On April 22, 1915, chemical gas was introduced on the Western Front, killing and irreversibly damaging hundreds of British, French, and Canadian soldiers. James Gordon Baker was one of those Canadians. As an underage-enlister out of Toronto in September 1914, seventeen-year old Baker joined the 3rd Battalion, Toronto Regiment, and ended his service in 1919 as a Corporal. Baker had a short career in battle, and was taken out of the war just as the Canadians were beginning their first major engagement. In the effort to reinforce the Canadian line between 2nd and 13th Battalions at St. Julien during Second Ypres, Baker survived a bullet to the forehead and was pinned down by chlorine gas for over a full day, but was captured by German troops on the second day of the battle. With him, over 260 of his comrades from 3rd Battalion were captured. Baker spent the next three years and nine months as a POW.
The injuries that Baker sustained on April 22, 1915 made his life under the Germans difficult. He recounts the pick and shovel labour he was forced to engage in as a prisoner, but due to his condition, most noticeably a severe cough almost certainly caused from inhaling gas at Ypres, his ability was limited. After receiving minimal medical attention in hospital for a couple of months, he was put on light duty. As his condition worsened, Baker attempted an escape, but was re-captured on Christmas day, and was subsequently punished with three weeks in a cell. The transcript of Baker’s account of this event notes it as occurring in 1918, however, considering the terms of immediate release of prisoners after the Armistice signing, this is likely a typing error, and so the date of Baker’s attempted escape is unknown from this record. Upon war’s end, Baker was freed and returned to Canada in February 1919. He spent time in Pittsburgh before he was discharged from the CEF a few months later, where his story of capture was printed in The Pittsburgh Sun on March 14, 1919. The title of his article was “Soldier’s Feet Are Crippled by Huns’ Torture,” in which it is detailed that German guards forced him and others to walk in wooden clog shoes, causing severe pain after prolonged periods and was described as “torture of the most barbarous sort”.
In the decades following the war, Baker’s medical records note his chronic bronchitis as the more severe disability obtained from the war, and was the source for his pension received in 1932. Baker never even appealed for pension for his foot injury from torture until 1932, and conflicting medical checkups and lack of evidence for how it was sustained led to the commissions denial of this appeal. He later appealed for defective hearing, believed to have been caused by his headshot at Ypres, which was also denied. The official summary of his earlier pension approval says James Baker should be “given the benefit of the doubt”, perhaps implying that the commission did not believe his full story, but could not deny his time spent as a POW. A manager from Canadian General Electric Company who oversaw Baker as a clerk there admitted that Baker’s condition was debilitating after the war, and that he missed an estimated three months of work per year from 1919-1921 due to his illnesses. Baker also showed signs of shellshock many years after the war, described by his doctor as profusely sweating, being “extremely nervous”, and suffering from “periodic headaches of a neuralgia character”. James Baker is an example of what thousands endured in the post war years, who had to fight for compensation for what they lost and did not necessarily get their full due, and who’s lives suffered from their experience. He is remembered as being among the bravest Canadians who faced the first gas attack of the war and for enduring the brutality of being taken prisoner.
CLICK HERE to access James Gordon Baker’s Military Service File at Library and Archives Canada.
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