“An Exemplary, Fine Gentleman” Defying the Odds: Arthur Roy Baxter, Veteran of World War I
Part III: Injury and Life After the War
by Michael Saad
This is the conclusion in a series of posts exploring the life of Great War veteran, Arthur Roy Baxter. See also Part I and Part II.
The Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge would represent the coming of age of the Canadian Corps. Arthur was one of the over 7,000 Canadian soldiers wounded at Vimy. At Boulogne, Arthur was assessed by Canadian doctors who opened up his wound, removed several pieces of debris, then drained it. Recognizing the severity of the damage, Arthur was promptly sent to the New End Military Hospital in Hampstead, where he would remain for 13 weeks. His patella and joints completely destroyed from the shrapnel blast, Arthur’s injury was evaluated on a daily basis. Finally, on May 20th, with gangrene appearing at the wound site, sepsis had set in and Arthur was required to have his left leg amputated just above his knee. Unfortunately, the wound didn’t completely heal, further infection set in, and more tissue was removed up the leg in a second amputation six weeks later, leaving Arthur with a 5½ inch stump below the great trochanter of his femur.
Arthur was one of 3,461 Canadians to have lost a limb during the war and post-amputation care was still a limited medical science in the early twenthieth-century. The remainder of 1917 saw Arthur being shuffled to several hospitals in the UK, where frequent fluid discharge from the injury, particularly from a sinus that festered along the scar line at his stump, was his doctors’ foremost concern. Fortunately for Arthur, the two-stage amputation he received was far less traumatic than the typical ‘guillotine’ method done on the field. He would have likely experienced ‘phantom pain,’ but no mention other than “general tenderness” or “slight pain” were listed in his service medical records, an oversight not uncommon in most Western amputee war records[i]. By October of 1917, the wound had reopened and needed to be drained for a second surgery. Following four surgeries – two for amputation, and two for drainage – together with six months of physiotherapy and a prognosis of having to adjust to life without a limb, Arthur was “invalidated to Canada” as “medically unfit” in November 1917 and formally discharged from the Canadian Forces in May 1918[ii].
Arriving home, Arthur faced an uncertain future. Like all WWI veterans, he would not return from the Great War the same young man he was when he left for the front. Upon returning to Canada, he was sent to Toronto General Hospital to begin the process of being fitted with an artificial leg. Unfortunately, the demand for artificial limbs skyrocketed as a result of the war, and the science of replacing limbs was still crude at best, an area that rapidly developed in response to these Great War veterans’ needs[iii]. Arthur was fitted with a simple wooden prosthetic which, when covered by pants, would aesthetically mimic a normal leg but offered very limited mobility. The leg also had to be custom fitted and time was needed for Arthur to get accustomed to it, part of the reason for his extended stay in Toronto. From there, Arthur was sent back to his home to Digby and required to report to the newly opened Camp Hill Veterans’ Hospital in Halifax for regular adjustments.
Like many wounded veterans, Arthur found himself in a great period of uncertainty about his future, a festering sense of disillusionment at the carnage he saw in Ypres and Vimy and a profound guilt at having survived when hundreds of men he knew did not. Since his twice-widowed father was now providing for his third family, Arthur was eager to obtain employment and support himself, something that had been encouraged by the Government of Canada for all veterans. Arthur’s service bore a special place in his father’s heart – George Baxter had a note published in the Digby newspaper about Arthur’s injury, reporting that his son lost his leg in service, with the hope “he will be able to return home in the autumn,” and it is likely that Arthur sought to uphold his father’s esteem for him. [iv] Securing a job with an artificial leg was challenging enough, but in Canada’s struggling economy, hindered by a federal government now plagued by massive debt, the challenge became monumental. With only his wartime training to fall back on, Arthur’s discharge forms list “machinist” as his only special qualification for civil life. Indeed, Arthur did receive training in motor mechanics during the war, but his skills had been limited to army machinery. That left fishing as the only other vocation he had experience, but despite a successful year for the Nova Scotian fishing industry in 1919, there were no opportunities for Arthur given his disability, and there was no ready demand for excess labour.[v] This was a common problem in many industries across the country as Canada began the transition to a post-war economy, where normally available jobs for veterans had been filled by experienced women and established, specialized workers.
Having qualified for a pension from the government of Canada, Arthur, as a Private, should have received a maximum of $480 per year, but due to complicated and callous government policies regarding pensionable earnings for veterans, Arthur would have received only 60% of that, on account of having only lost one leg as opposed to both. With that amount reduced to only 40% in future years, a process designed to motivate ‘able-bodied’ veterans to become self-sufficient, it was clear that he would have to make ends meet on his own.[vi] Determined, he found work as a carpenter and custodian for the Department of National Defense, a career that saw him work at Cornwallis Training Base in the 1940s, where he remained until his retirement in the late 1960s.
As a young soldier seriously wounded in the bloody fighting at Mount Sorrel and Vimy Ridge, Arthur experienced some of the worst conditions that the Great War had to offer. Having seen friends and colleagues shot, maimed, and killed, and to return from the Front somewhat of a lost sheep one might wonder if he experienced some form of shellshock (or PTSD in contemporary terms). Arthur never talked about the war to his family, and they never heard him speak of it, but scores of other wounded veterans of the war, disabled and gas-ridden like Arthur suffered from psychological trauma. While the exact statistics for former soldiers who committed suicide and/or suffered from common social ills such as alcoholism or depression are unknown, [vii] many regimental associations such as the Royal Canadian Legions noted drastic increases in the number of Great War veterans and pensioners dying in the 1920s and 30s, while the sight of homeless, disabled veterans panhandling on the streets was not uncommon in the majority of Canadian cities.[viii] PTSD was not recognized until after the Vietnam War, and symptoms were too frequently dismissed by medical, military, and government officials of the day. Of course, these attitudes were not only commonplace amongst the society at large, but amongst the surviving soldiers themselves. Shell shock was seen as an astronomical expense for Canadian coffers to compensate, and pension boards were not mandated to consider any diagnosis or medical assessment of it in their pension allotments for veterans who applied. Very few military medical records make mention of shell shock unless it was truly debilitating. Virtually all of Arthur’s surviving relatives today have no memory or knowledge of psychological turmoil in Arthur’s personality or past – all the memories of the man describe him as a humble, kind, loving, and generous family man.
How could Arthur Baxter, unlike so many other disabled First World War veterans, live a respectful, fulfilling, and established life in the aftermath of a war that severely affected his breathing and left him with an artificial leg? To be fair, there were many other soldiers whose families could claim the same. For Arthur Baxter, however, the answer to his perseverance was clear: through a principled commitment to family, to living a purposeful life, and to holding true to what would become his evolving Christian faith, Arthur was able to inspire and establish fond memories in the minds of members of his family who hold him dear.
Still a youthful young man, Arthur frequented the teahouses and cafes of Digby and area upon his return home. No bars existed in the fishing and timber community at the time, as the women’s temperance movement had been very active throughout Canada during the war era. Having started smoking on the Western Front, Arthur, admittedly against his better judgement given the gas he encountered at Mount Sorrel, resumed the habit and went out with his friends in the afternoon to avoid his father catching him. It was at one such teahouse that a 21-year old Arthur set his eyes on a waitress, 19-year old Ella Mae Porter, who had served his table. Whispering to his friend at the time, Arthur boldly proclaimed: “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Initially suspicious of Arthur as a wounded soldier, Ella hid her concerns, and she was enamored by his gentlemanly demeanor and sincere adoration. Brought up in a strict, religious household, Ella was committed to her faith, and was a member of the Baptist Temperance movement. Indeed, Ella’s staunch dedication to her Christianity was something Arthur had reservations about at the time. This is not surprising, since Canada’s soldiers were celebrated for having fought ‘for God and country,’ a rallying cry that for some veterans now seemed hollow, senseless, and unworthy of the carnage in which they had participated. In spite of that, Arthur’s persistent affections won out, earning not only Ella’s heart but compelling within him a deep Christian faith, that over the course of his life, provided an inner peace and humility that shaped his worldview. Even to that end, Arthur’s injury continued to be a concern, as many folks close to the Porter family warned Ella that she “shouldn’t marry a man with one leg, because then your children will be born with one leg.”
