Mute But Not Retarded: The Case of Private Russell

With special thanks to Kristen Den Hartog who made me aware of this soldier. She is currently researching this soldier. Please reach out to her if you can assist her.

The impact of physical and psychological injuries to the soldiers that served with the 18th Battalion will never be fully understood. These injuries were, however, fully realized by the men and the people they associated with family, friends, co-workers, and the range of people they interacted with throughout their lives. Some of these injuries were persistent and present for the rest of a veterans’ life and some were “resolved” by treatment and healing, though the memory of the action of wounding, injury, or illness would always be present.

One such soldier of the 18th Battalion was Private Hugh Russell, reg. no. 54180. His story illustrates the social and psychological impact of his wound poignantly.

Hugh William Russell was an Irish born British Home Child. Born March 13, 1895 he arrived in Canada at the age of 13 in October 1902. He ended up near Wingham, Ontario,  at Turnberry and the records from the Wingham Advance newspaper pre-war indicate that he may have lived with a family that considered his needs to include and education as the paper lists several news articles indicating the scholastic levels he achieved at is school under the guidance of teacher named L.H. Vanstone[i].

On February 4, 1915 at London, Ontario this 19-year old man, standing 5’3” tall enlisted with the 18th Battalion. He indicated his next of kin as James Wray, the farmer to whom he lived and worked with, and his service card from enlistment to April 15, 1915 indicates no demerits or notations relating to abhorrent behaviour. His record was clean.

Arriving with his comrades in England he trains with the Battalion at West Sandling he is docked 2-days pay for being absent without leave (AWL) on May 13 and August 18, 1915. This was quite common as many men of the Battalion had family and friends in the British Isles and these absences may have been to see them.

With the battalion prepared and ready, along with the 2nd Division, to go into active service the Division moves on masse to serve in Belgium in the latter part of September 1915. Russell serves through the initiation period of the Battalion a Ypres and survives unscathed from the disaster that was the action at St. Elois.

On May 18, 1916 he sentenced to 2-days of Field Punishment No. 1 for being absent from a fatigue on the previous day. On May 17, the Battalion sent 400 men to make general repairs and strengthen the front-line from 9 AM to 2 PM that day. Perhaps this was the motivation for being absent. One of the challenges of soldiering during the Great War is that the work never seemed to end. Once they were in reserve, be it Brigade or Corps reserve the army found all sorts of tasks and jobs to keep these men busy and one can imagine the back-breaking and riskiness of working close to and at the front-line.

Casualty list B168 signalled a change in Private Russell’s military service. On September 18, 1916 he was listed with shell shock and was at the 2nd South General Hospital, Bristol, England.

His case notes on that date indicate that he “went sick” on September 14, 1916, with the inability to speak. He could understand when spoke to and they were able to confirm he was not deaf. He was suffering from lassitude as it was noted that he lies half asleep “most of the time.”

The notes indicate that there appeared to be no organic reason for his condition and he was “put under gas,” then “partly hypnotized,’” and finally treated using galvanic electrical treatment with “faint result.”

Later in February 1917 Russell was transferred to the Duchess of Connaught Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Taplow and there the case notes reveal:

“February 4, 1917

Disease: Shell Shock

Complaints ‘Cannot Speak’

‘History (obtained thro’ a friend)

September 15/16 was blown up and recollects nothing further until found himself in hospital [Southende] Bristol Sept. 16/17.

He has not been able to speak since accident. On admission to Bristol was in a highly nervous state and unable to walk. Troubled with insomnia and nightmares and almost constant headaches which tend to persist even at this time. He has always been able to understand what is spoken to him, but cannot reply. His general condition has improved and he entered this hospital Feb. 14/17.

[Condition] no prev. diseases. No venereal disease. Never of a nervous disposition. Does not abuse use of alcohol or tobacco.

[unknown] no hearing.

Exam: Not of a very high type of intelligence. Cannot speak. Understands everything said to him. Can whistle a trifle and can place lips into position to form sounds. Sleeps and eats well.

April 7, 1917

Now employed about the stables (was formerly a jockey). General condition good. His general nervousness and fear of M.O. is disappearing. (He was frightened by former methods to

Has been to several horse races did not speak even under excitement.”

From this report the medical bureaucracy decided that he boarded medically and sent home. It was apparent to them that he was not improving to the point he could be reintegrated to a fighting or support battalion.

