Pioneering Facial Reconstruction
The war caused devastating scars on soldiers both mentally and physically. In light of the injuries sustained by soldiers on the front line, the era also saw the emergence of pioneering new plastic surgery techniques.
William Henry Nicholl, 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, 109th Brigade
William Henry Nicholl was one of three sons to John and Rose. At 19, he signed up to the Young Citizen Volunteers, 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. His military training began at Davison’s yard in east Belfast; moving onto Finner Camp, Donegal. In early 1915, his regiment was installed at Randalstown camp in the grounds of Lord O’Neill’s estate before finishing their training in Sussex, England.
In early October 1915, William crossed to Boulogne, with the 36th Ulster Division and he was engaged in action. Initially concentrated around Flesselles for trench familiarisation, in 1916, his battalion took over a complete section of the front line between the River Ancre and the Mailly-Maillet to Serre Road. They suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Albert. In 1917, they saw action at the Battles of Messines and Langemarck and in the Cambrai operations and capture of Bourlon Wood. On 16th August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, William was seriously wounded in action.
William was injured when a shell exploded in front of him, suffering extreme facial injuries. From a dressing station in Flanders, he was nursed at a field hospital in Boulogne, renamed the 83rd Dublin hospital due to the number of volunteer staff from Irish hospitals who served there. It was 7 months of recovery before he was well enough to be returned to England on the SS Anglo Canadian to be admitted to Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent where the surgeon, Harold Gillies was developing pioneering plastic surgery for the wounded men of the western front. William was admitted on 23 March 1918. Three months later, on 17th June, he had an operation to correct his injuries.
William went on to have five children after marrying his wife Martha in 16th February 1922. He died in Belfast aged 90.