In Flanders Fields And Other Poems (8 page)

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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From Bonfire To Sergt.-Major Jack Kilgour

August 6th, 1916.

Did you ever have a sore hock? I have one now, and Cruickshank puts bandages on my leg. He also washed my white socks for me. I am glad you got my picture. My master is well, and the girls tell me I am looking well, too. The ones I like best give me biscuits and sugar, and sometimes flowers. One of them did not want to give me some mignonette the other day because she said it would make me sick. It did not make me sick. Another one sends me bags of carrots. If you don't know how to eat carrots, tops and all, you had better learn, but I suppose you are just a boy, and do not know how good oats are.

BONFIRE His * Mark.

* Here and later, this mark is that of a horse-shoe. A. L., 1995.

From Bonfire To Sergt.-Major Jack Kilgour

October 1st, 1916.

Dear Jack,

Did you ever eat blackberries? My master and I pick them every day on the hedges. I like twenty at a time. My leg is better but I have a lump on my tummy. I went to see my doctor to-day, and he says it is nothing at all. I have another horse staying in my stable now; he is black, and about half my size. He does not keep me awake at night. Yours truly,

BONFIRE His * Mark.

From Bonfire To Margaret Kilgour, Civilian

November 5th, 1916.

Dear Margaret:

This is Guy Fox Day! I spell it that way because fox-hunting was my occupation a long time ago before the war. How are Sergt.-Major Jack and Corporal David? Ask Jack if he ever bites through his rope at night, and gets into the oat-box. And as for the Corporal, "I bet you" I can jump as far as he can. I hear David has lost his red coat. I still have my grey one, but it is pretty dirty now, for I have not had a new one for a long time. I got my hair cut a few weeks ago and am to have new boots next week. Bonneau and Follette send their love. Yours truly,

BONFIRE His * Mark.

In Flanders, April 3rd, 1915.

My dear Margaret:

There is a little girl in this house whose name is Clothilde. She is ten years old, and calls me "Monsieur le Major". How would you like it if twenty or thirty soldiers came along and lived in your house and put their horses in the shed or the stable? There are not many little boys and girls left in this part of the country, but occasionally one meets them on the roads with baskets of eggs or loaves of bread. Most of them have no homes, for their houses have been burnt by the Germans; but they do not cry over it. It is dangerous for them, for a shell might hit them at any time--and it would not be an eggshell, either.

Bonfire is very well. Mother sent him some packets of sugar, and if ever you saw a big horse excited about a little parcel, it was Bonfire. He can have only two lumps in any one day, for there is not much of it. Twice he has had gingerbread and he is very fond of that. It is rather funny for a soldier-horse, is it not? But soldier horses have a pretty hard time of it, sometimes, so we do not grudge them a little luxury. Bonfire's friends are King, and Prince, and Saxonia,--all nice big boys. If they go away and leave him, he whinnies till he catches sight of them again, and then he is quite happy. How is the 15th Street Brigade getting on? Tell Mother I recommend Jack for promotion to corporal if he has been good. David will have to be a gunner for awhile yet, for everybody cannot be promoted. Give my love to Katharine, and Jack, and David.

Your affectionate uncle Jack.

Bonfire, And Bonneau, And Little Mike, Are All Wel...

Bonfire, and Bonneau, and little Mike, are all well. Mike is about four months old and has lost an eye and had a leg broken, but he is a very good little boy all the same. He is very fond of Bonfire, and Bonneau, and me. I go to the stable and whistle, and Bonneau and Mike come running out squealing with joy, to go for a little walk with me. When Mike comes to steps, he puts his feet on the lowest steps and turns and looks at me and I lift him up. He is a dear ugly little chap.

The dogs are often to be seen sprawled on the floor of my tent. I like to have them there for they are very home-like beasts. They never seem French to me. Bonneau can "donner la patte" in good style nowadays, and he sometimes curls up inside the rabbit hutch, and the rabbits seem to like him.

I wish you could see the hundreds of rabbits there are here on the sand-dunes; there are also many larks and jackdaws. (These are different from your brother Jack, although they have black faces.) There are herons, curlews, and even ducks; and the other day I saw four young weasels in a heap, jumping over each other from side to side as they ran.

