BY TOBY PORTER
Soldiers scarred in the First World War will have their own tribute thanks to a university student’s history studies.
The memorial, featuring a bronze bust of a soldier wearing an original helmet donated by the Somme Museum, will be unveiled at an invitation-only event at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup on November 24.
Ellie Grigsby, 24, was inspired to launch the campaign while studying at Goldsmiths University, New Cross where she learnt that 12 per cent of the Great War wounded suffered facial injuries.
But facially-disfigured men barely featured in museums.
Queen Mary’s Hospital – then the Queen’s Hospital – from 1917-25, was where the early pioneers of plastic surgery carried out at least 11,000 operations attempting to give wounded men their
Ellie said: “While many veterans were treated successfully, thanks to techniques pioneered at Queen’s Hospital, thousands more couldn’t be ‘fixed’.
“My research found a haunting absence of the stories of these men with ‘broken faces’ from the official accounts almost as if they were airbrushed out of history.
“I came across stories of mirrors being banned from hospital wards, children cowering from their fathers who came home from the front with a new face, and sweethearts who couldn’t bear to look at their lovers.
“Instead of a hero’s welcome, these men came back to pitying looks, glares, and people on the street peering into buggies to see if their ‘broken faces’ had been passed on to their babies.
“These men felt such overwhelming social pressure to hide their disfigurement behind facial prosthetics and tin masks that some were even buried still wearing them. They lost not just their faces but their identities.
“Despite all the exhibitions about the First World War, their suffering has been largely forgotten, so I had to do something to ensure they would be remembered.”
Ellie launched the project in April 2017, six months after starting her history degree.
She sketched her first design on greaseproof paper in her kitchen, but soon realised turning this into a permanent memorial would cost more than £12,000.
Initially she received support from family and friends, but then set up a crowdfunding web page and began approaching schools and charitable organisations to help raise funds for the project.
“People were incredibly generous,” Ellie said. “But it was still a struggle to find time around my MA studies to persuade people to support the project and to raise so much money.
There were times when I wondered if it would ever happen so it’s exciting that it’s now become a reality and, fittingly, will be unveiled by relatives of some of those veterans treated for facial injuries at Queen’s Hospital.”
Ellie worked with experts at the London Foundry to realise her design. The life-size bronze bust shows a soldier wearing a First World War helmet with one hand raised to his face.
When mounted on its inscribed marble plinth, alongside a pair of bronze soldiers’ boots, the memorial will weigh-in at over 1.5 tonnes and stand over 6ft tall.
It will be installed in the grounds of Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup.