MIGHTY HISTORY

Why disfigured World War I veterans had their own park benches

It wouldn't do much good for a wounded World War I veteran trying to reintegrate into society to have a passersby gasp in shock and horror every time they saw him. The town of Sidcup in England attempted to ameliorate this shocked, audible response by attempting to warn the locals about the tenants of a nearby soldiers hospital.

Seeing a man on a blue bench when all the other benches in town were a different color warned the locals the image of a man sitting on it might come as a shock – and the veterans were grateful.

WARNING: Some of these images might be disturbing to even modern eyes.


A World War I veteran who was treated at Sidcup

World War I was an entirely different kind of warfare than the world had ever known previously. With that new, modern, and mechanized destruction, came new wounds and scars that would mark its veterans forever. Few in any military had ever seen anything like the gruesome scars of war left on World War I vets, so it's safe to say that few civilians had either.

The Great War was packed with horrifyingly disfiguring weapons similar to wars past. Bullets are nothing new, neither was shrapnel. But the new weapons of war were able to unload hundreds of bullets in a minute and fire high explosives and poison gas from places the soldiers on the ground couldn't even see. Soldiers on both sides suffered disfigurement at an astonishing rate. For the lucky ones who survived, that meant coming home to a population that wasn't entirely prepared to see the horrors of the war.

The effects of the earliest plastic surgery on World War I veterans, this work done in London.

Sidcup, England had a hospital devoted to such soldiers. The hospital held hundreds of troops whose facial features were an object of terror to the unprepared. The benches of Sidcup were a warning to passersby that a veteran sitting on the bench might be disfigured, and it's best not to stare. While this may seem offensive to us these days, for veterans who suffered from these afflictions, it was a blessing. Sidcup became the one place in the world where wounded, disfigured vets could walk around without the gasps and cries found everywhere else.

More than that, such hospitals featured pioneering medical techniques to attempt to mitigate the physical damage and return some kind of normalcy to the subject. World War I veterans were essentially the world's first plastic surgery recipients. For those who couldn't get that kind of work done, masks were an option – a painted replica of an unwounded face, covering the wounds of war that marked their daily lives.

Masks for WWI-era wounded soldiers were usually specially designed for the individual, created for the subject's unique injury or war wound, and then painted one by one to ensure the look and fit of the mask matched the person wearing it. There are many occasions where (albeit in black and white photos) it's hard to distinguish the masked face from what might be the soldier's undamaged face.

They were remarkably accurate and allowed the soldiers a degree of freedom, walking around without the horrors of war written upon their faces.