Walter Ernest Gillion

Enlistment into the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War was restricted to soldiers aged eighteen to forty-five, but thousands of eager young teenagers managed to make it to the front lines. By 1916, approximately thirty-eight percent of soldiers arriving in Europe were underage managing to enlist through intentional and unintentional recruitment oversights by medical examiners.[1] Some medical examiners were aware of enlistees’ actual ages and accepted them for service regardless.[2] In other cases, if a recruit did not bring proof of his age to his medical examination, the examiner would guess his age based on the enlistee’s physique. The medical examiner could then determine that an enlistee was fit for service without being aware of his actual age; however, it was expected that if an examiner had doubts about a recruit’s age, the examiner would return the enlistee’s attestation papers to their recruiting officer who then had to find proof of the person’s age.[3] Determined young enlistees had a few ways to make it overseas.

Recruitment poster for the Canadian Field Artillery of which Gillion was a part. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Walter Ernest Gillion enlisted at the young age of fifteen, claiming to be twenty-one on his attestation papers. Born in Markham, Ontario in 1899 to an English father and Canadian mother, Gillion attended nine years of school in Toronto before enlisting in 1914. In his spare time, Gillion enjoyed reading novels, magazines, newspapers, playing baseball, and skating. He also enjoyed taking photographs as a hobby. Military officials described Gillion as attentive but quiet.  

Gillion deployed to Europe in February of 1915 first serving in the 15th Field Battery, 6th Brigade Canadian Field Artillery in France. In 1917, Gillion suffered a serious concussion in France, which would permanently disable him. His personnel file notes his hospitalisation in France from September 8th, to September 20th, 1917. After being discharged from the hospital, on October 22nd, 1917, he was struck off strength because military officials at last learned that he was a minor. Gillion, however, would continue to serve in the CEF on reserve and he would eventually deploy to Russia once he was officially of fighting age. His deployment to Russia in October of 1918 included participation in the Archangel expedition after the October Revolution. He was one of few Canadians to participate in the expedition to northern Russia. In 1919, he was discharged from the CEF and shortly after returning home, he got married in York. In the post-war years, he struggled to find a job given that he had no work experience or training from before the war. Despite this lack of experience in the workforce, the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment suggested that Gillion would be suited to working as a machinist for the Canadian Wire and Cable Company.

In January of 1920, Gillion claimed that he was suffering from serious memory loss as a result of the concussion he suffered in France. His wife noted that he had experienced memory loss shortly after returning home. He was admitted to the Toronto College Street Hospital. While hospitalised, he suffered from frequent seizures, likely stemming from his wartime injuries. Despite his continuing seizures, doctors declared him “cured” and discharged him from the hospital. Shortly after his first discharge from the hospital, he returned to work as a machinist, but he was not cured. Eventually his frequent seizures caused him to lose his job in the summer of 1920. He struggled to integrate back into a civilian workplace, bouncing around to several other jobs including two car repair garages and the Canadian National Railway in 1929. Despite his medical and financial burdens, he fathered two children with his wife, the first in 1921 and then the second in 1932.  

Gillion’s seizures escalated in the 1930s and 1940s. On August 15th, 1933, he was admitted to Christie Street Hospital. Until his discharge on November 1st, Gillion suffered approximately three seizures a week, and during which, he experienced “extreme confusion”. By December 2nd,1933, Gillion would again be admitted to the hospital after suffering from five seizures in a day. Despite no improvements, in fact, his seizures became more severe with Gillion often biting his tongue during seizures, doctors discharged Gillion on January 20th, 1934. Gillion began to suffer serious head wounds in 1935 caused by the frequent fainting spells. The frequency and severity of seizures would continue to escalate even while Gillion was in the hospital. From January 18th, 1936 to January 19th, 1936, for example, Gillion suffered fourteen seizures according to doctors.

Given the little improvement to his health, Gillion frequently tried to escape the confines of the hospital during the 1930s. In his first escape in December 1933, Gillion made it six blocks away from the hospital before being apprehended. In 1934, he escaped again the hospital and made it safely back to his home. Gillion only ever escaped the hospital to return home to his wife.

Gillion’s struggle to keep a fulltime job and his frequent hospitalisations meant that his young family relied upon his postwar veteran pension he received as a result of his wartime injuries. For an underage soldier who entered the war naïve but determined to fight, Gillion overcame great odds and injury to survive the entire war. But, like many Canadian soldiers during the First World War, Gillion’s participation in the war permanently maimed him, preventing him from fully reintegrating into Canadian society. After a long battle with his injuries, Walter Ernest Gillion passed away in 1950 at the age of fifty-one and was buried in Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.    

Click Here to access Walter Gillion’s military personnel file at Library and Archives Canada.


[1] Nic Clarke, Unwanted Warriors: The Rejected Volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015), 21.

[2] Clarke, 58.

[3] Clarke, 21.