In this poignant contribution to War Stories:A Dawson Peace Project, Louise Arsenault reminds us of the psychological cost of war in this story of a grandfather she never knew—one of the lucky ones who survived the battle of Vimy Ridge.
I never knew my mother’s father because he died in the Veteran’s Hospital in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, a few months before I was born. He spent twenty-seven long years incarcerated there, a victim of shell shock from WWI.
I never knew my grandfather but I knew of him. He was in the famous “Van Doos” (Vingt-Douze) Regiment out of La Citadelle in Quebec City and fought at the battle of Vimy Ridge. He was one of the lucky ones to come home in one piece or so they thought. What he left behind were some grainy photographs of a handsome man in uniform with an aqualine profile, a few medals and a battered Amati violin. By all accounts he was a gentle educated man who liked to play classical music on the piano as well as the violin.
During “The Great War”, there was no treatment for what today would be called PTSD, except some rest and comfort so that one could be “heartened” and then sent back to the frontline to do battle again. Shell shock victims were considered weak of character and could even be executed for cowardice. The “old vets”, some just young teenagers, lived in muddy dank trenches for months at a time with rats for company and under the rain of constant bombardments. Was it any wonder that good men fell prey to the symptoms of shell shock: the dissociation, the long stares into space, the rattled nerves?
My grandfather Paul-Emile was francophone and from a well-to-do family of lawyers and judges from Quebec city. One summer, after returning from the war, he visited the town of Perce Rock and met Evelyn Meagher, my grandmother, a tall Black Irish beauty who played the piano as well. She didn’t speak French fluently and his English needed a lot of improvement but they had each other and they had their music. He seemed normal on all counts with a few troublesome bouts of “nervousness”, a hero returned from the war, a survivor of Vimy Ridge. His family never told my grandmother the full story. They made their home in Perce and had three children my mother, her brother Jerry, known as Sonny, and my aunt Rosalyn.
My grandfather struggled with his “condition” and over time grew worse, bordering on dementia. My mother was the eldest and she recalls at the age of five, men in coats coming for her father and fitting him in a straightjacket with her brother and little sister looking on. He never came back. I picture my mother as a child looking at her father disappearing into the distance, bound in white, a small dot on the horizon. I imagine how she must have waited eagerly by the screen door for his return, her grey green eyes all lit up.
My mother did see him once again. She recalls visiting him in the Vet’s Hospital when she was ten and how he bowed to my grandmother and called her by the wrong name. He thought her name was Mrs. Robertson. He not only didn’t recognize his wife but his daughter as well. They were strangers to him. My grandparents were Catholic and my grandmother could not get a divorce so as a twenty-seven year-old woman she was left to make a living as a single parent and bring up three small children. The Depression was right around the corner. But she survived, taking over my grandfather’s job as a land surveyor for the government. She only remarried after my grandfather’s death.
Oddly enough his son Jerry, known as Sonny, my mother’s younger brother, joined the Merchant Marines and fought in WWII and recently ended his days at the Veteran’s Home in Ste-Anne’s as well. He often told us of the time he was fighting the Germans and almost perished at sea but was saved because he was an experienced rower, having grown up on the coast. Some other marines in a boat asked him if he could row worth a damn and of course he jumped aboard and as others perished in the rough seas, he rowed to safety.
When I attended my uncle’s funeral last summer at the Last Post, I finally saw my grandfather’s grave for the first time. It was a small plaque in the ground commemorating him as a WWI soldier. It was a stone’s throw away from my uncle’s grave. A nephew sang an Irish lament for Sonny and then we walked away in the golden sun of a July afternoon. I imagine no one sang at my grandfather Paul-Emile’s funeral but as we walked away, I pictured myself in a white billowing dress playing a classical tune on his old Amati violin and giving him a fitting send-off.
English, Dawson College