Private George Joseph Stone’s misfortune was to have much of his face shot off.
As horrific an event it was, in actuality, the timing was fortuitous.
The young Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldier was almost fatally injured at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916. But due to a “lucky” coincidence, a New Zealand surgeon named Harold Gillies had recently begun asking for those with severe facial injuries to be sent to him in England for treatment.
Dr. Gillies would become a pioneer in the field of plastic reconstructive surgery and, owing to the First World War, had no lack of subjects for his practice. It was Private Stone’s good fortune to be one of the first to be shipped back to him.
“In effect, Private Stone became—and I mean this in a positive and constructive way—a guinea pig,” said Dr. Jim Connor. “They were basically making it up as they went along because no one had ever done this kind of surgery before.
“They might have developed some techniques they could use in other men, but every wound was different and every person offered a different set of problems,” he added. “Some of the surgical work was fairly crude, but they were reconstructing from nothing, in some cases.”
Dr. Connor is the John Clinch Professor of Medical Humanities and History of Medicine at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine. He is also cross-appointed with the university’s Department of History, and formerly with the Department of Biology.
He came across Private Stone’s story after a visit to the museum and archives at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, England, several years ago. One of their exhibits on facial reconstruction during the First World War prominently featured the young soldier.
“Out of the thousands and thousands of poor men they could have selected to become the museum’s poster child, they picked a Newfoundlander from Bell Island,” he said.
Knowing the centennial anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was coming up, the exhibit inspired Dr. Connor to do some digging into Private Stone’s history.
“In some respects, the people in London didn’t recognize the significance of the July 1st date, but I had been in Newfoundland and Labrador long enough to know, and that was the beginning of our search for more information on Private Stone,” said Dr. Connor.
On a followup trip to London, Dr. Connor made arrangements to go through the archive’s medical files on Private Stone. He and John Matchim, a graduate student in the humanities program at Memorial and Dr. Connor’s research assistant, contacted Veterans Affairs Canada for more information. Following a lengthy approval process, the organization finally released the soldier’s private—now public—pension file, a document more than 600 pages long. Mr. Matchim also obtained Private Stone’s military file from The Rooms.
“We had the records to reconstruct his life through research, much in the way his doctors had tried to physically reconstruct him.”
“So we had his military and medical files from when he signed up in 1914 to 1918, and then his pension file from 1918 until he died in 1977,” said Dr. Connor. “Because Private Stone was deemed permanently unfit due to his injuries, and received a pension for the rest of his life, that pension covered almost every aspect of his life all the way through.
“We realized, from a documentary perspective, we could now do “a 360” on this soldier. We had the records to reconstruct his life through research, much in the way his doctors had tried to physically reconstruct him.”
‘Just kept on going’
The records show that after signing up at age 18 in 1914, Private Stone received his basic training before being sent on to Scotland and Gallipoli, where he suffered from dysentery. From there, he was sent to France, where he was injured and recovered before going to his final battle at Beaumont-Hamel. There, he received a shrapnel wound in his leg and the near fatal wound to his face.
From 1916 to 1918, he had at least seven operations to reconstruct his face, but for the rest of his life, until he died at the age of 81, Private Stone could only open his mouth about three quarters of an inch and was never able to eat solid food again.
“It’s also important to remember the people who lived.”
Married while overseas, the young soldier brought his wife and young child back to Bell Island. The family later emigrated to Montreal, Que., before finally settling in the United States.
“This is a man, despite his injury, despite his pain and all the frustrations he must have had, just kept on going,” said Dr. Connor. “On one hand you can fully understand and recognize the importance of July 1st and the men who were killed. But it’s also important to remember the people who lived. I wouldn’t want to offset the stories of sacrifice, but there are other stories of tenacity and survival that may not have been told.”
Dr. Connor says, by comparison, Private Stone’s younger brother, Harry, was killed in 1917. He is on the honour roll, has a marked gravestone in France and is “remembered” more than his brother, who survived with horrific injuries and suffering, but still tried to live a normal life.
“Obviously we are going to focus on the commemoration of Beaumont-Hamel this summer, but that creates a tendency to look at Newfoundland’s war experience as being insular, unique and separate from the rest of the world,” said Mr. Matchim. “But we weren’t fighting our own war. We were in a world war and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were a small part of a vast imperial military.
“In a way, it’s kind of the sub-story here,” added Dr. Connor. “Private Stone was rescued from the battlefield and shipped to England, got the best care that he could from the British and, when he went back to Newfoundland with his pension, the Newfoundland government supported him, even after he emigrated to Montreal in 1920. Then with Confederation in 1949, the Canadian government supported him until he moved to California in the mid-1950s. From then until his death he was under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs where he was recognized as an allied veteran. To the credit of all four governments, each respected their commitment to this veteran.”
Dr. Connor and Mr. Matchim have co-authored an article on Private Stone for the Newfoundland Quarterly which will appear in fall 2016.
In addition to his military photo from The Rooms from when Private Stone signed on to the Newfoundland Regiment in 1914, they have received special copyright permission to include black and white images of him upon admission to the military hospital in 1916 and of his subsequent treatments, as well as an image of the colour pastel drawing done of him by Sir Henry Tonks, a physician and artist who chose a very small number of Dr. Gillies’ patients to capture in this way.
“Despite the massive paper trail he left behind, it was really just accidental that we came across him,” said Mr. Matchim. “But Private Stone demonstrates another hidden cost of the First World War. With so many people being disabled, it could have been a hindrance to the economy of the post-war world. So, it was imperative to patch people up as best you could and get them back into the workforce.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes it works, but historical research is much like detective work,” added Dr. Connor. “You get a clue here and a trail there and it’s your job to somehow join the dots without trying to make a story out of nothing. Private Stone may have been a forgotten man, one of many, but we managed to find all these historical fragments.
“I’m not trying to say he was lucky, he certainly wasn’t a lucky guy, but in many respects he’s featured in all the main landmarks and milestones to do with the history of reconstructive surgery, including Dr. Gillies’ 1920s textbook on plastic reconstruction. He really became a big part of that story and thankfully is no longer lost to history.”