Sir Bertrand Dawson has a lovely little spaniel, Sue, quite black, who goes around with him. I am quite a favourite, and one day Sir Bertrand said to me, "She has brought you a present," and here she was waiting earnestly for me to remove from her mouth a small stone. It is usually a simple gift, I notice, and does not embarrass by its value.

Bonfire is very sleek and trim, and we journey much. If I sit down in his reach I wish you could see how deftly he can pick off my cap and swing it high out of my reach. He also carries my crop; his games are simple, but he does not readily tire of them.

I lost poor old Windy. He was the regimental dog of the 1st Batt. Lincolns, and came to this vale of Avalon to be healed of his second wound. He spent a year at Gallipoli and was "over the top" twice with his battalion. He came to us with his papers like any other patient, and did very well for a while, but took suddenly worse. He had all that care and love could suggest and enough morphine to keep the pain down; but he was very pathetic, and I had resolved that it would be true friendship to help him over when he "went west". He is buried in our woods like any other good soldier, and yesterday I noticed that some one has laid a little wreath of ivy on his grave. He was an old dog evidently, but we are all sore-hearted at losing him. His kit is kept should his master return,--only his collar with his honourable marks, for his wardrobe was of necessity simple. So another sad chapter ends.

September 29th, 1915.

Bonneau gravely accompanies me round the wards and waits for me, sitting up in a most dignified way. He comes into my tent and sits there very gravely while I dress. Two days ago a Sister brought out some biscuits for Bonfire, and not understanding the rules of the game, which are bit and bit about for Bonfire and Bonneau, gave all to Bonfire, so that poor Bonneau sat below and caught the crumbs that fell. I can see that Bonfire makes a great hit with the Sisters because he licks their hands just like a dog, and no crumb is too small to be gone after.

April, 1917.

I was glad to get back; Bonfire and Bonneau greeted me very enthusiastically. I had a long long story from the dog, delivered with uplifted muzzle. They tell me he sat gravely on the roads a great deal during my absence, and all his accustomed haunts missed him. He is back on rounds faithfully.

VII. The Old Land And The New

If one were engaged upon a formal work of biography rather than a mere essay in character, it would be just and proper to investigate the family sources from which the individual member is sprung; but I must content myself within the bounds which I have set, and leave the larger task to a more laborious hand. The essence of history lies in the character of the persons concerned, rather than in the feats which they performed. A man neither lives to himself nor in himself. He is indissolubly bound up with his stock, and can only explain himself in terms common to his family; but in doing so he transcends the limits of history, and passes into the realms of philosophy and religion.

The life of a Canadian is bound up with the history of his parish, of his town, of his province, of his country, and even with the history of that country in which his family had its birth. The life of John McCrae takes us back to Scotland. In Canada there has been much writing of history of a certain kind. It deals with events rather than with the subtler matter of people, and has been written mainly for purposes of advertising. If the French made a heroic stand against the Iroquois, the sacred spot is now furnished with an hotel from which a free 'bus runs to a station upon the line of an excellent railway. Maisonneuve fought his great fight upon a place from which a vicious mayor cut the trees which once sheltered the soldier, to make way for a fountain upon which would be raised "historical" figures in concrete stone.

The history of Canada is the history of its people, not of its railways, hotels, and factories. The material exists in written or printed form in the little archives of many a family. Such a chronicle is in possession of the Eckford family which now by descent on the female side bears the honoured names of Gow, and McCrae. John Eckford had two daughters, in the words of old Jamie Young, "the most lovingest girls he ever knew." The younger, Janet Simpson, was taken to wife by David McCrae, 21st January, 1870, and on November 30th, 1872, became the mother of John. To her he wrote all these letters, glowing with filial devotion, which I am privileged to use so freely.

There is in the family a tradition of the single name for the males. It was therefore proper that the elder born should be called Thomas, more learned in medicine, more assiduous in practice, and more weighty in intellect even than the otherwise more highly gifted John. He too is professor of medicine, and co-author of a profound work with his master and relative by marriage--Sir William Osler. Also, he wore the King's uniform and served in the present war.

