A stranger came back
Fred Sanders, above, was 18 when he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1916, coming home as one of “the lucky ones” three years later. Growing up, all I knew was to be quiet around my grandfather’s brother – the old guy lived in a “home” and suffered from shell shock.
Then I happened upon a box of letters – he’d written to his family every Sunday – in which Fred came to life. My great uncle had left as an arrogant, self-absorbed teenager eager to fight the Germans, and then, as the months went by, been slammed by the reality, the horror.
He and his horse hauled an ammunition wagon for the Canadian 2nd Division through the mud at Passchendaele, then across France and Belgium to occupy Germany. After the war, he enrolled in the Canadian military’s Khaki University in England to upgrade his matriculation. While doing so, he contracted Spanish flu, but managed to survive that as well.
His shell shock was not immediately apparent when he arrived home, but he dropped out of engineering at U of T, and during the summers made a nuisance of himself at his father’s resort, Lakeview House, in Jackson’s Point, Ont.
My grandparents and their parents were very proper and concerned about their reputation – teetotalers, in fact, as my grandmother and great-grandmother were members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But Fred, introduced to the rum ration at Passchendaele, took comfort in alcohol, with anyone he could find who drank, and caused scenes at the hotel.
In 1932 he was institutionalized, but denied a military disability pension the following year because his dementia was deemed “not attributable to military service.” My family disagreed, and continued to argue that Fred suffered from shell shock, but his application to a soldiers’ hospital in London was also denied.
In 1939, he received shock treatment with an experimental drug (Metrazol), after which he was never the same.
Fred lived to be 89, clearly still suffering from post-traumatic stress – he was paranoid, anxious, obsessed, and had terrifying nightmares. Now my goal is to share his unfortunate story to remind us of what is sacrificed when we send young people off to war – and what happens when they return.
— Sandy Day, Toronto