Morning Coffee: The Faces of WWI

feetI love history. It’s why I chose a history degree program when I went to college. It’s why I read historical, both fiction and nonfiction. It’s why I write historical novels. I just really enjoy researching. I own many nonfiction history books, there’s the internet, and then there’s fiction. That’s right; sometimes I use other people’s fiction to help with my research. Always fact-checking before using, of course.

More often than not, research using fiction means analyzing how they write their dialogue, how they show emotion, how they incorporate historical details that make the reader feel like they’re really there without leaving the story reading like a dry academic paper. Recently I’ve been reading a collection of short stories and was reminded of a WWI detail I’d read about in the past but had since forgotten.

“Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and The Great War” is a collection of short stories about love during the time of the signing of the Armistice. (The 100th anniversary is November 11th.) The story “All For The Love Of You” by Jennifer Robson is about a young American girl living in Paris at the time of the Armistice. She makes herself useful by volunteering at The American Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks run by Mrs. Anna Coleman Ladd. There she meets an American soldier whose face was severely damaged in battle and he has sought out Mrs. Ladd to make him a mask to hide his injuries. They, of course, fall in love. Daisy Fields and Captain Mancuso are fictitious; however, Mrs. Ladd and the American Red Cross studio were real.

The large-caliber guns of artillery warfare had the power to destroy men’s bodies in a way never seen before. Bones were not merely broken, they were shattered upon impact. Trench warfare made this all the worse. Soldiers believed they could stick their heads up quick to survey the landscape without understanding the fast and immediate destruction of the machine gun. New methods of facial reconstruction were being advanced that are still in use today, but it was not enough. Men were left with open wounds that even the best surgeons could not repair. Something had to be done to allow these men to go home to their families, their communities, without fear.

Francis Derwent Wood founded the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in England in 1916. In 1917, Wood’s program came to the attention of Anna Coleman Ladd, a sculptor living in Boston. When her husband’s work took them to Paris, Mrs. Ladd consulted with Wood and opened the Studio for Portrait Masks under the administration of the American Red Cross. Her studio was credited with the best work, a single mask taking up to a month to complete. Creating first a plasticine likeness, a mask was fashioned from galvanized copper one thirty-second of an inch thick. The mask, when completed, would weigh between four and nine ounces, depending on whether it was made to cover the entire or just part of the face. (Most were partial masks.) The metallic surface was then painstakingly painted with hard enamel to match the skin tone of the man, match his eye color right down to the flecks of light reflected in the good eye. Eyebrows, lashes and hair were made from real hair. Wood’s studio used slivered tinfoil, reminiscent of ancient Greek statues. Eyeglasses were often used to better anchor the mask to the wearer. If he did not normally wear them, plain glass was used. While not perfect, the likenesses were remarkable and allowed the men to return to the public without fear or horror.

By the end of 1919, Mrs. Ladd’s studio had made 185 masks. Her studio closed in 1920. There is no record how many masks were made by Wood. His department disbanded in 1919.

These lightweight metal masks were more comfortable and durable than the old leather prosthetics, but they did not hold up for the lifetime of the wearer. After only a few years they would become too bent, chipped, to retain the wearer’s likeness. Very few, if any, masks survive today. There are, however, many before and after pictures of soldiers who wore the masks and the work is remarkable. If you Google WWI face masks you’ll be amazed by the difference they made in these men’s lives.

I’ve written many times about my first novel, “Mary Bishop”. While it’s currently making the rounds looking for an agent and/or publisher, I’m working on my second novel, “The Healing Heart”. This one takes place in 1918 and covers the end of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic. One of my two leading men, Harry, returns from the Western Front with a severe facial injury. He loses an eye and has a jagged red scar down the right side of his face from artillery shrapnel. Will Harry get a mask? I don’t know yet, but it will at least be a topic of discussion.

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