Private Charles Bigler, A Dane in the Service of Canada

It was a Friday, the end of the work week perhaps for Charles Bigler when he went to the local recruitment centre in Sarnia and enlisted. He was not the typical man of the 2nd Contingent to enlist. He was not British or Canadian born and he was 12-years older than the average age of a recruit at that time, being 38-years old. But this Dane decided to join the Canadian Army and fight the British Empire’s enemies. But as a Dane, currently in Canada, he was under no obligation to enlist. Denmark was carefully neutral during the First World War but something in Charles’ motivation required this action that was decidedly biased against the German Empire. Perhaps, though born in Copenhagen, his family lineage came from duchies of Schleswig-Holstein and he felt compelled to enlist to avenge the loss of this territory in 1864 when Prussia defeated Denmark and annexed it as a province of the Prussian Empire.

Charles Bigler enlisted on October 30, 1914 in Sarnia. He was a barrel-chested (41” expansion) blacksmith standing 5’8” tall and was accepted into His Majesty’s service after his medical was signed-off by Lieutenant McMullen. He listed his father, Peter Emil Bigler, residing at Blaagaardsgade, No. 230 Sal., Copenhagen, Denmark, as his next-of-kin. His attestation papers indicate he is not married, however, his Separation Pay would eventually specified that his wife, Agnes C. Bigler, residing at 30 Blaagaardgade, Copenhagen, Denmark would receive $15.00 per month starting on May 1, 1915.

His service record was not exemplary. He appears to have had an incident in the month of November 1914 were a fine of $2.00 was imposed. Later, when in training at Shorncliffe he is absent-without-leave on May 6, 1915 for one day, forfeiting a day’s pay for that transgression. Moving with the Battalion to the Continent he is put on stoppages of pay for loosing two tube helmets (an early gas mask) due to neglect. This sets him back 5 shillings (approximately $10.00 CDN at today’s exchange rate) or a third of a month’s pay.

Between the Battalion’s arrival on the Continent in September 1915 and its service at the Somme in September 1916 there appears to be some disquiet in Private Bigler’s personal life, perhaps part of the motivation for his behaviour in the past. There is a note that is Separation Allowance, payable to his wife, is to be redirected to his father and a curious notation is found dated June 3, 1916 stating, “Stop payment waiting letter from Chief of Police re. womans [sic] conduct.” It is initialled by “W.A.” and no other information portending to this entry is present in the service record. This curious notation poses more questions than it answers but it could hint a martial strife between Private Bigler fighting in Belgium and France and his wife residing in Denmark.

Private Bigler served without interruption with the Battalion until September 15, 1916. During the attack at Flers-Courcelette he suffered a serious G.S.W. to the head and was remove to the 6th Canadian Field Ambulance and then moved two-days later to No. 10 General Hospital, Rouen, France. His wounds were serious as he had not regained consciousness when he arrived at this facility and was listed as “Dangerously Ill”.

The doctors preformed a “trephine” procedure in France where a round hole is cut in the skull, but the reason is not indicated in his medical records, other than the record that the procedure had been done.

Private Bigler spent 110 days in hospital at Reading. He arrived on September 28, 1916 still unconsciousness and when he regained consciousness his behaviour was noted as “very irritable”. The first signs of a mental change to Private Bigler was now documented and this wound to his head would shape his world. A surgery on September 30 was preformed to address an issue with a “protrusion of brains” which was removed, and he recovered at this institution until January 10, 1917 when he was transferred to Canadian General Hospital, Woodcote Park, Epsom.

During this time his medical status was either “Dangerously” or “Seriously” ill. It is recorded that while at Woodcote his,

“Speech is now all right. Has elliptical defect in skull above l[eft] ear.3”X1.5”. A pulsating area. Patient seems dull & slow. Complains of lack of vision to R. [illegible] line when looking straight a head. Various systems otherwise normal.”

He was released from this hospital on March 3, 1917 and transferred to Bramshott where it was determined that he was no longer fit for service and sent to Canada to convalesce and discharge via a hospital ship departing Liverpool.

His condition would not improve. The head wound sustained on that fateful day at the Somme was perhaps the catalyst for his mental health to degrade and he would become lose the power of speaking English.

