Quebec’s Emile Matthé was so anxious to join the First World War that he enlisted twice – and lied about his age.
A teenage plumber living with his mother in Montreal, Matthé first enlisted on June 25, 1917 as the conscription crisis gripped Quebec. One month earlier, Prime Minister Robert Borden had retreated from an earlier promise and introduced a conscription bill that was hotly opposed in Quebec.
The bill threatened to tear apart the country since many in Quebec did not want to be forced to join the war.
Emile Matthé was not one of them. He presented himself to a Montreal recruitment office and gave his birthday as June 22, 1900. (It was one of at least four birthdates connected to him.)
He was assigned to the 258th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Canada’s overseas army, and spent four months in the service in Canada. But he was discharged in October 1917 for being under-age. Volunteers had to be at least 18.
Not to be deterred, Matthé enlisted again at the end of May 1918. This time, taking no chances, he gave his birthdate as May 20, 1899. He was listed as 5-7 tall – half an inch taller than the previous year – with brown hair and brown eyes.
He embarked for England on board the S.S. Somali on July 21 and arrived two weeks later. Matthé was assigned in September 1918 to the 10th Reserve Battalion of the Quebec Regiment at Camp Bramshott, in Hampshire, England.
The First World War was then in its final, decisive phase: The Hundred Days offensive that would lead to the defeat of the German army.
Pte. Matthé would never join the theatre of war. The following month, he reported sick and was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. He was later admitted to the Canadian Special Hospital in Lenham, England with a persistent cough, pain in his chest, and shortness of breath.
He tested positive for tuberculosis, and was sent back to Canada in February 1919.
At St. Anne’s Military Hospital, in Montreal, his doctor, Lt. J.C. Browne, described him as “a weak, anaemic looking man,” and recommended him for discharge. He was deemed medically unfit in March 1919 and the medical board recommended “rest, fresh air, sanitarium treatment.
Matthé died of TB in St. Anne’s Hospital on March 1, 1921 at 7 p.m. His death was officially registered as a “death due to service.”
As a result, on Remembrance Day, Matthé’s name was issued by @WeAretheDead, an account on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.
The @WeAretheDead account was established 12 years ago by former Citizen reporter Glen McGregor to honour Canada’s military dead. It publishes one name at 11 minutes past each hour from the list of 119,531 Canadians who have lost their lives in uniform.
The vast majority of the dead are from the First and Second World Wars.
So far, more than 102,000 names have been issued randomly from the database provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
Matthé’s name was published at 11:11 a.m. on Remembrance Day, marking the start of a one-day reporting effort by this newspaper, conducted with the help of readers and researchers online. The goal of the annual We Are The Dead project is to tell the story of one fallen soldier: to track down military records, regimental diaries and relatives that make real the soldier’s sacrifice.
Matthé actually has two military files: one from his initial enlistment, and the second one, which closely tracks his illness.
Those documents show Matthé was one of six children born to Jean Baptiste Matthé, a paper factory worker, and his wife, Sophronie. He grew up in Saint-Jerome, Quebec, but likely moved to Montreal after his father died in February 1914.
Matthé went to work as a plumber, but was so eager to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force that he lied about his age.
His French-language birth certificate gives his date of birth as June 20, 1901. The 1911 census puts his birthday in June 1902.
(This in addition to his two prior birthdays listed in documents: June 22, 1900 and May 20, 1899.)
It means Matthé likely lied in May 1918 when he enlisted in the CEF. (If he was born in 1901 or 1902, he would still have been too young to enlist.)
It also appears likely that he lied about the state of his health.
His official war records show Matthé was already in ill health when he enlisted, suffering from shortness of breath and a cough. Recruits were supposed to be rejected if they had tuberculosis, but the disease was almost impossible to diagnose without an x-ray.
“With sparing use of chest x-rays early in the 20th century, primary tuberculosis was rarely diagnosed and secondary tuberculosis was readily diagnosed by a simple chest x-ray only after symptoms of cough, bloody sputum, fever, and weight loss,” wrote Dr. Frederick Holmes, a professor emeritus in medical history at the University of Kansas, who wrote a history of tuberculosis in the First World War.
If Matthé had a mild, or even a healed tuberculosis infection, a three-week journey aboard a crowded troopship would have made for ideal conditions to spread the disease. (In early 1918, the ship Matthe sailed to England on, the S.S. Somali, was found to be infested with rats that may have been infected with the plague. Some soldiers disembarked in England and were sent straight to hospital.)
For soldiers who went into the trenches of the Western Front, or to crowded army bases like Canada’s Camp Bramshott, disease was always at hand. The soldiers’ close-quarter living was the perfect breeding ground for sickness.
“Something that will never be known is how many soldiers, given living in unhygienic close quarters, often cold and wet, exhausted from continuous combat and lack of sleep, and not always well fed, were infected with tuberculosis or went from a healed primary infection to an active secondary infection while in military service,” Holmes wrote.
Matthé was sick almost from the day he arrived in England. He was diagnosed with TB at the Canadian Special Hospital hospital in Lenham, England and on Feb. 3, 1919 was invalided back to Canada aboard the ship S.S. Araguaya.
Matthé was one of an estimated 3,100 Canadian soldiers who returned from the war suffering from TB.
The baceterium that causes TB – or consumption as it was sometimes known – had been discovered in 1882 by German physician Dr. Robert Koch. At the time, TB was the cause of about one in every seven deaths in Europe and North America. The bacterium grows in the lungs and in the early stage of the infection may cause no symptoms at all. But it can still spread from person to person, expelled into the air by a cough or a sneeze.
TB patients like Matthé found themselves admitted to sanatoriums where treatment was limited to sunlight and fresh air. An effective treatment for TB wouldn’t be developed until the discovery of antibiotics in the 1950s.
Unlike other soldiers who returned home maimed by shells or scarred by poisonous gas, tuberculosis patients did not receive pension and other health benefits.
Eventually, Canadian veterans languishing in a sanatorium in British Columbia began to organize to demand fair treatment from the government. They formed a group called the Invalided Tuberculosis Soldiers’ Welfare League (ITSWL). In 1917, it expanded and changed its name to the Tuberculous Veterans’ Association.
In the 1920s, the TVA became a part of the Royal Canadian Legion, and was eventually successful in winning government benefits for its members.
By then, it was too late for Emile Matthé, who lies buried in St. Jerome Roman Catholic Cemetery in Quebec City.
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