Canadian Military History Article

Link to my most recent publication in CMH:

“Absolutely Incapable of ‘Carrying On:’”
Shell Shock, Suicide, and the Death of Lieutenant Colonel Sam Sharpe

Sam Sharpe


This article examines Canadian social and medical responses to nervous breakdown and suicide in the First World War through the case study of Lieutenant Colonel Sam Sharpe, a Member of Parliament and commander of the 116th Battalion. An historical analysis of Sharpe’s experiences and reaction to war trauma provides wider insights into how shell shock and military suicide represented a potential threat to prewar masculine ideals. Medical and political interpretations of Sharpe’s breakdown initially aimed to preserve social stability and validate the war’s moral justifications but contradictory understandings of shell shock ultimately made for a complicated and unstable process of commemoration.

Barrett, Matthew (2016) ““Absolutely Incapable of ‘Carrying On:’” Shell Shock, Suicide, and the Death of Lieutenant Colonel Sam Sharpe,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 25: Iss. 1, Article 19. Available at:

The Ypres Three

Lieutenant Colonels
Birchall, Hart-McHarg & BoyleYpres3

The more details I learn of the battle before Ypres, the greater to me does the resourcefulness and bravery of brigadiers, battalion commanders, and individuals become apparent.

(General Horace Smith-Dorrien, Apr 1915)

The Canadians had many casualties, but their gallantry and determination undoubtedly saved the situation.

(Lord Kitchener, April 1915)

This week marks the one hundredth anniversary of the second battle of Ypres, the first major action of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The battle saw 5,000 Canadian soldiers wounded and nearly 1,000 killed including three battalion commanders. On 23 April 1915, Arthur Birchall (4th Battalion) was struck down leading his men armed only with his cane. On 24 April 1915, William Hart-McHarg (7th Battalion) was shot and killed while on a reconnaissance operation. On 25 April, Russell Boyle (10th Battalion) died of severe wounds and loss of blood at a clearing hospital. All three had belonged to the 2nd Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Arthur Currie.

The Imposter

“Colonel” Omar Leslie Macklem

Detroit—“Colonel” Omar L. Macklem who for several days has been lionized locally as a war hero, and who has figured prominently in military demonstrations here, today was ordered deported to Canada…

(New York Times, 6 Nov 1917, 3)

Entire vindication has been given Col. Omar Macklem, whose famous case aroused the interest of the whole country…

(Toronto Globe, 11 Dec 1917, 10)

After United States border officials deported Omar Leslie Macklem from Michigan in November 1917, Canadian military authorities charged the “bogus colonel” with impersonating an officer and forging cheques. Born on 12 June 1884 in Tilbury, Ontario, Macklem had enlisted as a private with the 33rd Battalion in March 1915.

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Colonels of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

In mobilizing the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Minister of the Militia Sam Hughes called on hundreds of prominent citizens to raise volunteer battalions from their home counties. Militia leaders, lawyers, Tory politicians and businessmen answered the call. The battalion system was fraught with competition, corruption and partisanship. At the same time, the recruitment strategy reflected the Canadian political culture of the early 20th Century. Community leaders with close connections to the militia, politics and business, staked their personal and professional reputations to gather local volunteers for overseas service. Many of the middle-aged colonels fully expected to lead their men on the battlefields of France. Most were disappointed and humiliated when British and Canadian military officials broke up the battalions and sent the former commanders packing.

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