From the Phantom of the Opera to Bond villains, facial disfigurement is often portrayed negatively in popular culture. As we commemorate the Armistice of 1918, WW1 historian Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt reflects on how much – or little – has changed since facially injured soldiers returned from the trenches.

A French soldier with an injury to the right cheek, 1916. Credit: Wellcome Images, CC-BY

Facial disfigurement is overwhelmingly represented as an outward sign of moral or intellectual flaws. But my research on the experiences and representations of facially injured combatants in France, Britain and Germany during and after WW1 has uncovered a more nuanced and diverse picture.

The Great War’s ‘broken faces’

In France, the 15,000 veterans who remained severely disfigured after the Great War became known as ‘les gueules cassées’ – literally ‘broken mugs’.

But this derogatory term, which links these men to animals and reduces them to their damaged faces, was not imposed on them. In fact, they claimed it for themselves and even chose to give it to the veterans’ organisation they founded in 1921.

Under the auspices of the Association des Gueules Cassées, French disfigured veterans set up a comprehensive support network, successfully campaigning for better recognition of (and compensation for) the specificities of their war injuries. ‘Gueule cassée’ became synonymous with heroism and resilience.

Why do faces matter?

Facial differences are very visible. They are almost impossible to hide. They can have significant functional implications and sometimes they affect several of the senses.

But a facial difference can also impact our ability to smile, to speak or to eat. French combatants who were treated at the maxillo-facial unit at the Val-de-Grâce hospital, in Paris during WW1 were nicknamed ‘the droolers’ because their injuries often meant that they could not control their saliva.

Beyond these practical difficulties, the face is key in our sense of self-identity and in relationships with others. Phrases such as ‘to put a name to a face’, ‘to lose face’ and ‘to put on a brave face’ highlight the centrality of the face as an interface that enables us to communicate with others.

Several testimonies by WW1 nurses and patients stress the devastating consequences of a disfigured people not being recognised by their loved ones. In the words of sociologist Heather Talley, author of Saving Faces: disfigurement and the politics of appearance, faces are ‘the primary points of reference for those we encounter’.

Less tolerance?

Despite significant progress in the field of reconstructive maxillo-facial surgery, perceptions of facial differences are still too often negatively biased. In fact, our societies have perhaps become more intolerant towards people with facial differences.

The gueules cassées or WW2 British ‘Guinea Pigs’ – severely burnt  young RAF pilots who were treated with radical plastic surgery by Archibald McIndoe – were associated with positive values of bravery and sacrifice for their country. But these positive connotations are no longer the prevailing interpretative framework of disfigurement in twenty-first century Western European societies.

Onlookers’ discomfort

There are hopeful signs of growing acceptance, like the success of J.G. Palacio’s novel Wonder, about a boy born with facial disfigurement, which has sold over five million copies. But the 2017 Disfigurement in UK report by charity Changing Faces has revealed that four fifths of the people surveyed had ‘experienced comments or unpleasantness from a stranger’.

For the 569,000 people with visible facial differences living in the UK, ‘feeling self-conscious, isolated and friendless, facing teasing, ridicule and staring in public, low expectations in school, problems getting work, and stereotyping in the media’ are still realities.

One possible explanation for this ongoing prejudice is the unconscious bias against people with facial differences.  Related to this is the ‘discomfort’ sometimes reported by onlookers in psychological studies when encountering someone with a visible facial difference: Where to look? What to say, or rather, what not to say?

An inspiring story

To address these questions I have invited Changing Faces founder James Partridge to give a guest lecture at the University of Reading. James was severely injured in a car accident age 18; he has since worked tirelessly to encourage individuals and society to stop taking people at ‘face value’. He will share his inspiring story at a free event on Tuesday, 20 November. This event will be preceded by a workshop on creating an inclusive learning environment for pupils with visible differences.

Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt is a cultural historian who specialises in 20th Century French and European history. Her current research focuses on representations and experiences of disfigurement, and on the history of philanthropy.