The Aphasic

Lieutenant Colonel Jack Mersereau, D.S.O.
25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) BattalionMersereauCJ

He talks spontaneously but with deliberation at uncommon words he pauses an instant for he has to visualize the word before he can say it. He tends to displace words or syllables. If he wants to say ‘tomorrow’ he will often say \yesterday’ and sometimes he will not recognize the mistake. He mixes up the person or verbs, he will say ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘we’ instead of ‘they.’ At times will say damn in place of another word.

(Medical consultant report on Lt. Col. Mersereau, 9 July 1919)

While carrying a message to Brigadier General Arthur Currie during the Second Battle of Ypres, Major Chalmers Jack Mersereau was struck in the head by a piece of shrapnel. Although he managed to make the delivery to headquarters, he slipped into unconsciousness. Hospitalized for the next two months, he found that he had lost his power speech. Fluent in English and French with some German before the war, he struggled to regain basic vocabulary, which remained partially impaired for the rest of his life.

Born on 13 July 1880 in Bathurst, New Brunswick, Mersereau was the second son of Lieutenant Colonel George W. Mersereau of 132nd Battalion. A graduate of Harvard with an MA and PhD, he had formed a brokerage firm in Doaktown. He belonged to the 73rd Regiment for ten years, served with the Royal Canadian Regiment for eight and was commander of the New Brunswick Corps of Guides at the outbreak of the Great War.

He was posted to the 3rd Brigade at the rank of major when the Canadian Expeditionary Force left Valcartier. During the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, he coordinated with Lieutenant Colonel Russell Boyle of the 10th Battalion to save the Canadian position after the German gas attack. Following his serious head wound, he was evacuated to England.

The press dramatically reported his case as a bizarre story where a francophone lost all knowledge of French only to suddenly speak English perfectly. In reality, Mersereau had been bilingual, and it was a year before he could form sentences in any language. While he slowly struggled to regain English, his abilities in French had significantly diminished. Knowledge of German was gone. A medical report in 1919 noted:

occasionally this Officer’s power of speech (not motor but his vocabulary of words) leave him completely during attempted conversation. He has apparently been always predominatingly a “visual” rather than an “auditive” ie. he has used his eye memory most. He has therefore to attempt to visualize the words he hears in order to either read or speak them fluently. This cause the recurring hesitations and deliberateness in his speech. His disability is of course increased by fatigue.

Mersereau returned to New Brunswick where he helped to recruit for the 236th (Mclean’s Kilties of America) Battalion. Despite the impairment and now limited vocabulary, he returned to the field in 1918 and commanded the 25th Battalion for the final month of the war. He earned the Distinguished Service Order during the battle of Cambrai.

According to the citation, he organized: “a most successful night operation, crossing a canal under very difficult conditions, afterwards capturing a village and inflicting casualties and taking many prisoners. The success of this operation was largely due to the initiative and gallant behavior shown by this officer.”

Mersereau died in Fredericton on 7 November 1942.

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