“In Flanders fields the poppies blow. Between the crosses, row on row.”
— By John McCrae, First World War military doctor
When I was about 11 years old, I remember my grandfather pulling up his pant leg and showing me a bullet wound in his calf. The scar was a jagged rust-red slash.
The moment occurred because my mother had urged me to ask my grandfather, George Stanley Todd, about the First World War, which ended 100 years ago this Sunday. Apparently, he never talked about it. So I took the youthful plunge.
Sitting in the burgundy armchair where he smoked his pipe and listened to his three-foot-high wooden-cabinet radio, my grandfather said he had another wound on his hand and one higher up his thigh. I can’t remember if he mentioned his chest.
I found the idea of gunshot wounds exciting. It was all grist for a young boy who played “war” in the huge empty lot behind our house near 29th and Prince Albert Street in East Vancouver. We created makeshift rifles and even dug our own trenches, like soldiers in the First and Second World Wars.
However, like most young people I lacked a real sense of history. So it’s taken much of my adult years to fathom what those First World War wounds must have really meant for my grandfather — who from what I could see was a quiet, kind man who kept a vegetable garden and provided well for his family.
In recent years, I’ve obtained my grandfather’s First World War records, including the medical account of his near-fatal wounds, which noted he coughed blood for 10 days straight. I had always assumed he’d been struck by rifle fire; it’s taken me this long to realize he must have been machine-gunned.
That seems the most logical way that at least three bullets would have pierced his body during one of the most nightmarish conflicts in which Canadian soldiers, or any others, have ever taken part: the Battle of Passchendaele — which ended 101 years ago, on Nov. 10, 1917.
The bloody conflict occurred in the muddy fields of Flanders, Belgium, the region of Ypres made legendary by Ontario soldier-physician John McCrae in a poem that still inspires many to wear poppies on Canadian and British Remembrance Days, plus American Memorial Day. When I learned in elementary school to memorize In Flanders Field, I never realized it was about the hellhole where my grandfather was wounded.
Historians have called Passchendaele “a Canadian Calvary.” They have adopted crucifixion imagery in a desperate attempt to capture the terror and sacrifice of the more than 4,000 Canadians who were killed and the 11,000 wounded in a two-week period at Passchendaele, not to mention those who made it through, likely with psychological injuries.
In Ottawa, the Canadian War Museum describes it as a “Bloody Victory,” noting “The Battle of Passchendaele, fought in a bog of mud and unburied corpses, stretched human endurance to the breaking point.” It was also when Canada’s soldiers earned the reputation as incredibly tough “shock” troops.
“After three months of fruitless fighting and 200,000 British and Allied casualties,” the museum exhibition says Canada’s Expeditionary Force was brought in and “captured the ridge in four brutal battles.”
Grandfather could be tender, despite the horror of Passchendaele
My grandfather’s ordeal has me thinking about the nature of human resilience.
How can it be that a typical farm boy from southern Ontario who survived the relentless overhead artillery explosions, the drowning mud, the bayonets, the trenches, the disease-spreading lice, the machine guns and the corpse-eating rats of the Battle of Passchendaele actually turned out OK?
Stan became a more than decent, productive, working-class husband, father and grandfather. A man who would also, several years after the war, write tender, stoic love letters to the woman he wished to be his wife, my Belfast-born grandmother, May Irwin McIlroy.
“My sweetest wish for this New Year / Is for yourself whom I love dear,” Stan wrote in a marriage proposal in 1923, which I recently discovered. “That you will place your hand in mine / And together face the trials of Time.”
How did Stan Todd — and thousands of Canadian men and women like him who have experienced and witnessed the terror of this and other wars — continue to live their lives as compassionate, contributing human beings? What can we learn from them today, when debate percolates about whether North American culture has become over-protective and even coddling?
Stan was 23 on that fateful day of Nov. 6, 1917. It was the Canadian soldiers’ third attack of the Battle of Passchendaele, which British and Allied forces had begun in July without the Canadians.