Married on January 8th, 1919 at the parsonage of the Baptist minister in Digby, Arthur and Ella enjoyed their honeymoon in Halifax. They had five children in six years, plus two more in the 1930s – all, of course, born with two legs. Working odd jobs as a farmhand, a telegrapher, and mechanic, Arthur also used his budding carpentry skills to earn income, making most of his own furniture by hand – a large end table he crafted remains a treasured heirloom in the family today. Arthur’s odd jobs, in addition to his burgeoning carpentry work, enabled the family purchase of farmland in Digby county near the town of Weymouth, where Arthur acquired a cow to supply the family with milk, a few chickens, and a pig. Priding himself in providing for his family, Arthur also tapped into the county market, selling some of his eggs, milk, dry goods, and candy off of his back porch to nearby villagers, who would otherwise have to travel by horseback to the nearest store in Weymouth. An avid hunter who certainly knew how to handle a gun, he regularly brought home wild game – mostly rabbits, the occasional deer, and one year even a moose – to supply his family with meat. Close to St. Mary’s Bay, he also fished off one of the Bay’s many wharves for mackerel, which he would dry and salt. Hunting and fishing became a vocation that he pursued with each of his four sons, teaching them to shoot, stalk, and skin wild game, a tradition that has been passed down the family line to Arthur’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.With family becoming the cornerstone of his life, Arthur’s calm and humble demeanor created fond memories for his children. At age 88, Arthur’s fifth oldest child, Fred, recalled Arthur “being the best father anyone could have.” A quiet, gentle man, Arthur recoiled from anger, violence, and hostility, so much so that Ella usually took on the role of disciplinarian for the family. Apart from giving them long, mild ‘lectures’ for misbehavior, Arthur never yelled or spanked his children. Respecting his wife’s anti-drinking stance, Arthur rarely touched alcohol, sneaking only the occasional bottle of beer at select family functions. A humble church man, Arthur’s only ‘cuss’ words were the occasional “by gum” or “dog gone it,” no doubt a reflection of his growing faith. Arthur read his Bible on Sunday afternoons, when he would allow his youngest daughter, Marilyn, to brush his hair. “Often I would put him to sleep,” recalls Marilyn fondly today. Like many Canadians, Arthur developed an interest in, and later love of, ice hockey, frequently heading down to outdoor rinks in Digby to watch the local team, the Digby Ravens. Though he himself couldn’t play due to his disability, Arthur purchased a Marconi Cabinet Radio in the late 1930s, one of the first families in the county to have one, and promptly used it to invite friends or family over to listen to Foster Hewitt and Hockey-Night-in-Canada Radio broadcasts. After the game, the Baxters would host these same guests for coffee and games of crokinole, canasta, and euchre that lasted well into the late night hours – a cherished memory for the younger Baxter children, who sometimes got to stay up late to play, even though the expectation to be in church the next morning never wavered.
Perhaps the most difficult time for Arthur and Ella was the early 1940s, when Canada was once again called to war – three of their sons followed in their father’s footsteps to fight the Nazis in Europe, all of them part of the Royal Canadian Airforce. The result was many anxious days and nights for the Baxters, awaiting news about the fate of their sons. Arthur himself was quite disillusioned with the onset of a Second World War with Nazi Germany so soon after the First, with his own sacrifices a daily reminder that his participation in the “War to End All Wars” had been futile. Fortunately, all three sons survived the war, and the family moved to Deep Brook in the Annapolis Valley after Arthur started a new career at Cornwallis Naval Base. Like many WWI veterans who had survived to see the Second World War, Arthur remained quiet, refusing to talk about his experiences, wanting only to focus on the here-and-now. Several of Arthur’s surviving children, themselves in their 80s and 90s today, openly admit that they never heard their father talk about the war. Arthur’s only apparent outlet was Ella’s younger brother, Darrell Porter, himself a veteran of the Normandy Invasion of 1944. On occasion, the two men would sneak off hunting or sit in the living room in private and discuss world events, with hinting references of their war stories. For Arthur, the focus first and foremost was on his family, and talk of the war delved into a past that, for their purposes, didn’t need to be brought up. Himself now deceased, Darrell Porter maintained to the end that Arthur was the “finest gentlemen a person could ever know.”
