November 11, 2014
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae, MD (November 30, 1872 – January 28, 1918)
McCrae served in the artillery during the Second Boer War. When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, was at war as well. McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. McCrae's friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle.
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. On the morning of Sunday 2nd May Lieutenant Helmer left his dugout and was killed instantly by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening.
Lieutenant Helmer was buried on the 2nd May. In the absence of the chaplain, Major John McCrae conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England's 'Order of Burial of the Dead'. A wooden cross marked the burial place.
Lieutenant Colonel Morrison who served in the same unit later wrote about the small burial ground where Alexis Helmer was originally buried. As he described it: “A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry regiment and on numerous occasions during the sixteen day battle, we saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns.”
The day after the funeral for Lt. Helmer Major McCrae was seen writing the poem while sitting on the rear step of an ambulance the next day while looking at Helmer's grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up in the burial ground. Some say that McCrae was so upset after Helmer's burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
John McCrae suffered from severe asthma all his life, In January, 1918, while commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae contracted pneumonia. He died six days later. His flag-draped coffin was borne on a gun carriage and the mourners – who included Sir Arthur Currie and many of McCrae's friends and staff – were preceded by McCrae's charger, "Bonfire", with McCrae's boots reversed in the stirrups.
Every generation has to find their own answers, on this Remembrance day we think about those who decided that the answers included making the ultimate sacrifice