"From the darkness to the light": Memoirs of blind Canadian veterans of the First and Second World Wars

By Corinne Doria

On June 7 1917 Private James H. Rawlinson of the Ontario 58th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was blinded by a fragment of shrapnel. He entered the St. Dunstan's Institute for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in London for rehabilitation; there he learned Braille, typing and carpentry before returning to his native Ottawa. In 1919 he published Through St. Dunstan’s to Light, a book in which he describes the drama of his wound, his rehabilitation, and his return to the civilian society.

Rawlinson, James H. (1919). Through St. Dunstan’s to Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen., front page
Rawlinson, James H. (1919). Through St. Dunstan’s to Light.
Toronto: Thomas Allen., front page

James Rawlinson is one of the several hundred Canadians who lost their sight in war, and one of the few who decided to tell their story in an autobiographical work. We can also mention Blind Date (1962) by John Windsor, and Wings of Courage (2000) by Neil Hamilton, both of whom fought in the Second World War. Born in Calgary John Windsor was an officer of Lord Strathcona's Horse, a light cavalry regiment that fought during the Second World War as an armored unit. During an operation in Italy a shell fragment destroyed his eyes and blew away half his face. After a long stay in hospital and several reconstructive operations, he went to the training centre in Church Stretton, a St. Dunstan's facility opened in 1940. Neil Hamilton, was born in 1920 in Regina (Saskatchewan). In October 1941 he entered the Royal Canadian Air Force. In November 1943 he suffered a haemorrhage of the eyes during a training flight, which left him with only 10% vision in each eye. He attended the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), an institution created in 1918 on the model of St. Dunstan’s to assist Canadian blind veterans, where he was trained in Public Relations and management, obtaining a job as manager at the CNIB Calgary’s branch.

C.N.I.B. (Canadian Institut for the Blind), facility in Toronto Durflinger, Serge Marc (2010). Veterans With a Vision. Vancouver/Toronto, UBC Press, p. 108
C.N.I.B. (Canadian Institut for the Blind), facility in Toronto Durflinger, Serge Marc (2010). Veterans With a Vision. Vancouver/Toronto, UBC Press, p. 108

These books narrate individual journeys ‘from the darkness to the light’; they provide insight into the experience of blindness and what it means – from a psychological and a practical viewpoint – to be suddenly deprived of sight as an adult.

Left: Portrait of John Winsor, Windsor, John (1963). Blind Date. Sidney, BC: Gray’s Publishing Canada, p.2; Right: Hamilton, Neil R. (2000). Wings of Courage: A Lifetime of Triumph over Adversity. Calgary: Nacelles, p. 1
Portrait of John Winsor, Windsor, John (1963). Blind Date. Sidney, BC: Gray’s Publishing Canada, p.2 (left picture); Hamilton, Neil R. (2000). Wings of Courage: A Lifetime of Triumph over Adversity. Calgary: Nacelles, p. 1 (right picture)

This post aims at presenting the organizations of support to Canadian blind veterans of WWI and WW2, and to analyze the impact of blindness on individuals through the study autobiographical accounts.

At the beginning of the 20th century Canada had almost no training institutions for blind adults. There were only three schools for children born blind (in Brantford, Halifax and Montréal) providing mediocre education. The question of social and professional reintegration for the blind arose because of the Great War. Some 140 Canadian servicemen returned home blind, and nearly 1,300 with severe visual impairment. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) was founded in 1922 by Edwin Albert Baker, an electrical engineer from Collins Bay (Ontario) who was injured in the Ypres Salient in 1915, at the age of 22. In April 1922 was also set up the Sir Arthur Pearson Association (SAPA), a social club and veterans’ advocacy group. These associations were committed to provide assistance to blind ex-servicemen and to pressure the federal government to organize assistance at a national level. Their actions had a measurable impact. At the end of World War I, Ottawa voted the covering of the accommodation and re-educational programs undertaken by CNIB and SAPA in the aftermath of war. The Second World War raised the public profile of blind veterans even further. More than 200 soldiers were blinded in that war. By that time the CNIB expanded, opening offices in Calgary, Vancouver, Regina and Ottawa. In 1956 pensions for war blinded were increased and their widows could continue getting a full pension for one year following their husbands’ death. In 1970 was voted the Exceptional Incapacity Allowance, that entitled blind ex-servicemen to an attendance allowance of 3,000 dollars/year.

Rawlinson, Windsor and Hamilton depict the loss of sight in the first place as a trauma. The very moment of the injury is recalled in dramatic detail. “I felt a slight sting in my right temple as though pricked by a hot needle – and then the world became black. Dawn was breaking now, but night had sealed my eyes, and I could only grope my way among my comrades” (Rawlinson). The awareness of blindness provokes horror, panic, and the desperate hope that it is only a temporary situation. Then, when they realize that there is nothing more that can be done, comes despair. “My life, the worthwhile part of it, seemed to end at that moment leaving nothing but a husk, filled with despair and inner hurt” (Winsor).

These men describe losing their sight as the end of life as they knew it. But if blindness is in one way compared to death, it also represents the beginning of a new life. Blindness obliges them to learn everything anew, as if they were new-born. “[The blinded man] at first has much to unlearn. All his old methods of work have to be forgotten. He is, in a sense, a child again, born the day his sight is taken from him” (Rawlinson).
All three authors present blindness as a condition that can only be understood by the blind, and it is impossible for an able-bodied individual to apprehend. The authors’ narrative is sometimes “elitist”: they patronize and even complain the sighted and even complain for their lack of understanding. “One of the annoying things to a sightless person is to have some sighted friend sit by him at a play, describing costumes and scenery. The blind have no need of such aids” (Winsor). Spending time with people in the same condition reinforces blindness as an identitarian factor. Rawlinson and Winsor have several pages on St. Dunstan’s inmates and the spirit of solidarity and companionship they experienced during their stay. By making the acquaintance of other blind people, learning their histories and sharing their own they start to feel they belong to a different group, and to distance themselves somewhat from “sighted” society.

Rawlinson, James H. (1919). Through St. Dunstan’s to Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen, p. 24
Rawlinson, James H. (1919). Through St. Dunstan’s to Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen, p. 24

This sense of uniqueness is felt alongside a profound desire for normality. The possibility of becoming a worthy member of society again is what motivates their commitment to training. This aspiration to normality and social integration is also apparent in the desire to start a family (both Windsor and Hamilton married and had children). Another sign of the desire for “normality” is the constant concern to display masculinity. They have no intention to decline their male identity because of their impairment. This is evident from several signs, starting with the place accorded to war in their narratives. It is also highlighted by their determination to be the breadwinner, and the subordinate position of their wives.
The reason why Rawlinson, Windsor and Hamilton decided to write their autobiographies is to challenge existing stereotypes about the blind. At the beginning of the 20th century a blind man was considered as an individual whose impairment excluded him from society. Blind people were frequently the objects of pity or derision. Their books are inspirational stories, depicting the overcoming of difficulties through an undefeatable will-force. Prejudices about blind people remain, however, throughout the 20th century in Canadian society. Hamilton recalls how people generally were indifferent to the needs of the blind, and he often encountered cases where they were victims of abuse.

By describing the authors’ journey “from the darkness to the light”, these autobiographies illustrate the multiple personal and social issues that a blind veteran had to go face and remind reminding that disability is both a personal and a social concern.


Corinne Doria is Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University, New York.
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Recommended citation
Corinne Doria (2019): "From the darkness to the light": Memoirs of blind Canadian veterans of the First and Second World Wars In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 7.