A group of First World War veterans with severe facial injuries (Picture: Hirarchivum Press / Alamy Stock Photo)

Tin Noses Shop: The Sculptor Who Made Masks For The Mutilated Faces Of WWI

The French referred to these WWI wounded veterans as having 'gueules cassées' or 'broken faces'.

A group of First World War veterans with severe facial injuries (Picture: Hirarchivum Press / Alamy Stock Photo)

Many wounded First World War soldiers returned from the battlefield with horrific injuries but those who could not hide the scars on their faces found some comfort in a place that became known as 'The Tin Noses Shop'.

Even soldiers who might have made some recovery from their physical injuries found themselves suffering psychological traumas, including a loss of dignity, with many of the hundreds of men who were left with visible scars on their faces finding themselves shunned by society due to their facial disfigurements.

The Tin Noses Shop tried to give back those wounded soldiers a little of their dignity thanks to the work of artists and a sculptor - by creating masks that attempted to hide the scars left behind following the early days of reconstructive surgery, which often still left patients with some forms of facial scarring.

British sculptor Francis Derwent Wood saw the effects of these devastating facial injuries suffered by soldiers in the trenches when he volunteered at the 3rd London General Hospital in 1915. The gruesome sight inspired him to open the 'Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department' or, more commonly known by his patients, the Tin Noses Shop. 

When reconstructive surgery by surgeons such as Sir Harold Gillies – who became known as the father of modern plastic surgery due to his ground-breaking procedures - was impossible, Wood worked alongside other sculptors and specialists to help create lightweight copper masks with the aim of making them as natural looking as possible. 

While fighting in the trenches, soldiers' bodies were shielded but their heads were exposed and vulnerable to attack from heavy artillery and machine guns. Fred Albee, an American orthopaedic surgeon and bone-grafting pioneer of the early 20th century, explained at the time why there were so many facial injuries from the First World War, saying:   

"They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets."  

Once the veterans returned home, they were faced with the heartbreak of their own children running away in fear after seeing their father's mutilated face, nurses who would not bat an eyelid at an injury elsewhere on the body but finding it difficult to look at a patient's injured face and mirrors being removed from the wards of those recovering.  

Tin Noses Shop  

For some men returning from the trenches, their reflection had become that of a stranger. Bullet or shrapnel wounds had ripped their jaw or nose off, leaving them in need of help from expert surgeons willing to take on the challenge of reconstructing their face. 

When reconstructive surgery by surgeons such as Sir Gillies was not possible due to the extent of the damage, Wood was the next port of call.

Francis Derwent Wood Sculpture Moulding Plates For Prosthetics Mask First World War DR9NJ0 Picture Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo
Cover Image: Francis Derwent Wood moulding plates for prosthetics during the First World War (Picture: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo).

Wood and his team of sculptors and specialists were dedicated to creating masks that would look as natural as possible. For example, they chose to delicately paint the individual hairs of eyebrows as opposed to using real hair, a method preferred by American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd who ran the Studio For Portrait Masks in Paris. 

In an article published in The Lancet on 23 June 1917, Wood wrote about the difference between his work and that of the surgeons operating on the wounded veterans, saying:  

"My work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed.   

"When the surgeon has done all he can to restore functions … I endeavour by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man's face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded."

A before and after photograph of a French soldier with severe facial injuries. The mask he wears was made by American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd (Picture: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)
A before and after photograph of a French soldier with severe facial injuries. The mask he wears was made by American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd (Picture: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Wood's painted metal mask work was an attempt to give back to veterans the sense of self-worth and pride they once had in their appearance and help them 'fit in' back on civvy street.  

It was not about making the patient look better, merely an attempt to bring back what once was with the use of plaster of Paris, thin copper and the skills of Wood and his artistic assistants. They would refer to a photo taken before the war originally intended for a loved one to remember the soldier in their absence. 

As Wood explained, his work was as much about the veteran's physical appearance as it was their emotional wellbeing, saying:  

"The patient acquires his old self-respect, self-assurance, self-reliance, and, discarding his induced despondency, takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance.  

"His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself or of sadness to his relatives and friends."  

Making The Masks  

The lightweight, painted metal masks were made of thin copper and would often rest on the patient's face with the use of glasses.   

They were made only once the patient had healed from his surgeries, of which there were many. This was because a cast of the soldier's face would need to be made to ensure the mask would sit comfortably and look as natural as possible under the circumstances. Wood explains further, saying:

"All wound cavities are filled up with dressing and cotton wool, and these in turn covered with goldbeater’s skin.  

"The nostrils are blocked with cotton wool, the patient breathing through the mouth. If through the nose a quill is inserted for breathing throughout this operation.  

"It depends on the area of wound of course, as to whether nose or mouth breathing can be allowed during the process."  

"Having obtained the mould and dried it slowly, the next stage is to French-chalk it and take from it a clay or plasticine squeeze, which provides a positive model of the patient’s healed wound and the surrounding normal tissue surface."  

Wood and his colleagues would often finish their work with the mask on the patient's face to match skin tones and make sure it looked as natural as possible.  

Modern Day Cosmetic Surgery

Some evidence of the early pioneers of reconstructive surgery like Sir Gillies and the dedication by Wood to help veterans return to some semblance of normal life can still be seen today.

Dr Aamer Khan, the co-founder of The Harley Street Skin Clinic and cosmetic surgery expert, has been volunteering his services to help veterans since 2012.

He and a group of specialists have been providing free plastic surgery and laser treatment for today's injured veterans with shrapnel wounds, blast injuries and burns.

His charity 'Back On Track' helps to raise funds so the specialists can pick up where the NHS has left off.

NHS England can only provide cosmetic treatment based on clinical need – which means long-term scarring may not be a priority.

Watch: Forces News meets Harley Street skin specialist Dr Aamer Khan in 2018.

Did The WWI Masks Work?

While the masks hid the brutal reality of their wounds and perhaps helped them be less noticeable, the masks would only work when the veteran did not speak. 

As soon as their face moved, the mask would become apparent and the illusion would be broken. 

After several years, the masks would eventually become battered and could not bring back facial functionality like being able to swallow or speak as they did before being injured. 

Eventually, the need for masks like these dwindled at the end of the First World War and the Tin Noses Shop was shut down. 

Wood continued sculpting after the war, most famously creating the statue dedicated to the Machine Gun Corps, 'The Boy David', situated at Hyde Park Corner, London.  

Under the bronze statue of a naked David holding Goliath's sword, flanked either side by Vickers Machine guns are the engraved words: 

"Erected to commemorate the glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps who fell in the Great War." 

Cover Image: A group of First World War veterans with severe facial injuries (Picture: Hirarchivum Press / Alamy Stock Photo)