But McClung’s public persona rarely portrays her full history. Beyond her triumphs in literature and women’s rights, McClung was also a soldier’s mother, connected to the trials of war through her eldest son, Jack.
Born in 1873, McClung lived in Chatsworth, Ont., until the age of seven, moving with her homesteader parents to Souris Valley, Man. Graduating at 16, she became a teacher until she married a druggist named Robert Wesley in 1896. They had four sons and a daughter. But it was Jack, her eldest, who seemed to have the greatest hold on her.
“Fire has to be fought with fire, force with force. It is a hard remedy, involving unspeakable horror and waste.”
McClung described Jack in a Dec. 4, 1915, diary entry, as “a boy who never has had a gun in his hands, whose ways are gentle, and full of peace; who loves his fellow men, pities their sorrows, and would gladly help them to solve their problems.
Like Jack, McClung had always been a pacifist and promoted that sentiment through her writings and early petitions for temperance. So, when her son went off to the First World War in 1915, she was shocked and bothered. Jack was a lieutenant with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
In the same diary entry, she wrote of saying goodbye to Jack at the train station: “When we came home I felt strangely tired and old though I am only forty-two. But I know that my youth has departed from me. It has gone with Jack, our beloved, our first born, the pride of our hearts.
“What have I done to you, in letting you go into this inferno of war? And how could I hold you back without breaking your heart?”
The pacifist flame of McClung’s political position slowly changed to support the war effort. This new way of thinking even manifested into action when she volunteered for the Red Cross, hailing the organization in a 1940 Victoria Daily Times column as “one of the few humanitarian ideas that has ever become a reality.”
During that same era, she wrote: “I would like to be an out-and-out pacifist.
“Fire has to be fought with fire, force with force. It is a hard remedy, involving unspeakable horror and waste. No one likes it, but what else can we do?”
Thankfully, Jack survived, returning to a cheery homecoming in March 1919—but not without being profoundly affected.
McClung believed her son had finally succumbed to his war trauma.
Once a sunny and enthusiastic boy, Jack came back sullen, sombre and stark silent about his wartime experiences. Depressed and moody, his anger was quick and sharp when provoked.
“When a boy who has never had a gun in his hands, never desired anything but the good of his fellow men, is sent out to kill other boys like himself, even at the call of his country, something snaps in him, something which may not mend,” wrote McClung in her memoir This Stream Runs Fast.
“A wound in a young heart is like a wound in a young tree. It does not grow out. It grows in.”
Likely suffering from undiagnosed mental afflictions, and with little opportunity for treatment, Jack tried to work through his troubles. He went to law school and received a scholarship from the University of Oxford.
Still, years later in 1944, Jack died of suicide after shooting himself. Though his health was likely exacerbated by a recent fraud scandal and alcoholism, McClung believed her son had finally succumbed to his war trauma.
“Then came the reeling blow and our eldest son, our beloved Jack, was gone—gone like a great tree from the mountain top, leaving a lonesome place against the sky,” wrote McClung.
In this way, McClung had known war intimately. Not as a volunteer or a political thinker, but as a mother, seeing war through her son’s eyes.