Sixth in a series marking the centennial of World War I
When Nelson’s William Sturgeon returned from the First World War, he brought with him an unusual set of souvenirs: three small boxes of stereoscopic glass slides that showed the sort of horrors he’d witnessed.
The sepia-toned images, taken by an anonymous photographer and commercially produced, are not for the faint of heart. While some shown benign scenes of marching soldiers, others graphically depict bodies on the battlefields of France.
This early form of three-dimensional photography predated more common stereoscopes printed on cardboard. Light-sensitive photo chemicals were applied to glass and then inserted into a camera with two lenses, about an eye’s width apart.
The resulting images were meant to be looked with a sort of primitive Viewmaster (pictured at left) that used exactly the same principle. However, the slides were heavy and easily broken.
About 40 of Sturgeon’s 60 or so slides are part of a current exhibit at Touchstones Nelson entitled Bringing Home the War: 3-D Images from the Battlefields of World War I.
You sit in a darkened gallery and watch a slide show while wearing the sort of red-and-blue cardboard 3-D glasses once used at horror movies — only in this case, the horrors are real.
Wounded in combat
William Sturgeon (1889-1983) (pictured below) was born in Kamloops to French Canadian parents who changed their name from Tourgeon. When he enlisted for the First World War in the spring of 1916, he was 26, and an accountant with the Bank of Montreal in Nelson. He became a lieutenant with the 102 Battalion CEF and left for France that August.
Three months later, he was seriously wounded in the left hip by an exploding shell. He was patched up in France and then taken to London for more surgery. Despite his injuries, he transferred to the Royal Air Force and started training as a pilot, though the war ended before he saw further combat.
Exactly where, when, and why Sturgeon acquired the glass slides is unknown, but his daughter Mimi, who grew up in Nelson and now lives in Vancouver, says she and her siblings always knew about them.
“They weren’t not he coffee table, but I remember looking at them. There were an awful lot of corpses. The photographer showed the horror of the war, what’s it’s really like in the trenches.
“How did my father bring them home? He wouldn’t have been packing them around. Perhaps he was able to mail them.”
Mimi’s brother Bill, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, adds. “I’m surprised they didn’t get busted up more than they did. My father never really talked a lot about the war other than ’It was a terrible place to be, and here are the slides to prove it.’”
Bill recalls that when he was ten, he saw his father changing clothes, “and he had this big hole in his hip where he had been hit by shrapnel. He said ‘Come on over and take a look. Go ahead and touch it if you want.’ I remember thinking that it was a terrible wound and a good thing it wasn’t in his stomach or it would have done him in.”
He also remembers his father saying that he was advised not to drink his alcohol ration, so that if he was ever injured, he could use it to keep from going into shock. That’s exactly what happened.
“When he got hit by shrapnel he was laying in a ditch and some guys came and hauled him away. He told me they didn’t have much if any anesthetic as they cut that shrapnel out of his hip, and being able to have a few drinks maybe saved him. Shock killed a lot of guys.”
When he was about 75, Sturgeon felt some pain in his hip, and “darned if they didn’t pull out three more little pieces of shrapnel that had been there for 50 years.” Sturgeon always limped on the side that had been hit, but was able to walk from his home at 618 Silica Street to the courthouse, where he was registrar. Upon retirement he moved to Vancouver.
The Sturgeon children all left Nelson by the early 1960s, although Bill and Mimi still have a place at Crescent Beach on Kootenay Lake, and another brother, Joe, often stayed at Bealby Point.
Touchstones volunteer Steve Kobs contacted the Sturgeon family this year on a related project (see story below) and learned about the glass slides in Bill Jr.’s possession.
“At first I thought his father had taken them, but it’s clear he purchased them,” Kobs says. “The subject matter wasn’t popular. Unlike the cardboard slides that had tourist attractions, these were much more documentary style. Old Bill saw these images as a way for people to have a better understanding of what was going on.”
