ERNEST CLEGG & JOHN McCRAE – PART I
John McCrae [1878-1918]
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
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.
December 8th 2015 will mark the centenary of the first publication of this, one of most poignant, evocative and symbolically resonant of all poems written throughout the course of the First World War, Canadian John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields.
McCrae [1872-1918], a native of Guelph Ontario, qualified doctor and veteran of the Boer War, was second-in-command of the 1st Canadian Field Artillery (CFA) Brigade, and, as a professionally trained doctor, its principal medic & surgeon. Having arrived in France in early 1915, the Brigade were first deployed towards the centre of the Allied front lines in the Ypres Salient in April 1915.
The lines of the poem were penned in the heat of conflict, at the height of the bloody Second Battle of Ypres – April to May 1915 – which ominously witnessed the Germans’ first use of a new and ever more deadly weapon of war – poison chlorine gas. It was the devasting trauma & effects of chlorine gas on French and North African troops on April 22nd 1915 which created a 4 mile hole in the Allied front at Ypres and facilitated the subsequent German advance into the breach, precipating a fierce defence from British & Canadian troops still holding the line in adjacent sectors, one which only just prevented a complete German breakthrough in the ensuing days.
As McCrae reflected in a letter to his mother at the height of the battle:
The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothers off, nor our boots, even 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.
[Prescott: In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p.98]
The poem’s immediate inspiration probably came from the sudden & brutally instantaneous death of McCrae’s close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, killed by a German shell during the bombardment of a Canadian forward gun position on May 2nd 1915.
It is known that McCrae personally interred Hamer’s remains in a makeshift grave (now lost) amid the ever-increasing rows of casualties laid to rest in the adjacent Essex Farm Cemetery. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Morrison, a long-time friend & fellow D Battery veteran from Boer War days, who was also at Ypres, described the surroundings as follows:
A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry regiment and on numerous occasions during the sixteen day battle, 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 Flanders Fields & Others Poems by Lieut-Col John McCrae, M.D [Putnam, NY, 1919], p.82]
A number of other contemporary witnesses suggest that the poem was penned within sight of Helmer’s grave in the Essex Farm Cemetery & close by McCrae’s heavily sandbagged Field Hospital, excavated deep into the spoilbanks of the west bank of Yser Canal:
The poem was accepted by the editor of the London satirical magazine Punch, the recently be-knighted Sir Owen Seaman [1861-1936], who considered himself something of a poet (of “light verse”) in his own right. From 1906, when Seaman first became Editor, until the outbreak of War, Cambridge graduate A A Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh) worked as Seaman’s assistant. Some authorities have suggested that Seaman’s dour demeanour may have served as inspiration for Milne’s eternally gloomy character, Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh!
Seaman’s own offerings during the War were dismissed by John M Munro as “verses of a somewhat mindless patriotic kind reflecting the optimism and devotion to his native land rather than the stirrings of poetic genius”. They included his recently published 1915 anthology, War Time, “a mixture of satiric verse and patriotic doggerel” according to the same critic.
The same could most certainly not be said of McCrae’s In Flanders Fields which initially appeared, without comment or attribution, in the lower right-hand corner of Page 468 of its December 8th 1915 issue :
It was only in the cumulative index of articles and drawings added at the back of the complete June-Dec 1915 volume of Punch (Vol CXLIX), that McCrae was named as the author of the poem for the first time, though with his surname curiously mispelt:
In June 1915, shortly after the end of the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae was transferred to No 3 (McGill) Canadian General Hospital, taking up the position of Chief of Medical Services. He remonstrated with his superiors over the move, desperately wishing to remain with his unit at the front.
The hospital was initially located in huge tents at Dannes-Cammiers until the winter weather forced the facilities to be relocated to the site of the former Jesuit College in Boulogne. The new hospital opened its doors in February 1916 and provided nearly 1600 beds over an area of some 26 acres. Allied wounded casualties from the Battles of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, the Third Battle of Ypres, and Passchendale were all brought here during the ensuing war years.
The poem itself first re-appeared in book form in a Canadian anthology of “Poems of the Great War” entitled In the Day of Battle, edited by Prince Edward Island author, Carrie Ellen Holman [1877-1972] and published in Toronto by William Briggs in November-December 1916.
