The digitization of Canada’s First World War veteran pension files offers a new glimpse into the early life of one of Canada’s most famous leaders, Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson.
Born in 1897, Lester Pearson was a young man when the First World War broke out and had just entered the University of Toronto’s law program. Just as Pearson celebrated in 18th birthday on April 23rd 1915, Canada became flooded with reports of the first major Canadian battle on the Western Front, the Second Battle of Ypres. Inspired by the heroism the Canadians portrayed in the battle, and the brutality of the war’s newest weapon, poison gas, Pearson enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Private Lester Pearson was sent to northern Greece to serve along the Salonika Front as a stretcher bearer.
Often described as a sideshow conflict, the Salonika Front was not as dangerous as the Western Front but Pearson saw plenty of combat and spent most of his duties preventing the disease amongst the armies of the six Allied powers that operated in close proximity there. Pearson’s service was exemplary and he received several promotions until reaching the rank of lieutenant. Despite his important service, Pearson longed to fight on the Western Front and asked his father to ask an acquaintance, the Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes, for Lester to be transferred. He was promptly sent to England and found a place in the Royal Air Force so he could accomplish his dream of becoming a pilot.
While in England, Pearson received his lifelong nickname ‘Mike’ from a flying instructor who felt the name Lester ill-suited for a pilot. For the rest of his distinguished career, Pearson would be known by the newspapers and public as Lester, but by friends, family, presidents and kings as Mike. His training took a dangerous turn when on a test flight with an instructor, their airplane’s engine failed. Miraculously, despite crashing from a height of 700 feet both Pearson and his instructor only received minor injuries. Pearson’s bad luck continued as months later he was hit by a London bus, and although he escaped relatively unscathed again, he was discharged from the RAF and sent home.
Upon his return to Canada, Pearson reenrolled in the University of Toronto, but found he could not simply pick up where he had left off before the war. Historians state this period of Pearson’s life that is least known, as he stopped writing a journal and became distant from family and friends. The digitization of his pension files provides new information and reveals that Pearson quarreled with the issues that ail almost all veterans of war. The Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment reported that Pearson was suffering from “General nervousness & weakness” the common symptoms of Neurasthenia. Other symptoms included trembling hands, the stuttering of speech, nightmares and physical weakness, all of which plagued Pearson. His pension files states that Pearson felt he was too nervous to carry on his studies, and that he may drop out to pursue a career as a salesman. It was to his, and Canada’s, benefit that Pearson decided not to withdraw from school as he most likely would not have gone into a career in politics had he, and Canada would have lost one of its greatest diplomats and prime ministers.
For more on Pearson’s early life, see: Lester B. Pearson, Mike – The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson PC, CC, OM, OBE, MA, LLD Volume 2 1948 – 1957, ed. John A. Munro and Alex I. Inglis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973); John English, Shadow of Heaven: The Life of Lester Pearson Vol. 1: 1897-1948 (New York ; Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1989).