Nothing in the human experience is more physically exhausting, mentally challenging, and emotionally exhausting than ground combat.
The most gruelling combat of all is that which is fought in close proximity to the enemy. It affects soldiers in ways that people who have never experienced war will never truly comprehend. Compounding the tragedy of war, was the misunderstanding the effects of battle stress had on soldiers, especially during the First World War.
Hundreds of soldiers who suffered from profound shell-shock, endured the additional indignity of being accused of "malingering". By wars end, the British Military had executed over 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers on charges of cowardice or desertion. Men who had volunteered to serve their country, men who had instead been broken in battle, were tried, convicted, and "shot at dawn".
The Last Days of Pte Charles Dagesse
Maj. Georges Vanier, of the French Canadian 22nd Battalion, rejoined his battalion at the front just in time to march with them to Auchel, west of Lens, where they were billeted. Their days were filled with a rigorous training program - four hours of military exercises in the morning and organized sports all afternoon.
It was a period of intense activity with a massive German offensive expected any moment. Barely a week before this decisive challenge, it was Vanier's sad duty to witness the execution of one of his men who had been found guilty of thirteen convictions of desertion and two of drunkenness. He had been tried by a military court martial on Feb 26, 1918 and the verdict was unanimous. Referring to the event, Vanier made this sombre entry in his diary:
Georges Vanier Diary, 1918
Diary entry: 14 March, 1918
At 4:30 p.m., I officially announced to the condemned man (Charles Dagesse) that the Court Martial has found him guilty and has sentenced him to death. His attitude was calm and I left him with the Chaplain. I have been put in charge of the troops that will take part at the execution tomorrow morning. A sad task, a sad command.
Diary entry: Friday, 15 March, 1918, Auchel
Up at 5 a.m. The dawn has not yet broken. A platoon from each company, 20 men from Company Headquarters and all the detainees from the guard room lined up on the square in front of the church. In silence, I led them to the site of the execution. At 6:30, the condemned man arrived, his eyes blindfolded. The Chaplain recited prayers and I heard the man say "Padre, padre" twice, then the sharp and clear sounds of the rifle shots, followed by silence. We all filed out past the body.
At 8:30 p.m., German planes dropped bombs and torpedos. One bomb fell thirty metres from the Divisional Headquarters. The house was hit and collapsed. Two young children who were sleeping there didn't receive a scratch. The tenacious Boche returned three times. Our planes at the Auchel airport took off on patrol. While the bombs were exploding, you could hear the roar of the plane's motors and the sounds of the destruction they were causing.
Diary entry: 17 March, 1918
Mass in the parish church. Captain Crochetière read a very moving farewell letter from the executed man.
In the afternoon, we played baseball against the officers of the 25th Battalion. The officers of the 22nd won 3-2. I played first base – the first time in ages. In the evening, the weather was clear – excellent for the German planes which were not coming yet. Air patrol on our side.
Charles Dagesse is buried in the Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.
The Agony of Warfare
Although Canada has never been the aggressor in war, the country has always participated in wars where democracy, freedom and human rights were threatened. One of the terrible consequences of conflicts in which Canada participated, such as the great wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945, has been the damage done to the soldiers themselves. Although they were victorious combatants during these world conflicts, these soldiers were also victims.
Peacekeeping missions also resulted in living casualties, soldiers who returned suffering from physiological damage.
"War is a season of intense discomfort punctuated by periods of agonizing fear."
So said Lt. J.E. Ryerson, a Canadian soldier in the First World War. This stressful fear experienced by many soldiers during battle manifested itself in many ways. During the First World War, the term used was "shell shock," where an otherwise brave soldier might literally begin to cower in terror at the mere sight of the enemy, or the sound of an exploding shell.
During the Second World War and the Korean conflict, the condition was referred to as "battle fatigue" where, after prolonged stress in battle, soldiers quite literally lost their sanity, became paralyzed, or began to shake or weep uncontrollably. Some became terrified at just the sight of an enemy uniform or rifle and prolonged exposure to battle, or the fearful anticipation of a battle, could destroy a soldier's mind.
Many Canadian soldiers who suffered extreme battle stress returned to Canada where they were placed in veterans' hospitals never to leave because at the time, a full understanding of the condition was unknown and no treatment was available.
One such soldier was Private George Leugner, who was placed in the Veteran's Hospital in London, Ontario in 1945 and died there in 1997.
Many returning soldiers had difficulty adjusting to life as civilians, or had problems retaining civilian jobs. Many eventually resorted to alcohol in an effort to forget their fearful experiences. Sgt Tommy Prince was a veteran of the Second World War and Korea and was Canada's most decorated non-commissioned officer during the Second World War. Unable or unwilling to obtain help to overcome his wartime experiences, he died a homeless alcoholic on the streets of Winnipeg, a dreadful end to a Canadian military hero.
Many medical experts currently believe that today's generation of soldiers, notably those who served as peacekeepers, may suffer even worse physiologically than their predecessors who fought in the great wars or Korea. While these soldiers may not have been directly involved in combat, many of them witnessed the slaughter or rape of helpless civilians.
Ineffective United Nations rules during these missions often demanded that peacekeepers were not allowed to interfere or prevent these horrific atrocities. The effect of helplessly witnessing these acts would no doubt affect any soldier with a respect for humanity. These soldiers will forever be haunted by the faces of the people they were not allowed to help.
Today this form of stress is referred to as "post traumatic stress disorder" or PTSD and it affects about 10–15% of Canada's soldiers who have returned from United Nations peacekeeping missions.