This John Eckford, accompanied by his two daughters, the mother being dead, his sister, her husband who bore the name of Chisholm, and their numerous children emigrated to Canada, May 28th, 1851, in the ship 'Clutha' which sailed from the Broomielaw bound for Quebec. The consort, 'Wolfville', upon which they had originally taken passage, arrived in Quebec before them, and lay in the stream, flying the yellow flag of quarantine. Cholera had broken out. "Be still, and see the salvation of the Lord," were the words of the family morning prayers.

In the 'Clutha' also came as passengers James and Mary Gow; their cousin, one Duncan Monach; Mrs. Hanning, who was a sister of Thomas Carlyle; and her two daughters. On the voyage they escaped the usual hardships, and their fare appears to us in these days to have been abundant. The weekly ration was three quarts of water, two ounces of tea, one half pound of sugar, one half pound molasses, three pounds of bread, one pound of flour, two pounds of rice, and five pounds of oatmeal.

The reason for this migration is succinctly stated by the head of the house. "I know how hard it was for my mother to start me, and I wanted land for my children and a better opportunity for them." And yet his parents in their time appear to have "started" him pretty well, although his father was obliged to confess, "I never had more of this world's goods than to bring up my family by the labour of my hands honestly, but it is more than my Master owned, who had not where to lay His head." They allowed him that very best means of education, a calmness of the senses, as he herded sheep on the Cheviot Hills. They put him to the University in Edinburgh, as a preparation for the ministry, and supplied him with ample oatmeal, peasemeal bannocks, and milk. In that great school of divinity he learned the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; he studied Italian, and French under Surenne, him of blessed memory even unto this day.

John Eckford in 1839 married Margaret Christie, and he went far afield for a wife, namely from Newbiggin in Forfar, where for fourteen years he had his one and only charge, to Strathmiglo in Fife. The marriage was fruitful and a happy one, although there is a hint in the record of some religious difference upon which one would like to dwell if the subject were not too esoteric for this generation. The minister showed a certain indulgence, and so long as his wife lived he never employed the paraphrases in the solemn worship of the sanctuary. She was a woman of provident mind. Shortly after they were married he made the discovery that she had prepared the grave clothes for him as well as for herself. Too soon, after only eight years, it was her fate to be shrouded in them. After her death--probably because of her death--John Eckford emigrated to Canada.

To one who knows the early days in Canada there is nothing new in the story of this family. They landed in Montreal July 11th, 1851, forty-four days out from Glasgow. They proceeded by steamer to Hamilton, the fare being about a dollar for each passenger. The next stage was to Guelph; then on to Durham, and finally they came to the end of their journeying near Walkerton in Bruce County in the primeval forest, from which they cut out a home for themselves and for their children.

It was "the winter of the deep snow". One transcription from the record will disclose the scene:

At length a grave was dug on a knoll in the bush at the foot of a great maple with a young snow-laden hemlock at the side. The father and the eldest brother carried the box along the shovelled path. The mother close behind was followed by the two families. The snow was falling heavily. At the grave John Eckford read a psalm, and prayed, "that they might be enabled to believe, the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting unto them that fear Him."

John McCrae himself was an indefatigable church-goer. There is a note in childish characters written from Edinburgh in his thirteenth year, "On Sabbath went to service four times." There the statement stands in all its austerity. A letter from a chaplain is extant in which a certain mild wonder is expressed at the regularity in attendance of an officer of field rank. To his sure taste in poetry the hymns were a sore trial. "Only forty minutes are allowed for the service," he said, "and it is sad to see them 'snappit up' by these poor bald four-line things."

On Easter Sunday, 1915, he wrote: "We had a church parade this morning, the first since we arrived in France. Truly, if the dead rise not, we are of all men the most miserable." On the funeral service of a friend he remarks: "'Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God,'--what a summary of the whole thing that is!" On many occasions he officiated in the absence of the chaplains who in those days would have as many as six services a day. In civil life in Montreal he went to church in the evening, and sat under the Reverend James Barclay of St. Pauls, now designated by some at least as St. Andrews.

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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