Finding John McCrae in Flanders’ Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
…”

John McCrae, May 3, 1915

Last year, on our trip to Belgium, we toured a number of World War I cemeteries in Flanders, Seeing thousands of ‘crosses row on row’ does something to a person. It left me with a much greater appreciation for John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields.  It also left me withsharpened sense of the realities of war.

One of the most profound moments came with a visit to St.Julien Canadian Memorial.  St Julien’s lies alongside the main road from Ypres to Brugges.  As soon as I stepped out of our car, I felt a hushed presence. Our voices grew softer.  Even the wind seemed to still.  Rising almost 11 meters above a stone courtyard surrounded by tall cedars, a single shaft of granite dominated the site.

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From the top of the column, a soldier looked down.  His head was bowed, his shoulders hunched, and his hands rested on a reversed rifle. The soldier’s face was etched with sorrow.  Often called “The Brooding Soldier”, the statue evoked strong feelings. I couldn’t help but sense this soldier’s pain and feel his loss.

The Brooding Soldier commemorates one of the most tragic events of World War I. In the first week of April 1915, the Canadian First Division moved to the front lines at Ypres.  On either side of the Canadian trenches, Allied forces stood ready – two British divisions to the right, one French division to the left.

On April 22, Germans launched an attack and introduced an unprecedented weapon. Fanned by a north breeze, 168 tons of yellow-green chlorine gas rolled across the fields, infiltrating trenches of the French line, and searing the lungs of unprotected soldiers. In panic, French troops broke rank and abandoned their posts, leaving a 6 kilometer gap in the Allied line.

To close the gap, Canadian troops moved into position throughout the night. Despite heavy bombardment, they held the line for two days. Then on April 24, Germans launched an offensive, bombing heavily and releasing another wave of chlorine gas. This time Canadian troops were the target. The gas drifted across the field, into trenches, and through handkerchiefs held over mouths and noses. Confined by machine-gun fire, Canadian soldiers still held their position until reinforcements arrived.

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Canadians paid a toll for their bravery. Of the approximately 18,000 Canadian soldiers, 6035 became casualties, and of that number 2000 died.

The memorial at St.Julien was designed by Regina architect, Frederick Chapman Clemesha, who was wounded while serving with Canadian forces in the war. It was unveiled in 1923 on the site where the gas attacks occurred.

picture3Canadian physician, John McCrae, wrote In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915, barely two weeks after the gas attacks that claimed so many lives. According to many sources, McCrae was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of fellow soldier Alexis Helmer who died in a subsequent battle in the Ypres area.  I have no doubt the gas attacks were fresh in McCrae’s his mind, too.

“We are the Dead.
Short days ago wee lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields”

John McCrae

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