In Flanders Fields And Other Poems (5 page)

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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Thursday, May 27th, 1915.

Day cloudy and chilly. We wore our greatcoats most of the afternoon, and looked for bits of sunlight to get warm. About two o'clock the heavy guns gave us a regular "black-smithing". Every time we fired we drew a perfect hornet's nest about our heads. While attending to a casualty, a shell broke through both sides of the trench, front and back, about twelve feet away. The zigzag of the trench was between it and us, and we escaped. From my bunk the moon looks down at me, and the wind whistles along the trench like a corridor. As the trenches run in all directions they catch the wind however it blows, so one is always sure of a good draught. We have not had our clothes off since last Saturday, and there is no near prospect of getting them off.

Friday, May 28th, 1915.

Warmer this morning and sunny, a quiet morning, as far as we were concerned. One battery fired twenty rounds and the rest "sat tight". Newspapers which arrive show that up to May 7th, the Canadian public has made no guess at the extent of the battle of Ypres. The Canadian papers seem to have lost interest in it after the first four days; this regardless of the fact that the artillery, numerically a quarter of the division, was in all the time. One correspondent writes from the Canadian rest camp, and never mentions Ypres. Others say they hear heavy bombarding which appears to come from Armentieres.

Wednesday, April 29th*, 1915.

This morning is the sixth day of this fight; it has been constant, except that we got good chance to sleep for the last two nights. Our men have fought beyond praise. Canadian soldiers have set a standard for themselves which will keep posterity busy to surpass. And the War Office published that the 4.1 guns captured were Canadian. They were not: the division has not lost a gun so far by capture. We will make a good job of it--if we can.

* [sic] This should read April 28th.--A. L., 1995.

May 1st, 1915.

This is the ninth day that we have stuck to the ridge, and the batteries have fought with a steadiness which is beyond all praise. If I could say what our casualties in men, guns, and horses were, you would see at a glance it has been a hot corner; but we have given better than we got, for the German casualties from this front have been largely from artillery, except for the French attack of yesterday and the day before, when they advanced appreciably on our left. The front, however, just here remains where it was, and the artillery fire is very heavy--I think as heavy here as on any part of the line, with the exception of certain cross-roads which are the particular object of fire. The first four days the anxiety was wearing, for we did not know at what minute the German army corps would come for us. We lie out in support of the French troops entirely, and are working with them. Since that time evidently great reinforcements have come in, and now we have a most formidable force of artillery to turn on them.

Fortunately the weather has been good; the days are hot and summer-like. Yesterday in the press of bad smells I got a whiff of a hedgerow in bloom. The birds perch on the trees over our heads and twitter away as if there was nothing to worry about. Bonfire is still well. I do hope he gets through all right.

Flanders, March 30th, 1915.

The Brigade is actually in twelve different places. The ammunition column and the horse and wagon lines are back, and my corporal visits them every day. I attend the gun lines; any casualty is reported by telephone, and I go to it. The wounded and sick stay where they are till dark, when the field ambulances go over certain grounds and collect. A good deal of suffering is entailed by the delay till night, but it is useless for vehicles to go on the roads within 1500 yards of the trenches. They are willing enough to go. Most of the trench injuries are of the head, and therefore there is a high proportion of killed in the daily warfare as opposed to an attack. Our Canadian plots fill up rapidly.

And Here Is One Last Note To His Mother:

On the eve of the battle of Ypres I was indebted to you for a letter which said "take good care of my son Jack, but I would not have you unmindful that, sometimes, when we save we lose." I have that last happy phrase to thank. Often when I had to go out over the areas that were being shelled, it came into my mind. I would shoulder the box, and "go to it".

At This Time The Canadian Division Was Moving Sout...

At this time the Canadian division was moving south to take its share in the events that happened in the La Bassee sector. Here is the record:

Tuesday, June 1st, 1915.

1-1/2 miles northeast of Festubert, near La Bassee.

Last night a 15 pr. and a 4-inch howitzer fired at intervals of five minutes from 8 till 4; most of them within 500 or 600 yards--a very tiresome procedure; much of it is on registered roads. In the morning I walked out to Le Touret to the wagon lines, got Bonfire, and rode to the headquarters at Vendin-lez-Bethune, a little village a mile past Bethune. Left the horse at the lines and walked back again. An unfortunate shell in the 1st killed a sergeant and wounded two men; thanks to the strong emplacements the rest of the crew escaped. In the evening went around the batteries and said good-bye. We stood by while they laid away the sergeant who was killed. Kind hands have made two pathetic little wreaths of roses; the grave under an apple-tree, and the moon rising over the horizon; a siege-lamp held for the book. Of the last 41 days the guns have been in action 33. Captain Lockhart, late with Fort Garry Horse, arrived to relieve me. I handed over, came up to the horse lines, and slept in a covered wagon in a courtyard. We were all sorry to part--the four of us have been very intimate and had agreed perfectly--and friendships under these circumstances are apt to be the real thing. I am sorry to leave them in such a hot corner, but cannot choose and must obey orders. It is a great relief from strain, I must admit, to be out, but I could wish that they all were.

This Phase Of The War Lasted Two Months Precisely,...

This phase of the war lasted two months precisely,

and to John McCrae it must have seemed a lifetime since he went into this memorable action. The events preceding the second battle of Ypres received scant mention in his letters; but one remains, which brings into relief one of the many moves of that tumultuous time.

April 1st, 1915.

We moved out in the late afternoon, getting on the road a little after dark. Such a move is not unattended by danger, for to bring horses and limbers down the roads in the shell zone in daylight renders them liable to observation, aerial or otherwise. More than that, the roads are now beginning to be dusty, and at all times there is the noise which carries far. The roads are nearly all registered in their battery books, so if they suspect a move, it is the natural thing to loose off a few rounds. However, our anxiety was not borne out, and we got out of the danger zone by 8.30--a not too long march in the dark, and then for the last of the march a glorious full moon. The houses everywhere are as dark as possible, and on the roads noises but no lights. One goes on by the long rows of trees that are so numerous in this country, on cobblestones and country roads, watching one's horses' ears wagging, and seeing not much else. Our maps are well studied before we start, and this time we are not far out of familiar territory. We got to our new billet about 10--quite a good farmhouse; and almost at once one feels the relief of the strain of being in the shell zone. I cannot say I had noticed it when there; but one is distinctly relieved when out of it.

Such, Then, Was The Life In Flanders Fields In Whi...

Such, then, was the life in Flanders fields in which the verse was born. This is no mere surmise. There is a letter from Major-General E. W. B. Morrison, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., who commanded the Brigade at the time, which is quite explicit. "This poem," General Morrison writes, "was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station. Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the sixteen days of battle, he and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery. Just as he describes, we often heard in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us. I have a letter from him in which he mentions having written the poem to pass away the time between the arrival of batches of wounded, and partly as an experiment with several varieties of poetic metre. I have a sketch of the scene, taken at the time, including his dressing station; and during our operations at Passchendaele last November, I found time to make a sketch of the scene of the crosses, row on row, from which he derived his inspiration."

The last letter from the Front is dated June 1st, 1915. Upon that day he was posted to No. 3 General Hospital at Boulogne, and placed in charge of medicine with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel as of date 17th April, 1915. Here he remained until the day of his death on January 28th, 1918.

III. The Brand Of War

There are men who pass through such scenes unmoved. If they have eyes, they do not see; and ears, they do not hear. But John McCrae was profoundly moved, and bore in his body until the end the signs of his experience. Before taking up his new duties he made a visit to the hospitals in Paris to see if there was any new thing that might be learned. A Nursing Sister in the American Ambulance at Neuilly-sur-Seine met him in the wards. Although she had known him for fifteen years she did not recognize him,--he appeared to her so old, so worn, his face lined and ashen grey in colour, his expression dull, his action slow and heavy.

To those who have never seen John McCrae since he left Canada this change in his appearance will seem incredible. He was of the Eckfords, and the Eckford men were "bonnie men", men with rosy cheeks. It was a year before I met him again, and he had not yet recovered from the strain. Although he was upwards of forty years of age when he left Canada he had always retained an appearance of extreme youthfulness. He frequented the company of men much younger than himself, and their youth was imputed to him. His frame was tall and well knit, and he showed alertness in every move. He would arise from the chair with every muscle in action, and walk forth as if he were about to dance.

The first time I saw him he was doing an autopsy at the Montreal General Hospital upon the body of a child who had died under my care. This must have been in the year 1900, and the impression of boyishness remained until I met him in France sixteen years later. His manner of dress did much to produce this illusion. When he was a student in London he employed a tailor in Queen Victoria Street to make his clothes; but with advancing years he neglected to have new measurements taken or to alter the pattern of his cloth. To obtain a new suit was merely to write a letter, and he was always economical of time. In those days jackets were cut short, and he adhered to the fashion with persistent care.

This appearance of youth at times caused chagrin to those patients who had heard of his fame as a physician, and called upon him for the first time. In the Royal Victoria Hospital, after he had been appointed physician, he entered the wards and asked a nurse to fetch a screen so that he might examine a patient in privacy.

"Students are not allowed to use screens," the young woman warned him with some asperity in her voice.

If I were asked to state briefly the impression which remains with me most firmly, I should say it was one of continuous laughter. That is not true, of course, for in repose his face was heavy, his countenance more than ruddy; it was even of a "choleric" cast, and at times almost livid, especially when he was recovering from one of those attacks of asthma from which he habitually suffered. But his smile was his own, and it was ineffable. It filled the eyes, and illumined the face. It was the smile of sheer fun, of pure gaiety, of sincere playfulness, innocent of irony; with a tinge of sarcasm--never. When he allowed himself to speak of meanness in the profession, of dishonesty in men, of evil in the world, his face became formidable. The glow of his countenance deepened; his words were bitter, and the tones harsh. But the indignation would not last. The smile would come back. The effect was spoiled. Everyone laughed with him.

After his experience at the front the old gaiety never returned. There were moments of irascibility and moods of irritation. The desire for solitude grew upon him, and with Bonfire and Bonneau he would go apart for long afternoons far afield by the roads and lanes about Boulogne. The truth is: he felt that he and all had failed, and that the torch was thrown from failing hands. We have heard much of the suffering, the misery, the cold, the wet, the gloom of those first three winters; but no tongue has yet uttered the inner misery of heart that was bred of those three years of failure to break the enemy's force.

He was not alone in this shadow of deep darkness. Givenchy, Festubert, Neuve-Chapelle, Ypres, Hooge, the Somme--to mention alone the battles in which up to that time the Canadian Corps had been engaged--all ended in failure; and to a sensitive and foreboding mind there were sounds and signs that it would be given to this generation to hear the pillars and fabric of Empire come crashing into the abysm of chaos. He was not at the Somme in that October of 1916, but those who returned up north with the remnants of their division from that place of slaughter will remember that, having done all men could do, they felt like deserters because they had not left their poor bodies dead upon the field along with friends of a lifetime, comrades of a campaign. This is no mere matter of surmise. The last day I spent with him we talked of those things in his tent, and I testify that it is true.

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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