It was time to go home for Private Russell.

The medical board met on April 7, 1917 and reported his condition:

“Cause of disability – Aphasia following shell shock

Condition which prevents the soldier form earning a full livelihood – Is rather poorly nourished but seems to have a fair appetite. Think he has improved somewhat of late. Was buried by shell 15-9-16 and following this was unconscious for 3 days. After recovering consciousness he was unable to talk or walk and suffered terrifying dreams. At present he has no trouble in walking but he still sleeps badly and frenquently has bad dreams. Is still “jumpy” in hearing a sudden noise. Suffers from frequent severe headaches over frontal region, but this is function, no organic lesion being present. All reflexes exaggerated, especially the knee jerk. Slight degree of ankylosis being somewhat more marked on the right side than on the left. Tactile sense does not seem impaired Mentally shows some retardation in train of thought. Slight degree of mental apathy is evident.”

The report indicated that he incapacitated by 75% and that the duration of such incapacity would be for 6-months. It further recommended that he be “Sent to Cobourg for special treatment.”

It is interesting to note some items from his file. The cause of his debility appears to have been listed incorrectly as an injury occurring on September 14, 1916, and appears to be corrected to being buried by a shell on the fateful day of the Battalion’s attack at Flers-Courcelette at the Somme on September 15, 1916. Further, when he enlisted, he indicated that his trade or calling was as a farmer, but this document  and his letters indicates he was a horse trader. Russell shows his affinity for horses as he has a tattoo of a horse, his observations in his letters, and he worked in the stables at this facility and it was noted he went to the horse races. The notifications on his mental state are indicative of the bias the medical establishment had towards shell shock cases. As there was no organic physical problem the problem had to lie somewhere else. This assessment of “retardation” or not demonstrating a “high type of intelligence” were subjective observations made to place cause with affect. The service records of many soldiers of other ranks other than officers suffering with shell shock mimic Russell’s. Some of the claims made in these medical notes can be so strong that they appear to put into question that soldiers’ moral and mental make up. The issues of battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD, where not well defined and some doctors’ insensitivity and lack of empathy towards these soldiers are shocking by today’s standards.

If this assessment is contrasted by the letters Russell wrote below, they illustrate an articulate, well educated man. These letters are not typical of the letters written by many of the men. The are long, descriptive, easy to read, and maintain a flow and theme that is pleasing and informative. The show an educated man in contrast to the assessment made by the more highly educated doctors.

Letter published in the Wingham Advance on March 16, 1916.

Letter published in the Wingham Advance on August 24, 1916.

Private Russell returns to Canada and attends treatment for aphasia at Cobourg, Ontario as of July 7, 1917 where his records indicate that on December 1, 1917 he had had enough. He requested the be released from the military as he was refusing any further treatment. He passed into his own control. Here, again, the bureaucracy records the following excerpts:

“Cause – Stress of campaign on slightly subnormal mentality.

Mentally:- At present his only trouble is complete loss of voice and he refuses any treatment for this says he was tortured enough in England by treatment. He works at the Vocational Building daily, and is a good worker.”

On the last day of 1917, Private Hugh William Russell was able to collect some of his dignity back as he was discharged from the CEF at Kingston, Ontario.

His records show that he was release from service in England on June 29, 1917 and was sent home to Military District No. 1 at London, Ontario. On July 18, 1917 he was able to attend an event at his home, described in detail in the news article below.

A sample of watches from the 1917 edition of the Eatons catalogue.

Presented With Beautiful Gold Watch By Old Friends

On Wednesday the 18th of July a very interesting event took place at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jas. A. Wray, 6th con. Of Turnberry, when a large number of neighbours and friends assembled to do honor to Private Hugh Russell. Pte Russell was shell shocked on the 14th of September and was rendered unconscious for several days, and when he finally came to, his speech was gone. He is being taken care of at Cobourg Military Hospital and spent the past week at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Wray, with whom he lived before enlisting.

The chair was taken by Mr. W.J. Greer, who in an eloquent address called the gathering to order. A short patriotic program commenced with singing The Maple Leaf Forever.

Solos were rendered in excellent voice by Misses Abraham and Gallaher. The following address was read by Mr. W.E. Mines and Pte. Russell was presented with the watch, chain and locket by Mr. E. Higgins.

