“In Flanders Field” Written in 1915

Monday, May 3, 1915

In trenches on Yser Canal

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “For particulars see summary attached to April War Diary”. [1]

The Ops-Report attached to the War Diary says: – “On Monday morning, May 3rd an enemy aeroplane was hit by rifle fire from the trenches of the 14th Bn. but managed to plane down in his own lines.  He was apparently seriously damaged.”  [2]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: The Battalion history again elaborates; “May 3rd was a quiet day, according to the official diary of the Battalion, although enemy aeroplanes were active. By this time the majority of the Royal Montrealers had cast aside their Ross rifles and equipped themselves with Lee-Enfields, a weapon better suited to meet the severe requirements of active service. Opening fire with these new rifles, and encouraged by Lieut.-Col. Meighen, who himself joined in the sport, the men of the 14th winged one plane which, however, managed to escape and land behind the enemy’s lines. Late that night the Battalion was relieved from the trenches and marched back to the Transport Lines near Vlamertinghe.” [3]

It was on this day that Lieut- Colonel John McRae wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” as a tribute to his friend Lieut. Alexis Helmer who had died the previous day in the Second Battle of Ypres.

03 May 15“In Flanders Fields” is a war poem in the form of a rondeau, written during the First World War by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieut. Alexis Helmer,* who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. “In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 8 of that year in the London-based magazine Punch.

It is one of the most popular and most quoted poem from the war. As a result of its immediate popularity, parts of the poem were used in propaganda efforts and appeals to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict. The poem and poppy are prominent Remembrance Day symbols throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly in Canada, where “In Flanders Fields” is one of the nation’s best-known literary works. The poem also has wide exposure in the United States, where it is associated with Veterans Day.

John McCrae was a poet and physician from Guelph, Ontario. He developed an interest in poetry at a young age and wrote throughout his life. His earliest works were published in the mid-1890s in Canadian magazines and newspapers. McCrae’s poetry often focused on death and the peace that followed.

John McCrae
John McCrae

At the age of 41, McCrae enrolled with the Canadian Expeditionary Force following the outbreak of the First World War. He had the option of joining the medical corps because of his training and age, but he volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer. It was his second tour of duty in the Canadian military. He had previously fought with a volunteer force in the Second Boer War. He considered himself a soldier first; his father was a military leader in Guelph and McCrae grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.

McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. They attacked the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915, but were unable to break through the Canadian line, which held for over two weeks. In a letter written to his mother, McCrae described the battle as a “nightmare”: “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.” Alexis Helmer, a close friend, was killed during the battle on May 2. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance. ”[4]

* Lieut Alexis Hannum Helmer was a 23 yr. old native of Hull, Quebec serving with the Canadian Field Artillery. He was the Son of Elizabeth I. Helmer, of Ottawa, and the late Brig. Gen. R. A. Helmer. Early on Sunday morning, May 2, 1915, Lieutenants Hague and Helmer left their position to check on a Canadian Battery who had positioned themselves on the bank of the Yser Canal near St. Julien close to the France-Belgium border. They had only gone a few yards when a six inch, high explosive canon shell burst. Lieut. Helmer was killed instantly. Lieut. Helmer was a close friend of Capt. John McCrae and was the inspiration for McRae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”.

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May 3, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089731.jpg
[2]   Operation-Report of May 6th, 1915 (Apr 16th – May 5th); War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,  http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089727.jpg
[3]   R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 46.
[4]   Wikipedia contributors, "In Flanders Fields," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=In_Flanders_Fields&oldid=637216802 (accessed January 5, 2015).



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