ESSEX FARM CEMETERY, YPRES, BELGIUM: Every Veteran’s Day is a special time of remembrance for those who perished in the preservation of our liberty and freedom. This year carries greater significance, however, because this Veteran’s Day marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. In early May of 1915, Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae composed his now famous poem In Flanders Fields in tribute to his close friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer who was killed on May 2, 1915 in the gun positions near Ypres. Helmer was just 22 years old.
In the absence of the chaplain who had been called away, McCrae was asked to conduct the burial of his friend.
In Flanders Field: Written for Lieutenant Alexis Helmer
It was a Sunday morning when Helmer left his dugout taking a direct hit from an 8-inch German shell. He was killed instantly. According to reports “what body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening.”
The memorial ceremony was simple and brief as Major McCrae recited from memory a few passages from the Church of England’s “Order of Burial of the Dead.” Helmer’s burial site was marked by a simple wooden cross; a grave that has since been lost.
Today, the John McCrae Memorial Site is a prominent feature of Essex Farm Cemetery where 1,204 fallen soldiers are interred, of which 104 are unidentified. The monument includes the In Flanders Fields poem composed by the major.
Established next to a dressing station by the Canadian Field Artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, the cemetery is called “Essex Farm” to commemorate the Essex Regiment. Many believe the name was chosen in honor of a member of that regiment who was buried there in June 1915.
The story behind In Flanders Field
Following Helmer’s burial, it is believed that McCrae began to draft his poem, though there are several accounts of what happened.
One version says McCrae was seen writing the poem the next day, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave with the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.
Another said that McCrae was so upset after Helmer’s burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
The third version by commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, stated that John drafted the poem partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded soldiers at the first aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem’s meter.
Regardless of which story is true, Major McCrae’s poem is a haunting reminder of the insanity of war. During the 16 days of the Second Battle of Ypres, of which there were a total of five.
One observer wrote this account:
“We saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns.”
In the autumn of 1914 a small burial ground had been established by the French Army on a canal bank during the First Battle of Ypres. By May of the following year, the site contained graves of both French and Canadian casualties becoming known as Essex Farm British Military Cemetery. Essex Farm was a nearby farm in the area.
It was during the battle to defend Allied terrain in the northern Ypres Salient, that the Germans introduced a deadly, never before used weapon, poison gas.
The rejection of In Flanders Field
Major McCrae submitted his poem to The Spectator magazine but it was rejected and returned. It was not published until Punch printed it on December 8, 1915.
In the Punch version the word “blow” is used in the first line even though McCrae also wrote the word “grow” in other handwritten rewrites. The poem contains just 15 lines but they are as powerful and poignant as they are haunting:
In Flanders Field by Major 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.
Travelers who visit the Menin Gate Memorial and/or participate in the Last Post ceremony will find Lieutenant Alex Helmer’s name commemorated on Panel 10. His name is among nearly 55,000 soldiers with no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.
Today, in tribute to those fallen warriors, Ypres honors them with a nightly ceremony known as the “Last Call.” A tradition which has been observed each evening since 1929.
Read Also: Veterans Day: Belgium’s Last Post in Ypres on the
100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime
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Lead Image: Pixabay https://www.pexels.com/photo/sunset-sun-horizon-priroda-35599/