WHAT DOES IT REPRESENT?
‘Victory Over Blindness’ is an important and poignant memorial to WW1 soldiers who suffered loss of sight whilst fighting overseas. Inaugurated in the year of the centenary, it contradicts the usual narrative of statues and memorials representing heroic deeds, famous people or great battles, to highlight the cost of war and remains as the only permanent memorial to the injured of the conflict. Like the name suggests, it is an empowering testament to the ability to overcome physical afflictions and to remind us of the crucial role that charities played in helping to rehabilitate wounded soldiers after their service had ended.
BLINDNESS IN WW1
The First World War was a conflict that changed the world. Defined by its trench warfare, the conflict lasted from 1914 to 1918 and saw the deaths of an estimated 886,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel. Countless more were wounded, with artillery causing the majority of deaths and wounds – the industrialised nature of the war made for unfathomable human suffering. Of the wounded, around 30,000 were discharged with damaged or defective eyesight and of these, 3,000 were permanently blinded. For many this was an outcome of the dreaded Mustard Gas attacks that would terrify soldiers; the gas would burn any exposed flesh, the throat and lungs if inhaled and often cause permanent or semi-permanent sight loss. However, blindness was not limited to Gas attacks; head injuries, shrapnel from artillery fire, stray bullets and fractures all contributed to the growing number of men returning from the war with sight loss.
ST DUNSTAN’S/BLIND VETERANS UK
Blind Veterans UK, formerly St Dunstan’s, is the charity behind the ‘Victory Over Blindness’ memorial. Founded by Arthur Pearson, the charity was established in 1915 when the two men opened up a hostel for blinded soldiers, sailors and airmen. There they would receive training, rehabilitation and lifelong support to help them adapt to their sight loss and hopefully guide them to fulfilling lives. The charity flourished and has helped over 15,000 veterans since WW1 to rebuild their lives after sight loss.
The memorial statue was dedicated in October 2018 and is located outside of Piccadilly station in Manchester. Although the charity was located in London and Brighton (and now in Llandudno too) Manchester was chosen to host the memorial permanently as it was the disembarking point for many soldiers returning from the war and some of them with life changing inflictions. Johanna Domke-Guyot, inspired by a picture she saw of blinded soldiers leading each other away from the battle, decided to recreate that moment in seven life-sized statues cast in bronze. The seven soldiers are cast in the likeness of real soldiers who were wounded during the war and benefitted from the help provided to them by Blind Veterans UK. Johanna, who herself has suffered sight loss, insisted that the statue should not be placed upon a plinth as she wanted the memorial to be accessible to all and for people suffering with sight loss to touch, feel and relate to the statue.