Rid­dled by ma­chine-gun bul­lets dur­ing the First World War, my grand­fa­ther proved re­silient,

Vancouver Sun - - CITY - writes Dou­glas Todd.

Wounded Cana­di­ans take cover dur­ing the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in No­vem­ber 1917, one of the blood­i­est clashes fought by Cana­di­ans in the First World War and where writer Dou­glas Todd’s grand­fa­ther sur­vived a trio of gun­shot wounds.

“In Flan­ders fields the pop­pies blow. Be­tween the crosses, row on row.”

— By John McCrae,

First World War mil­i­tary doc­tor When I was about 11 years old, I re­mem­ber my grand­fa­ther pulling up his pant leg and show­ing me a bul­let wound in his calf. The scar was a jagged rust-red slash.

The mo­ment oc­curred be­cause my mother had urged me to ask my grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge Stan­ley Todd, about the First World War, which ended 100 years ago this Sun­day. Ap­par­ently, he never talked about it. So I took the youth­ful plunge.

Sit­ting in the bur­gundy arm­chair where he smoked his pipe and lis­tened to his three-footh­igh wooden-cab­i­net ra­dio, my grand­fa­ther said he had an­other wound on his hand and one higher up his thigh. I can’t re­mem­ber if he men­tioned his chest.

I found the idea of gun­shot wounds ex­cit­ing. It was all grist for a young boy who played “war” in the huge empty lot be­hind our house near 29th and Prince Al­bert Street in East Van­cou­ver.

We cre­ated makeshift ri­fles and even dug our own trenches, like sol­diers in the First and Sec­ond World Wars.

How­ever, like most young peo­ple I lacked a real sense of his­tory. So it’s taken much of my adult years to fathom what those First World War wounds must have re­ally meant for my grand­fa­ther — who from what I could see was a quiet, kind man who kept a veg­etable gar­den and pro­vided well for his fam­ily.

In re­cent years, I’ve ob­tained my grand­fa­ther’s First World War records, in­clud­ing the med­i­cal ac­count of his near-fa­tal wounds, which noted he coughed blood for 10 days straight. I had al­ways as­sumed he’d been struck by ri­fle fire; it’s taken me this long to re­al­ize he must have been ma­chine-gunned.

That seems the most log­i­cal way that at least three bul­lets would have pierced his body dur­ing one of the most night­mar­ish con­flicts in which Cana­dian sol­diers, or any oth­ers, have ever taken part: the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele — which ended 101 years ago, on Nov. 10, 1917.

The bloody con­flict oc­curred in the muddy fields of Flan­ders, Bel­gium, the re­gion of Ypres made leg­endary by On­tario sol­dier-physi­cian John McCrae in a poem that still in­spires many to wear pop­pies on Cana­dian and Bri­tish Re­mem­brance Days, plus Amer­i­can Memo­rial Day.

When I learned in el­e­men­tary school to mem­o­rize In Flan­ders Field, I never re­al­ized it was about the hell­hole where my grand­fa­ther was wounded.

His­to­ri­ans have called Pass­chen­daele “a Cana­dian Cal­vary.”

They have adopted cru­ci­fix­ion im­agery in a des­per­ate at­tempt to cap­ture the ter­ror and sac­ri­fice of the more than 4,000 Cana­di­ans who were killed and the 11,000 wounded in a twoweek pe­riod at Pass­chen­daele, not to men­tion those who made it through, likely with psy­cho­log­i­cal in­juries.

In Ot­tawa, the Cana­dian War Mu­seum de­scribes it as a “Bloody Vic­tory,” not­ing “The Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, fought in a bog of mud and un­buried corpses, stretched hu­man en­durance to the break­ing point.” It was also when Canada’s sol­diers earned the rep­u­ta­tion as in­cred­i­bly tough “shock” troops.

“Af­ter three months of fruit­less fight­ing and 200,000 Bri­tish and Al­lied ca­su­al­ties,” the mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion says Canada’s Ex­pe­di­tionary Force was brought in and “cap­tured the ridge in four bru­tal bat­tles.”