That morning provided the moment, which history books suggest would have been at about 6 a.m., that Stan’s Canadian regiment went over the top of their trenches and his body was torn apart by a German machine gun, capable of spitting 400 bullets aminute.
Stan had been serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France since he was 21, in Canada’s 125th Battalion, which became known in France and Belgium as the 8th Reserve Battalion. Like other Canadian privates, Stan was paid $15 a month.
Before signing up in 1915, he’d served two years as a reservist in the 25th Brant Dragoons militia, based in Brantford, Ont. Since he was only 19, he had been told that his first duty would be to board the “harvest trains.” So he initially travelled to the Prairies, where he would join 25,000 other teenage Canadian men in patriotically bringing in the fall harvest.
He was among the many who didn’t wait to be drafted. Canadian conscription wasn’t imposed until the summer of 1917, after the Allies realized they were losing the war because more men were being killed or wounded than joining.
What actually happened to my grandfather on the Western front?
His medical records are sometimes hard to decipher, but in 1916, soon after going to France, he had to spend several weeks in hospital for something his records describe as NYD SLT, which may have been army shorthand for “Not Yet Diagnosed, Slight,” a euphemism for what was then called “nerves” and is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A year later, at Passchendaele on Nov. 6, 2017, his records are clear in showing he suffered a GSW (gunshot wound) to at least four places. His calf. His thigh. His left thumb. And his chest.
It had been a slaughter. The War Museum features a chilling panel quoting a German machine-gunner in the First World War, acknowledging what it was like to mow down Allied troops: “They went down by the hundreds. You didn’t need to aim, we just fired into them.”
When I sat beside my grandfather in his Vancouver home in the 1960s, I don’t remember him saying that one machine-gun bullet barely missed his heart. But his records say the bullet entered his flesh “four inches below left nipple.”
One inch higher and he would have been killed, I presume. He would not have married, would not have fathered my aunt and father. In other words, one-inch higher and there would have been no Douglas Todd, nor his three sons and granddaughter, et cetera. I once wrote a poem about it.
My grandfather’s “chest-penetrating” bullet wound caused him to cough blood for 10 days. The injuries became “septic,” or infected, as gaping wounds did for so many men in the mud, making it the lead cause of countless deaths. Stan endured 143 days in hospital.
His medical records also said he had “dyspnea,” or laboured breathing. He couldn’t walk far without feeling weak. He had a hernia and stricture of his urethra. He became partly deaf and had ringing in his ear. And, as the records say, the left hand of the farmer’s son was often numb and “unable to grip,” therefore he would be “unable to milk a cow.”
And yet Stan got back to Canada, took the train to Vancouver after the family sold their farm near Burford, Ont. (his father died in 1918), wrote love letters and worked hard enough as a B.C. log scaler and crew supervisor to buy a house. I vaguely remember seeing him drink wine at family dinners, but I still don’t know if he, like many veterans who have seen action, subconsciously medicated his pain with alcohol.
Stan also “soldiered” on decades later after his son, Harold, my father, himself a Second World War veteran, succumbed to schizophrenia at age 27. Through it all I witnessed my grandfather maintain an even keel, even if I, as a youth, detected sadness.
He provided financially for many people. Each summer and fall, before he died in 1975, he gave us fresh carrots, beans and apples from his garden. On our Sunday visits he was a good, trustworthy man to be around.
Our difficult times may require more stoicism
Marvin Westwood, co-founder of the Veterans Transition Program at the University of B.C., says my unpretentious grandfather, like many soldiers, had been “highly tested.” But he must have been resilient, as Westwood says, because he never quit on life.
“(Stan) developed the skills of courage, patience, risk-taking and perseverance. Heroism is what he modelled when he was at home,” said Westwood, a counselling psychology professor emeritus, after hearing some of Stan’s history. “He wasn’t of the teacup generation, as I call it. He wasn’t over-protected.”
Without sensationalizing war, Westwood said, many people today could learn from my grandfather and countless ordinary soldiers like him, including those who have suffered psychological injuries.
Though many men who have experienced military action could be categorized as physically or psychologically “disabled,” and some might drink or be grumpy or have panic attacks, Westwood urges they be admired for their strengths, the way they “engage the world and are still contributing.”
