The Man with a new Face

Joseph Lanzon

‘Queens College Hospital’ in Nottingham’s east side was a military hospital specializing in the treatment of facial injuries, reconstruction of facial features and plastic surgery. It treated soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British and Allied forces during the last war. It was situated in a secluded part of the town, beyond the park, with security all around to discourage visitors, intruders and curious people. It was rumoured among the town’s people that strange things happened there. 

The hospital was actually a large and old stately house converted by the Military authorities for service personnel who needed special facial treatment following head injuries sustained during the war. It was run by Dr Chris Cox and his team of doctors, surgeons, nurses and other medical staff, all of whom were qualified and experienced in this special field. Although most of them were civilians they were under the orders of the military and not the civilian government.  

“When are they going to remove the bandages from my face?” asked the patient as he walked in the extensive garden grounds of the hospital. Nurse Smith, who was accompanying him, looked at him tenderly and replied.  “Next week. I saw it marked in the surgeon’s schedule. The time has come.”

“I want to see my face. It has been more than a year since I was admitted here”, he remarked expectantly. “You will be as good as new, mark my words, but you will have to adjust to your new face.” replied the nurse. “I will. It was not much of an angel’s face to begin with!” he replied mockingly. He was anxious but he was also afraid. He had not stepped out of the hospital for a whole year. When he entered the hospital he told the doctors that he could not recall his name and regiment, so he was referred to as ‘Lucky Leslie’ because he was considered to have been lucky to survive following his extensive injuries. He did not remember when he was brought in straight by ambulance from Folkstone, probably because he was then unconscious, . But he remembered the bombs, the mines, the deaths, the fear, the ships and the utter confusion on the beaches of Dunkirk. British and Allied troops were stranded on the beaches of this French coast on that fateful day in June of 1940. German planes bombarded them and Panzer tanks surrounded them. The remnants of the Allied army were helpless. The German troops in front of them, the enemy plans above them and the sea behind them.

Besides the Navy, more than 700 little ships, mostly fishing boats and pleasure crafts of all shapes and sizes, were put to sea from the shores of England. Some were men who hadn’t navigated a vessel for years but had volunteered to race across the channel and pick up the stranded soldiers who were under a hammering from the German guns and planes. Under horrific conditions they did their best.  Thousands of men, not only British, but also French and Belgian soldiers were plucked from those beaches. Trip after trip was made to bring these men back to England and fight another day. The evacuation of all these men was a miracle in military history: 68,000 soldiers were killed or captured while 330,000 were successfully evacuated back to England, snatched from the jaws of certain death. 

But behind them, along the sand dunes of this French seaside town, a mass of bodies covered the beaches and many more floated gently in the sea. It was a defeat but, as Winston Churchill said later, also a victory at the same time. He remembered lying half unconscious on the beach, his face covered in blood, unable to move and waiting for help. He recalls how two men bandaged his head, put him on a stretcher and raced with him to board a small boat already full up with other wounded men. 

Then he lost total consciousness as the skipper arrived in Folkstone and all the men were disembarked. He was taken to a make-shift hospital set up purposely to see immediately to the needs of the wounded. On seeing the smashed face, he was transferred to ‘Queens College Hospital’ without delay where, diagnosed as in urgent need of major treatment, he was immediately operated upon. Dr Cox informed the staff that the patient would have to stay in the hospital for a long time, during which he would do his best to reconstruct his face. 

For a whole year Dr Cox and his team worked on him with utmost care. The day had now arrived when they would see the result of their labours. What would be his reaction when the bandages were removed? Would he like his new face? Would he accept his new identity?

On the day when his bandages were to be removed, Nurse Smith sat beside him for a long time giving him encouragement and boosting his spirit. When, finally, Dr Cox removed the bandages, Lucky Leslie did not want to open his eyes. When he finally did, he asked the nurse for a mirror, looked at his face and cried. He was satisfied with his new face, but he did not recognize himself! He was a new man.

He was congratulated by Dr Cox, Nurse Smith and the staff, however he replied that it is they who deserved the congratulations for the miracle that they had performed. He would forever be indebted to them for giving him a new life.

On a fine day in September of 1941, Lucky Leslie walked out of ‘Queens College Hospital’ and stepped out into the outside world. Fifteen months closed in a hospital made him wary of the future. He took a train to Coventry where he intended to settle down as it was the place he was brought up in, which he knew well, where people he knew lived and worked. His parents, unfortunately, had both died tragically during one of the air raids on the city.

Coventry had changed. The city had suffered terribly from bombing during the early stages of the war. He settled in a lodging house and then strolled along the streets of the old town. Familiar landmarks, familiar faces. He saw Peter, his life-long friend, said “Good day” to him, he replied “The same to you mate” and went his way. He did not recognize him! He was a stranger in his own town and among his own people.

He took up light work at a department store because his leg prevented him from doing any strenuous work. He was hard working and diligent and an organizer. In a short time he gained the confidence of the directors and was promoted to manager of the store, with responsibility for purchase and display.

One day he sat down on a bench in the park reading the newspaper. When, looking sideways, he was surprised to see his former girlfriend at the nearby bench. She was the same as he had remembered her – good-looking, vibrant and talkative. They got talking about this, that and the other.

“Are you from Coventry?” she asked. “No, I came down from Newcastle some months ago, I now work at Curry’s” he replied. She told him, about herself, her work as a cashier, her parents.   They got on well together and promised to meet again.

When they met again, Gill Askew showed him a photo of her former boyfriend Clarence Woods whom, she said, she had loved dearly and was devastated when he was reported ‘missing presumed dead’ in Dunkirk a year and a half ago.  Lucky Leslie, as he was now known by everybody, admired her loyalty to him when he was still known as Clarence Woods. She still loved him! Well, she still loved his previous face!

Their courtship continued while Coventry was under a bomb siege from German aircraft, when the town suffered heavily and many people died.  They were married in March of 1942. He told her that he did not have any objection to the picture of Clarence being hung in the house. He also insisted on accompanying her occasionally to St. Thomas Cemetery where a plaque in memory of her former boyfriend was erected by his parents. He said that he felt him to be like his unfortunate brother. So Gill hung his picture along with their wedding photo. Lucky Leslie and Gill Askew lived a happy life together filled with love for each other and were blessed with two children, a boy and a girl. 

On 14 December 1980, Lucky Leslie died in his sleep at 60 years of age. He was buried in the town’s St. Thomas Cemetery. His plaque reads – “LUCKY LESLIE, AGED 60 YEARS, DIED ON 14. 12. 1980.  A LOVING AND DEDICATED HUSBAND AND FATHER.  R. I. P.”  Right next to him  stood the memorial plaque of Clarence Woods with the following inscription – CLARENCE WOODS, AGED 20 YEARS, DIED IN JUNE 1940 AT DUNKIRK FIGHTING GALLANTLY FOR KING AND COUNTRY. R. I. P.”

And so Lucky Leslie or Clarence Woods took his secret with him to the grave. Two memorials, two graves, but one man. When Gill visits the cemetery and prays for both the men she loved in her lifetime, little does she know that they were one and the same person.