My grand­fa­ther’s or­deal has me think­ing about the na­ture of hu­man re­silience.

How can it be that a typ­i­cal farm boy from south­ern On­tario who sur­vived the re­lent­less over­head ar­tillery ex­plo­sions, the drown­ing mud, the bay­o­nets, the trenches, the dis­ease-spread­ing lice, the ma­chine guns and the corpse-eat­ing rats of the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele ac­tu­ally turned out OK?

Stan be­came a more than de­cent, pro­duc­tive, work­ing­class hus­band, fa­ther and grand­fa­ther. A man who would also, sev­eral years af­ter the war, write ten­der, stoic love let­ters to the woman he wished to be his wife, my Belfast-born grand­mother, May Ir­win McIl­roy.

“My sweet­est wish for this New Year / Is for your­self whom I love dear,” Stan wrote in a mar­riage pro­posal in 1923, which I re­cently dis­cov­ered. “That you will place your hand in mine / And to­gether face the tri­als of Time.”

How did Stan Todd — and thou­sands of Cana­dian men and women like him who have ex­pe­ri­enced and wit­nessed the ter­ror of this and other wars — con­tinue to live their lives as com­pas­sion­ate, con­tribut­ing hu­man be­ings? What can we learn from them to­day, when de­bate per­co­lates about whether North Amer­i­can cul­ture has be­come over-pro­tec­tive and even cod­dling ?

Stan was 23 on that fate­ful day of Nov. 6, 1917. It was the Cana­dian sol­diers’ third at­tack of the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, which Bri­tish and Al­lied forces had be­gun in July with­out the Cana­di­ans.

That morn­ing pro­vided the mo­ment, which his­tory books sug­gest would have been at about 6 a.m., that Stan’s Cana­dian reg­i­ment went over the top of their trenches and his body was torn apart by a Ger­man ma­chine gun, ca­pa­ble of spit­ting 400 bul­lets a minute.

Stan had been serv­ing with the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force in France since he was 21, in Canada’s 125th Bat­tal­ion, which be­came known in France and Bel­gium as the 8th Re­serve Bat­tal­ion. Like other Cana­dian pri­vates, Stan was paid $15 a month.

Be­fore sign­ing up in 1915, he’d served two years as a re­servist in the 25th Brant Dra­goons mili­tia, based in Brant­ford, Ont. Since he was only 19, he had been told that his first duty would be to board the “har­vest trains.”

So he ini­tially trav­elled to the Prairies, where he would join 25,000 other teenage Cana­dian men in pa­tri­ot­i­cally bring­ing in the fall har­vest.

He was among the many who didn’t wait to be drafted. Cana­dian con­scrip­tion wasn’t im­posed un­til the sum­mer of 1917, af­ter the Al­lies re­al­ized they were los­ing the war be­cause more men were be­ing killed or wounded than join­ing.

What ac­tu­ally hap­pened to my grand­fa­ther on the West­ern front?

His med­i­cal records are some­times hard to de­ci­pher, but in 1916, soon af­ter go­ing to France, he had to spend sev­eral weeks in hos­pi­tal for some­thing his records de­scribe as NYD SLT, which may have been army short­hand for “Not Yet Di­ag­nosed, Slight,” a eu­phemism for what was then called “nerves” and is now called post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD).

A year later, at Pass­chen­daele on Nov. 6, 2017, his records are clear in show­ing he suf­fered a GSW (gun­shot wound) to at least four places. His calf. His thigh. His left thumb. And his chest.

It had been a slaugh­ter. The War Mu­seum fea­tures a chill­ing panel quot­ing a Ger­man ma­chine-gun­ner in the First World War, ac­knowl­edg­ing what it was like to mow down Al­lied troops: “They went down by the hun­dreds. You didn’t need to aim, we just fired into them.”