All things being equal, Westwood believes basic military training can be a good experience for many young men and women, although he cautions that actually going to war can be destructive since it often leads to trauma.
People who go through basic training often “get a good experience of agency and self-confidence in the world. It can build leadership skills and prepare young people for life. Veterans can be very disciplined, regulated and mature,” says Westwood.
The counselling psychology professor suggests that team sports, somewhat like basic training, can also sometimes inculcate the values of discipline, teamwork and the ideal that “nobody is left behind.”
The archetype of “the warrior” can be a positive psychological ideal for both males and females, Westwood says. “Warriors,” at their best, take on the responsibility of protecting others, without pretending safety can be guaranteed.
Even in his love letters Stan recognized this hard reality — that as a potential couple, he and my grandmother would need to be prepared to “together face the trials of Time.” As Westwood says, warriors recognize “suffering is part of life. They’re not hothouse plants.”
Vancouver clinical psychologist Dan Bilsker says it is not easy to compare the relative resilience of the First World War generation with those who have come after.
The things that cause stress then and now are different. When one generation faced the horror of war, Bilsker says the current generation struggles with the uncertainty of part-time jobs, unaffordable housing and climate change. A recent Abacus poll of 1,500 Canadians found 41 per cent identified themselves as “someone who struggles with anxiety.” A third said they had been formally diagnosed with anxiety. A similar proportion had been prescribed antidepressants.
Even while it is complicated to determine why some people end up being resilient and others not, there is something to be said for not assuming we are fragile – “for doing what must be done, despite the inherent risks; because it is the right thing to do,” said Bilsker, who is part of a UBC team researching resiliency among B.C. first responders.
“This approach enables those in occupations like firefighter or paramedic or soldier to fulfil their missions in an honourable and socially beneficial way. But it can also make it hard for those individuals to share the difficulty and complexity of their harsh experience or to engage in appropriate self care.”
PTSD, relationship breakdown and alcohol dependence are not uncommon among veterans and first responders, according to Westwood and Bilsker, who say every effort must be made to help them adapt the skills they learned in active duty to civilian life.
21st century society might be ripe for a resurgence of Stoic philosophy, says Bilsker, as taught by the Greek philosophers Zeno and Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
“Stoicism is an ideal philosophy for coping with times of suffering and danger,” said Bilkser. “I think it is very slowly dawning on the population that we are moving from a time of great comfort and safety to one of extreme discomfort and risk. The greater the social investment in enhancing our capacity for psychological resilience, the better we will be at flexibly coping with the emerging crises.”
Can we develop the ‘moral equivalent of war?’
My grandfather ended the First World War in hospital. He was honourably discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force two days after Armistice Day, on Nov. 13, 1918.
Under the heading of “Character and Conduct,” Stan’s discharge certificate has a hand-written phrase: “Very good.” He had done his duty. Well.
He did not, because of his wounds, take part in the last 100 days of the war in France and Belgium. That’s when, as the War Museum recounts in a new exhibition featuring colourized photos, Canada’s shock troops defeated the Germans in “terrible victories” at Amiens, Arras, Cambrai and Mons.
The First World War cost the lives of 66,000 Canadians, plus 72,000 wounded, almost entirely young men.
Although it may seem tired to ask it, how can Canadians today not be grateful for their sacrifice, for their fortitude, allegiance and perseverance?
After all, we may need their kind of strength again.
This is not a time in which Canada is directly involved in a major war. But the threats posed by economic inequality, unaffordable housing, climate change, authoritarian governments, individual greed, corporate corruption and homelessness are as real as war, and they demand a concerted response.
Can we follow the lead of veterans and transcend our own individualistic need for comfort, by becoming part of something larger? There may be things to learn from the great American philosopher-psychologist William James, who in a time of peace coined the phrase “The moral equivalent of war.”
James was pointing, in his way, to the need for more resilient male and female warriors. He wanted citizens to develop a sense of the moral equivalent of war to cultivate the kind of sturdy virtues needed to address the distinct difficulties of every era.
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