The outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914 gave Canada its first real experience with wounded veterans. The impact of the war-blinded soldiers outstripped their relatively small numbers.
Fewer than 200 Canadian servicemen were discharged as blind, but the plight of young people blinded while serving king and country deeply affected their compatriots. Canada’s official historian of medical services during the war, Sir Andrew Macphail of McGill University Faculty of Medicine, wrote “wounds of the eye in war appear to be uncommon merely because they are so often fatal, being in association with more extensive lesions.”
Early in the war some Canadians with war-related eye injuries were sent to St. Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in England. The hostel’s founder, Sir Arthur Pearson, himself blinded by glaucoma, was a wealthy British newspaper magnate who began St. Dunstan’s to train blinded soldiers to become “useful citizens.” His philosophy was to teach independence and confidence. “At the very moment when it would be most natural for them to be despondent I wanted them to be astonishingly interested. I wanted them to be led to look upon blindness not as an affliction but as a handicap, not merely as a calamity but as an opportunity.” At St. Dunstan’s veterans received the rehabilitation and skills to lead productive and satisfying lives. Influential future Canadian leaders, in particular E.A. Baker and Alexander Viets had their outlooks formed by Pearson’s philosophy and the St. Dunstan’s training.
Treatment of Canadian war-blinded veterans was inconsistent. Some went to St. Dunstan’s, and some were shipped home, under the unfortunately incorrect assumption that services would be available to them in Canada. In fact, there was little that Canada could offer. Schools in Brantford, Halifax, and Montreal were meant for young people, not adults. Braille, typing, and vocational skills training were limited. St. Dunstan's, in contrast, excelled in these areas. Through the persistent advocacy efforts of Baker, among others, Canada eventually agreed that all war-blinded Canadians still in Europe would be given the chance to go to St. Dunstan’s and those who were already back in Canada would have the chance to go to England.
Public interest in war blinded soldiers in Canada benefited civilian and war blind alike. The Canadian Free Library for the Blind seized the opportunity, and publicly identified its activities with the war. In “Our Blinded Soldiers,” a newspaper article offered to the Toronto Telegram, the CFLB’s librarian was said to want “to get in touch with those brave soldiers who have given their country their dearest possession, their eyesight, that he may give them fresh courage, yes, and a fresh start in life, by teaching them both to read and use the typewriter.” Thanks to the availability of increased public funds and patriotically-inspired private donations, the CFLB advanced the cause of both civilian and war-related blindness through these tumultuous years.