“If my Son had not Joined the Army, He would Still be Alive…”: The Struggle to have Soldier Suicides Recognized as War-Related Deaths

by | Nov 12, 2020 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Kathleen Taggart

I would like to thank the student researchers and volunteers who made this work possible through the digitization of First World War soldiers pension files, along with Georgia Gingrich, Emily Oakes, Matt Baker, and Dr. Mark Humphries at the LCMSDS. Kyle Pritchard’s insights helped sharpen the analysis presented here, for which I am grateful. This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

By the end of the First World War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) counted 61,122 individuals as wartime dead – a staggering figure for a nation of only eight million.[i] The vast number of casualties and the horrific circumstances of the war were unprecedented.[ii] The deaths of Canadian soldiers on the battlefield were not conceptualized as a loss without purpose, but rather “a sacrifice willingly made.”[iii] Communities during the postwar years sought to underline how soldiers who had fallen in battle had died to uphold “…civilization, humanity, or ideals like Liberty, Truth, Justice, Honour, Mercy, or Freedom.”[iv] With soldiers sacrificing so much for their country, the Canadian State in turn, felt it was their duty to care for deceased veterans’ family members – primarily widows, children, and elderly parents, through military pensions. For soldiers who died in battle, establishing the linkage between a soldier’s death and their military service was straightforward. But what about soldiers whose deaths had more complicated circumstances, making it difficult for families to prove a linkage between a death and their loved one’s military service? In this post, I explore the case of Private Bertram R., whose struggle to have his illness recognized as war-service related was carried on by his father after his death by suicide.

My research on this topic began with record linking deaths by suicide or self-inflicted wounds (SIWs) in Edward Wigney’s, “The C.E.F. Roll of Honour,”[v] to soldiers’ personnel and pension files.[vi] This approach allows for an in-depth examination of how these soldiers’ deaths were conceptualized by military and medical officials, and highlights how families continued to assert their pension claims in contradiction with these authorities.

Private R. enlisted in December of 1914, the first year of the war. He saw overseas service in France attached to the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, but his military career was cut short in 1916 when he was diagnosed with what appeared to be tuberculosis (TB). Private R. was subsequently recommended for discharge and sent home to Canada in March 1917. He was officially discharged from the CEF as medically unfit on August 31, 1917.[vii]

Canadian Mounted Rifles: Recruitment Campaign, 1914-1918, Accession Number: 00916, Box: A153/X4, LAC.

When soldiers of the CEF returned home due to injury or illness, the goal of treatment was to integrate them back into society, with a focus on earning a living. The Military Hospitals Commission (MHC) was created in 1915 to “care for soldiers invalided back to Canada – namely those who required six months or more of medical treatment to become fit and those who were no longer fit for military service.” Among many ailments the MHC dealt with, by 1917, they found their hospitals filled with soldiers requiring treatment for TB, and thus fourteen sanatoriums were brought under the jurisdiction of the MHC.[viii] Upon his return to Canada, Private R. went before an examination board to determine his course of treatment. He had connections in Manitoba and hoped to return there, yet according to a letter from his father, “…when he went before the doctors at Regina to get his discharge, so that he could obtain the situation he held at Brandon, they strongly advised him to go for a course of treatment in a sanatorium. He refused because if he had done so, he would have lost the appointment at Brandon.”[ix] Evidently, submitting oneself to the state meant relinquishing any other commitments or autonomy, even if treatment, like that for TB before the discovery of antibiotic treatment, could not guarantee a cure.[x] Being cared for by the state meant being subjected to doctors’ ideas of treatment, which differed from some soldiers’ masculine ideal of independence.

“Reconstruction: a bulletin published by the Military Hospitals Commission for the information of all interested in the welfare of Canada’s returned soldiers.” 8. Ottawa: Military Hospitals Commission. January 1918.

Obtaining a pension in lieu of treatment was difficult for both veterans and their families. The Board of Pension Commissioners (BPC) was established in June 1916 by the federal government to bolster the support of Canadian military widows and veterans who had previously received little relief from the government. The BPC’s mandate was to “…determine disability pensions solely on the basis of evidence provided by medical examiners,” and reward a monetary amount based on the severity of the injury or illness (for veterans) or the number of dependents the deceased soldier was responsible for (commonly for widows, children or elderly parents), to compensate for the soldier’s lack of income to the home.[xi] A complication that quickly presented itself in the evaluation of soldier ailments was whether or not they were contracted while in service of the CEF, and the extent to which service was related to the ailment. Pension applications were judged on the basis of whether or not the ailment was directly caused by or due to service. Private R.’s previous diagnosis of TB was challenged, yet he still struggled with serious respiratory distress that he believed had been aggravated by his overseas service with the CEF. However, as the illness was not deemed as being a direct result of his service, he was granted a meagre pension for a hernia, a condition that was more plausibly a direct result of his service.[xii] Private R. died by suicide in January 1919. A civilian jury ruled that his “death was self-inflicted whilst temporarily insane through brooding over his physical condition.”[xiii] In the event of the death of a veteran, the family could be eligible for a pension if that death was due to wartime service. After his death, the BPC argued that the circumstances surrounding Private R.’s death were not in any relation to his service within the CEF.[xiv] This kind of ruling could impact a dependent’s eligibly for a pension, under the guidelines of the Pension Act.

