Read In Flanders Fields And Other Poems Online
Authors: John McCrae
Much is left out of the diary that we would wish to have recorded. There is tantalizing mention of "conversations" with Shepherd--with Roddick--with Chipman--with Armstrong--with Gardner--with Martin--with Moyse. Occasionally there is a note of description: "James Mavor is a kindly genius with much knowledge"; "Tait McKenzie presided ideally" at a Shakespeare dinner; "Stephen Leacock does not keep all the good things for his publisher." Those who know the life in Montreal may well for themselves supply the details.
John McCrae left the front after the second battle of Ypres, and never returned. On June 1st, 1915, he was posted to No. 3 General Hospital at Boulogne, a most efficient unit organized by McGill University and commanded by that fine soldier Colonel H. S. Birkett, C.B. He was placed in charge of medicine, with the rank of Lieut.-Colonel as from April 17th, 1915, and there he remained until his death.
At first he did not relish the change. His heart was with the guns. He had transferred from the artillery to the medical service as recently as the previous autumn, and embarked a few days afterwards at Quebec, on the 29th of September, arriving at Davenport, October 20th, 1914. Although he was attached as Medical Officer to the 1st Brigade of Artillery, he could not forget that he was no longer a gunner, and in those tumultuous days he was often to be found in the observation post rather than in his dressing station. He had inherited something of the old army superciliousness towards a "non-combatant" service, being unaware that in this war the battle casualties in the medical corps were to be higher than in any other arm of the service. From South Africa he wrote exactly fifteen years before: "I am glad that I am not 'a medical' out here. No 'R.A.M.C.' or any other 'M.C.' for me. There is a big breach, and the medicals are on the far side of it." On August 7th, 1915, he writes from his hospital post, "I expect to wish often that I had stuck by the artillery." But he had no choice.
Of this period of his service there is little written record. He merely did his work, and did it well, as he always did what his mind found to do. His health was failing. He suffered from the cold. A year before his death he writes on January 25th, 1917:
The cruel cold is still holding. Everyone is suffering, and the men in the wards in bed cannot keep warm. I know of nothing so absolutely pitiless as weather. Let one wish; let one pray; do what one will; still the same clear sky and no sign,--you know the cold brand of sunshine. For my own part I do not think I have ever been more uncomfortable. Everything is so cold that it hurts to pick it up. To go to bed is a nightmare and to get up a worse one. I have heard of cold weather in Europe, and how the poor suffer,--now I know!
All his life he was a victim of asthma. The first definite attack was in the autumn of 1894, and the following winter it recurred with persistence. For the next five years his letters abound in references to the malady. After coming to Montreal it subsided; but he always felt that the enemy was around the corner. He had frequent periods in bed; but he enjoyed the relief from work and the occasion they afforded for rest and reading.
In January, 1918, minutes begin to appear upon his official file which were of great interest to him, and to us. Colonel Birkett had relinquished command of the unit to resume his duties as Dean of the Medical Faculty of McGill University. He was succeeded by that veteran soldier, Colonel J. M. Elder, C.M.G. At the same time the command of No. 1 General Hospital fell vacant. Lieut.-Colonel McCrae was required for that post; but a higher honour was in store, namely the place of Consultant to the British Armies in the Field. All these events, and the final great event, are best recorded in the austere official correspondence which I am permitted to extract from the files:
From D.M.S. Canadian Contingents. (Major-General C. L. Foster, C.B.). To O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F., 13th December, 1917: There is a probability of the command of No. 1 General Hospital becoming vacant. It is requested, please, that you obtain from Lieut.-Col. J. McCrae his wishes in the matter. If he is available, and willing to take over this command, it is proposed to offer it to him.
O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F., To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents, 28th December, 1917: Lieut.-Colonel McCrae desires me to say that, while he naturally looks forward to succeeding to the command of this unit, he is quite willing to comply with your desire, and will take command of No. 1 General Hospital at any time you may wish.
D.G.M.S. British Armies in France. To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents, January 2nd, 1918: It is proposed to appoint Lieut.-Colonel J. McCrae, now serving with No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, Consulting Physician to the British Armies in France. Notification of this appointment, when made, will be sent to you in due course.