He arrived in London, Ontario April 1, 1917 and was transferred, temporarily to the Spadina Military Hospital for treatment. He returned to London and was discharged from military service on July 8, 1918 after 3 years and 8 months of service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His discharge paper starkly states:

Address On Discharge: Hospital for Insane, London, Ontario
Character and Conduct: Very Good

This tragic result is a sad testament to his service. His wounds may have contributed to his condition leading to a diagnosis of insanity and one wonders if any other factors contributed to this soldier’s psychological well-being as the medical notes from January 1917 at Woodcote indicate that he “Complains of lack of vision…” This is a curious entry as a later entry in his records in March 1917 relate: “Speech was affected [illegible] he has recovered the full power of speech.” The medical records do not indicate the method to which Private Bigler “complained” about his condition, but it appears that his speech center of his brain was affected by his wounds and his ability to speak improved over time.

But this was not to last.

His condition from March 1917 to January 1918 does not improve but worsens. On January 5, 1918 a reports states that Private Bigler is, “…very neurotic and irritable. When startled he grasps the first person at hand, loosing control of himself.” This report further relates that, “Soldier is a Dane, and finds it difficult to speak and understand English. Is easily irritated.”

A report dated March 18, 1918 brings Private Bilger’s condition to it current status, which appears to have improved:

“This patient was admitted to the Hospital for Insane, London, on February 11, 1918. He has been very quiet and well conducted since coming here and has given no trouble whatever. His ability to speak the English language, or to understand it very much, make it rather difficult to determine his mental condition. He appears, however, to me to be a little simple and perhaps, on the whole, it might be well for him to have further treatment to see if anything further develops.

(Sgd.) W.J. Robinson”

Private Bigler cannot give the medical board a definitive address for his residence and the report relates “Says his wife not his wife now.” The board further recommends continuation of treatment at the Hospital for the Insane and observation for 3 to 6 months. It also appears that his power to speak English has diminished, if not disappeared all together. He seems to have retained his native language giving a hint to the area of the brain that may be affected by his head wound.

The degradation in mental well-being is curious and the service records cannot give enough information to extrapolate a cause. It does, however, bring to question Private Bigler’s ability to speak English during his service history.

His ability to speak English when he enlisted probably was strong enough at his enlistment to be able to serve in a military unit and understand, comprehend, manipulate and respond to military commands, discipline and the technology necessary to fulfill the role of a serving soldier. His service record shows service that was uninterrupted from his enlistment to his wounding at the Somme and his transgressions recorded in his service record are of a minor nature and not related to not adhering to or obeying military commands. It was after his wounding that his ability to understand English began to wain and it cannot be determined what contributed to this condition. Was it a physical impairment of the brain or a psychological one? There are hints that his personal life was not a positive influence his condition as the status of his marriage appears to change during his service.

His marital status is another curious detail. His attestation papers indicate he is not married, and his next-of-kin is listed as his father. Later, he assigns pay to his father and changes it to his wife. The notation in his record in June 1916 “Stop payment waiting letter from Chief of Police re. womans [sic] conduct,” increases the mystery.

Sadly, Private Bigler would never recover. His mental condition of insanity is permanent, and he dies at Westminster Hospital, London, Ontario on August 17, 1955, a Wednesday, “…a mental case.” His estate is valued at $1,559.42. The London District Office of Veteran Affairs on April 20, 1948 made an attempt to make contact his wife in order to facilitate the disposition of this money to a relative, but they received no reply anyone and he died intestate.

Private Charles Bigler had no need to volunteer to fight for Canada. Yet, for reasons we will never know, he did and was an effective enough soldier that he successfully trained with the 18th Battalion at London and followed its course through the war participating in its baptism of fire at Ypre, the hell of St. Eloi Craters and the Somme. His wounding seems to have precipitated a mental condition that led to him losing his mind making him a ward of the State and living out the rest of his life in the confines of the an institutional ward at Westminster Hospital. One hopes that his war service was recognized and that some of the men of the 18th Battalion remember Private Bigler and visited him and gave him comfort and company from time-to-time to ease his burden and make him feel connected to the Battalion he served and sacrificed for.

There is no evidence of his lack of English impairing his ability to soldier. If there was any doubt that it would affect the safety of his unit he would not be allowed to fight. He could fight and paid the cost.

Remember Private Charles Bigler, Dane and blacksmith, of Copenhagen, Denmark. He deserves our remembrance.

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