Squadron “C” [1st Canadian Mounted Rifle Battalion, CEF], December 1914-June 1915, Accession Number: 1971-318 NPC, Box: RV9 282/X3, LAC.

Desmond Morton explains that soldiers and family members took matters into their own hands when pensions were denied. Morton states, “Was it reasonable, veterans demanded, that men who had been medically examined at enlistment and afterwards and passed as fit, suddenly lost their pensions because their severe disabilities were blamed on pre-enlistment conditions?”[xv] In Private R.’s case, this becomes even more poignant when Private R.’s father wrote to the Board of Pension Commissioners to ask why his son was discharged as medically unfit when he had been healthy all his life prior to service. His father wrote, “When he left Folkstone, to go to France, in the autumn of 1915, he weighed 13 stone and was only 20 years of age. He was as good a specimen of manhood as one could wish to see. If he were not physically fit why did the Canadian army doctors pass him for active service?” His father also expressly stated that despite the official ruling that Private R.’s death was not due to service, he felt it was the Army’s fault that his son became sick and died, further writing, “If my son had not joined the army, he would still be alive…he died in January 1919, he weighed 7 stone. I submit this is clear evidence of the result of his joining the army.”[xvi]

It is clear from this case study of Pte. R. that not all deaths were as easily attributable to the war as deaths in battle. Soldiers’ personnel and pension files contain a vast array of perspectives and storylines, in this case, a veterans’ struggle with illness in the aftermath of war and a father’s push to have his son’s death recognized as a war death. A question that arises when examining the “attributability” of soldier deaths is: what can we learn about Canadian society from pension officials attempts to disentangle the complex relationship between military service and death? These stories are a part of a larger history of veterans’ and their families’ struggle in the post-war period. There is much exploration yet to be done to understand the history of those members of Canada’s fighting forces who have been relegated to the fringes of historical memory based on the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

[i] Tim Cook and William Stewart, “War Losses (Canada) | International Encyclopedia of the First World War (WW1),” August 10, 2017, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/war_losses_canada.

[ii] Alexander Watson and Patrick Porter, “Bereaved and Aggrieved: Combat Motivation and the Ideology of Sacrifice in the First World War,” Historical Research 83, no. 219 (February 2010): 146–64, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2281.2008.00473.x.

[iii] Jonathan Franklin William Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (UBC Press, 1997).

[iv] Vance, 28.

[v] Edward H. Wigney, The C.E.F. Roll of Honour: Members and Former Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Who Died as a Result of Service in the Great War, 1914-1919 (Ottawa, Ont: E. Ursual, 1996). Wigney’s book, which gives the name, date of death, and cause of death for Canadian soldiers of the First World War, was created using information compiled from the Canadian Book of Remembrance and grave registers from the CWGC. Each soldier who died from or as a result of service is listed in the book. Among all recorded deaths, Wigney’s book is the biggest recording of Canadian soldier deaths due to war. I would like to thank Georgia Gingrich for transcribing these deaths as part of this project last summer.  

[vi] Personnel Records from Library and Archives Canada were examined for the official stance on the cause of death. Pension files, from the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies were also consulted as the correspondence for the approval or denial of a pension, and also contained information on the cause of death. Not all soldiers, or their families applied for pensions, and at the time of record linkage, 40 files were consulted.

[vii] Library and Archives of Canada (hereafter LAC), Service File, Bertram R., Canadian Expeditionary Force (hereafter CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8585 – 58, p. 6, 17, 29, 33, 65.

[viii] Kandace Bogaert, “Dealing with the Wounded: The Evolution of Care on the Home Front to 1919,” in Canada 1919: A Nation Shaped by War, eds. Tim Cook and J.L. Granatstein (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020), 119.

[ix] Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (hereafter LCMSDS), Pension File, Pte. Bertram R., File 1584-B-1, Reel 269, p.73.

[x] The “rest cure” was the preferred course of treatment regarding tuberculosis, although new procedures were being practiced. See Katherine McCuaig, “Tuberculosis and the Great War,” in The Weariness, the Fever, and the Fret: The Campaign against Tuberculosis in Canada, 1900-1950 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999), 43.

[xi] Desmond Morton, “Homecomings,” in Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 145-148.

[xii] Medical examinations completed on behalf of the BPC in 1917 and 1918 demonstrate that Private R. had a hernia and “Slight broncho-vesicular breathing right upper lobe.” See LCMSDS, Pension File, Pte. Bertram R., p. 14, 31. A precis sent to the BPC summarizes Private R.’s medical history and subsequent pension awards. See LCMSDS, Pension File, Pte. Bertram R., p. 65.

[xiii] See LCMSDS, Pension File, Pte. Bertram R., p. 34.

[xiv] LCMSDS, Pension File, Pte. Bertram R., p, 70.

[xv] Morton, “Homecomings,” 153.

[xvi] LCMSDS, Pension File, Pte. Bertram R., p. 74.