The ripple effect of shell shock
I travelled to Vimy Ridge to honour my grandfather and the man he could have been, Bruce Wood writes
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was no lover of war, I was someone who, for a long time, refused to wear a poppy on Nov. 11. But earlier this year, I was one of the many Canadians who made the pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge for the 100th anniversary of that battle.
I was there to honour my grandfather – who did not die at Vimy, but who suffered injury serious enough to change the course of his own life, my father's life and my own. The horror was, in some way, felt for generations after.
Wilfred William Wood was 16 when he enlisted in 1916. Bill grew up on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, he knew little of cities, armies and war, but he loved horses, a good cigar and had a mischievous sense of humour. He was transferred into the 5th Battalion out of Saskatchewan. The 5th was part of the 1st division at Vimy Ridge – held in reserve for the second wave to recapture Farbus Wood. Two days later, he was in an army hospital with a head wound. Eventually, he was sent back out to fight only to become shot in the hip and arm. After this, he was only deemed capable of returning to duty in a labour battalion, so he finished the war rebuilding roads and taking care of horses. To add life-threatening insult to his injuries, Bill came down with Spanish flu before he could be discharged and was kept in France until late 1919, a year after the war had ended.
Sgt. Wood – Bill – came home at the age of 19, a much-changed man.
He returned to Port Arthur, Ont., where his family lived, but he struggled to settle down. Bill was plagued by seizures, possibly related to his head wound or a lasting effect of shell shock. He later moved to Winnipeg to start again and he met and married my grandmother, Lil. They had one child – my father, Bud. Years later, they followed Bud to Saint-Bruno, Que., to help take care of his sons, and their three grandchildren.
As a child, my brothers and I loved and feared Bill. He would impress us by manipulating the shrapnel left under his skin from one side of his body to the other. But he also had an angry look that could freeze his misbehaving grandsons in a second.
Bill was not able to hold sustained employment, but he could clear a Quebec driveway of six-feet of snow in record time or carry a load a long way. Once I watched as he hauled load after load of water from the local dairy without fatigue or complaint. Sometimes he would get confused and wander into the meat departments of grocery stores as though he worked there (his brothers ran a butcher shop in Port Arthur). The local butchers would kindly call out "Monsieur Dubois!" (mispronouncing his name) and gently escort him away from their work.
When my father died suddenly at the age of 34 of a brain aneurysm, it hit my grandparents hard. Bill never talked about the war or the death of his son, he never talked much at all. My family saw his grief, but we could not talk about our loss together.
He and Lil moved back to Winnipeg and Bill's seizures increased in frequency and severity, he was admitted to the veterans unit at Winnipeg's Deer Lodge Centre over and over again.
My Grandmother had raised my father without much help from my Grandfather. My father, in turn, struggled to parent his three sons. My mother has told me that Bud, my father, did not really know how to relate to his sons. He would talk about growing up with a father who was only present physically, not emotionally, and how he had been embarrassed to have a father who could not work.
When Bill died in 1979, I knew little about him or what he went through. My journey to understand him was first motivated by guilt but, as I learned more, it continued out of respect. My research led me to Ottawa's national archives, I delved into family documents and talked with Bills' last surviving brother, Len, in Thunder Bay, Ont., a month before he passed away. My grandfather suffered, yes, but he also loved a good cigar, a cold beer, les Canadiens, and admired cars, although he could not drive.
And that's why I travelled to Vimy Ridge earlier this year to mark the centenary. I listened to politicians and actors and watched biplanes roar overhead. The crowds were uncomfortably close that day and the weather was very warm. Security was tight and there were lots of rules about what you could bring with you.
I checked and checked again to make sure my items were allowed. It was important that I bring something that belonged to my grandfather. When I arrived at the ceremony, I unfolded his uniform jacket and lay it on my lap. It has stood the test of time well; the khaki only sporting a couple of small holes. I'd polished the brass Canada buttons and lapel pins and they shone in the sunlight. I also brought a picture of him, smiling and hopeful, just before enlistment, and war office telegrams sent to his family each time he was wounded.
I have two sons myself now and I have struggled to be a good father in the absence of any real models. Being present in their lives and staying healthy mentally and physically is important to break our family cycle of absent men in their boys' lives.
I tell my kids about their great grandfather – his sacrifice should be remembered. Surely, Bill did not know what he was about to encounter when he walked out of the woods of Ontario to enlist.
When my grandfather was alive, it was hard to be close to him. It was only years after his death that I came to understand that wearing the poppy can signify memory and loss rather than the glorification of war. I took my grandfather's jacket back to Vimy Ridge to honour the man that he was, and the man that he could have been.
Bruce Wood lives in Saskatoon.