“For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty 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.”
John McCrae was a physician and poet from Guelph, Ontario. Though his training allowed him to be in the medical corps, he volunteered to be a part of a fighting unit in World War I. McCrae was in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of France. In 1915, after presiding over a funeral for his good friend, he was inspired to write the poem that is perhaps the greatest memorial contribution of any soldier of any era: “In Flanders Fields”.
The legacy of his words lives on in the poppies that dominate this time of year in Canada and elsewhere. Many pin a paper poppy to their jackets or shirts, over their hearts, in the days leading up to an including Remembrance Day – today, November 11.
This week I’ve done my own act of remembrance through the truthful and powerful paintings of A.Y. Jackson, showing the devastated landscapes he witnessed in the Great War. Jackson’s work reminds me of the human toll and the reality of the blood, mud, anxiety, violence and tragedy that is war. There is no glory in his images.
It is important, too, to remember John McCrae not in some iconic, glorified way, but as a Canadian man who gave us a brief but enduring tribute to the men he saw broken and killed by conflict. His intention was to give a small act of remembrance.
McCrae would not live to see the end of the war as his life was taken by disease, a common fatality of war that is often overlooked. As my own act of remembrance this week, I’ve included an artwork I did recently. I found that I wasn’t able to properly convey the emotions of considering the sacrifice and horror of war. But maybe that confusion and frustration on my part is fitting. We should never be able to make “sense” of things that are ultimately senseless.
Below is McCrae’s poem:
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.