The slides were sold by a French company, Lumiere and Joulga, and have brief handwritten notations in the centre between the left and right plates indicating when or where they were taken. The more gruesome ones have the word “cadavre.”
One one of his semi-regular visits to Nelson, Bill Jr. brought the slides to Touchstones and an exhibit began to develop. “I thought they were amazing,” says curator Rod Taylor. “It made everything feel so much more immediate.”
Presenting the slides posed a bit of a technical challenge, however. Kobs and Taylor explored a few ideas before settling on the 3-D glasses, which simulates the experience, although it’s not quite the same thing.
The slideshow starts with some innocuous images before building to barren landscapes, destroyed villages, and soldiers’ bodies. The added depth and dimension that stereographic photography brings to the subject is chilling.
“It didn’t appear gimmicky,” Taylor says. “It added something to the images or drew the viewer in in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise.
“And when you’re looking at images of corpses, any notion of heroism or grand narratives sometimes associated with war is just not there. It’s just death and devastation.”
Touchstones member Lois Best told Taylor her grandfather was one of those who carried the injured William Sturgeon off the battlefield. They weren’t sure if he would survive.
The exhibit is complemented with portraits of local men who enlisted for World War I, taken from an album at the Legion. Kobs chased down basic info on all of them, while a few receive more in-depth profiles, including Charlie O’Malley, whose distinguished military career was at odds with his checkered civilian life.
What’s striking is how young many of them look; more boys than men, they clearly lied about their ages to enlist, and neither their families nor the military stopped them.
Taylor says if people take away nothing else from the exhibit, he hopes they recognize these men as individuals. “These were people and this was the time they were in.”
The Touchstones exhibit is on until Sunday, November 23 and is open by donation today from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with all proceeds going to the Nelson branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Dr. Vigneux’s untimely demise
When Touchstones volunteer Steve Kobs contacted the Sturgeon family, resulting in the Bringing the War Home exhibit, he was actually looking into the story of a relative who survived the war only to die tragically and heroically at home.
Dr. Maurice Vigneux (pictured below), a brother-in-law to William Sturgeon Sr., was born near Windsor, Ont. in 1878. He graduated from the Ontario College of Pharmacy and came west, first to Cranbrook and then Nelson in 1903, where he worked for the Canadian Drug & Book Co. and Poole Drug Co. He also managed the senior hockey team and was a grand chief of the Knights of Columbus.
He enjoyed a banner year in 1911, as he received his medical degree from McGill University, began practicing with Dr. L.E. Borden, and married Annie Sturgeon.
In 1915 he joined the Royal Army Medical corps and spent 18 months in England and France, attaining the rank of captain. On his return, he was a first aid instructor at military camps in Vernon and Victoria. He also took post-graduate courses in Montreal and New York.
On August 22, 1919, Vigneux saved Elsie Turner, 9, from drowning at Lakeside Park. According to the Nelson Daily News account:
“It appeared that little Miss Turner, who was a fair swimmer, had suddenly lost confidence when she was at a point out of her depth, and Dr. Vigneux rushed to her rescue. He seized her and held her in his grasp until assistance reached him, when he handed her over to another.
“While the eyes of the crowd which had gathered were centered on the rescued girl, Dr. Vigneux, who was unable to swim, had got beyond his own depth and since, when he handed over the little girl he appeared to be safe, his cries for help were for the time being unheeded.”
By the time Vigneux was finally located, he had been in the water more than half an hour. Despite the best efforts of several doctors who performed artificial respiration, he died at 41.
Further tragedies followed: Vigneux’s only child, Joseph, contracted polio and died in 1927 at age 16. Elsie Turner married Alfred Lawrence Turner in 1929 and lived in Trail. On Remembrance Day 1953, she was struck by a car driven by her husband’s co-worker on the highway in front of their house in Beaver Falls. She died at 43. She was survived by three sons.