When I sat be­side my grand­fa­ther in his Van­cou­ver home in the 1960s, I don’t re­mem­ber him say­ing that one ma­chine-gun bul­let barely missed his heart. But his records say the bul­let en­tered his flesh “four inches be­low left nip­ple.”

One inch higher and he would have been killed, I pre­sume. He would not have mar­ried, would not have fa­thered my aunt and fa­ther. In other words, one-inch higher and there would have been no Dou­glas Todd, nor his three sons and grand­daugh­ter, et cetera. I once wrote a poem about it.

My grand­fa­ther’s “chest-pen­e­trat­ing ” bul­let wound caused him to cough blood for 10 days. The in­juries be­came “sep­tic,” or in­fected, as gap­ing wounds did for so many men in the mud, mak­ing it the lead cause of countless deaths. Stan en­dured 143 days in hos­pi­tal.

His med­i­cal records also said he had “dys­p­nea,” or laboured breath­ing. He couldn’t walk far with­out feel­ing weak. He had a her­nia and stric­ture of his ure­thra. He be­came partly deaf and had ring­ing in his ear. And, as the records say, the left hand of the farmer’s son was of­ten numb and “un­able to grip,” there­fore he would be “un­able to milk a cow.”

And yet Stan got back to Canada, took the train to Van­cou­ver af­ter the fam­ily sold their farm near Bur­ford, Ont. (his fa­ther died in 1918), wrote love let­ters and worked hard enough as a B.C. log scaler and crew su­per­vi­sor to buy a house. I vaguely re­mem­ber see­ing him drink wine at fam­ily din­ners, but I still don’t know if he, like many vet­er­ans who have seen ac­tion, sub­con­sciously med­i­cated his pain with al­co­hol.

Stan also “sol­diered” on decades later af­ter his son, Harold, my fa­ther, him­self a Sec­ond World War vet­eran, suc­cumbed to schizophre­nia at age 27. Through it all I wit­nessed my grand­fa­ther main­tain an even keel, even if I, as a youth, de­tected sad­ness.

He pro­vided fi­nan­cially for many peo­ple. Each sum­mer and fall, be­fore he died in 1975, he gave us fresh car­rots, beans and ap­ples from his gar­den. On our Sun­day vis­its he was a good, trust­wor­thy man to be around.


Marvin West­wood, co-founder of the Vet­er­ans Tran­si­tion Pro­gram at the Univer­sity of B.C., says my un­pre­ten­tious grand­fa­ther, like many sol­diers, had been “highly tested.” But he must have been re­silient, as West­wood says, be­cause he never quit on life.

“(Stan) de­vel­oped the skills of courage, pa­tience, risk-tak­ing and per­se­ver­ance. Hero­ism is what he mod­elled when he was at home,” said West­wood, a coun­selling psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, af­ter hear­ing some of Stan’s his­tory. “He wasn’t of the teacup gen­er­a­tion, as I call it. He wasn’t over-pro­tected.”

With­out sen­sa­tion­al­iz­ing war, West­wood said, many peo­ple to­day could learn from my grand­fa­ther and countless or­di­nary sol­diers like him, in­clud­ing those who have suf­fered psy­cho­log­i­cal in­juries.

Though many men who have ex­pe­ri­enced mil­i­tary ac­tion could be cat­e­go­rized as phys­i­cally or psy­cho­log­i­cally “dis­abled,” and some might drink or be grumpy or have panic at­tacks, West­wood urges they be ad­mired for their strengths, the way they “en­gage the world and are still con­tribut­ing.”

All things be­ing equal, West­wood be­lieves ba­sic mil­i­tary train­ing can be a good ex­pe­ri­ence for many young men and women, al­though he cau­tions that ac­tu­ally go­ing to war can be de­struc­tive since it of­ten leads to trauma.

Peo­ple who go through ba­sic train­ing of­ten “get a good ex­pe­ri­ence of agency and self-con­fi­dence in the world. It can build lead­er­ship skills and pre­pare young peo­ple for life. Vet­er­ans can be very dis­ci­plined, reg­u­lated and ma­ture,” says West­wood.

