In 1919, the Great War Veterans’ Association met in Montréal to appeal on behalf of returned soldiers they called “shell shock cases”. Members protested that soldiers were placed indiscriminately in asylums “instead of being given every encouragement to look for complete recovery.” One of those shell shock victims was my grandfather, Willie.
He and two brothers volunteered in 1914 in Chester, England. One brother never returned. Willie served as a blacksmith with the Royal Engineers in the desert war, in Baghdad. He witnessed great suffering – famine and dysentery. Willie was most affected by the plight of children.
At war’s end my grandfather emigrated to Winnipeg, where blacksmiths were in high demand on public works. Later he opened his own shop in the town of Ninette, Manitoba. Willie and my grandmother Jennie raised five children, but it was not an easy life.
My grandfather was a traveling blacksmith, working from farm to farm. It was no idyllic country life. My grandmother used to say, “There’s nothing romantic about chipping your boots off the floor in the morning.”
Willie was haunted by his memories of the war. He was kept awake at night by recollections of what he’d experienced. He became a solitary figure, speaking little, and never recounted his war years. I think he felt he had to protect his family from those terrible events. My mother said he had frequent breakdowns. Today we’d say he was clinically depressed, and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually he was institutionalized.
At the Brandon Insane Asylum, as it was called then, doctors diagnosed my grandfather as almost incurable. He was subjected to electric shock treatments. The Asylum discharged him after ten months, with a short note from doctors that Willie had made a speedy recovery.
My grandfather died of a heart attack at 59. He was physically fit, but some emotional traumas cannot be endured. Only now are we beginning to develop empathy for those who serve and suffer, but in Willie’s time little was known about these disorders.
I never met Willie. He died before I was born. As a young man I always had a knack for fixing things, and Mom would say: “You’re just like your grandfather.” I treasure this notion, and hold it close.
(Editor’s note: the author is Liberal MP for Guelph, Ont.)