After the War: Veterans and the Effects of Trauma

Reading through the accounts and personal stories presented in this exhibition, one can't help but wonder about the aftermath. Pte. Bateman lost his friend under a barrage of shelling on Christmas Day, while Sapper Mount lived in a concrete shelter that was repeatedly shelled for nearly three weeks. Ted and Reg Richardson were stationed on the front lines of France for the better part of two years. Wenonah Durant worked in the hospitals of France, seeing mangled and maimed soldiers - many beyond repair, for three years. While Muriel English drove on dangerous roads through battlefields to bring soldiers to the hospitals, seeing untold horrors along the way and Dr. Ronald Hugh Macdonald worked as a doctor in the casualty stations and in the trenches, at times putting his life in danger to save his patients. 

After the celebrations of Armistice Day, and the soldiers and nurses made their way home, what happened to them? Could they adjust back into civilian life? Were they haunted by what they had seen? Could they speak to their family and friends about their experiences? 

In the course of the war, many terms were used to describe the mental effects of the war: shell shock, soldier's heart, battle fatigue, all terms that we know now to be the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As the understanding of effects of trauma were far less developed and associated with stigmas surrounding mental illness, little specific material was created and preserved in the years after the war. Soldiers in the First World War did not tend to write their mothers about the residual effects of shelling, nor keep albums or diaries about the anxiety and depression that followed the war.  Accordingly, such material is difficult for institutions to collect and to draw attention to this important aspect of the war. However, the Fisher library is fortunate to have one such example, which provides unflinching and honest accounts of the effect that the war had on Canadian families, even decades later.

In 1941 - twenty-three years after the war had ended, and with a new war raging in Europe - the York Veteran's Social Welfare Club collected accounts of soldiers and widows, who had faced hardship directly attributed to the war. The resulting bound book, requesting greater pension support, was submitted to their local Member of Parliament to be brought to the attention of the Government of Canada. All written by residents of Toronto, the majority of the thirty-eight accounts are written by women whose husbands survived the war, but had  consequently died prematurely from war related medical conditions, including those related to mental health. 

Of her now-deceased husband, Norman, Lillian Hanna recalled, "he returned from the war a wreck, with a miserable little pittance supposedly a pension for a neuorotic complaint, and through this complaint he became a wanderer on the face of the earth, and which so very few months before he was a hero for so saving, but now, no war, an outcast ... this gallant soldier wandered and in effort after effort to locate the man failed, until he was found dead in the United States."

Mary Foster wrote of her deceased husband, "He cam[e] home in 1919 and could not follow any steady employment ... his health become of such that he became unbearable to live with and I was in continuous suspense not knowing which way to turn from day to day."

Mrs Ada Fryers' husband, Louis, died in 1939. She wrote, "Upon his return to civil life it was quite obvious that he was unwell ... for many years prior to his death my husband was unable to follow his employment and for seven years we were the recipients of relief with all its degradation and attendant degeneration, and the family were drawn down to that which might be termed dire poverty the only cause of which was their fathers service to the State."

Mrs James Lockrey reported that when her husband returned from war, they had to leave Toronto as "nothing other than quiet could be entertained ... he was so irritable that really he should have been incarcerated in an institution ... from the lay point of view I am convinced he was not sane; he took violent fits of rage both at home and away, he couldn't enjoy any normal enjoyment as he would become so excited with the slightest movement out of the quiet that excitement would overcome him."

Taken together these accounts provide a very real and immediate recollection of the poorly understood trauma that affected Canadian soldiers and nurses that returned from the First World War and the great suffering that it subsequently caused their families.

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This book of accounts was acquired by the library through donation in 1985. 

After the War: Veterans and the Effects of Trauma