Casualties That Yet Lived On

The word “casualty” is sometimes meant to designate the dead of some war, tragedy, or disaster. That is not, however, the full extent of the word; the wounded are also casualties, and often forgotten. In the Great War, there were about 40 million casualties, and a little under half of those were fatal – a little more than half were serious physical injuries. The totals do not take into account those who bore their scars internally – “neurasthenia”, as it was first called, and which then became known as “shell shock”, and more recently PTSD – affected a great many of “non-casualties” of the war. Some of these were tried for cowardice. Some were executed for it. But many casualties lived on – with various degrees of loss, but very little degree of regard when compared to the great memorials for the dead.

Wilfred Owen understood this notion in his poetry. I’d bet A. O. Fasser did as well, when he photographed casualties during his time as a surgeon in a French military hospital. I’ll let them give meaning to the notion of a living casualty.

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen, Disabled, 1917

Why don’t they come?

Dedicated to those photographed here, and to everybody who came back from the Front with less than they left with, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. They are not forgotten. All stereoviews courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.


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