The coun­selling psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor sug­gests that team sports, some­what like ba­sic train­ing, can also some­times in­cul­cate the val­ues of dis­ci­pline, team­work and the ideal that “no­body is left be­hind.”

The archetype of “the war­rior” can be a pos­i­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal ideal for both males and fe­males, West­wood says. “War­riors,” at their best, take on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­tect­ing oth­ers, with­out pre­tend­ing safety can be guar­an­teed.

Even in his love let­ters Stan rec­og­nized this hard re­al­ity — that as a po­ten­tial cou­ple, he and my grand­mother would need to be pre­pared to “to­gether face the tri­als of Time.” As West­wood says, war­riors rec­og­nize “suf­fer­ing is part of life. They’re not hot­house plants.”

Van­cou­ver clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dan Bilsker says it is not easy to com­pare the rel­a­tive re­silience of the First World War gen­er­a­tion with those who have come af­ter.

The things that cause stress then and now are dif­fer­ent. When one gen­er­a­tion faced the hor­ror of war, Bilsker says the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion strug­gles with the un­cer­tainty of part-time jobs, un­af­ford­able hous­ing and cli­mate change. A re­cent Aba­cus poll of 1,500 Cana­di­ans found 41 per cent iden­ti­fied them­selves as “some­one who strug­gles with anx­i­ety.” A third said they had been for­mally di­ag­nosed with anx­i­ety. A sim­i­lar pro­por­tion had been pre­scribed an­tide­pres­sants.

Even while it is com­pli­cated to de­ter­mine why some peo­ple end up be­ing re­silient and oth­ers not, there is some­thing to be said for not as­sum­ing we are frag­ile — “for do­ing what must be done, de­spite the in­her­ent risks; be­cause it is the right thing to do,” said Bilsker, who is part of a UBC team re­search­ing re­siliency among B.C. first re­spon­ders.

“This ap­proach en­ables those in oc­cu­pa­tions like fire­fighter or para­medic or sol­dier to ful­fil their mis­sions in an hon­ourable and so­cially ben­e­fi­cial way. But it can also make it hard for those in­di­vid­u­als to share the dif­fi­culty and com­plex­ity of their harsh ex­pe­ri­ence or to en­gage in ap­pro­pri­ate self care.”

PTSD, re­la­tion­ship break­down and al­co­hol de­pen­dence are not un­com­mon among vet­er­ans and first re­spon­ders, ac­cord­ing to West­wood and Bilsker, who say ev­ery ef­fort must be made to help them adapt the skills they learned in ac­tive duty to civil­ian life.

Twenty-first cen­tury so­ci­ety might be ripe for a resur­gence of Stoic phi­los­o­phy, says Bilsker, as taught by the Greek philoso­phers Zeno and Epicte­tus and the Ro­man em­peror Mar­cus Aure­lius.

“Sto­icism is an ideal phi­los­o­phy for cop­ing with times of suf­fer­ing and dan­ger,” said Bilsker.

“I think it is very slowly dawn­ing on the pop­u­la­tion that we are mov­ing from a time of great com­fort and safety to one of ex­treme dis­com­fort and risk. The greater the so­cial in­vest­ment in en­hanc­ing our ca­pac­ity for psy­cho­log­i­cal re­silience, the bet­ter we will be at flex­i­bly cop­ing with the emerg­ing crises.”


My grand­fa­ther ended the First World War in hos­pi­tal. He was hon­ourably dis­charged from the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force two days af­ter Ar­mistice Day, on Nov. 13, 1918.

Un­der the head­ing of Char­ac­ter and Con­duct, Stan’s dis­charge cer­tifi­cate has a hand-writ­ten phrase: “Very good.” He had done his duty. Well.

He did not, be­cause of his wounds, take part in the last 100 days of the war in France and Bel­gium. That’s when, as the War Mu­seum re­counts in a new ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing colour­ized pho­tos, Canada’s shock troops de­feated the Ger­mans in “ter­ri­ble vic­to­ries” at Amiens, Ar­ras, Cam­brai and Mons.