D.M.S. Canadian Contingents. To O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F., January 5th, 1918: Since receiving your letter I have information from G.H.Q. that they will appoint a Consultant Physician to the British Armies in the Field, and have indicated their desire for Lieut.-Colonel McCrae for this duty. This is a much higher honour than commanding a General Hospital, and I hope he will take the post, as this is a position I have long wished should be filled by a C.A.M.C. officer.
D.M.S. Canadian Contingents. To D.G.M.S., G.H.Q., 2nd Echelon, January 15th, 1918: I fully concur in this appointment, and consider this officer will prove his ability as an able Consulting Physician.
Telegram: D.G.M.S., G.H.Q., 2nd Echelon. To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents, January 18th, 1918: Any objection to Lieut.-Col. J. McCrae being appointed Consulting Physician to British Armies in France. If appointed, temporary rank of Colonel recommended.
Telegram: O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F. To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents, January 27th, 1918: Lieut.-Col. John McCrae seriously ill with pneumonia at No. 14 General Hospital.
Telegram: O.C. No. 14 General Hospital. To O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F., January 28th, 1918: Lieut.-Col. John McCrae died this morning.
This was the end. For him the war was finished and all the glory of the world had passed.
Henceforth we are concerned not with the letters he wrote, but with the letters which were written about him. They came from all quarters, literally in hundreds, all inspired by pure sympathy, but some tinged with a curiosity which it is hoped this writing will do something to assuage.
Let us first confine ourselves to the facts. They are all contained in a letter which Colonel Elder wrote to myself in common with other friends. On Wednesday, January 23rd, he was as usual in the morning; but in the afternoon Colonel Elder found him asleep in his chair in the mess room. "I have a slight headache," he said. He went to his quarters. In the evening he was worse, but had no increase of temperature, no acceleration of pulse or respiration. At this moment the order arrived for him to proceed forthwith as Consulting Physician of the First Army. Colonel Elder writes, "I read the order to him, and told him I should announce the contents at mess. He was very much pleased over the appointment. We discussed the matter at some length, and I took his advice upon measures for carrying on the medical work of the unit."
Next morning he was sleeping soundly, but later on he professed to be much better. He had no fever, no cough, no pain. In the afternoon he sent for Colonel Elder, and announced that he had pneumonia. There were no signs in the chest; but the microscope revealed certain organisms which rather confirmed the diagnosis. The temperature was rising. Sir Bertrand Dawson was sent for. He came by evening from Wimereux, but he could discover no physical signs. In the night the temperature continued to rise, and he complained of headache. He was restless until the morning, "when he fell into a calm, untroubled sleep."
Next morning, being Friday, he was removed by ambulance to No. 14 General Hospital at Wimereux. In the evening news came that he was better; by the morning the report was good, a lowered temperature and normal pulse. In the afternoon the condition grew worse; there were signs of cerebral irritation with a rapid, irregular pulse; his mind was quickly clouded. Early on Sunday morning the temperature dropped, and the heart grew weak; there was an intense sleepiness. During the day the sleep increased to coma, and all knew the end was near.
His friends had gathered. The choicest of the profession was there, but they were helpless. He remained unconscious, and died at half past one on Monday morning. The cause of death was double pneumonia with massive cerebral infection. Colonel Elder's letter concludes: "We packed his effects in a large box, everything that we thought should go to his people, and Gow took it with him to England to-day." Walter Gow was his cousin, a son of that Gow who sailed with the Eckfords from Glasgow in the 'Clutha'. At the time he was Deputy Minister in London of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada. He had been sent for but arrived too late;--all was so sudden.
The funeral was held on Tuesday afternoon, January 29th, at the cemetery in Wimereux. The burial was made with full military pomp. From the Canadian Corps came Lieut.-General Sir Arthur Currie, the General Officer Commanding; Major-General E. W. B. Morrison, and Brigadier-General W. O. H. Dodds, of the Artillery. Sir A. T. Sloggett, the Director-General of Medical Services, and his Staff were waiting at the grave. All Commanding Officers at the Base, and all Deputy Directors were there. There was also a deputation from the Harvard Unit headed by Harvey Cushing.
