- Les Gueules cassées
The French-language virtual exhibition Les Gueules cassées is a harrowing account of the "itinerary of suffering" endured by the many thousands of French WWI veterans with severe facial injuries. These colloquially known "broken faces" have become emblematic of the violence of modern, mechanized warfare and its uniquely dehumanizing effects. As a journalist for the New York Times put it, "There is no other injury in the war in Europe which is as horrible and as touching as facial injury." Never before had the medical services or the public encountered such devastating combat injuries. Inundated field hospitals, the bacteria-rich soil of the Western Front, and the absence of antibiotics guaranteed high rates of infection. Trench warfare exposed the face to shrapnel and shell fragments, while steel helmets (introduced in Summer 1915) decreased the risk of mortality and brain injury. Shot in the head from the side, a soldier might survive but lose much of his face. Developments in military technology had specific corporeal effects, like the large entry wounds—well represented on this Web site—caused by modern artillery. Fired at close range and with relatively low muzzle velocity, the bullet's energy was concentrated in the site of impact.
Produced for the Bibliothèque inter universitaire de mèdecine et d'Odontologie in Paris (BIUM), Les Gueules cassées locates its subject within the dual contexts of military medicine and social history: What kind of facial injuries were sustained in the Great War? How were they treated? What were the social ramifications and broader cultural resonances of facial disfigurement for this group of veterans? If the face was too badly damaged, delicately crafted facial prosthetics helped the wearer to "pass" in public life or at least avoid distressing others. The structure of this "itinerary"—from injury through surgical and prosthetic reconstruction to life outside the hospital—means that the Web site is rather limited in its interactive [End Page 429] possibilities. (There is one fascinating, if somewhat incongruous, interruption to this narrative: an etching by Otto Dix, from his cycle of fifty etchings entitled simply Der Krieg.) An electronic book, rather than a gallery, the Web site constructs a humanizing narrative out of reports and images that would otherwise be doubly disturbing. The primitive, mechanical brutality of many of the procedures is one of the more surprising themes of the Web site. Without disputing the idea that war is good for medicine, the technical descriptions and photographs help to historicize these procedures and unsettle the confidence with which we divide modern from premodern medicine.
Jay Winter has described the kinship between these particular casualties of war as a kind of living memorial characterized by "poignant isolation."1 The historian Sophie Delaporte, who contributed the text and images to the exhibition, tells the story of the founding of the Union des Blessés de la Face, the association for disfigured soldiers that had its origins in the isolated community of Valde Grâce Hospital. Through a series of mini biographies, we meet the founders and president, Colonel Picot (who, it is said, coined the term gueules cassèes when he was refused entry to a party at the Sorbonne). Organizations like the Union des Blessès effectively functioned as the first self-help groups while also giving disabled and disfigured veterans a political voice and a measure of economic and social security. Unable to return to their old lives, to resume domestic habits and public responsibilities, many of these men relied on the "spaces of refuge" provided by the Association. The first house, a château in Moussy-le-Vieux, 40 km from Paris, was bought in 1927. Families could visit, children came on vacation, and daily routines revolved around the agricultural life of the estate.
There is no denying that, to a layperson, much of this material will be deeply shocking, both in its unflinching description of injuries and surgical procedures and its use of the kind of photographic documentation that is...