By Eric Story

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, Canadians began the process of coming to terms with the death and destruction the past conflict had wreaked on the young Dominion. According to historian Jonathan Vance, the public constructed a memory of the war that “endeavoured to provide consolation.”[1] They memorialized fallen soldiers with monuments, statues, honour rolls, and historical plaques to ensure that their memory remained intact. At least one of the pension records here at LCMSDS, however, suggests that this consolatory memory greatly disillusioned one veteran. His name was Private Charles Wood.

War memorial in City Park in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Private Wood enlisted early in the war. He signed up in November 1914 at Kingston, Ontario with the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion. By the next fall, Wood had been transferred to the 21st Battalion and arrived in France. His stay, however, would not be for long. On New Year’s Eve 1915, Wood was evacuated from the front, after a mental breakdown during a bombardment. He was eventually moved to an English military hospital in June 1916 and, subsequently, to the Hotel Dieu in Kingston in 1917. He was finally discharged in November 1917.    

Wood did not waste time after his discharge. Even before November, he began vocational training at Queen’s Military Hospital in Kingston. Vocational training was one of the programmes the federal government offered returning veterans. It offered a liberal approach to veteran rehabilitation, assuming that the ex-soldier, upon completing his training, would be able to achieve economic independence and self-sufficiency. For Wood, this philosophy appeared to work, as, after completing his training, he was hired as a clerk at the post office in Kingston. He would remain in that position until 1926.

A patient at the Ogden Military Convalescent Hospital shows off a vegetable harvest cultivated during agricultural vocational training for returned veterans. Source: Hartland-Molson Library Collection PER HC 115 R436, Canadian War Museum.

His wife complained of his rather “brutal” treatment, particularly when she was pregnant. His frustration with her stemmed from the fact that she refused to live with him, instead choosing to reside in her mother’s home. Tensions only heightened when he discovered that each of his wife’s six brothers had dodged service in the army. By 1921, Wood and his wife were separated, and soon after that, his child passed away, as did Wood’s father. Wood remained in Kingston for several more years until 1928, when he decided to move to Jamaica. By 1928, he had lost nearly everything––his job and his family.

Wood also married upon returning home. In 1918, he wed Ethel Wood Saunders, and in winter 1920, had a child with her. On the surface, Wood was adjusting well to his time in the war. He may have been diagnosed with neurasthenia while fighting overseas, which eventually led to his discharge, but he had found a steady job and was married with a child two years after the conclusion of the Great War. Upon closer inspection, Wood’s life was unravelling at the seams.

He would remain in Jamaica for over a year until he exhausted his funds. Returning home to Kingston in spring 1929, he found no work. In 1930, he was forced to ask for a reinstatement of his pension, as he had no income. When he appeared in a doctor’s office in 1931, his shoes were badly worn, his clothes greatly disheveled, and he stated that he was “resting anywhere the day’s end would find him.” For over a decade, Wood had been suffering. These struggles likely brought on what his doctor described as a “crude philosophy” of Bolshevism. When argument followed with his doctor, Wood said to him, you “would not understand [me] any more than any other person in Ottawa, seeing that this [i]s a high-salaried town ­– blind to the fact that the rest of the country [i]s in a terrible state and seething with revolutionary intention.” Lack of employment prospects in the 1930s saw the rise of labour unrest in many parts of Canada. Notions of class warfare were creeping into the minds of many working-class citizens, including Wood’s.

Perhaps most significant, however, in 1931, Wood refers to the Great War as being “pervaded with rottenness, blood-shed and corruption.” This consolatory memory of the war, mentioned at the beginning of this entry, had been corrupted by Wood’s experiences in the 1920s. The Great Depression had crushed any last hope that the war would usher in a period of prosperity. With his family gone, his money dried up, and his employment prospects slim, Wood felt his military service had been for none.

[1] Jonathan Vance, “Remembering Armageddon,” in Canada and the First World War: Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown, ed. by David Mackenzie (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005),411.