With the advocacy of post war groups like the War Amps, advances in prosthetics in the late 1950s saw Arthur obtain subtle improvements to his artificial leg, finally resulting in Arthur discarding his cumbersome, wooden model for a more versatile, aluminum one – a version made affordable to veterans, and which came with a bendable knee joint. On occasion, Arthur’s leg would squeak or clunk, fascinating his grandchildren. When they asked what caused the sound, Arthur would have them stick their fingers into the hollow part of the knee joint, then tell them “It’s the mice that live in there.[ix]”
It was in the 1960s that Arthur began openly suffering from emphysema, an ailment that he insisted was caused by the poison gas he encountered at Sanctuary Wood. He had come to accept the fact that his smoking hadn’t helped his condition, and was forced to finally quit in the late 1960s, even forbidding his youngest daughter Marilyn from smoking. He remained a friendly and amicable family man right to the day of his passing on February 14th, 1974. Widowed for 22 years, Ella lived quietly with their oldest daughter Audrey, then moved to the Tideview Terrace, where she passed away on October 27th, 1996. Today, Arthur’s two military medals, the standard British War Medal and the Victory Service Medal for service in WWI, hang in the Digby Legion, and he rests in South Range Cemetery, just outside of Digby.A life impacted and shaped by the Great War, a conflict that destroyed so many, including many who survived it scathed and anguished, Arthur Baxter defied the odds, facing his war injuries with the determination to overcome, and a faith firmly embedded in his family. Today, his legacy is celebrated by an immediate family of over 20 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. With Canada now at the centennial mark of our country’s contributions in the First World War, which in 2017 included the 100th anniversary of the victory at Vimy Ridge, Arthur’s descendants have reason to honor their grand patriarch, and the Canadian Corps with whom he served.
The author wishes to thank Gordon & Marilyn Brown, Roger Mullen, and Bruce MacDonald for their invaluable help & assistance in writing this article.
[i] Sam Wong, “WW1 Surgeons Could Do Little For Amputees’ Pain,” Imperial College London, (November 2014). Available at: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_6-11-2014-14-8-7
[ii] Preceding of Medical Board (Army Form 179), “Private Arthur Baxter,” Major Jr. Corston Signing Officer. The medical board wrote that Arthur’s injury would render him ‘permanently unfit for military service.”
[iii] Sharon Kirkey, “After the War: Advances in Prosthetic Limbs Have Come a Long Way Since the War,” Postmedia News, (July 2014). Available at: http://ww1.canada.com/after-the-war/advances-in-prosthetic-limbs-have-come-a-long-way-since-the-great-war
[iv] Announcements, Digby Courier Newspaper, June 1917.
[v] Government of Canada, Fifty Third Annual Report of the Fisheries Branch, Department of the Naval Service, 1919, Sessional Paper No. 40, pg. 25.
[vi] Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918 (Penguin Canada, 2008), pg. 604-605.
[vii] Jonathan Scotland, “Soldier Suicide After the Great War: A First Look,” Active History.ca, (March 2014). Available at: http://activehistory.ca/2014/03/soldier-suicide-after-the-great-war-a-first-look/
[viii] Cook, Shock Troops, pgs. 606-607.
[ix] Interview with Mrs. Marilyn Brown (Daughter of Arthur Roy Baxter), April 2014