Australians on the Western Front: Surgeon gave our soldiers hope

RESTORED: AIF soldier William Kearsey in the 1920s. Picture: AWM E03092

RESTORED: AIF soldier William Kearsey in the 1920s. Picture: AWM E03092

Private William Kearsey was one of 5000 First World War soldiers whose severe facial wounds were repaired through the skill of pioneering New Zealand-born Dr Harold Gillies.

An Inverell coach-builder before he enlisted, Kearsey was initially left for dead after a shell exploded in his face during the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917.

He underwent 29 operations in 18 months at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, England.

It was there that Dr Gillies, known as the father of plastic surgery, and fellow specialists from Britain and the Dominions, were innovators in reconstructing the faces of soldiers wounded mostly by gunshot and shrapnel but also burns.

Australian War Memorial historian Dr Kerry Neale, who researched the experience of disfigured soldiers, said more than 11,000 major operations were conducted at Sidcup between 1917 and 1925 – from replacing a nose to repairing a jaw.

She said many severely disfigured Australians chose not to apply for the military pension on offer and led lives of resilience and adaption.  

Back in Australia, William Kearsey bought a property outside Inverell, became a wool grower and married at the age of 59.