The life and times of Kilkenny man Herbert Foxton during and after World War I

On July 17, 1918, on the Western Front, a shell exploded close to Kells native Herbert Foxton, sending jagged pieces of metal tearing through his face. The young man was blinded and left unable to speak, with just a gaping hole where the left side of his face had been

Liam O’Sullivan and Joann Townsend

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Liam O’Sullivan and Joann Townsend

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The life and times of Kilkenny man Herbert Foxton during and after World War I

Herbert Crowther Foxton before he suffered the catastrophic injuries

Herbert Crowther Foxton was born in Kells, Co Kilkenny in 1890. His parents were both from Wexford. His father Henry worked as a gardener and later as a land steward in the employment of the Church of Ireland rector in Kells.


Herbert’s mother Hannah was a schoolteacher in a local primary school which was founded to serve the needs of local families in 1868 and is still in use as a beautiful family home today.
Herbert was the third child in a family of seven and was born at the gate lodge of the Church of Ireland priory in Kells.


The priory itself was a magnificent building. It was reputed by many to have been designed by renowned Callan architect James Hoban, who went on to design the White House in Washington.
The priory was a large building and spread over three floors and would have employed a number of staff as well as others who worked the farm to provide provisions for the household.


Situated just on the edge of Kells village, Herbert’s home overlooks the magnificent Augustine Kells Priory which would have been the playground for the young Foxton family as they grew-up.
Handball
To this day the squeals of excited children still echo from its ancient walls during the long Summer evenings. The nave of the Priory was used as a handball alley and the local handball club would have staged handball tournaments, which young Herbert would probably have attended.


Unfortunately some of Herbert’s siblings succumbed to the high infant mortality rate prevalent at the time. His sisters Elizabeth and Hanna died very young while his elder sister Charlotte ‘fell asleep in Christ’ at the age of 23. All three sisters are buried just inside the ruins of St Kieran’s Church in Kells, a mere hundred yards from their family home.


Interestingly their family home went on to house the famous Wesley Burrows when he lived in Kells. Wesley frequented the local pub and the stories he heard there became the inspiration for his popular television series ‘The Riordans’ that RTE ran in the 1970s, many of the pub scenes being shot inside Shirley’s pub.
As a teenager Herbert left Kells to pursue a trade as a watchmaker with jewellery maker Hopkins and Hopkins situated next to O’Connell Bridge in Dublin. Herbert lived in Dublin for a number of years where he lodged in boarding houses with many other young apprentices.
Dublin tenements were overcrowded and in 1911, a 21-year-old Herbert was sharing a boarding house with 90 others at 6 Lord Edward Street Dublin!
Turbulent City


At this time Dublin was a turbulent city with union agitation, strikes and lock-outs occurring right across the city. The Dublin workers were fighting back against poor pay and working conditions and led by Jim Larkin, the magnificent orator who put fire in the bellies of the Dublin workforce.


Listening to ‘Big Jim’ the Dublin workers were willing to strike for what they felt were their entitlements. The Dublin lock-out impacted over 20,000 workers and over 300 employers and lasted from August 1913 to January 1914 - it’s now viewed as the most bitter industrial dispute in Irish history.


As a qualified watchmaker and, with the possibility of ongoing strikes and industrial unrest, Herbert decided it was time to move yet again and this time he decided to leave Ireland completely.
Notwithstanding the unrest Herbert had another reason to leave; he had met and fallen in love with an Australian girl called Ruth Love. He decided to pursue both romance and his dreams down under in Australia.


Arriving in Australia Herbert was by then a highly skilled tradesman - he quickly found work in Queensland as a watchmaker. But turbulent times in Europe erupted immediately after the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand. Before long the whole of Europe found itself immersed in the bloodbath that was World War One. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Herbert’s life would never be the same again.
Australia was no longer a British colony since gaining independence in 1901, but the Australian people had strong associations with Britain and was very much still part of the British Empire.
As a result of this sense of duty to support Britain, the Australian army was quickly called into action in Europe. Herbert answered the call and enlisted in the Australian army just months after the breakout of the war which was now raging across Europe.

