Special Report

Faces of War

Amid the horrors of World War I, a corps of artists brought hope to soldiers disfigured in the trenches

Sculptors and artists designed lifelike masks for gravely wounded soldiers. (Anna Coleman Ladd papers, Archives of American Art, S.I.)
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In France, the Union des Blessés de la Face (the Union of the Facially Wounded) acquired residences to accommodate disfigured men and their families, and in later years absorbed the casualties of subsequent wars. The fate of similarly wounded Russians and Germans is more obscure, although in postwar Germany, artists used paintings and photographs of the facially mutilated with devastating effect in antiwar statements. America saw dramatically fewer casualties: Ladd reckoned that there were "between two and three hundred men in the American army who require masks"—a tenth the number required in France. In England, sentimental schemes were discussed for the appropriation of picturesque villages, where "maimed and shattered" officers, if not enlisted men, could live in rose-covered cottages, amid orchards and fields, earning their living selling fruit and weaving textiles by way of rehabilitation; but even these inadequate plans came to naught, and the men simply trickled away, out of sight. Few, if any, masks survive. "Surely they were buried with their owners," suggested Wood's biographer, Sarah Crellin.

The treatment of catastrophic casualties during World War I led to enormous advances in most branches of medicine—advances that would be used to advantage, mere decades later, treating the catastrophic casualties of World War II. Today, despite the steady and spectacular advance of medical techniques, even sophisticated modern reconstructive surgery can still not adequately treat the kinds of injuries that condemned men of the Great War to live behind their masks

Anna Coleman Ladd left Paris after the armistice, in early 1919, and was evidently sorely missed: "Your great work for the French mutilés is in the hands of a little person who has the soul of a flea," a colleague wrote to her from Paris. Back in America, Ladd was extensively interviewed about her war work, and in 1932, she was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. She continued to sculpt, producing bronzes that differed remarkably little in style from her prewar pieces; her war memorials inevitably depict granite-jawed warriors with perfect—one is tempted to say mask-like—features. She died at age 60 in Santa Barbara in 1939.

Francis Derwent Wood died in London in 1926 at age 55. His postwar work included a number of public monuments, including war memorials, the most poignant of which, perhaps, is one dedicated to the Machine Gun Corps in Hyde Park Corner, London. On a raised plinth, it depicts the young David, naked, vulnerable, but victorious, who signifies that indispensable figure of the war to end all wars—the machine-gunner. The monument's inscription is double-edged, alluding to both the heroism of the individual gunner and the preternatural capability of his weapon: "Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands."

Caroline Alexander is the author of The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.


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