On the day after Christmas in 1920, a French mailman and veteran of World War I wrote an American woman named Anna Coleman Ladd to thank her for what she had done for him during the war.

Ladd knew the veteran, Charles Victor, who had been wounded in the face by a hand grenade in 1915. She had two photos of him.

In one, he is sitting in a chair, wearing his uniform and military medals. He has large ears and a shock of dark hair, parted on the side. But the lower half of his face is mutilated. Most of his nose and lips are gone, and his mouth looks crooked and rearranged.

In the second photo, he is sitting in the same chair. But now he is wearing glasses and a jaunty mustache, and there is no sign of injury.

What Ladd had done for Victor was not plastic surgery.

Anna Coleman Ladd in her studio painting a mask worn by a French soldier who was disfigured in World War I is shown in this c. 1918 photograph. (Library of Congress)

She was a sculptor. And he was one of the scores of disfigured French and American soldiers for whom she had made exquisite metal masks to conceal their war injuries.

With the start this summer of the centennial of World War I (1914-18) and increased interest from researchers, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art has posted a cache of Ladd’s papers online.

The collection includes letters, scrapbooks, photos and notebooks from Ladd’s long career as a sculptor. And it includes files and photos from her short but fascinating work as director of the Red Cross mask-making studio in Paris.

“She was a neoclassical sculptor,” said David Lubin, the Charlotte C. Weber professor of art at Wake Forest University.

“She was very interested in principles of ancient art, the sort of beautiful serene face,” he said. “And she gives these men . . . this almost unreal serenity.”

Millions of soldiers were wounded or killed in the Great War, and it created an especially grim subset of casualties.

These were the “mutilés de la face,” men who had suffered terrible facial injuries wrought by shrapnel, bullets and flamethrowers.

This July 1918 scene at Ladd's studio shows casts taken from the soldiers' mutilated faces, on the upper row; the lower row shows the faces that Ladd modeled on the foundation of the life mask with help of photographs taken before the wound was received. (Library of Congress)

“World War I was the first war in which a man could get half his face blown off and survive,” Lubin said earlier this month. Doctors would say, “ ‘Okay, now we saved this guy’s life. But he looks like a monster. What are we going to do with him?’ ’’

British author Ward Muir, who worked as a wartime hospital orderly, wrote in 1918: “Hideous is the only word for these smashed faces.”

Plastic surgery could repair only some of the damage, and many men were permanently disfigured. Jaws destroyed, foreheads gone, noses, mouths and eyes missing.

“One man who came to us had been wounded 21 / 2 years before and had never been home,” according to a 1919 report from Ladd’s studio. “He did not want his mother to see how badly he looked.”

“Of all his face there was only one eye left, and after 50 operations . . . he came to us,” the report said. “People get used to seeing men with arms and legs missing, but they never get used to an abnormal face.”

An estimated 60,500 British soldiers had head or eye injuries, according to a 2011 article in the British journal Social History of Medicine. There were no doubt similar numbers of such French and German casualties from the war.

Such injuries often were linked to trench warfare, where the face could be the most exposed part of body.

Men “seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine gun bullets” the American orthopedic surgeon Frederick H. Albee wrote, according to the journal article by Suzannah Biernoff, a senior lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London.

Helmets provided some head cover, but nothing protected the face from flying chunks of exploding artillery shells.

Ambulance driver Evadne Price described one of the wounded as having a “wagging lump of raw flesh on a neck that was a face a short time ago,” according to an article Lubin wrote in the Archives of American Art Journal.

Wars still inflict such injuries. The face remains vulnerable, said Navy Capt. Gerald T. Grant, an expert at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

And facial prostheses, as they are now known, are still crafted for disfigured soldiers.

Today they are made of silicone and acrylic. They often are designed on a computer and in 3-D. And they are held in place with implants and magnets. “We’ve come quite a bit further,” Grant said.

‘Brave faceless ones’

Anna Coleman Ladd, the well-to-do daughter of Philadelphia socialites, had been educated in Europe and was a successful sculptor in Boston by the time the war began.

Her husband, a pediatrician, was already overseas in 1917 when she heard about the work of the British sculptor Francis Derwent Wood.

He had started making masks for disfigured British soldiers in a facility the soldiers called the “Tin Noses Shop.”

“My work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed,” Wood wrote in 1917 in the Lancet medical journal.

“I endeavour by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded,” he wrote. “ The patient acquires his old self-respect . . . [and] his presence is no longer a source of melancholy.”

Ladd, 39, who had lived in France, wondered whether she might do the same for French soldiers.

She traveled to France in December 1917, and the next month, with four assistants, founded the American Red Cross Studio of Portrait Masks in Paris.

She decorated the studio with flags, patriotic posters and flowers. And she drank cocoa and tea with her “brave faceless ones,” as she called them.

She tried to make the studio a warm gathering place where the men could relax, smoke and chat.

Wood sent her details of his procedures, and Ladd began scouring French hospitals for patients.

The mask began with a plaster cast of the soldier’s disfigured face. Later, Ladd would hang on the walls a collection of the casts, visible in photographs taken at the time.

Then, using pre-injury photographs or just “psychological insight,” as she put it, Ladd would model on the cast the patient’s original appearance, filling in gaps and adding correct features.

From the improved cast, a thin copper mask was fashioned to cover the damaged part of the patient’s face.

The masks were held in place by wires, ribbons or eyeglasses. Eyelashes were made of fine metal strips, and mustaches and beards were added when necessary. The masks were painted to match skin tone.

Ladd directed the making of about 100 masks, and subordinates made many more after she returned to the United States in late 1918.

“The letters of gratitude from the soldiers and their families hurt, they are so grateful,” she wrote two days before the war ended in November 1918.

One letter among her papers, written in French, says in part:

“I owe you great gratitude . . . for I wear and will always . . . wear the marvelous device that you created. Thanks to you I can live again. Thanks to you I haven’t buried myself in the depths of a hospital for the disabled.”

Elsewhere, Ladd quoted from another soldier letter: “Thanks to you I will have a home . . . The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do. . . . She will be my wife.”

Yet another wrote: “My family and friends marvel . . . I am a tremendous success.”

Ladd’s Smithsonian papers contain photographs of several of the soldiers with and without masks. A movie also survives of Ladd and her staff at work.

None of the soldiers are identified in the studio photographs.

But one set of before-and-after studio pictures matches a pair of tiny snapshots Charles Victor seems to have enclosed in his postwar letter to Ladd.

The letter, its envelope and the pictures are also among her papers.

One snapshot shows Victor in business attire, without his mask. On the back he has written his name, and notes that he was wounded by the grenade in the face and shrapnel in the back on Sept. 29, 1915.

The second shot is blurry but shows the man standing outdoors, apparently wearing his mask. On the back he has written “Charles Victor 1920 Paris.”

In his letter, he tells Ladd about his wife and two children and wishes her a happy new year. He expresses deep gratitude for the work she did.

“Please accept from a poor disabled Frenchman and from his little family our best and most sincere regards and warmest greetings,” he wrote.

Amy Gardner and Zofia Smardz contributed to this report.