Early on the morning of May 3, 1915, John McCrae sat wearily near his field dressing station, a crude bunker cut into the slopes of a bank near the Ypres-Yser Canal in Belgium. A Canadian military surgeon, he had been at the French line for 12 days under incessant German bombardment, and the toll of dead and wounded had been appalling.
From his position on the road along the canal running into Ypres, McCrae wrote: “I saw all the tragedies of war enacted. A wagon, or a bunch of horses or a stray man, would get there just in time for a shell. One could see the absolute knockout; or worse yet, at night one could hear the tragedy, a horse’s scream or the man’s moan.”
The previous night he had buried a good friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, blown to pieces by a direct hit from a German shell. Now, as he sat in the early morning sunshine, he could hear the larks singing between the crash of the guns. He could see the rows of crosses in a nearby cemetery.
On May 2, he wrote to his mother: “Heavy gunfire again this morning. Lieutenant H. was killed at the guns. I said the Committal Service over him as well as I could from memory. A soldier’s death!”
The next morning he wrote “In Flanders Fields
But McCrae’s experiences at Ypres had altered him irreparably. John F. Prescott, the author of his 1985 biography, wrote: “He was never again the optimistic man with the infectious smile. His friends spoke of his change in temperament in subdued voices, feeling, as one said, that an icon had been broken.” His inseparable companions were his horse, Bonfire, who had accompanied him to the front, and his dog, Bonneau, an adopted war orphan.
On January 24, 1918, McCrae received word that he had been appointed consulting physician to the British armies in France—the first Canadian to achieve that rank. But by then his health was failing. He had suffered from asthma most of his life, but the condition had been exacerbated by the poison gas used by the Germans at Ypres. That night, he took to his bed with a headache and the next day diagnosed himself with pneumonia. He was transferred to a military hospital at Wimereux, just up the coast from Boulogne, France.
At 1:30 a.m. on January 28, McCrae died of double pneumonia and meningitis. The following day he was buried with full military honours in the Wimereux cemetery. Bonfire led the parade decked in white ribbon, with McCrae’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups. A hundred nursing sisters in cap and veil stood in line at the cemetery. One later wrote, “To the funeral all came as we did because we loved him so.”
Each Remembrance Day since, volunteers in more than 120 countries have fanned out to distribute the scarlet emblem McCrae made famous. This month, millions around the world will bear silent witness to that struggle as they pin McCrae’s symbol of sacrifice over their hearts once.
SOURCE: Sky New (UK); Readers Digest (Canada)
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