By Dr David Laing Dawson
I grew up thinking my grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge, though he never talked about his war experiences. I have a memory of one funny story he told of being on leave in London, and throwing his filthy underwear into the street from a hotel window, and another moment when he told his grandchildren that he had a metal plate in his head. But that is all. Years later I visited Vimy, saw the trenches, the killing grounds, and the Memorial, and signed the visitor book. Perhaps my memory told me he fought at Vimy because in my mind at that time Vimy Ridge and Canada and the First World War were conflated.
Now, with the wonders of digitization and the internet I have access to all my grandfather’s war records and his medical documents from the field hospital to the Canadian Forces Hospital in England to the Convalescent facility. I have the doctors’ notes and even an X-ray of his skull. I even know he enlisted in 1915 after three of his children were born and when the Canadian Government removed the requirement of spousal approval.
He trained in England with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and then fought in Belgium, in the muck and mud and horror of the battles for Ypres. Twice he was taken from the front lines to the Field Hospital sick with fever and dehydration. He survived the charges, the bombardments, the cold wet trenches through the fall of 1915 and the winter of 1916. But on a spring morning in that year upon the whistle to charge he stepped up from the trench and was hit by both a bullet and the shrapnel of an exploding mortar. The bullet hit his left arm; the shrapnel struck the left side of his face and head.
He was carried to the Field hospital again, and then shipped to the Armed forces hospital in England.
The bullet wound in my Grandfather’s left arm healed quickly. The doctors cleaned his head wound and removed all but one piece of shrapnel still visible on the X-ray 100 years later. But in the hospital and the convalescent ward through the summer of 1916 he continued to suffer dizzy spells, and when he had these he usually fell to the ground. He was eventually given a medical discharge and sent home via troop ship to Halifax and then train and boat to arrive in Victoria in the winter of 1917.
In the hospital they had searched for an explanation for his dizzy spells and concluded, in the terse medical writing of the time, that the cause was mostly “functional”.
One would have to have practiced medicine and psychiatry in the 20th century to understand all the implications and nuances of the diagnosis “functional”. It meant no underlying structural or physiological mechanism has been detected. It also implies the symptoms may be goal directed, but the degree to which the patient is conscious or not conscious of the goal may be implied by the overall tone of the report. In black and white terms, malingering or conversion reaction.
With a little more knowledge today (I do mean little) I know my grandfather’s falling-down spells could have been caused by post concussion syndrome, by PTSD, by a conversion reaction, or by a very conscious decision to fake illness to avoid going back to the trenches.
I am writing this because I read an article in my local paper recently by Thomas Froese. I am sure Mr. Froese is a good Christian and a good person, but I would like to tell him he is wrong. There is no glory in war. There is no heroism. There are no lessons to be learned other than we must never let it happen again. Mr. Froese also says he “doesn’t believe in war” which makes as much sense as saying you don’t believe in rape and murder.
We do not need to teach children (as he recommends) about the moments of courage and spiritual awakening, and acceptance of mortality and powerlessness that can occur in war. At least not unless we are preparing them to enlist for the next conflagration.
I am posed with a dilemma now I have my grandfather’s war record. He was not a hero of Vimy Ridge. He was a decorated soldier who fought at Ypres. He arrived home before the battle of Vimy Ridge. And his medical discharge? How am I to think and feel about that? Well, I have concluded that I would be most happy, proud even, to think he faked his dizzy spells. It would mean that he was a sane man, not delusional, that he was rational and mature, that he simply said NO to returning to the horror and insanity of war, that it was more important to remain alive for his wife and children. That he had had enough. That he knew there was no heroism or enlightenment to be found in war, no grand purpose, just death and life long damage to body and mind. That he understood that he had enlisted because he had succumbed to the propaganda of heroism, duty, king and country, manliness, the great adventure. That he now had the courage, the real courage, to say, simply, “No more.”