“Harper government to appeal decision allowing veterans to fight for benefits”
— Headline in the Globe and Mail, Oct. 2, 2013
One hundred years ago, when the First World War began and young men were joining up, they knew nothing of the battle they would face if they made it home.
For those who returned at war’s end, battered and bruised, and for those injured and demobilized during the conflict, there would be endless forms to fill out and letters to write in order to receive whatever pittance they had coming to them.
The families of the fallen fared even worse, often driven to destitution by the loss of young men who had been breadwinners. Sometimes they had to fight for a few dollars of recompense while still frantically trying to contact someone in officialdom who could tell them with certainty if their loved ones were actually even dead and buried.
You can find First World War soldiers’ files on The Room’s website in The Newfoundland Regiment and The Great War Database (www.therooms.ca/regiment/part3_database.asp). The correspondence from soldiers’ families reflects their worry and despair.
Medley Woolridge was a month shy of 20 when he signed the attestation form to enlist in the First Newfoundland Regiment — a brown-haired, brown-eyed, fresh-faced lumberman from Burnt Arm, Botwood.
“I, Medley Woolridge do solemnly declare that the above answers made by me to the above questions are true, and that I am willing to fulfil the agreements made.”
His signature is the youthful scrawl typical of teenage boys.
He signed up in St. John’s on Jan. 8, 1917 and embarked on the SS Florizel.
In November he was injured in action and hospitalized in London with gunshot wounds to his leg and hand.
By 1919 he had been demobilized and sent home, and was filling out forms for the Civil Re-Establishment Committee, and banking on a career in the fishery.
But after 10 years, his war wounds took their toll. In 1929 he appealed to the Board of Pension Commissioners.
“Complains of right leg getting stiff and crippling him after working hard,” his medical report says. “The pain extends down the leg to the foot. He also complains of stiffness of the little finger of the left hand, and inability to fully extend this finger. Soreness of the eyes following gas.”
Married and with three young children to support, Woolridge was 31, living in Saint John, N.B. and in need of a disability pension.
Once another raft of forms was completed, Private Woolridge was rewarded with the paltry sum of $13 a month for 24 months for the two years and 107 days he risked life and limb for king and country.
The next piece of correspondence in his file is a short note regarding M. Woolridge: Pensioner No. 2870: “Kindly note that the marginally named passed away at the Provincial Hospital, Fairville, N.B., on September 8th, 1933.”
Someone has handwritten on the typed page: “Next of kin Mrs. Lillian M. Woolridge,” and underlined it with a flourish.
The last document in the file is dated 1934 from the Canadian Legion — an appeal for the family written to the Board of Pension Commissioners, noting that “Mrs. Woolridge has returned to Newfoundland and is residing at South Side, Carbonear.” She is applying for a 12-month allowance for her three children and asks to have their birth certificates returned once the paperwork is done.
The letter ends: “The favour of your advice as to whether the allowance will be granted in this case will be very much appreciated, please.”
The file of Medley Woolridge is poignant testimony to the layers of bureaucracy that confronted veterans and their families.
And each file in the database tells its own story — testaments to loved ones desperate to have sons, brothers and husbands return home.
“I am writing concerning our soldier boy Corporal E.G. Wiseman,”
a worried Alfred Wiseman wrote from Boot Harbour, Halls Bay on June 4, 1918. “After he come out of hospital he has been out in France a long time and he has been wounded twice and I think it is time he should have a rest and a time off. There is lots of the St. John’s boys gets off, and why not ours?”
Soldiers like Wiseman, who eventually returned with commendations for bravery, found themselves in a sometimes inhospitable world where jobs were hard to come by.
And benefits and pensions were not guaranteed.
As the Canadian War Museum website notes: “Those suffering from poison gas, chronic illness, or mental trauma, for example, often had difficulty convincing pension adjudicators that their symptoms were war-related, the prerequisite for a successful claim.”
How lamentable that those words, written about Canada in 1918, can still ring true, with Canadian veterans and their families sometimes still having to fight for recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder and the strain it places on spouses.
Speaking to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs on Nov. 27, 2007, Jenifer Migneault talked about the arduous process her husband, Sgt. Claude Rainville, had been through, after having served in Haiti, Damascus, Rwanda and other conflicts. He retired in 1998. His post-traumatic stress disorder was diagnosed in 2007, five months after he turned to Veterans Affairs Canada for help.
“We received a plethora of forms to fill out: applications for a disability pension, applications for rehabilitation, etc.,” Migneault recalls.
“I therefore filled out all the forms, one for each of my husband's problems. I spent hours asking my husband questions, searching through his military files and his photos and trying to get him to talk about his painful experiences. …
“With a few exceptions, each of the applications was between 10 and 20 pages long. It is difficult for me to believe that Veterans Affairs leaves it up to the clients to fill out such forms, without providing any real support. I realize today that any assistance we receive depends on these very documents, along with the medical opinions. It is thus clear to me that there are inadequate services in this regard.”
A hundred years later, and we’re still making our veterans and their families wage a battle with bureaucracy.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.