By Dr David Laing Dawson
WW1 was stupid, stupid, stupid, one of the great follies of humankind. And this is what we need to remember on November 11th while still honoring the soldiers who died in that war, or came home with minds and bodies shattered. And we need to do this without glorifying or even justifying war.
This week a classic FM station has been playing a new musical version of “In Flanders Fields”. The composer talks of noticing the last stanza in this poem and its importance and neglect. That’s the stanza that begins “Take up our quarrel with the foe”. She has added the ominous rhythm of marching boots to her score.
No. That “foe” was comprised of equally frightened boys and young men sent to war by the equally blind, heartless, stupid leaders, kings, emperors, Kaisers and politicians of the day. And when Dr. John McCrae wrote that poem, several million bodies of those “foes” were already strewn in the fields of Europe.
In the spring of 1916 my grandfather stood up from a soggy rat infested trench in Belgium at the call to charge. A bullet pierced his left arm and shrapnel from an exploding bomb gashed his face and stuck in the left side of his skull. He was carried to the field hospital for the third time that year and from there transported to a hospital in England and then a rehabilitation center.
A hundred years later I have his service and hospital records on my computer.
The bullet in his left upper arm was a through and through and the wound healed quickly. The Xray of his skull shows particles of shrapnel embedded in his frontal and parietal bones. The surgeons removed what they could but a few metal shards remain. He was then transferred to the rehabilitation center to be prepared to be sent back to the front. But my grandfather kept having dizzy spells and falling down. In the brief medical jargon of the day the doctors wondered if this was caused by concussion, or was it shell shock or might it be “functional”. Today the doctors would have used the words “post-concussion syndrome”, PTSD, and pondered the possibility of conversion reaction and/or malingering. But first they would send him for an MRI.
My grandfather spent the summer and autumn of 1916 in that rehab center and he kept having dizzy spells and falling down. Eventually he was given a medical discharge and sent home to Canada, to Victoria, to arrive there in the winter of 1917.
I have a few scattered memories of my grandfather from the late 40’s into the 50’s when, for the entertainment of his grandchildren, he might tap the metal in his head and imply his whole skull was steel. Otherwise, I know, he never talked of the war. He had enlisted in 1915 with the first Canadian Expeditionary Force, after the rule that wives had to agree was dropped. He trained in England in the summer of that year and then was deployed to the battlefields in the fall, the trenches of France and Belgium.
I had always assumed my grandfather was a veteran of Vimy Ridge and I visited the monument there and wrote in the guest book. But his war and hospital records show he was discharged home before the battle of Vimy Ridge. He was a veteran and survivor of lesser known and less successful battles.
In the language of medicine “functional” implies both “no physical/organic cause” and “the possibility of there being a purpose or goal involved in the loss of function”. “Conversion reaction” and “malingering” are two extremes of interpretation. The first implies that though the behaviour has a goal it is not a conscious goal, the second that it is a fully conscious goal. Of course, for much human behaviour the truth lies somewhere in between.
But there it is. In the hospital and rehabilitation center in England did my Grandfather decide he was not going back to that insane war, to the death trap of those trenches, to the whim of a general ordering a charge against machine guns? Did he decide to fake infirmity and return to his wife and three small children waiting in a farmhouse on Cedar Hill Crossroad?
I’m sure he suffered PTSD, and those dizzy spells may have been caused by concussion, by cerebral bruising.
But I like to think that he realized how stupid, stupid, stupid it was for young men to be sitting in rat infested soggy trenches through the night and day shooting at each other, and that he should go home to care for my grandmother, my uncle, my aunt and my father. (Another aunt arrived after the war).
If he consciously decided to go home on a medical discharge, even while feeling the guilt and humiliation of such a decision, well, here is what I have to say:
“Good on ya, Grandad. I’m proud of you.”