Facing the future was a challenge for thousands

The BBC Radio Four series HomeFront features the issues that were the concerns and history of those living at home.

Issues included the fears of those with loved ones at the front, the attempt to maintain a normal life in the face of the many challenges that arose, as husbands, brothers and fathers were swept up into the armed forces. At first, it was as volunteers with great enthusiasm and later when conscription loomed, fatalistically accepting the reality of having no choice but to place themselves in the hands of the state, which would determine when and where they would be sent.

The First World War was the first conflict when the technological advances of the previous 50 years changed the means of conflict with the crude weapons of the period of Waterloo and the colonial bushfire wars of the European empire builders in Africa and Asia.

Now, in the second decade of the 20th century the reality of the scale of the refined and massively expanded power of artillery and the munitions that guns could project over thousands of yards to reduce the infantry facing relentless bombardment into passive and impotent bystanders, as their enemy threw steel and gas that would end many lives and transform others for the rest of time.

Sometimes taking away in whole or in part the aspect of human existence – the face - which more than any other – presents us to the world and gives expression to our nature and emotions. Currently, the fictional BBC series features the struggles that confront a man who returns home – invalided from any further part in the war but utterly changed by injury. The techniques of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction that we take for granted today were barely in their infancy.

In 1914-18 there was an avalanche of serious and near fatal disfiguring injuries for which surgical intervention would ensure survival of the casualties but leave them to ‘face’ the world with horrifying and catastrophic damage, causing many to hide away from the world, their family and friends.

Crude prosthetic devices made of copper and steel were fashioned to hide the loss of eyes, noses and cheeks, with clever use of make-up and paint. However, for some the injury was so extensive that surgical techniques and prostheses of the day could not recreate any semblance of a facial appearance that would allow a man to move about in society without evoking horror and revulsion.

The next in our series of talks at the Low Lights Tavern, Brewhouse Bank, Fish Quay, North Shields, will be given by June Watson, of Warkworth Royal British Legion and a mature student at Sunderland University. June will consider the development of the pioneering techniques of facial reconstruction that would be developed at the hospital at Sidcup in Kent by a group of dentists and maxillo-facial surgeons seeking to restore some semblance of a face to those mutilated by severe injury.

June’s talk, The Face of War, will show how the techniques developed there would make remarkable advances in a branch of medicine which would play a significant part in helping many men re-build their lives and cope with the consequences of horrific injury at the front.

It will take place on Tuesday, October 18, at 7.30pm.

The project workroom (Room B9) at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war.