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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Out of Service

Inside a historic veterans’ hospital

J. L. Granatstein

The Roosting Box: Rebuilding the Body after the First World War

Kristen den Hartog

Goose Lane Editions

280 pages, softcover

The Dominion Orthopaedic Hospital opened in 1919, near the corner of Christie and Dupont Streets in Toronto, within a stone’s throw of the main Canadian Pacific rail line that still runs through the heart of the city. The building was not newly constructed; it was, in fact, a National Cash Register factory. Purchased by the federal government’s Military Hospitals Commission for $450,000 and soon renamed the Christie Street Veterans’ Hospital, it was a state-of-the-art facility. There was a rooftop “garden” where veterans with tuberculosis could bask in the healing sun, modern operating rooms, X‑ray machines, a huge dining hall, and workshops for such crafts as shoemaking and clay modelling. There was even a skating rink. In all, Christie Street was to be the nation’s main orthopaedic hospital for the wounded men of the First World War.

Kristen den Hartog’s book, oddly titled The Roosting Box (by analogy to the “communal space that provides ideal but temporary shelter for vulnerable beings”), is a history of the Christie Street Hospital and, more to the point, of its patients, its staff, and, to some extent, postwar Canada. It does all this by devoting chapters to the legs, arms, spines, faces, lungs, minds, and bellies of the veterans and examining the wounds they suffered. Treating the ex-soldiers were their doctors and nurses, and den Hartog brilliantly mixes the stories of them all together. This is a book about individuals in a collective of pain, suffering, and medical successes and failures. It is also about the attitudes of the government and the citizenry toward those who had fought for them.

Here we see Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin, testing his new miracle treatment for diabetes on patients as well as on one of the staff doctors. Some of the vets were unwilling to let themselves be used as guinea pigs, but one former soldier asked to take insulin with him when he was granted a weekend pass. “For the first time in three years I am a man again,” he proclaimed when he returned the following Monday. After that, every diabetic patient began requesting the medication. We see the vets trying on their new prostheses for missing hands or legs. And we see those whose faces have been smashed by gunfire undergoing surgery after surgery, with skin grafts that try to give them a nose, an ear, or a jaw, enough of a restoration that they will not frighten passersby.

And because den Hartog’s research into the military personnel files held by Library and Archives Canada is so extensive, we come to know some of the patients and their caregivers. Service and pension records form the heart of the book, along with the collections of the Canadian War Museum and other repositories. One major source — and the start of den Hartog’s obsession with Christie Street — is a commemorative pamphlet from 1920, titled Illustrated Souvenir. Its photos pointed her to several vets and staff members whose lives she subsequently tracked down. Memoirs, most of them by nurses, are also well represented in her endnotes.

All of Christie Street’s initial nursing staff had served overseas, many on the Western Front but some in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. A few had been based at a large Canadian general hospital at Étaples, France, which the Germans bombed in May 1918, killing patients in their beds and three nurses. The nurses who had served overseas were eligible for disability pensions, but relatively few had been wounded. To receive government money, however small the amount, others had to demonstrate that any condition was a “provable result” of their service. Still, most loved the work at Christie Street — if they could forget what had prompted it.

Den Hartog makes much of pensions for the wounded, miserly by comparison with those paid to veterans of the Second World War (in part because the senior bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs was made up of men who had served in the earlier conflict). Losing an eye on wartime service, den Hartog notes, was a 40 percent disability, suffering facial disfigurement 60 percent, and a mangled arm another 40 percent. One soldier, Stewart Colquhoun, had all those wounds and more but qualified only for 100 percent disability, which at the end of the war was $600 a year. By September 1919, the annual payment had inched up to $720.

Another patient at Christie Street, Jack Hoar, was an American who had enlisted in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and lost both legs and suffered other wounds. Hoar struggled with his prostheses, but he also competed in wheelchair races and dove legless into swimming pools. He received a 100 percent pension of $75 a month, but after he returned to Chicago and married, Ottawa informed him that his annual “helplessness allowance” of $250, granted while he became accustomed to his artificial limbs, was terminated. As a newspaper account in the United States put it, “There was only one way out. He took it. He turned on the gas.” Suicide was not the kind of publicity the government wanted, and an official statement was promptly issued to lay out its self-serving side of the story.

But Hoar at least received something for his suffering. Victims of shell shock received nothing: Ottawa told returned men their condition was likely “to clear up at any moment under proper treatment and environment.” If a soldier who had lost his spirit and nerve because of shell shock received a pension, the thinking went, what would be “more natural than that he should sink into a chronic state of invalidism? There would be no incentive to pull himself together.” Those who had broken under the strains of battle were not manly enough to receive a pension, or so it seemed.

Surprisingly, there is little indication that den Hartog has used recent historical research on post-traumatic stress disorder, the terrible influenza pandemic of 1918–20, wartime sexually transmitted diseases, and other germane topics. Several titles might have added to her treatment of shell shock, and she might have referred to Tim Cook’s Lifesavers and Body Snatchers as a study of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. But, in truth, her somewhat limited research matters little. Den Hartog’s prose is excellent, her understanding of the military is correct, and her book is revelatory. She even inserts fragments from Great War poetry into her text, using grey italics. I have never seen this done before, and it works. The snippets from Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, John McCrae, Bernard Trotter, and other little-known Canadian and British poets enhance the study. (While the poets are acknowledged in the notes, the individual fragments, unfortunately, are not specifically cited.)

The Christie Street Hospital closed in 1949. By this time, it was no longer state of the art; it was decaying, mouldy, and bug infested, and most of its residents were now veterans of the Second World War. A few “incurables” had been at Christie Street almost since it opened, and all would be moved to the new Sunnybrook Hospital, built on a large farm originally left to the City of Toronto for use as parkland but sold to Ottawa. The first patients arrived in September 1946, delighted with the facility. “Pretty swell setup, eh?” one of them said. “I’m going to stay here the rest of my life if I can.” Some, sadly, did.

J. L. Granatstein writes on Canadian political and military history. His books include Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace.