Hockey, War, and Military Fitness by Nic Clarke

On 16 March, 2011 Vancouver Canucks face-off specialist Manny Malhotra was hit in the left eye by a puck during a game against the Colorado Avalanche. The resulting injury was considered very serious by many observers, with some believing it to be career ending. As such, Malhotra’s return to the ice on for the second game of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Final on June 4, 2011 was deemed a miracle by fans and commentators alike.

I followed Malhotra’s story with great interest, both because I am an avid Canucks fan, and because in it I hear echoes of a Canadian hockey star that I have spent considerable time researching: Francis “Frank” McGee, otherwise known as “One-eyed Frank McGee” (1882-1916). Like Malhotra, McGee suffered a serious injury to his left eye after receiving a puck to the face during a hockey game on 21 March 1900. Also like Malhotra, McGee returned from his potentially career-ending injury. In fact, after he returned to the ice in 1903 McGee became Canada’s first hockey superstar.

McGee is not only of interest to me because of his indubitable prowess on the ice, but also because of his military career. The visual impairment resulting from McGee’s eye injury should have caused him to have been rejected for service during the Great War. Yet, on 9 November 1914 he successfully gained a lieutenant’s commission in the 21st Canadian Infantry Battalion. Shipped to France in 1915, he was killed by heavy shellfire near the Somme’s infamous Sugar Factory on 16 September 1916.

Tradition states that the 32-year-old McGee passed his medical examination by employing a ruse to mask his visual impairment. When asked by his medical examiner to cover an eye and read the chart placed before him, McGee allegedly placed his hand over his damaged left eye and completed the task. When requested to change eyes, McGee switched hands rather than eyes. By doing so, the story continues, McGee fooled his examiner into believing he possessed perfect sight in both eyes. As humorous as this vignette is, I do not believe this was the case. McGee, as I have already noted, was a hockey superstar, and there is considerable evidence to indicate that the senior officers of the 21st Battalion knew who he was. If the senior officers of the unit knew McGee’s identity, then they also knew of his impairment. Indeed rather than a because of a ruse, evidence suggests that McGee was accepted into the battalion because his domination of the oft-blood splattered rink – which was physical as it was practiced – caused the military authorities to overlook his disqualifying impairment. McGee was, in a nutshell, passed fit to fight because he had proven his mettle as a warrior on the ice.

As such McGee’s enlistment sheds light on subjectivities that existed within Canadian society regarding who was considered fit to fight during the Great War. Civilian perceptions of health and military fitness – which, in many cases, were founded on vastly differing material realities than those of the military authorities – sometimes collided violently with military regulations as they intersected in the bodies of Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) recruits. While these violent collisions often resulted in angry letters to a local newspaper criticising the “old-womanish regulations” that had debarred a six-foot tall “aspirant to the V.C.”, in some cases they did lead to men – such as McGee – being passed in spite of their disqualifying impairment. Of course other factors – including inexperience, nepotism, overwork, and skulduggery – also played their part in causing medical examiners to pass men with disqualifying impairments as fit to don the khaki. However, we should not always look to these factors. The oft-cited desire to fill the ranks come what may, for example, holds little water when examined in the light of 1914-1915. For most of this period the CEF enjoyed surfeit of recruits. Indeed, some contemporaries argued – with some justification – that medical examiners actively looked for reasons to turn individuals away. Likewise, by 1916 recruiting regulations regarding minimum physical standards for service were in almost constant flux. Not only had the standards required for combat infantry dropped precipitously, but also there were numerous different standards for rear echelon personnel. As result, there was considerable confusion regarding who was fit to serve, let alone fight.

Such observations do not deny the fact that men who were obviously – even to the most untrained of eyes – unfit to fight were passed fit to serve in the trenches. Rather, they indicate that the ways in which the Canadian military authorities, medical professionals, and civilians more generally understood military fitness was much more complex than is normally recognised. The construction of who was and was not fit to shoulder a rifle was not fixed, rather it was malleable and subject to shifts dependent on the position of observer.

Nic Clarke is a sessional instructor at both the Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Ottawa, and is a Research Associate at LCMSDS.

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