My posts from previous years explain the importance of this day:
The march past the Cenotaph in 2015 (this year it will be on Sunday, November 13)
In Flanders Fields by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae is arguably the best known poem to remember the dead from the Great War (1914-18).
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 poppy became the symbol of the Great War for two reasons: the popularity of In Flanders Fields and the fact that this flower was the first to grow on the graves of the fallen soldiers.
The Great War website tells us that McCrae (pictured at right) began drafting the poem on May 2, 1915 during the second week of the Second Battle of Ypres:
John McCrae, was serving as a Major and a military doctor and was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The field guns of his brigade’s batteries were in position on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, about two kilometres to the north of Ypres. The brigade had arrived there in the early hours of 23 April.
It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. The exact details of when the first draft was written may never be known because there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time.
McCrae’s contemporaries gave three different accounts. One said he wrote it after Helmer’s burial as a means of consolation. Another said that he wrote it the day after his friend’s burial and noticed the poppies springing up around the various graves. The third, offered by McCrae’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, suggested that he wrote it while waiting for the arrival of two groups of wounded men at the first aid post, giving him time to experiment with the poem’s metre.
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery and had become good friends with John McCrae. On the morning of Sunday 2 May Alexis left his dugout and was killed instantly by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening.
He was popular among his comrades and well educated:
Before the outbreak of war he had graduated from McGill University with a degree in Civil Engineering. He was the son of Elizabeth I. Helmer of 122, Gilmour St., Ottawa, and the late Brigadier General R. A. Helmer.
A burial ground from the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 was nearby. Helmer was buried there. In the absence of a chaplain, McCrae conducted the graveside service himself, using the burial rite from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. His grave was marked by a wooden cross.
By the time the Second Battle of Ypres ended, the field was filled with graves of Canadian and French casualties. This burial ground is now known as Essex Farm Cemetery.
Unfortunately, Helmer’s grave — along with 54,896 others — was lost. The names of these valorous men are listed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Helmer’s name appears on Panel 10.
I hope we take time to keep silence at 11 a.m. on November 11 to remember not only the courageous men of the Great War but also those of the Second World War and subsequent wars.
We will remember.