I need not tell you that after the shock of losing a leg and the consequent inaction I am not in good condition.
I am happy at the thought that I had the courage to return to my boys in 1916 and that God gave me the strength of body and mind to do my duty under fire. It is a tremendous consolation that will comfort me until my dying day.
(Vanier to Mother, 13 May 1919)
Georges-Philéas Vanier was one of Canada’s most well-known veterans of the First World War. He became a high-ranking military officer, diplomat and 19th Governor General of Canada. Born in Montreal on 23 April 1888, Vanier was a graduate of Université Laval and a lawyer. In early 1915, he helped organize the 22nd Battalion under the command of F. M. Gaudet. After four years in the trenches, he had been shell shocked, multiple times wounded and lost his right leg.
The 22nd landed in France in September 1915. Vanier described his first experiences in battle: “The sensation of being underneath this sort of fire– bullets, machine-guns, etc. — is exciting; it seizes your imagination, your nerves remain very firm, and keep your head.”
During the heavy fighting at Ypres in June 1916, Vanier witnessed the death of his close friend Captain Tony Beaubien. “I loved him very much,” Vanier wrote, “and his death struck me hard.” A few days later on 9 June, Vanier was blown up and buried by a shell. Suffering from insomnia, nervousness, numbness and tremors, he was evacuated to England. Happy to be away from the sound of artillery, he explained, “One reaches a point sometimes where one feels that one cannot stand very much more.”
He returned to duty in early July, but suffered a relapse of shell shock and was again hospitalized. Although authorized to return to Canada thanks to the appeals of his parents, Vanier refused. “I must be at the front so long as I am fit,” he explained, “I should be unhappy anywhere else.” He rejoined the 22nd in October to find many of his old friends were dead.
On 27 August 1918, Vanier assumed command of the battalion after Lieutenant Colonel A. E. Dubuc was seriously wounded. The next day Vanier was hit by a shell and suffered severe wounds that required his right leg to be amputated. He returned to Canada in spring 1919 following a difficult recovery
He served as aide-de-camp to Governor General Julien Byng and became commanding officer of the Royal 22e Régiment. He suffered a nervous collapse in 1924 but soon returned to military service. He assumed military and diplomatic posts in Europe and was promoted to major general during the Second World War.
He was appointed Governor General in 1959 and died in office on 5 March 1967.