In her book, Recycling the disabled: Army, medicine, and modernity in WWI Germany, Heather R. Perry, began by noting that the German veterans who were physically challenged insisted on being called “war cripple” (Kriegskrüppel) to distinguish themselves from the “war damaged” (Kriegsbeschädigte) or “war invalid” (Kriegsinvalide) in order to remind the people of their nation that they had given a part of their own body to the cause of the Great War. She stated that “The science and technology of the First World War simultaneously destroyed and recreated the male body..Male bodies were invaded with bullets,shrapnel from grenades, or other uncontrollable flying debris whose trauma cause as many internal injuries as external ones. Those who did not die were often horribly and permanently wounded, requiring in many cases not just immediate care but also long term convalescence..Ironically, given the rate at which soldiers were both injured and healed, one could argue that the advanced technology of the First World War resulted in the industrial production of not just war but also disabled men.” Out of this sudden need, driven by unimaginable casualties and conversely out of the belief that Germany would win the War, German orthopaedists were inspired to refashion wounded men for future employment after the War. Healing was done under the concept of “recycling” these re-made men as part of the “national body” (Volkskörper).

As with any war, the Great War had many unexpected consequences and outcomes, but rebuilding and redesigning the human body took place to an extent unimaginable before the War. The redesign had to be though in several parts. First, the vast number of amputations meant that, sadly, the best means of taking off a limb had to be perfected. The result was a “flapless” residual arm or leg, sometimes called the “Guillotine Amputation,” which was less likely to become infected and allowed for a better fitting of the prosthetic. Then the prosthetics themselves had to be redesigned and updated from the nineteenth century models. Before the twentieth century, badly wounded men had a much lower rate of survival. Although the American Civil War demonstrated the possibility of surviving amputation, this American experience seems to have not resonated on the Europeans, who, faced with huge number of survivors had to scramble to reinvent  arms, legs, hands, and feet that functioned. None of the nations had developed the idea that the state owed the men that had served its interests any long term debt and the care and rehabilitation of these men were often left up to their families. As Philip Blom expressed it in Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938, “..1.7 million men came home with amputated limbs, horrific disfigurements, the lasting effects of shell shock, or other war injuries. British society experienced war as it had never done before..Germany alone had to contend with 6 million demobilized soldiers demanding work, in addition to 2.7 million veterans who were permanently crippled. These men returned home with injuries not only to their bodies but to their minds. Most of them never spoke about the war; their children were forbidden to ask.” Blom noted that in France and Germany, the former “heroes” had returned home as reminders of a terrible event, best forgotten. “had turned men into wrecks, heroes into ghostly accusers. They had been hailed as heroes, but now they were often seen as troublemakers, beggars, carriers of infections both medical and moral, dangerous subversives, ugly reminders of shame and catastrophe. While most people preferred to look away, the depiction of the ugly face of war and its aftermath was taken up with particular fervor by expressionist artists, whose stark depictions of horror began where documentary photography stopped. Georges Grosz and Otto Dix in particular created canvases filled with the grotesque suffering of the ordinary soldiers, as the officers, monsters in uniform with shaven heads and dead-looking piglike eyes, indulge their obscene, bone-headed obsession with death and honor.”

The trauma of the war, the shock of the defeat, and the denial of loss was fresh in a shamed and humiliated nation that wanted only to forget the ordeal. It would take years for the Weimar Republic to take care of the 67,000 German soldiers or “war cripples,” as they were called–cruelly–in our minds, who had lost one or more limbs and existed as constant reminders of a war that had been lost. In Germany, the stress was put on replacing limbs with devices that would allow the veterans to be useful members of society and to get back to work. The Test Center for Replacement Limbs, located in Berlin, was headed by an engineer, Georg Schlesinger, who did not consider aesthetics to be important, instead there was an emphasis on arms and hands which were work devices, designed to allow the veterans to be productive members of society. 

The Siemand-Schuckert-Works Artificial Arm had little visual or physical relation to a flesh and blood arm and was a functional appendage with interchangeable parts, suitable to multiple tasks. In contrast, the 41,000 British amputees, most of whom were sent to St. Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton, where a natural appearance was the goal and soldiers received treatment that emphasized their getting back to normal with limbs that were as natural as possible. The English had already been working on perfecting an artificial leg. Until the twentieth century, artificial limbs, made of wood and leather straps, were clumsy and heavy, little better than old fashioned pegs, inspired by furniture. In 1913, a British aviator, Marcel Desoutter, lost a leg in an airplane crash. Fortunately, his younger brother Charles was an aeronautical engineer and he invented a two-pound light weight leg made of duralumin, a version of aluminum. The leg, which weighed less than a third of its predecessor, inspired a new business, Desoutter Brothers Limited, which geared up in 1914 to mass produce metal legs. Willow, the material used for cricket bats, was also light weight and was the preferred material for legs made at Roehapton and at the Erskine Hospital in Scotland, were the makers acted as sculptors, molding a natural leg, fitted to the individual’s needs. But it is not just today’s artificial limbs that benefited from the boost in the technology of prosthetics during and after the Great War, plastic surgery also surged forward. New faces were needed as doctors and artists learned how to restore the soldier in mind as well as in body.

Reactions to these bionic hybrid bodies varied. In Germany, the returning soldiers were shunned, not in and of themselves, but as symbols of an unanticipated defeat and the humiliating Treaty of Versailles that dismembered the nation, deliberately rendering it “crippled” or “disabled” and incapable of restoring itself. Just as the armless or legless soldier was maimed during the War, the body politic of Germany was maliciously harmed as if the conflict could not end. In the victorious nations, however, the response included looking away and in substituting a new masculine ideal. Part of the classicism of the post-war period was the return of the perfect Greco-Roman male body, shining in marbleized perfection. Although in another context, this classicism can be seen as a “return to order,” which will be discussed in a later chapter, in the context of the wounding of an entire generation of young men, the return to the past has to be seen as a reaction to the cyborg bodies that appeared in society. As Ana Carden-Coyne stated in her book, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War, “The impact of war on the male body and artistic form often contradicts political coherence. While some artists and writers saw that, with all its primitive energies, the neo-classical model could not compare against the destructive capacity of modern technologies, others found it possible to rehabilitate classical man through technology. Reconstruction discourses infiltrated medicine and popular culture–responding to the threat war posed to men’s virility with the promise of bigger, better bodies. The phallic fantasy of prosthetic technologies and a revamped classical ideal of beauty authenticated new models of manliness; crucial, given that mass disablement of young men was the result of service to the state.” She discussed how medical texts augmented the public’s understand of the restoration of the male body could be transformed from studies of the trauma of war to the benefits of war and its “surgical achievements.” “Mutilation,” she stated, “could be transformed into restoration, and military pain became civilian gain.” And yet, she continued, “In Britain, the government had virtually abandoned its 755, 000 permanently disabled veterans, who relied most on over 6,000 charitable organizations for assistance. In 1924 alone, war pensions represented only about 8 percent of the national budget..” Nonetheless “Prosthetic masculinity appeared as heightened experience of perfection and beauty..Prosthetic technology engaged discourses of heroic masculinity..Technological bodies were presented as futuristic heroes.” 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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