Bonfire went first, led by two grooms, and decked in the regulation white ribbon, not the least pathetic figure in the sad procession. A hundred nursing Sisters in caps and veils stood in line, and then proceeded in ambulances to the cemetery, where they lined up again. Seventy-five of the personnel from the Hospital acted as escort, and six Sergeants bore the coffin from the gates to the grave. The firing party was in its place. Then followed the chief mourners, Colonel Elder and Sir Bertrand Dawson; and in their due order, the rank and file of No. 3 with their officers; the rank and file of No. 14 with their officers; all officers from the Base, with Major-General Wilberforce and the Deputy Directors to complete.
It was a springtime day, and those who have passed all those winters in France and in Flanders will know how lovely the springtime may be. So we may leave him, "on this sunny slope, facing the sunset and the sea." These are the words used by one of the nurses in a letter to a friend,--those women from whom no heart is hid. She also adds: "The nurses lamented that he became unconscious so quickly they could not tell him how much they cared. To the funeral all came as we did, because we loved him so."
At first there was the hush of grief and the silence of sudden shock. Then there was an outbreak of eulogy, of appraisement, and sorrow. No attempt shall be made to reproduce it here; but one or two voices may be recorded in so far as in disjointed words they speak for all. Stephen Leacock, for those who write, tells of his high vitality and splendid vigour--his career of honour and marked distinction--his life filled with honourable endeavour and instinct with the sense of duty--a sane and equable temperament--whatever he did, filled with sure purpose and swift conviction.
Dr. A. D. Blackader, acting Dean of the Medical Faculty of McGill University, himself speaking from out of the shadow, thus appraises his worth: "As a teacher, trusted and beloved; as a colleague, sincere and cordial; as a physician, faithful, cheerful, kind. An unkind word he never uttered." Oskar Klotz, himself a student, testifies that the relationship was essentially one of master and pupil. From the head of his first department at McGill, Professor, now Colonel, Adami, comes the weighty phrase, that he was sound in diagnosis; as a teacher inspiring; that few could rise to his high level of service.
There is yet a deeper aspect of this character with which we are concerned; but I shrink from making the exposition, fearing lest with my heavy literary tread I might destroy more than I should discover. When one stands by the holy place wherein dwells a dead friend's soul--the word would slip out at last--it becomes him to take off the shoes from off his feet. But fortunately the dilemma does not arise. The task has already been performed by one who by God has been endowed with the religious sense, and by nature enriched with the gift of expression; one who in his high calling has long been acquainted with the grief of others, and is now himself a man of sorrow, having seen with understanding eyes,
These great days range like tides, And leave our dead on every shore.
On February 14th, 1918, a Memorial Service was held in the Royal Victoria College. Principal Sir William Peterson presided. John Macnaughton gave the address in his own lovely and inimitable words, to commemorate one whom he lamented, "so young and strong, in the prime of life, in the full ripeness of his fine powers, his season of fruit and flower bearing. He never lost the simple faith of his childhood. He was so sure about the main things, the vast things, the indispensable things, of which all formulated faiths are but a more or less stammering expression, that he was content with the rough embodiment in which his ancestors had laboured to bring those great realities to bear as beneficent and propulsive forces upon their own and their children's minds and consciences. His instinctive faith sufficed him."
To his own students John McCrae once quoted the legend from a picture, to him "the most suggestive picture in the world": What I spent I had: what I saved I lost: what I gave I have;--and he added: "It will be in your power every day to store up for yourselves treasures that will come back to you in the consciousness of duty well done, of kind acts performed, things that having given away freely you yet possess. It has often seemed to me that when in the Judgement those surprised faces look up and say, Lord, when saw we Thee an' hungered and fed Thee; or thirsty and gave Thee drink; a stranger, and took Thee in; naked and clothed Thee; and there meets them that warrant-royal of all charity, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto Me, there will be amongst those awed ones many a practitioner of medicine."
And finally I shall conclude this task to which I have set a worn but willing hand, by using again the words which once I used before: Beyond all consideration of his intellectual attainments John McCrae was the well beloved of his friends. He will be missed in his place; and wherever his companions assemble there will be for them a new poignancy in the Miltonic phrase,