Promoted
Herbert joined the army in January 1915 and by the time he had completed his training he had achieved the rank of Sergeant. He was dispatched to Europe aboard the HMAS Aeneas from Brisbane in July 1915. Herbert served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, where he was promoted yet again to Captain.


In October 1917 he was badly gassed and was sent to England to convalesce. Interestingly when on leave from the army Herbert’s records show that he travelled to England, most likely this was because his elder brother William was a clerk in Islington, London so Herbert may well have stayed with him during the welcome breaks from the front.
On July 17, 1918 - just four months before World War One ended - Herbert was critically injured when a shell exploded near him. The shrapnel tore through his face, leaving him badly disfigured, totally blind and unable to speak.


After the injury Herbert was very close to death and the medical staff that attended his wounds didn’t expect him to survive. But Herbert was a fighter and slowly but surely he stabilized and gradually started to recover.
A number of months later, when he was well enough to undertake the long ocean voyage, Herbert was sent to London for further assessment.


Plastic surgery and reconstructive surgery as we know it now was in its infancy during World War One and the work needed to reconstruct Herbert’s severely disfigured face was groundbreaking at that time.
The father of modern plastic surgery is generally considered to have been Sir Harold Gillies, a New Zealand otolaryngologist working in London. Sir Harold developed many of the modern techniques of facial surgery in caring for soldiers suffering from disfiguring facial injuries during the First World War.


What’s generally accepted as the first plastic surgery had only taken place earlier in 1917 when a sailor called Walter Yeo had his face reconstructed by Sir Harold. Once back in London Herbert was seen by Warwick James, who was another one of the outstanding surgeons of his time.
Over a series of 25 operations Warwick managed to rebuild the jaw, mouth and much of the left side of Herbert’s face, which had been ripped apart by the flying metal in the explosion.
Herbert’s medical records note the wound as ‘Face Smashed’ and surviving photographs taken by the medical team attest to this description. It was a truly horrendous injury and the 25 operations needed must have been a terrible ordeal for Herbert.


Despite the surgery Herbert remained totally blind and was transferred to a hospital for blind servicemen where he learned braille and how to use a typewriter. The aim of this was to rehabilitate blind soldiers back into society and maximize their opportunity of gaining employment when they returned to civilian life.


It’s not known if he ever returned to Kells during his time in London, but eventually Herbert chose to return to Australia in late 1921, four years after his injury. Finding it impossible to gain work in Australia and existing on his army disability pension, Herbert once again returned to London in 1923 where he saw Sir Richard Cruise a world-renowned eye surgeon so well respected in his field that he was oculist to the King and Queen of England.


Once again Herbert benefitted from another groundbreaking medical intervention. The sight in one eye was partially restored, allowing him to walk around and to read again.
Once recovered he returned to Australia and to his sweetheart Ruth, who had waited patiently for his rehabilitation over many years. By then they had known each other for over ten years and with Herbert’s rehabilitation complete they wasted no time and were married in that same year of 1925.

Herbert and Ruth had a happy marriage, going on to have four children. Herbert’s chosen trade as a watchmaker meant that he needed excellent vision to be able to make and repair delicate instruments - his poor sight meant it was now impossible for him to find work. In fact Herbert’s only employment was almost 20 years later during World War Two when he worked in an engineering factory.
Tragically Herbert’s eyesight deteriorated again in the 1950s and eventually he lost his sight completely once again.


Despite his horrific injuries Herbert went on to live to the ripe old age of 94 years of age and passed away in 1984. In later years he can be seen in family photographs wearing the smile that was so painstakingly restored in London by the surgeon Warwick James.
Herbert looks so content and happy and surrounded by his childhood sweetheart and wife Ruth, his children and his many grandchildren.