Due to the incredible volume of shells fired during WWI (over 1.5 billion shells on the Western Front) the amount of horrific and disfiguring injuries was also seen on an unprecedented scale, as soldiers lost limbs and suffered terrible injuries to their faces, some having large parts of their face blown off as the shells exploded around them. Another cause for facial injuries was men having to peer over parapets from inside the trenches, exposing their faces to rifle fire and the explosions. Burning shrapnel from an exploding shell, if it didn’t kill, would all too often cause horrific and life-changing injuries that were difficult to treat, with surgeons sometimes simply sewing the torn flesh together, without taking into account the missing flesh that had been ripped off by the flying shrapnel, leaving soldiers severely disfigured.
However, in 1915, Harold Gillies, a surgeon who was born in New Zealand and had trained in England, was posted to France where he witnessed these horrifying injuries for himself, and so when he returned to England, he set up a special ward for facial wounds at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. By 1916 he had a whole new hospital dedicated to facial injuries with over 1,000 beds, The Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, the world’s first hospital dedicated to facial injuries. It was here that Gillies and his colleagues developed new techniques in plastic surgery and more than 11,000 operations were performed, helping thousands of men live a better more normal life.