Medical advancements in the First World War

Private Denis Bailie after his surgery to repair a gunshot wound to the jaw. Image  © Royal College of Surgeons.

Private Denis Bailie after his surgery to repair a gunshot wound to the jaw. Image © Royal College of Surgeons.

Alongside the horrors of trench warfare, the First World War led to advancements in medicine and surgery. Did anyone in your family receive groundbreaking treatment?

Private Denis Bailie was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment when he suffered a gunshot wound to the face, seriously injuring his jaw. He was 22 years old.

Denis survived the injury. The record of his Silver War Badge, which was introduced in 1916 and awarded to soldiers who were invalided out of the army, tells us that he was honourably discharged in 1917.

Developing new surgery techniques

The photographs above show Private Bailie after he underwent groundbreaking surgical procedures to restore the use of his jaw and repair the disfigurement.

The record of his Silver War Badge tells us Denis was honourably discharged in 1917.

Denis was a patient of Dr Harold Gillies, who in June 1917 established the Queens Hospital in Sidcup, where he pioneered new plastic surgery treatments for disfigured soldiers.

Using an innovation known as the tubed pedicle, Dr Gillies used tissue from the patient in his reconstructive operations, rather than attempting skin grafts from other people or animals. This reduced the chance of rejection significantly, along with cutting down the risk of later complications.

Revealing the stories of the Sidcup patients

On 1st August 1916, Corporal William J Abbott was shot in the left side of his face while serving with the Northamptonshire Regiment.

Corporal Abbott was a little under twice Private Denis Bailie’s age at 41. Like Private Bailie, he became a patient of Dr Gillies, undergoing reconstructive surgery to repair the wound. The photographs that were taken once healing had begun are below.

Both William Abbott and Denis Gillies survived the war. There are many parts of their stories which, with your help, could be uncovered when Lives of the First World War launches.

  • Were they married, or did they go on to marry?
  • Did they write any letters to relatives about their injuries?
  • Are there any more images of them out there, other than these hospital headshots?
Corporal William Abbott after his surgery. Image  © Royal College of Surgeons

Corporal William Abbott after his surgery. Image © Royal College of Surgeons

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2 Responses to Medical advancements in the First World War

  1. My great-uncle James Potts (b. 1878) suffered gunshot wounds to his face on 22 August 1918 while serving as a private in the Border Regiment. His upper and lower jaws were fractured, and his nose was also affected: he spent about 2 years at Sidcup. There is a McAllister watercolour painting of his injuries, which is frankly not for the squeamish, and after the war he (understandably) became something of a reclue, and shut himself off from those outside the family. He died of tuberculosis in 1932, which was possibly a result of being gassed earlier during WW1. (Many WW1 veterans who had been gassed later succumbed to tuberculosis.)

  2. Pamela Decur says:

    I’m fascinated with the man who came up with the idea to make the masks. If you have ever seen Boardwalk Empire (on HBO) they had a character named Richard Harrow. He wore a mask or covering over his face to cover the half of his face that was wounded. Think they were referred to as the men with broken faces.

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