Brockville-area soldier came home from Vimy honoured — but scarred

Capt. Thain Wendell MacDowell suffered a wound to his hand and several concussions during the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Vimy Ridge — but his deepest scar was invisible and profound.

Thain Wendell MacDowell waged his own war against shell shock after the 1917 battle

Thain Wendell MacDowell of Maitland, Ont., was the only Canadian soldier to survive the Battle of Vimy Ridge and earn a Victoria Cross. After the war, he struggled with shell shock or neurasthenia, as it was known at the time. (Department of National Defence)

Thain Wendell MacDowell came home from the First World War honoured but battered.

The 26-year-old from the village of Maitland, Ont., near Brockville, had suffered a wound to his hand and several concussions. He had also earned a Victoria Cross for his quick thinking during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

But his deepest scar was invisible and profound. At the time, doctors called it shell shock or neurasthenia — the exhaustion of the nervous system, with symptoms that included fatigue, insomnia, a rapid heartbeat and depression. 

In simple terms, while MacDowell may have won the military's highest award for valour at Vimy — the only Canadian soldier to survive with one — his spirit was crushed by the unimaginable horrors endured in the muddy landscape in France.  

Born in Lachute, Que., MacDowell grew up in Maitland and enlisted on February 1, 1915, after graduating with a bachelor of arts from the University of Toronto one year earlier.

He signed up in Ottawa and was assigned to the 38th Battalion, which eventually became known as the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. 

After a year training in Bermuda, the battalion arrived in France in the fall of 1916, with MacDowell serving as the captain of "Company B"

The battalion's baptism by fire came at the Battle of the Somme in November.  For taking out two German machine gun posts by himself — and saving hundreds of his men's lives — MacDowell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Vimy bravery was 'remarkable'

MacDowell's later actions at Vimy were "remarkable," said Mark Humphries, the Dunkley Chair in War and the Canadian Experience at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

MacDowell was concussed at the Somme after a German shell exploded, sending him flying into the air, said Humphries. But after five months in hospital, he was back with his men, fighting to capture Vimy Ridge — a prize the allies had previously failed at obtaining.

A typed version of Capt. Thain MacDowell's original report mentioning his capture of 77 German prisoners during the attack on Vimy Ridge. (Library and Archives Canada)

During the battle, MacDowell ventured out into enemy territory with two runners, said Humphries — foot soldiers who worked as couriers.

They came upon a German bunker, at which point MacDowell descended the more than 50 steps and stumbled upon 77 soldiers.  The runners, said Humphries, remained up top. 

"Instead of either firing his weapon or running away, he thinks very quickly on his feet and yells to this fictitious group of soldiers at the top, 'OK, boys, throw down the bombs," said Humphries, whose forthcoming book A Weary Road: Shell Shock in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in WWI is partly devoted to MacDowell.

"The Germans throw up their hands, and MacDowell sends them out in small groups.  The runners up top are astonished that, five at a time, these Germans come out of the bunker. And MacDowell is still down there"

Mental collapse

MacDowell's actions were key to the 38th Battalion and the 12th Brigade capturing a part of the ridge, said Humprhies. However, MacDowell suffered another concussion in the battle, and by June 1917 the men in his company noticed he was suffering from nervous exhaustion, Humphries said.

He was sent to a field hospital to recover from "trench fever" — a euphemism, Humphries said, that was used for those who experienced mental collapse. 

When he failed to get better, doctors ordered him to a hospital in London, where he was diagnosed with neurasthenia. According to his war service records, doctors noted his symptoms as extreme fatigue, bouts of profuse sweating, persistent insomnia, and heart palpations. 

While in London, King George V awarded Humphries his Victoria Cross for his efforts at Vimy Ridge at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

After being honoured, MacDowell sat while an artist painted his portrait.

'Etched on his face'

To understand the mental and physical collapse MacDowell was suffering, Humprhies said, one has to look no further than that painting.

"You can see it etched on his face" he said. "He's clearly a man who doesn't want [to have] his portrait painted. I think you can see it etched in the lines in his face – this inner struggle that he's experienced."

By July, with no real signs of recovery, MacDowell was sent home to Canada to recover at the Brockville General Hospital. The schedule for his recovery was extended twice. 

Coincidentally, MacDowell's sister Eula was a nurse at the Brockville hospital, and she cared for her brother.

A portrait painted of Thain Wendell MacDowell in 1917, while the Canadian soldier was recovering from shell shock. Historian Mark Humphries says you can see MacDowell's suffering 'etched in the lines in his face.' (University of Toronto)

"The superintendent of nursing called my mother in, and said, 'We can't do anything with him. And he's your brother so you'll have to move in with him,'" recalled Richard Dumbrille, Eula MacDowell's son.

Dumbrille said he remembered his uncle as a brilliant man, but his mother revealed just how broken he was when he came home for treatment and rest.

"When he had one of these attacks, mother — who was a featherweight — jumped onto his chest and put her face right to his and persuaded him he was in a friendly area," Dumbrille said. "And she brought him around."

Never fought again

MacDowell was sent back to England in February 1918, where he performed light duties until December.  He never returned to the front in France.

He sailed back to Canada in January 1919 and spent time at the Florence Home in Ottawa, a home for recovering soldiers. But the symptoms he suffered earlier returned, and he was admitted to St. Anne de Bellevue, a hospital for veterans near Montreal.

Doctors noted MacDowell's own reports that he only slept about three hours a night, that his hands trembled when he extended his arms, and his frequent spells of dizziness. MacDowell also told them that he had difficulty concentrating and had lost his sense of ambition.

His diagnosis, said Humphries, was typical of so many battle-fatigued soldiers.

Thain Wendell MacDowell, right, receives the Victoria Cross from King George V in 1917 for his bravery during the Battle of Vimy RIdge. (MacDowell family)

"MacDowell's case illustrates how a soldier can change over time" said Humphries. "The way in which combat eats away at their ability to cope over time – MacDowell simply becomes worn out because his experience is harrowing, horrific, and it's frightening"

In October 1919, MacDowell was discharged from St. Anne de Bellevue and left the army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Despite his wartime ordeal, he ended up having a successful career in the mining industry. He married in 1929, had two sons, and died in the Bahamas in March 1960.

Today, MacDowell is buried in Oakland Cemetery, just outside Brockville, Ont. and not far from where he grew up.

Humphries called McDowell's war experiences a double-edged sword.

"On the one level, he is one of Canada's most decorated soldiers of the First World War," said Humphries. "In both instances [he was] doing something that is exceptionally brave — yet he also is sent back from the front suffering with shell shock, which at the time is perceived by some soldiers and doctors as cowardice."

"It demonstrates the way in which soldiers can exist in these two extremes simultaneously."