BY CALUM FRASER
Ellie Grigsby watched her classmates reel in horror when they were confronted with the faces of disfigured First World War survivors in an exhibition in France.
She then looked at the burned, twisted and deformed faces on the wall and realised that many of these soldiers had been lost to history.
There is no standing memorial in the UK to survivors of the war who had disfigured faces.
Yet, around 60,000 British soldiers came back with facial injuries, according to Government figures.
This is a conservative estimation, Goldsmiths University of London masters graduate Ellie claims. European figures put the number at between 300,000 and 500,000 across the continent.
Ellie has fundraised more than £11,000 to have a bronze bust and a granite memorial sculpted for these soldiers.
The 23-year-old, who wrote her masters thesis on the subject, said: “I read some heartbreaking stories about gentlemen coming home from the war and their children would hide under the table, scared of their father’s face.
“One man had five children after the war and, in the village he lived in, people would stop his wife to look into the buggy to see if the children had inherited the father’s facial disfigurement.
“I looked at how the victims were seen as a spectacle. They did not get the same hero status as amputees or physically healthy survivors, they were lost.
I was trying to find them again.”
The bronze bust is of a soldier with half his face concealed with his hands. It stands at just over 6ft tall and was made using a 3D printer.
A soldier’s helmet was donated by the Somme Museum in Albert, France, which will be placed on the head of the statue.
A black granite base is in construction at the moment, which the soldier will stand on.
The finished piece will be unveiled in the Queen Mary’s hospital courtyard in Sidcup.
Ellie said: “There were a lot of gruesome burns. Imagine being hit in the face by a huge shard of searing hot shrapnel. Some men were just happy to survive.”
Queen Mary’s was set up in 1917 to deal with wounded veterans, and pioneered plastic surgery innovations.
One of the methods developed was the “tubed pedicle” when a flap of skin is moved from one part of the body to another.
It is a method still used today to treat burns victims.
Ellie, who lives in Avery Hill, Eltham, said: “I felt sorry for the soldiers I was researching. They had little relief. A lot of them used masks to cover their faces.
“It was quite surreal because they thought the masks were a way of fixing things.
“There was an artist named Henry Tonks who was commissioned to do portraits of the facially disfigured.
“It’s the only real memorial these people have. I hope our statue can bring their story back into focus.”
Ellie raised the money through a crowdfunding page, speaking and giving lectures at history societies and securing grants.
She is hoping to arrange an unveiling ceremony in the autumn of next year with the descendants of veterans who lived with facial disfigurements.