The First World War cost the lives of 66,000 Cana­di­ans, plus 72,000 wounded, al­most en­tirely young men.

Al­though it may seem tired to ask it, how can Cana­di­ans to­day not be grate­ful for their sac­ri­fice, for their for­ti­tude, al­le­giance and per­se­ver­ance?

Af­ter all, we may need their kind of strength again.

This is not a time in which Canada is di­rectly in­volved in a ma­jor war. But the threats posed by eco­nomic in­equal­ity, un­af­ford­able hous­ing, cli­mate change, au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments, in­di­vid­ual greed, cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion and home­less­ness are as real as war, and they de­mand a con­certed re­sponse.

Can we fol­low the lead of vet­er­ans and tran­scend our own in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic need for com­fort, by be­com­ing part of some­thing larger? There may be things to learn from the great Amer­i­can philoso­pher-psy­chol­o­gist Wil­liam James, who in a time of peace coined the phrase “The mo­ral equiv­a­lent of war.”

James was point­ing, in his way, to the need for more re­silient male and fe­male war­riors. He wanted cit­i­zens to de­velop a sense of the mo­ral equiv­a­lent of war to cul­ti­vate the kind of sturdy virtues needed to ad­dress the dis­tinct dif­fi­cul­ties of ev­ery era.


The First World War could have been just an­other Euro­pean war: Ger­man armies sweep into Paris, the French sur­ren­der, a peace treaty is worked out and the war is in­deed over by Christ­mas. Had this hap­pened, the world would have been spared the four years of blood­shed that en­sued, and for Canada, not a sin­gle sol­dier would have been needed in Eu­rope. In­stead, the Ger­mans were re­pulsed at the Bat­tle of the Marne, un­wit­tingly sign­ing the death war­rant for mil­lions.


The open­ing weeks of the First World War had been fought in the open: Great armies smash­ing into each other in farm­ers’ fields just as they had done for cen­turies. But on Sept. 15, 1914, stale­mated Bri­tish and Ger­man armies be­gan dig­ging for cover at po­si­tions in North­ern France. The trenches would en­dure for four years, stretch from the North Sea to Al­sace on the Swiss bor­der and cover some 56,000 km.


Air­planes had only been in­tended as re­con­nais­sance de­vices. In­cred­i­bly, in the first days of the First World War en­emy pi­lots (who of­ten knew each other from pre-war Euro­pean fly­ing meet-ups) would even wave as they passed. On Oct. 5, 1914, this era defini­tively ended when a French pi­lot shot down a Ger­man plane. And this wasn’t a case of blaz­ing away at a face­less en­emy: The French­man pulled out his ri­fle and shot the Ger­man pi­lot di­rectly.


Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent flu that swept through a Kansas hos­pi­tal in early 1917 would have been an epi­demi­o­log­i­cal foot­note. But oc­cur­ring as it did dur­ing the largest move­ment of hu­man­ity ever known, the Span­ish Flu would spread like prairie fire and kill more peo­ple than the war that spawned it. Tar­get­ing the young in par­tic­u­lar, there’s no telling how many fu­ture lead­ers or in­no­va­tors it claimed.


With a few small bombs ex­plod­ing in sea­side Bri­tish towns on Jan 19, 1915, the era of strate­gic bomb­ing had be­gun. Ger­man zep­pelins weren’t bomb­ing troops or mil­i­tary tar­gets: This was ter­ror bomb­ing de­signed to scare Bri­tain out of the war. It didn’t work, but the idea of “break­ing the morale of a pop­u­la­tion” through bomb­ing would go on to kill mil­lions be­fore the cen­tury was out.


It is per­haps the most stag­ger­ing diplo­matic cockup in his­tory: Ger­man for­eign sec­re­tary Arthur Zim­mer­mann sent Mex­ico a mis­sive ask­ing them to de­clare war on the United States. On Jan. 16, 1917, Bri­tish code­break­ers de­ci­phered the en­crypted mes­sage. It drove a skep­ti­cal U.S. into the war in April 1917.


