The man without a face

D&T 127I wrote this several years ago now. In some ways, it feels wrong to repost it… as if by doing so I am not giving enough for what has been given. And yet, this man has stayed with me for over half a century and when I think of war, of the pain it brought and still brings to so many, it is of this gentleman I think. Although my own family members had served in the world wars, it was this man, with whom I never spoke, who made me begin to understand. 

I must have been ten or so. We were on a school trip to York. As we walked beneath the arches of Micklegate Bar, a man walked towards us. The group fell silent, then the whispering started and many pretended not to look or gawped instead. I knew about the ribbons he wore on his chest… they meant he had medals. I don’t know whether he was a veteran of the first or second World Wars. There was no way to tell how old he was for he had no face.

If I had the skill to capture memory with a pencil, I could draw him perfectly still. I have never forgotten him. Taut skin stretched and puckered, dead white with even whiter scars crisscrossing where his nose and one eye should have been. He had no hair… no ears… only holes in the side of his head. His mouth was little more than a pale, lipless line.

He looked neither right nor left, the crowds of tourists parted like some biblical sea in front of him as everyone seemed to want to keep their distance. He must have been accustomed to that effect… he had to have lived over twenty years that way. For some reason, the way he walked, perhaps… the smartness of his dress… I thought he was an airman.

Beneath the narrow archway he passed within inches of me, close enough that every detail of his face was imprinted on my memory. I remember clearly the personal dilemma… should I look away in case my gaze was an intrusion or look at him because he was a human being and a serviceman, and I came from a family that had also served. Few families had not through the course of those two wars, but my father served still when I was young. He could have been anything… anyone… and so, somehow, he was everyone.

There are just a very few now living who might remember the start of the first Great War in 1914… the war to end all wars, or so it was hoped. The last serving veteran in Britain was Florence Green of the Women’s Royal Air Force, who died in 2012 at the age of 110. Claude Choules served in the British Royal Navy (and later the Royal Australian Navy) died 2011, also aged 110. He was the final surviving combat veteran of the conflict. Harry Patch, who died aged 111, was the final survivor of the trenches. Harry had fought at Passchendaele where it is estimated that well over half a million young men were killed or injured. No-one even knows how many.

If they are now gone, why should we remember?

There are children who grew in a fatherless world. Sons who had to become men too fast, taking the places of the lost. There were lives forever blighted by nightmares and memories, of what they saw, what they suffered… who they killed… Men and women who would speak instead of camaraderie and laughter and turn away to use a handkerchief or clear their throats.

And it wasn’t the war to end all wars after. It was ‘just’ another war in our appalling human history of bloodshed and violent conflict. We followed it with Dunkirk, D-Day, the Holocaust, Stalingrad… and still we fight, still the killing continues in every corner of the political globe.

To the soldier, sailor or aircrew who serve, the political debates and arguments matter little…. They are there because their country is at war, right or wrong. A dead German boy would have been mourned just as much by his mother as an Allied soldier. A Yemeni child just as much as an Afghan.

Even now, over a hundred thousand human beings lose their lives in armed conflict every year.

It is hard to make sense of such a number. It is too big to grasp. Too impersonal. It needs a face.

Or not.

When I think of Remembrance Day, many faces flit through my memory, of grandparents and other family members… of friends who have served… of an old sea dog named Mick… and of a man without a face, whose face I will never forget, and who will, for me, forever be the face of war.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Robert Laurence Binyon [1869-1943]

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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56 Responses to The man without a face

  1. Sadje says:

    War and the loss of live it brings is always a crime against humanity. But those who die protecting their country or people they love and have sworn to protect from the enemy, they deserve the greatest honor we can give them. Not in form of medals only but giving them the respect they demand.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amen. Thank you for re-posting this. Very moving.💕

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is so well said and so well written. Like you I remember, when a young boy, walking down the street and spotting veterans of those generations who gave so much, largely without comment or complaint so we might have the chance to live in a less threatened world: a chance we have squandered in the way only the human race can do, but their dignity modesty and courage in the face of unbelievable horrors experienced every day always fills me with awe and a deep respect. They are a generation who should never be forgotten and whose lives, and the way they led them had so much to teach us.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. beth says:

    thank you for sharing this

    Like

  5. V.M.Sang says:

    Thank you for sharing, Sue. I have no words to express my feelings on reading this. Sadness isn’t strong enough.
    And still it goes on. How? Why? The ordinary people don’t want it, so Why?
    I posted a poem last year that I wrote about this very topic.

    Like

  6. Mary Smith says:

    Thanks for re-posting this, Sue.

    Like

  7. joylennick says:

    My thanks too for re-posting, Sue. While small children are being brain-washed (today’s TV news) what chance has the world and citizens to be at peace?! No easy answer but, surely, something….can be done. Perhaps swamping the camps with sane, kind people who talk sense and not medieval violence might help. Tragic. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I was with my granddaughter yesterday, not yet five. I was glad to see that she knew of the wars and why the poppies were being worn today… even recognising photos of the trenches.

      Like

  8. quiall says:

    ” . . . somehow, he was everyone.” This should be posted EVERY year! I wept. For those I have lost, for those who don’t remember, and for that 10 year old child . She gained wisdom that day. She/you honour him by remembering. This post should have a larger audience. These are words everyone should hear.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. fransiweinstein says:

    Beautiful Sue.

    Like

  10. Darlene says:

    A poignant and fitting post for today, Sue. Thanks for sharing it.

    Like

  11. Thank you for sharing this one Sue.

    Like

  12. memadtwo says:

    Pulls at the heart. (K)

    Like

  13. willowdot21 says:

    Thank you Sue for sharing this 💜🌹

    Like

  14. dgkaye says:

    A most beautiful tribute Sue. ❤

    Like

  15. This really gave me the shivers. The poor man must have been burned. We see the odd child like that in South Africa, victims of shack fires. There are organisations that raise funds to help them. A beautiful tribute.

    Like

  16. Adele Marie says:

    I had goosebumps when I read this, Sue. My Grandad Ryan was a prisoner of war in Bavaria in the 1st world war, part of the Irish battalions who were captured. My Mam said he never spoke of the war and never spoke of those who had been his captors. He was put to work in the salt mines. We will never, never forget those who fought in senseless wars to protect the generations to come. xxx

    Like

  17. queadrian says:

    My heartfelt, it’s very touching!❤🌹

    Like

  18. A beautiful tribute, Sue. It brought tears!

    Like

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