield, and under great duress, they also happen on the home front.

I was reminded of such things, when reading a book my son-in-law lent me. A journalist by occupation, he’s also taken great interest in that war and the lives of the soldiers participating in those mud-soaked, rat-infested trenches of northern France and Belgium. Knowing my love of history, especially the 20th century, he encouraged me to take a look at The Facemaker by American historian, Lindsey Fitzharris.

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022

Fitzharris is an Oxford graduate, Smithsonian TV channel host and medical historian. She has adopted the style of writers like the prolific Erik Larsen (The Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania; In The Garden of the Beasts, about an American diplomatic family posted in Nazi Germany; and many others) who meld personal history with excellent prose.

The book’s prologue alone, which describes how the state of munitions and other instruments of destruction far outstripped the healing arts in World War One, should be required reading for anyone thinking of sending young men and women off to war, or heading off to battle themselves:

“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.” (p.7) Automatic weaponry, long-range artillery, flamethrowers, tanks, chemicals (mustard gas; chlorine gas); new types of invasive bullets, bombs and brutal hand-to-hand combat were the order of the day. Throw in shrapnel, the ever-present bacteria-laden mud, trench warfare which led to high rates of facial injuries and a four-year stalemate, you have a recipe for what happened: between eight and ten million soldiers killed and twice as many injured. Fitzharris quotes a battlefield nurse, “the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.” (p.7) Nurses, doctors, stretcher bearers, aid stations, field hospitals and methods of treatment and care, working under the most appalling of conditions, simply could not keep up with the slaughter.

Into this chaotic world of shattered bodies and faces stepped the first plastic surgeons and hospitals devoted to facial reconstruction. The book focuses on one pioneering doctor in particular, a New Zealander named Dr. (later Sir) Harold Gillies, who took charge of the Cambridge Military Hospital’s plastic surgery efforts in January, 1916. Gillies was by no means alone, and Fitzharris takes great pains to mention the other doctors, those that came before and those that were his contemporaries, the nurses and many of the patients, cataloguing the arduous treatment required involved. They had much to wrestle with in taking on or undergoing this pioneering work, and their individual stories are told with compassion and care.

So, when I think of a hero, I think of those soldiers who had to stoically endure multiple (sometimes upwards of fifty) operations in an era when these treatments were in their infancy, doctors dealing with injuries never before seen and making up reconstruction strategies on the fly, with anesthesia and blood transfusions poorly understood and in short supply.

As a footnote, I can’t help mentioning that, despite the hospital’s name, it was actually located not in the university town of Cambridge but some ways away, in Aldershot, in the county of Hampshire (some 30 miles from London) and the hospital, abandoned for many years, has now become a property development site called Gun Hill.

It was in this town that my father was stationed during the Second World War, one of some 330,000 Canadian soldiers, and one of some 22,000 who met, married and brought home to Canada an English wife, my mother. My dad, my own hero, served in the Royal Canadian Signal Corps, for the entire six war years and for 26 years afterwards, in Canada’s far north and western provinces along with a stint of peacekeeping in Zaire.

Cover Photo by Fraizer Dunleavy on Unsplash