Amid news of spon­ta­neous rev­o­lu­tion in Rus­sia, Ger­many ar­ranged for Vladimir Lenin to be sent home to his coun­try in a sealed train. Their idea, which turned out to be pre­scient, was that Lenin would hi­jack the rev­o­lu­tion and end Rus­sia’s war with Ger­many, which hap­pened late in 1917. But the move un­leashed a tide of com­mu­nist sen­ti­ment that would ul­ti­mately come for Ger­many it­self.


At mul­ti­ple points it was a tossup who would win. The Spring Of­fen­sive in March 1918 was Ger­many’s at­tempt to score a knock­out blow be­fore the Amer­i­cans be­came an ef­fec­tive fight­ing force. But ini­tial Ger­man suc­cess soon be­came bogged down. They ended up with 800,000 killed or wounded.


Cana­dian and French troops were the ones who suf­fered with the first large-scale use of poi­son gas — chlo­rine — on April 22, 1915, at the Bat­tle of Sec­ond Ypres. Within min­utes 5,000 sol­diers were dead. This was the point at which any sem­blance of war as a glo­ri­ous man-to-man strug­gle ended. Men were now erad­i­cated with hu­man in­sec­ti­cide.


The last gasp of ci­vil­ity on the West­ern Front. Sparked by the spirit of Christ­mas Day, Ger­man and Bri­tish troops met in No Man’s Land, sang car­ols, shared al­co­hol and food, and even played a soc­cer game. When se­nior of­fi­cers later heard what hap­pened they were hor­ri­fied. And by 1915 the ha­treds would be too deep, and the losses too great, for any shared hu­man­ity with the Ger­mans.


This was where the First World War be­gan to trans­form from an unusu­ally costly con­flict into a fullfledged night­mare. Tens of thou­sands of men thrown into bat­tle for lit­tle or no re­sult. Troops forced to live among the piled corpses of their dead, drink from green puddles and go mad from con­stant shelling. All th­ese images be­came so­lid­i­fied at the Bat­tle of Ver­dun be­tween Fe­bru­ary and De­cem­ber 1916.


July 1, 1916, one of the most in­fa­mous days of the war. The open­ing of the Bat­tle of the Somme saw 100,000 Al­lied men — in­clud­ing New­found­lan­ders — sent “over the top” to take Ger­man trenches. The Ger­mans sim­ply mowed them down with ma­chine-gun fire. A to­tal of 19,240 were killed — it was the blood­i­est day in the his­tory of the Bri­tish army. The next five months would see a mil­lion sol­diers die from all sides.


It was only a sideshow to the greater war, but the Bri­tish cap­tured Jerusalem and the fu­ture ter­ri­tory of Is­rael from the Ot­toman Empire in De­cem­ber 1917. Bri­tish Ma­jor T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Ara­bia — said: “For me (it) was the supreme mo­ment of the war.” The city’s cap­ture, along with the Sykes-Pi­cot Agree­ment, would largely set the stage for the Mid­dle East we know to­day.


By late 1918, the Ger­man na­tion was sub­jected to waves of mu­tinies, protests and mini-revo­lu­tions. Its army was de­feated, its navy re­fused to fight, its peo­ple were starv­ing and the Kaiser had ab­di­cated. Aware that fu­ture fight­ing was hope­less, Ger­many agreed to an ar­mistice that came into ef­fect on Nov. 11, 1918.



Stan Todd, left, with his brother Mur­ray, was in­jured dur­ing the First World War.


Wounded Cana­dian sol­diers are taken to an aid post dur­ing the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in No­vem­ber of 1917.


Fol­low­ing the First World War, in which he suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries, Stan Todd be­came a log scaler in Van­cou­ver and con­tin­ued to live life as a pas­sion­ate, con­tribut­ing ci­ti­zen.


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