'In Flanders Fields' — a reflection on Memorial Day
A person looking for battlefields will never run out of places to visit, especially in Europe.
One of the most interesting is around the ancient city of Ypres ("Ieper" to the Belgians), located in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium. It is a 90-minute train ride from Bruges, the well-known tourist town popularized by British folks traveling to the historic battlefield at Waterloo, near Brussels, and only a 45 minute train ride from the American military cemetery at Waregem.
In 1914, the first year of the Great War, two armies charged through Belgium to the North Sea, each trying to gain a victory by turning the leading flank of the other. It ended up a bloody tie, resulting in a trench-warfare stalemate from the North Sea to Switzerland that lasted four years.
Some of the heaviest fighting occurred around Ypres, an area that became known as the Ypres Salient . The British — some would say against all reason — stubbornly held on to this bulge for the entire war.
Return across Atlantic
John McCrae , the author of " In Flanders Fields ," was born in a university town near Toronto in 1872. He attended the University of Toronto, graduating in 1893 with a bachelor's degree and a medical degree six years later. After a brief stint at John Hopkins Hospital, he served as a soldier with the Canadian Army in the Boer War, receiving medals for his expert marksmanship. Returning to Canada, he worked primarily as a pathologist and a lecturer before re-enlisting in the Canadian Army while on a ship in the mid-Atlantic returning to Canada from Europe in August 1914.
With his horse "Bonfire," McCrae and his unit put ashore in England on Oct. 14, 1914. They transferred to France in February 1915. On April 17, 1915, McCrae arrived in Flanders as a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Less than a week later, the Second Battle of Ypres (there were five altogether) began.
The Germans for the first time used large amounts of deadly chlorine gas. In a panic, many Allied units fell back, suffering heavy losses. The Canadians, true to form, stood firm and fought heroically. McCrae's dressing station, an earthen dugout, was located on the west bank of the Yser Canal, about a mile north of Ypres. A cemetery grew there for soldiers dying in or near McCrae's dressing station. It is still there, though permanent markers have replaced the early makeshift, wooden ones.
On May 2, 1915, a close friend of McCrae's, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed by an 8-inch shell. His shattered remains were put into small sand bags that were formed into a human-shaped bundle inside an army issue blanket secured by a safety pin. A few soldiers attended a simple burial ceremony after the sun went down, in total darkness.
McCrae was deeply moved, reciting by heart a few passages from the "Order of Burial for the Dead." Though there is some dispute about this, it is likely that McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" the next day while sitting on the tailboard of an ambulance, staring at Helmer's grave.
Due to continuing artillery fire, Helmer's grave was lost. The poem lived on, was widely published and read around the world, and ultimately led to adoption of the red poppy for the remembrance of war dead.
War isn't over
I spent two days touring the Ypres Salient last October. The terrain is similar to what one would see driving from Rochester to Byron.
The Great War lives on. Every year, the Ypres Salient yields bodies and munitions. In 2014, for example, the Belgian Army collected over 300 tons of munitions. Last October, 15 or so recently-recovered bodies of German soldiers were buried in Langemark, the German military cemetery.
In an area roughly the combined size of Orion and Elmira Townships in Olmsted County, approximately 450,000 men were killed. The remains of fully one-third were never recovered nor could be identified. As a guide pointed out, the Ypres Salient, though now farmed around the 120 cemeteries, is nothing less than an enormous graveyard.
Ypres was completely destroyed, absorbing over 5 million artillery rounds. At tremendous cost, it was re-built exactly as it was before the war and is a delight to visit. I arrived by train and left by train, staying at De Nacht Wacht, a restorative B&B a few blocks from the train station. Every night since 1928, a Last Post Ceremony has taken place at the Menin Gate, a classical memorial to British Commonwealth dead.
'Memorial Day every day'
It is Memorial Day every day in Ypres. One's mind never wanders far from the a single-word question — why?
Death touched McCrae early in his life when his 18-year old girlfriend died, and really never left him, given his work and experience in the Boer War.
Of the latter, he wrote " The Unconquered Dead ," a poem that foreshadows "In Flanders Fields." It is said that he became disillusioned and depressed as the war dragged on. He died in France in 1918 of a brain hemorrhage and an infection of his lungs weakened by the gas attack.
In the last hours of his life, legend has it that he told his doctor, "Tell them this: If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep."