Read In Flanders Fields And Other Poems Online
Authors: John McCrae
March 22nd, 1900.
Here I am with my first command. Each place we strike is a little more God-forsaken than the last, and this place wins up to date. We marched last week from Victoria west to Carnovan, about 80 miles. We stayed there over Sunday, and on Monday my section was detached with mounted infantry, I being the only artillery officer. We marched 54 miles in 37 hours with stops; not very fast, but quite satisfactory. My horse is doing well, although very thin. Night before last on the road we halted, and I dismounted for a minute. When we started I pulled on the lines but no answer. The poor old chap was fast asleep in his tracks, and in about thirty seconds too.
This continuous marching is really hard work. The men at every halt just drop down in the road and sleep until they are kicked up again in ten minutes. They do it willingly too. I am commanding officer, adjutant, officer on duty, and all the rest since we left the main body. Talk about the Army in Flanders! You should hear this battalion. I always knew soldiers could swear, but you ought to hear these fellows. I am told the first contingent has got a name among the regulars.
We certainly shall have done a good march when we get to the railroad, 478 miles through a country desolate of forage carrying our own transport and one-half rations of forage, and frequently the men's rations. For two days running we had nine hours in the saddle without food. My throat was sore and swollen for a day or two, and I felt so sorry for myself at times that I laughed to think how I must have looked: sitting on a stone, drinking a pan of tea without trimmings, that had got cold, and eating a shapeless lump of brown bread; my one "hank" drawn around my neck, serving as hank and bandage alternately. It is miserable to have to climb up on one's horse with a head like a buzz saw, the sun very hot, and "gargle" in one's water bottle. It is surprising how I can go without water if I have to on a short stretch, that is, of ten hours in the sun. It is after nightfall that the thirst really seems to attack one and actually gnaws. One thinks of all the cool drinks and good things one would like to eat. Please understand that this is not for one instant in any spirit of growling.
The detail was now established at Victoria Road. Three entries appear*:
* I only count two. . . . A. L., 1995.
We are still here in camp hoping for orders to move, but they have not yet come. Most of the other troops have gone. A squadron of the M.C.R., my messmates for the past five weeks, have gone and I am left an orphan. I was very sorry to see them go. They, in the kindness of their hearts, say, if I get stranded, they will do the best they can to get a troop for me in the squadron or some such employment. Impracticable, but kind. I have no wish to cease to be a gunner.
The horses are doing as well as one can expect, for the rations are insufficient. Our men have been helping to get ready a rest camp near us, and have been filling mattresses with hay. Every fatigue party comes back from the hospital, their jackets bulging with hay for the horses. Two bales were condemned as too musty to put into the mattresses, and we were allowed to take them for the horses. They didn't leave a spear of it. Isn't it pitiful? Everything that the heart of man and woman can devise has been sent out for the "Tommies", but no one thinks of the poor horses. They get the worst of it all the time. Even now we blush to see the handful of hay that each horse gets at a feed.
The Boer War is so far off in time and space that a few further detached references must suffice:
When riding into Bloemfontein met Lord----'s funeral at the cemetery gates,--band, firing party, Union Jack, and about three companies. A few yards farther on a "Tommy" covered only by his blanket, escorted by thirteen men all told, the last class distinction that the world can ever make.
We had our baptism of fire yesterday. They opened on us from the left flank. Their first shell was about 150 yards in front--direction good. The next was 100 yards over; and we thought we were bracketed. Some shrapnel burst over us and scattered on all sides. I felt as if a hail storm was coming down, and wanted to turn my back, but it was over in an instant. The whistle of a shell is unpleasant. You hear it begin to scream; the scream grows louder and louder; it seems to be coming exactly your way; then you realize that it has gone over. Most of them fell between our guns and wagons. Our position was quite in the open.
The day was cold, much like a December day at home, and by my kit going astray I had only light clothing. The rain was fearfully chilly. When we got in about dark we found that the transport could not come up, and it had all our blankets and coats. I had my cape and a rubber sheet for the saddle, both soaking wet. Being on duty I held to camp, the others making for the house nearby where they got poor quarters. I bunked out, supperless like every one else, under an ammunition wagon. It rained most of the night and was bitterly cold. I slept at intervals, keeping the same position all night, both legs in a puddle and my feet being rained on: it was a long night from dark at 5.30 to morning. Ten men in the infantry regiment next us died during the night from exposure. Altogether I never knew such a night, and with decent luck hope never to see such another.
