IN FLANDERS FIELDS

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae

In Flanders fields 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 lie,

In Flanders fields.

***

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing 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 fields.

The Advanced Dressing Station where John McCrae was based at Essex Farm

At the beginning of WWI in 1914, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, was at war as well. McCrae was appointed as Medical Officer and Major of the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery). He treated the wounded during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, from a hastily dug, 8 foot by 8 foot bunker dug in the back of the dyke along the Yser Canal about 2 miles north of Ypres. McCrae’s friend and former militia pal, Lt Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired the poem, ‘In Flander’s Fields’, which was written on May 3rd 1915 and was first published in the magazine Punch.

Bunker where McCrae treated the wounded

From June 1st 1915, McCrae was ordered away from the artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. C.L.C. Allinson reported that McCrae “most unmilitarily told [me] what he thought of being transferred to the medicals and being pulled away from his beloved guns. His last words to me were: ‘Allinson, all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.'”

“In Flanders Fields” appeared anonymously in Punch on December 8, 1915, but in the index to that year McCrae was named as the author. The verses swiftly became one of the most popular poems of the war, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated. “In Flanders Fields” was also extensively printed in the United States, whose government was contemplating joining the war, alongside a ‘reply’ by R.W.Lillard, “…Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught…”.

McCrae’s grave at the CWGC Cemetery at Wimereux, France

For eight months the hospital operated in Durbar tents shipped from India, but after suffering from storms, floods, and frosts it was moved in February 1916 into the old Jesuit College in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Plaque at Essex Farm

McCrae, now “a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one”, regarded his sudden fame with some amusement, wishing that “they would get to printing ‘In F.F.’ correctly: it never is nowadays”; but (writes his biographer) “he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay.”

Lt Col John McCrae Pic. Guelph Museum

On January 28, 1918, while still commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia with “extensive Pneumococcus meningitis” at the British General Hospital in Wimereux, France. He was buried the following day in the CWGC section of Wimereux Cemetery, just a couple of kilometres up the coast from Boulogne, with full military honours.

A plaque with McCrae’s poem ‘In Flander’s Fields’

ESSEX FARM CEMETERY

Cross of Sacrifice at Essex Farm Cemetery

Back to World War One in Flanders, day four of our trip visited one very interesting site before returning to Ieper. The CWGC maintained Essex Farm Cemetery is just north of Ieper near Boezinge. More than 1000 servicemen of the First World War are buried or commemorated here. Of these, 103 burials are unidentified. There are special memorials to commemorate nineteen casualties known or believed to be buried at this site.

Memorial for 49th (West Riding) Division at Essex Farm Cemetery

It was the location of an Advanced Dressing Station during WWI. The concrete buildings used by the dressing stations can still be seen in the cemetery. A project to restore the surviving bunkers at the dressing stations was carried out by the town of Ieper (Ypres).

Close-up of 49th WR Division memorial. Pic. Peter Smith, Leger Battlefield Tours

The bunkers represent the largest number still visible and located together in the Ypres Salient area.

Essex Farm Cemetery seen from the nearby hill (CWGC picture)

The land south of Essex Farm was used as a dressing station cemetery from April 1915 to August 1917. The burials were made without definite plan and some of the divisions which occupied this sector may be traced in almost every part of the cemetery, but the 49th (West Riding) Division buried their dead of 1915 in Plot I, and the 38th (Welsh) Division used Plot III in the autumn of 1916.

Lt Col John McCrae (Guelph Museums picture)

It was here that Canadian doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields’ in May 1915, which I will feature separately.

BARD COTTAGE CEMETERY

Bard Cottage Cemetery

For much of the First World war, the village of Boezinge directly faced the German line across the Yser canal. Bard Cottage was a house a little set back from the line, close to a bridge called Bard’s Causeway. The cemetery was made nearby in a sheltered position under a high bank. Burials were made between June 1915 and October 1918 and they reflect the presence of the 49th (West Riding), the 38th (Welsh) and other infantry divisions in the northern sectors of the Ypres Salient, as well as the advance of artillery to the area in the autumn of 1917.

Grave of Lance Corporal Charles H. Smith, South Staffordshire Regiment

Among the graves is that of Lance Corporal Charles H. Smith, South Staffordshire Regiment. He died on 16th August 1917, aged 29, and came from Altrincham near Manchester.

Margaret Nolan, Co. Kilkenny, searching for the graves at Bard Cottage Cemetery

There are now 1,639 Commonwealth casualties of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. Of these burials, 39 are unidentified but special memorials commemorate three casualties known to be buried among them. The cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.

FRANCIS LEDWIDGE

Francis Ledwidge (museum picture)

Visited the grave of Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, the poet from Slane, Co. Meath.

Visiting the grave of Lance Cpl Francis Ledwidge

The cottage outside Slane where Ledwidge lived is now a museum

Francis Ledwidge was fatally wounded in 1917 at Boezinge near Ieper in Flanders. We also saw his grave nearby. Ledwidge was also known as a poet and came from Slane, Co. Meath.

Grave of Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge seems to have fitted into Army life well, and rapidly achieved promotion to Lance Corporal. In 1915, he saw action at Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles, where he suffered severe rheumatism. Having survived huge losses sustained by his company in the Battle of Gallilopoli, he became ill after a back injury on a tough mountain journey in Serbia (December 1915), a locale which inspired a number of poems.

Ledwidge was dismayed by the news of the Easter Rising, and was court-martialled and demoted for overstaying his home leave and being drunk in uniform (May 1916). He gained and lost stripes over a period in Derry (he was a corporal when the introduction to his first book was written), and then, returned to the front, received back his lance corporal’s stripe one last time in January 1917 when posted to the Western Front joining the 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, part of the 29th Division.

A memorial with an Irish flag marks the spot where Ledwidge died

On 31 July 1917, a group from Ledwidge’s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were road-laying in preparation for an assault during the Third Battle of Ypres, near the village of Boezinge, northwest of Ieper. While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades, a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.”

The poems Ledwidge wrote on active service revealed his pride at being a soldier, as he believed, in the service of Ireland. He wondered whether he would find a soldier’s death. The dead were buried at Carrefour de Rose, and later re-interred in the nearby Artillery Wood Cemetery (CWGC), Boezinge, (where the Welsh poet, Hedd Wyn, killed on the same day, is also buried). A stone tablet commemorates him in the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines (Mesen) in Belgium.