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Heart warming stories of war

It may be that I’m becoming cynical and more than a little concerned about the profusion of articles and programmes that at the moment appear to be celebrating World War 1.  The one that particularly caught my eye and somewhat took me aback was that which appeared double spread in the centre pages of the Evening Standard.

Entitled, The man who mended broken soldiers, by Nick Curtis, it reviewed a forthcoming exhibition War, Art and Surgery at the Hunterian Museum as well as a play by Howard Brenton, Dr Scroggy’s War, currently in rep at Shakespeare’s Globe.  Both celebrate the work of the New Zealand born surgeon, Harold Gillies, “the father of plastic surgery”.  Curtis indicates that this epithet is “thanks” to his pioneering work rebuilding the faces of at least 4000 British and New Zealand soldiers mutilated by new types of injuries that hadn’t been seen before.  Heartening then to hear that these men’s sacrifices weren’t totally in vain and by implication an unspoken thanks also for this unintended but not to be sniffed at benefit of war, disfigured young men that Gillies could really get to work on. Gillies handiwork can be seen in this exhibition in the “form of the strangely beautiful pastel portraits of his patients drawn by Henry Tonks, the surgeon and society portraitist”. 

Illustrating the article were two large before and after pastel portraits of Gunner John Dyson; the question though arises shouldn’t we be just a tiny bit worried that these horrors of war become “strangely beautiful”?  Ernst Friedrich way back in 1924 published his shocking book War against War which contained gruesome photographs of maimed men with their faces blown half away but of course, as Bruce Kent articulated in the foreword to the 2014 edition, “Friedrich’s aim was to make people understand what war actually means and the horrors it inflicts on people and indeed, on animals”.  Evidently not the aim of this article but it does raise the legitimate question as to why the more realistic Friedrich type horror photographs of war do not grace the pages of our popular press.

The article goes on to review Brenton’s play and ruminates on the “fact” that many of those “patched up” were glad to go back to the front. A fact, which apparently “runs counter to the accepted narrative of the conflict”.  Quite what is the nature of that “accepted narrative” is not actually spelt out but any cursory view of the overwhelming glorification of all things military alongside the nationalist and patriotic tone (albeit appropriately modest and tasteful) of First World War memorial events gives me a pretty good idea. This is probably not the idea to which Curtis is alluding but apologies I digress. Later in the article all is made clear as Brenton is quoted as saying “there’s a secret men keep (about war), that we don’t own up to, not really among ourselves, and certainly not to many women.  That we love it.  There’s a notion of glory.  And for many who were not traumatised – of whom there were legion, of course - it was the best time of their lives.” 

So there we have it, we love it!  Well, tell that to the conscientious objectors who in the face of massive societal approbation and hardship stood up for their principles in Two World Wars and numerous other conflicts during the period of compulsory national service; tell that to the men and women traumatised by their experiences of war including those shot and imprisoned for desertion; tell that to the families shattered by the suicides and having to experience the aberrant behaviours of men and women who have been permanently broken by their military service.

This long article continues to celebrate Gillies, “this special kind of war hero”, using the innovations driven by the First World War to help him to rebuild the burned faces of airmen in the Second.  No sense of irony here but then, in these eulogies that glorify or at least inherently acknowledge the worthiness of war, you don’t really expect it any more, in the unlikely event that you ever did.

Worse is yet to come with a last sentence that, without comment, brings it all properly up to date; “This material is paired with works by contemporary war artist Julia Midgely depicting the injuries from recent conflicts that are treated by the surgeons at Headley Court – limbs blown off by IEDs rather than faces torn up by shrapnel.”  Perhaps I should have said all is not lost because here it is, an unbroken line that joins a feel good tale about repairing the human damage of war in 1914 to one that is taking place in 2014.  In this case, as with the vast majority of these articles about war, you must agree that it would be bordering on the churlish to, start questioning why war is necessary at all, bring up the mindlessness, the complete waste, the real horrors of war and in the process spoil such feel good and heart warming stories.

Incidentally the play itself is first rate; raising issues about the pernicious influence of class in the armed services as well as broaching the split between the Pankhursts on their respective pro-war and anti-war approaches.

Peter Glasgow