Yesterday, marked the 100th anniversary of the beginnings of World War I. It lasted four terrible years and was declared to be “The War to End all Wars.” It was a brutal war. At the Battle of the Somme (1916) in just 20 minutes, 20,000 British troops died. America did not join the war until 1917 but still had more than 100,000 soldiers die in the fighting.
It came to an end at the 11hour of the 11day of the 11th month of 1918. Countries around the world still observe the exact moment with marked silence. Many years ago when I was in school, we observed “Armistice Day” with a minute of silence at 11 a.m. I doubt that practice continues but I don’t know for sure. In our country, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all of those who have served.
In the United Kingdom this past Sunday was celebrated as Remembrance Day. Around the Tower of London, 888,426 poppies were planed in honor of British soldiers who died in World War I. The last one will be planted on November 11, 2014. In a London factory disabled veterans are hired to assemble by hand the 45 million poppies that are sold across Britain. The poppies remind everyone of John McCrae and his poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada and was the grandson of Scottish immigrants. He was first and foremost a soldier and during the Second Boar War, he served in the artillery. By profession he was a physician. When the war started he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force although by profession and age (41) he could have joined the medical corps. He grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.
McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium, The Canadian position became the first to be attacked by chlorine gas in 1915. In spite of this, the Germans were unable to break through the Canadian line which held for more than two weeks. McCrae wrote to his mother that the battle was a “nightmare.” “For 17 days and 17 nights none of us have had our clothes off, not even our boots, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for 60 seconds...and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” Six thousand Canadian soldiers died in the Battle of Ypres, among them Alexis Helmer, a close friend.
John McCrae was so deeply touched by the losses in France that he became a bitter and disillusioned man. For relief, he took long rides on his horse, Bonfire, perhaps accompanied by his dog, Bonneau. On January 18, 1918, he became ill and died of pneumonia and meningitis. The day of his funeral was a beautiful day as he was being buried in Wimereux Cemetery not far from the fields of Flanders.
Every evening in Ypres, France at 8 p.m. the local police stop traffic from passing underneath the gate, and the Last Post is played by buglers from the Ypres fire station. The Last Post has been played every night in this way since the 1920s save only for the duration of the German occupation during World War II.
The Kansas City Star wrote this tribute to Lieut. Col. John McCrae: “Lieut. McCrae has been laid to rest between the crosses that mark the couch of Canada’s immortal dead who have fought on foreign soil. He went out as a physician to heal the scars of war, but he sleeps as a soldier within sound of the guns, having given all that man may give for the honor and the liberty of his country... With the gallant dead he, too, listens to the guns, hears the lark bravely singing in the azure sky, and waits for the Dawn, where”
In Flanders field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved, and were loved, and now we live
In Flanders field.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders field.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
November 22nd come celebrate St. Andrew’s Day and our historic organization with the Scots of Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton. Click here for details and registration.