As we passed we saw the Connaughts looking at the graves of their comrades of twenty years ago. The Battery rode at attention and gave "Eyes right": the first time for twenty years that the roll of a British gun has broken in on the silence of those unnamed graves.
We were inspected by Lord Roberts. The battery turned out very smart, and Lord Roberts complimented the Major on its appearance. He then inspected, and afterwards asked to have the officers called out. We were presented to him in turn; he spoke a few words to each of us, asking what our corps and service had been. He seemed surprised that we were all Field Artillery men, but probably the composition of the other Canadian units had to do with this. He asked a good many questions about the horses, the men, and particularly about the spirits of the men. Altogether he showed a very kind interest in the battery.
At nine took the Presbyterian parade to the lines, the first Presbyterian service since we left Canada. We had the right, the Gordons and the Royal Scots next. The music was excellent, led by the brass band of the Royal Scots, which played extremely well. All the singing was from the psalms and paraphrases: "Old Hundred" and "Duke Street" among them. It was very pleasant to hear the old reliables once more. "McCrae's Covenanters" some of the officers called us; but I should not like to set our conduct up against the standard of those austere men.
The Boers opened on us at about 10,000 yards, the fire being accurate from the first. They shelled us till dark, over three hours. The guns on our left fired for a long time on Buller's camp, the ones on our right on us. We could see the smoke and flash; then there was a soul-consuming interval of 20 to 30 seconds when we would hear the report, and about five seconds later the burst. Many in succession burst over and all around us. I picked up pieces which fell within a few feet. It was a trying afternoon, and we stood around wondering. We moved the horses back, and took cover under the wagons. We were thankful when the sun went down, especially as for the last hour of daylight they turned all their guns on us. The casualties were few.
The next morning a heavy mist prevented the enemy from firing. The division marched out at 7.30 A.M. The attack was made in three columns: cavalry brigade on the left; Buller's troops in the centre, Hamilton's on the right. The Canadian artillery were with Hamilton's division. The approach to the hill was exposed everywhere except where some cover was afforded by ridges. We marched out as support to the Gordons, the cavalry and the Royal Horse Artillery going out to our right as a flank guard. While we were waiting three 100-pound shells struck the top of the ridge in succession about 50 to 75 yards in front of the battery line. We began to feel rather shaky.
On looking over the field at this time one could not tell that anything was occurring except for the long range guns replying to the fire from the hill. The enemy had opened fire as soon as our advance was pushed out. With a glass one could distinguish the infantry pushing up in lines, five or six in succession, the men being some yards apart. Then came a long pause, broken only by the big guns. At last we got the order to advance just as the big guns of the enemy stopped their fire. We advanced about four miles mostly up the slope, which is in all about 1500 feet high, over a great deal of rough ground and over a number of spruits. The horses were put to their utmost to draw the guns up the hills. As we advanced we could see artillery crawling in from both flanks, all converging to the main hill, while far away the infantry and cavalry were beginning to crown the heights near us. Then the field guns and the pompoms began to play. As the field guns came up to a broad plateau section after section came into action, and we fired shrapnel and lyddite on the crests ahead and to the left. Every now and then a rattle of Mausers and Metfords would tell us that the infantry were at their work, but practically the battle was over. From being an infantry attack as expected it was the gunners' day, and the artillery seemed to do excellent work.
General Buller pushed up the hill as the guns were at work, and afterwards General Hamilton; the one as grim as his pictures, the other looking very happy. The wind blew through us cold like ice as we stood on the hill; as the artillery ceased fire the mist dropped over us chilling us to the bone. We were afraid we should have to spend the night on the hill, but a welcome order came sending us back to camp, a distance of five miles by the roads, as Buller would hold the hill, and our force must march south. Our front was over eight miles wide and the objective 1500 feet higher than our camp, and over six miles away. If the enemy had had the nerve to stand, the position could scarcely have been taken; certainly not without the loss of thousands.
For this campaign he received the Queen's Medal with three clasps.
Through all his life, and through all his letters, dogs and children followed him as shadows follow men. To walk in the streets with him was a slow procession. Every dog and every child one met must be spoken to, and each made answer. Throughout the later letters the names Bonfire and Bonneau occur continually. Bonfire was his horse, and Bonneau his dog.
This horse, an Irish hunter, was given to him by John L. Todd. It was wounded twice, and now lives in honourable retirement at a secret place which need not be disclosed to the army authorities. One officer who had visited the hospital writes of seeing him going about the wards with Bonneau and a small French child following after. In memory of his love for animals and children the following extracts will serve:
You ask if the wee fellow has a name--Mike, mostly, as a term of affection. He has found a cupboard in one ward in which oakum is stored, and he loves to steal in there and "pick oakum", amusing himself as long as is permitted. I hold that this indicates convict ancestry to which Mike makes no defence.
The family is very well, even one-eyed Mike is able to go round the yard in his dressing-gown, so to speak. He is a queer pathetic little beast and Madame has him "hospitalized" on the bottom shelf of the sideboard in the living room, whence he comes down (six inches to the floor) to greet me, and then gravely hirples back, the hind legs looking very pathetic as he hops in. But he is full of spirit and is doing very well.
As to the animals--"those poor voiceless creatures," say you. I wish you could hear them. Bonneau and Mike are a perfect Dignity and Impudence; and both vocal to a wonderful degree. Mike's face is exactly like the terrier in the old picture, and he sits up and gives his paw just like Bonneau, and I never saw him have any instruction; and as for voice, I wish you could hear Bonfire's "whicker" to me in the stable or elsewhere. It is all but talk. There is one ward door that he tries whenever we pass. He turns his head around, looks into the door, and waits. The Sisters in the ward have changed frequently, but all alike "fall for it", as they say, and produce a biscuit or some such dainty which Bonfire takes with much gravity and gentleness. Should I chide him for being too eager and give him my hand saying, "Gentle now," he mumbles with his lips, and licks with his tongue like a dog to show how gentle he can be when he tries. Truly a great boy is that same. On this subject I am like a doting grandmother, but forgive it.
I have a very deep affection for Bonfire, for we have been through so much together, and some of it bad enough. All the hard spots to which one's memory turns the old fellow has shared, though he says so little about it.
This love of animals was no vagrant mood. Fifteen years before in South Africa he wrote in his diary under date of September 11th, 1900:
I wish I could introduce you to the dogs of the force. The genus dog here is essentially sociable, and it is a great pleasure to have them about. I think I have a personal acquaintance with them all. There are our pups--Dolly, whom I always know by her one black and one white eyebrow; Grit and Tory, two smaller gentlemen, about the size of a pound of butter--and fighters; one small white gentleman who rides on a horse, on the blanket; Kitty, the monkey, also rides the off lead of the forge wagon. There is a black almond-eyed person belonging to the Royal Scots, who begins to twist as far as I can see her, and comes up in long curves, extremely genially. A small shaggy chap who belongs to the Royal Irish stands upon his hind legs and spars with his front feet--and lots of others--every one of them "a soldier and a man". The Royal Scots have a monkey, Jenny, who goes around always trailing a sack in her hand, into which she creeps if necessary to obtain shelter.
The other day old Jack, my horse, was bitten by his next neighbor; he turned SLOWLY, eyed his opponent, shifted his rope so that he had a little more room, turned very deliberately, and planted both heels in the offender's stomach. He will not be run upon.
From a time still further back comes a note in a like strain. In 1898 he was house physician in a children's hospital at Mt. Airy, Maryland, when he wrote:
A kitten has taken up with a poor cripple dying of muscular atrophy who cannot move. It stays with him all the time, and sleeps most of the day in his straw hat. To-night I saw the kitten curled up under the bed-clothes. It seems as if it were a gift of Providence that the little creature should attach itself to the child who needs it most.
Of another child:
The day she died she called for me all day, deposed the nurse who was sitting by her, and asked me to remain with her. She had to be held up on account of lack of breath; and I had a tiring hour of it before she died, but it seemed to make her happier and was no great sacrifice. Her friends arrived twenty minutes too late. It seems hard that Death will not wait the poor fraction of an hour, but so it is.
And here are some letters to his nephews and nieces which reveal his attitude both to children and to animals.