Dear Friend;-

We, your neighbours and friends assembled here to show our admiration and esteem for you in a small way for the noble and heroic services which you rendered your King and Country on the battlefields of Europe, bid you a cordial welcome back to the land of your adoption.

We are proud of very loyal son who has risen to defend our great Dominion and to secure liberty and justice for the world at large, but our hearts go out more particularly to you when we have known and respected, and would therefore ask you to accept this watch and chain as a slight token of our esteem for you.

While we are overjoyed to have you with us again, we all sympathize with your in your great affliction, but trust that An-all-wise-Providence will see fit to restore speech to you.

Although for lack of forethought we did not acknowledge your bravery when you enlisted alone and went to London to train yet we followed you with our prayers and best wishes and our fervent prayer now is that you may log be spared to enjoy the comforts of life and when your warfare in this life is over you will have a triumphant entrance into the Heavenly Kingdom.

Signed on behalf of your friends;

Although Pte. Russel was taken by surprise he wrote the following very able and neat reply.

Kind Friends:-

I take great pleasure in thanking you for this address of welcome and presentation. In the trenches we often used to wonder if the people did appreciate our services, but now I know the people of this community do. I may say that I did not really expect this for I only did my duty which is expected of every able bodied man in this Empire. I thank you one and all for this gift and for your kindness and good wishes.

Hugh Russell.

After the presentation the speech of the evening was give my Mr. A.H. Musgrove, M.L.A., in his usual sincere and fluent manner. The pleasant evening was brought to a close by the ladies serving a dainty lunch.

Source: The Wingham Advance. July 26, 1917. Page 1.

This news clipping repudiates the assessment of the doctors in England and Canada.

First, the family that he was resident with before the war takes him in and helps to honour him with an event that is publicly recognized by the local paper. This man is well respected and considered an important member of the community. The residents attending the event even recognize the circumstances of his enlistment with what appears a touch of regret like Russell left without the support or approval of his host family. The sentiment in the speech, “Although for lack of forethought we did not acknowledge your bravery when you enlisted alone and went to London…” belies a collective regret that would have been palpable with such a close knit community.

Second, the speech is eloquent and well written. The effort to present the watch and the speech reflects the esteem the community held for this man. Such a public demonstration was common for returning soldiers, but the strength and personal remarks of this speech emphasize a larger community desire to make it clear to Russell just how they feel.

Last, his reply, written in response to such a speech is succinct, to the point, and more than an adequate response for what would be an emotional reunion with his community. Not the words of a dullard. Private Russell could read and write, and well.

Time would advance and with his refusal for further treatment on December 31, 1917 would mark 472-days of silence.

This silence was to continue until his…

Hugh Russel Talks After Two Year’s Silence

Hugh Russell an Irish home boy, who has for several years worked with farmers in Turnberry and who has been unable to utter a word for the past two years has regained his speech.

On the 14th of September, 1916, Pte. Russell was shell shocked and for several days lay unconscious, when he finally came to, his speech was gone. He was for a time in English Hospitals but returned to Canada on June 30th, 1917. He spent the winter in Wingham and has for some time been employed with Mr. R.J. Breen[iii], Turnberry.

He was taking his horse to Toronto exhibition, when she scared while in the car and Hugh very excitedly shouted “Whoa” much to his own delight and astonishment. Mr. Edgar Higgins saw him in Toronto and spoke to him when much to his surprise he answered by voice instead of by pencil.

Source: Wingham Advance. September 5, 1918. Page 1.

A further 228-days would transpire before this event. Private Russell, responding to a stimulus while doing a vocation that he had expressed an interest before, even during his treatment in England, responds to a horse that was scared and in an effort to calm and control the animal makes his first utterance since that fateful day in September 1915.

His life may have begun to normalize after the trauma that led to his silence, nightmares, and distress. As he relates to the authorities, he felt very strongly that the medical efforts to “cure” him were tantamount to torture. Given his evident intelligence and the high regard he was held by his friends his life was, perhaps, being directed to one where he would be able to compartmentalize and cope with the mental and physical forces that made him mute. No amount of thanks or displays of appreciation with gifts could compensate this man but one hopes that this recognition for his service helped assuage the demons in his soul.

How and would this man suffer in the future after the horrors of war?

[i] The Wingham Advance. April 4, 1907. Page 5.

[ii] The title of this article is curious.

[iii] Breen’s son was a friend of his.

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