The Body Extended
The machine guns, artillery, bombs, chemical attacks and flamethrowers of the First World War inflicted unprecedented damage on human bodies. Nearly two million Britons suffered some form of permanent disability in the course of the war, including 40,000 who lost limbs.
The scale of these injuries demanded new ways of thinking about the body. The medical sciences led the way, developing new prosthetics that changed and extended the human body. Heavy wooden legs were gradually replaced by more flexible, lightweight aluminium models: Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton soon became one of the leading rehabilitation amputee rehabilitation centres, fitting thousands of men with artificial arms and legs. At Queens Hospital in Sidcup, Kent, Sir Harold Gillies pioneered new techniques in plastic surgery to treat the disfiguring facial injuries suffered by servicemen.
The visibility of so many returning ‘heroes’ with disabilities gradually helped to dispel prejudices against disabled people. The provision of improved education, training and job opportunities began slowly to improve the prospects of disabled people and to shift wider attitudes.
The arts, too, played their part in changing the way that society treated disability by challenging traditional ideals of beauty and the body. Many artists, writers and film-makers of the period also asked what these changes meant for the relationship between the artificial and the human. As we move into a new era of cloning, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, these questions remain as relevant as ever.
‘Disability History: The Impact of the First World War’ Historic England
Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War (OUP: Oxford, 2009)
‘War Transformed Attitudes to Disability,’ BBC News
‘First World War Amputees’ The Wellcome Collection
Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany 1914-1939 (2001)
Jeffrey Reznick, Healing the Nation: Soldiers and the Culture of Caregiving in Britain during the Great War (2011)
Mark Harrison, The Medical War: British Military Medicine in the First World War (2010)
Kevin Brown, Fighting Fit: Health, Medicine and War in the Twentieth Century (2012)