Shell shock affected many soldiers who fought in the First World War, both during and after combat had ceased. Little understood, the trauma that active military service members experienced manifested itself in different ways. For Private Edmond Montgomery, shell shock appeared in the form of seizures and a debilitating speech impediment which made even the simplest communication incredibly difficult.
Born in England in 1894, Montgomery came to Canada with his parents in 1908 at the age of 15. Having done passably well in school, he found stable work as a mechanic. While he had a stammer that had persisted since childhood, he was never held back unduly by it.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Montgomery was living in Kingston, Ontario. He decided to enlist in the 12th Reserve Battalion and his attestation papers note his stammer under the heading ‘distinctive marks’. Sent to fight in France, Montgomery was exposed to heavy shell fire in Givenchy, France, leading to his hospitalization. There, it became clear that Montgomery’s stammer was significantly worse, so that he could barely speak. An examining medical officer stated that Montgomery’s had lost fifty percent of his speech ability. He had also had constant tremors and could not sleep. He was ruled ineligible for further service and was discharged and return to Canada in December 1915. He was also run over by a car, further aggravating his neurasthenia (the prevailing medical term for shell shock) and injuring his back.
Upon his return to Kingston, Montgomery found it extremely difficult to find and sustain work. Captain Simpson of the Board of Pension Commissioners declared that Montgomery’s case was “one of the saddest cases I ever met.” Montgomery’s nervousness was so bad that he could only express himself through facial contortions. Simpson also described his speech impediment as being so bad that “it would be better if he were dumb as he would be free from embarrassment.” He was only able to communicate through a written letter to Simpson.
Montgomery suffered another blow when his wife, Hazel, died in 1924 of tuberculosis. Montgomery was left with his young daughter, Eldene, and only a 10% pension. He plunged into a deep depression, turning to alcoholism. He was also admitted into the Arnott Institute For The Cure of Stammering and Stuttering in Kitchener, Ontario, but was unable to be cured of his speech impediment.
In 1936, he was admitted into Hotel Dieu hospital, suffering from pneumonia. It soon became clear that he was also suffering from mental illness, as he was unresponsive to any questions directed to him, was often confused and suffered several seizures. However, after extensive time spent in hospital, Montgomery regained some of his health.
Still finding it difficult to find work upon being discharged from Hotel Dieu, Montgomery relied on the help of his brother and sister for basic necessities such as food and rent money. The Board would not class his pension at more than 10% disability despite being deemed unemployable, leaving him to depend on $3.75 a month. Suffering from his severe stammer, chronic back pain, deafness in one ear and epileptic seizures, Montgomery was nearly destitute.
Montgomery’s pension file shows the different ways shell shock affected soldiers’ lives and how it could leave veterans virtually helpless.