History of Medicine

How First World War veterans’ voices are obscured in their official records – and why it matters

The First World War veterans’ pension files being digitized at the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, along with the corresponding service files at the Library and Archives of Canada, are an unparalleled source of information on veterans’ lives. When I started my AMS funded post-doc in January of 2017, one of my goals was to reconstruct veterans’ narratives of their experiences with psychiatric illnesses. I was surprised to find that when it came to psychiatric patients released from military hospitals, veterans’ files often had very few personal statements like the ones I was hoping to find. The reasons behind this phenomenon underscore the importance of two of AMS’ core initiatives – the need for compassionate care, and understanding the history of medicine.

After reviewing many of these files, the reason veterans’ voices were not prominent within their files became apparent. Military officials prioritized a particular voice – that of medical authority. As J.L Biggar (1919: 81-82) recommended to medical examiners for the Board of Pension Commissioners (BPC):

“…every physician is accustomed to assay the value of the patient’s complaints, of his symptoms as he tells about them. Certain of these one accepts as being actual and truthful. Others one knows to be grossly exaggerated and of such a character that no importance should be attributed to them…It is suggested that this difficulty might be overcome by a statement to the effect that he ‘suffers’ from those symptoms of the existence of which the Examiner is sure, and he ‘complains of’ or ‘he states that he has,’ those symptoms of the existence of which the Examiner is doubtful.”

This quote reveals the little regard the Assistant Medical Director of the BPC had for veterans’ statements about their illness and symptoms. The BPC were interested in symptoms that could be definitively measured and quantified. This made dealing with psychiatric illness all the more difficult. A case study helps to illustrate how this disconnect between veterans’ illness narratives and the BPC’s policy worked in practice.

Cpl George B. served with the 24th Canadian Infantry Battalion, the Victoria Rifles, in France from October 1916. He was wounded during the Battle for Hill 70, and was hospitalized several times for a nervous condition. In November of 1918, medical officer Capt E. Lewis, summarized George’s condition, writing, “He feels ‘nervous’. Complains of pain in the precordium which he describes as burning – it is not constant…He feels in the evening as if there were ‘a great strain on his nerves and heart.’ At such times he says quite frankly that he contemplates self destruction.” In 1919, Capt V.A Worsley, one of the medical officers at Ontario Military Hospital at Cobourg wrote after reviewing George’s case files, “In my opinion the symptoms complained are simply exaggerated as such would be expected from a neurasthenic.”

In a single authoritative sentence, a veteran’s suffering could be dismissed and delegitimized. The multiple layers of tragedy in this particular example were only revealed after George committed suicide in 1922. The BPC discovered that his doctor had diagnosed him with a fatal heart condition, the symptoms of which he had complained of in the military, along with his suffering and suicidal ideation. In veterans’ military records, what is absent can be just as revealing as what is present. The systematic dismissal of veterans’ illness narratives reveals whose voices the BPC valued, and whose they did not.

Photograph of the former Ontario Military Hospital at Cobourg, Ontario, where Cpl George B. was treated after the war. Many returning veterans of the First World War, diagnosed as “mental cases” were treated here after returning from overseas. Taken by K. Bogaert 2016.

About the author

Kandace Bogaert
  • AffiliationWilfrid Laurier University

Kandace is a 2016 History of Medicine Post-doctoral Fellow.

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