The face of battle

Seven soldiers recovering in a military hospital. Most of them will probably return to service in their original units, unlike their US Army counterparts, where soldiers fit for service again could end up in a different unit. It wasn’t unknown for US soldiers to escape from the hospital so they could get back to their unit, instead of being reassigned to some random unit where they would be newcomers and therefore less likely to survive. Anyway, unless disabled and released from military service, or assigned to some rear-area unit or as instructors in the regiment’s training battalion, the men would be back at the front sooner or later.

The man seated to the left has an open wound in his jaw from a bullet or a piece of shrapnel. Restorative surgery had become a specialty after World War 1, where the amount of head wounds had increased due to the heavy use of artillery as well as the nature of battlefield (fighting in trenches exposed the head more than the rest of the body). Still, even the most skilled surgeons at that time wouldn’t be able to restore his face to its original look. It could be worse, though… Loss of limb(s) or severe burns were more feared. The number of wounded soldiers were in the millions, and 1.5 million had a disability of 25 % or more. After the war, there were programs to ensure that disabled veterans got jobs. With so many dead in the war, everyone was needed in the rebuild of the two Germanies.


Just a flesh wound?

This Gefreiter has lost his right arm, but the war isn’t over for him. Soldiers who became partial invalids were often retrained and put in non-combat positions. The loss of an eye, a hand or even a whole arm wasn’t deemed reason enough for discharge. The most famous crippled soldier was probably Stuka ace Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel, “Panzerknacker“, who flew the last 1½ months of the war with a prosthetic leg, claiming a further 26 enemy tanks for a total score of 519. Another famous colonel was Claus Schenck von Stauffenberg, who had lost his left eye, right arm and two fingers on his left hand in North Africa. His handicap made it hard for him to ready the second charge in the briefcase that held the bomb intended to kill Hitler, so he went with just one, which proved to be not enough…

Disabled soldiers, NCOs and officers could serve in other capacities, like clerks, telephone operators, instructors, staff personnel, etc. In the second half of 1942 there were 10,000 men in retraining programs (Sonderlehrgänge für Kriegsversehrte). In 1953 there were about 2,000,000 disabled veterans in Western Germany alone (out of a total population of  51 million), of whom 1.5 million had more than 25% disability. The soldier in the photo would eventually receive the Wound Badge in silver, and if he survived the war, he would be entitled to a job suitable for a disabled veteran.


Thanks to Christoph Awender on Axis History Forum for additional information.