The poem was also set to music, including one adaption for voice & piano by the famous American composer John Philip Sousa [1854-1932], recently re-commissioned, at the age of 62, as a Lieutenant in the US Naval Reserve. Sousa received a personal copy of the poem sent to him directly by McCrae himself in the post from France in the summer of 1917 with a special request that he set it to music. Sousa duly obliged, completing the final proofs of the composition for his publisher, G Schirmer of Boston, in January 1918, only to then read, within days of its completion, the sad news of McCrae’s death in a French military hospital:
It was not just Sousa’s music which popularized McCrae’s poems in the United States. News of his death in January 1918 was greeted with considerable sadness not only in Canada but also across the border in the United States. Many Americans felt happy to consider McCrae an adopted American given his time as Lecturer in pathology at the School of Medicine, University of Vermont in the pre-war years, alongside the fact that his brother, Thomas, was president of Jefferson College, Philadelphia. And already by 1918, in the United States, McCrae’s poem was counted as one of the most popular of all wartime verses, alongside British poet Rupert Brooke’s Soldier and American Alan Seeger’s I have a Rendezvous with Death. Each of the three poets’ premature deaths added further pathos & poignancy to their writing and to their ensuing popularity. In Flanders Fields was frequently memorized by US serving soliders and their loved ones at home, indeed the New York Times noted that “probably no verses of the war have become more widely known” . Examination of US newspapers in 1918-19 show it extensively republished across the country. Even during the final months of the war in 1918 it was frequently recited at patriotic meetings, in the intervals of theatrical performances, as an encouragement to US enlisting men and as an advertising vehicle for sustaining continued donations to the American Red Cross.
It also elicited a response from Americans to the challenge thrown down in the poem’s final stanza, as numerous writers, inspired by McCrae’s words, penned their own lines in answer. These responses were in part an attempt to come to terms with the growing number of American casualties in France and to somehow find meaning in those losses, whilst crystallizing the moral cause & the principles for which they believed the war was being fought. There were many such poems, amongst which some of the best known were those of R W Lillard, J P Reed, J A Armstrong, John Downing and the wonderfully named Culpeper Chunn, but perhaps the most widely republished was that of Ohio State Librarian, Charles Burleigh Galbreath [1858-1934].
In the aftermath of the war, McCrae’s words were frequently recited and sung on National Memorial Day (some states also allocating special Commemorative state-wide holidays in 1919) and at the dedication ceremonies for the innumerable war memorials and cemeteries that now began to be erected & constructed around the country.
And it was one Moina Michael [1869-1944], a former University of Georgia academic and wartime YMCA volunteer, who was so inspired by her first reading of McCrae’s poem as to immediately pen her own equally powerful response, We Shall Keep The Faith :
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
So, at the YMCA National Convention of Nov 1918, Michael first propounded the idea of the Poppy (in fact, in its initial design, entwined with the torch of Liberty) as a symbolic badge of both victory and remembrance. In the face of active campaigning, the flower was adopted by the American Legion – the US national veterans’ organisation – in 1920 as a symbolic memorial to be worn on US National Memorial Day. By 1921, large numbers of artificial poppies were being made by women & children in France and imported for distribution at these US National Memorial Day commemorations with the proceeds going to assist those areas of France devastated by the war.
In August 1918, a new edition of McCrae’s Poems was advertised by the New York publishers Putnams and first appeared in early 1919. This first US edition included an accompanying “essay in character” by another Canadian medic & war veteran, Sir Andrew Macphail [1864-1938]). The edition captured the mood of the times in the United States and, with a sales price of $1.50, proved immensely popular.
As Macphail noted in that “essay”:
John McCrae witnessed only once the raw earth of Flanders hide its shame in the warm scarlet glory of the poppy. Others have watched this resurrection of the flowers in four successive seasons, a fresh miracle every time it occurs. Also they have observed the rows of crosses lengthen, the torch thrown, caught and carried to victory. The dead may sleep. We have not broken faith with them. It is little wonder then that “In Flanders Fields” has become the poem of the army. The soldiers have learned it with their hearts, which is quite a different thing from committing it to memory. It circulates, as a song should circulate, by the living word of mouth, not by printed characters. That is the true test of poetry—its insistence on making itself learnt by heart. . .If there was nothing remarkable about the publication of “In Flanders Fields” there was something momentous in the moment of writing it. And yet it was a sure instinct which prompted the writer to send it to “Punch”. A rational man wishes to know the news of the world in which he lives ; and if he is interested in life, he is eager to know how men feel and comport themselves amongst the events which are passing. For this purpose “Punch” is the great newspaper of the world, and these lines describe better than any other how men felt in that great moment. It was in April, 1915. The enemy was in the full cry of victory. All that remained for him was to occupy Paris, as once he did before, and to seize the Channel ports. Then France, England, and the world were doomed.
Against this backdrop, in late 1921, the specialist New York printer, William Edwin Rudge [1876-1931] was inspired to commission the British war veteran, artist & calligrapher, Ernest Costain Clegg [1876-1954], to design a finely bound illustrated limited edition of In Flanders Fields, to be published on Rudge’s own printing house press (recently relocated to Mount Vernon, New York) in an initial run of two hundred and sixty five copies.
Major Clegg had been a pre-war resident of New York and had recently returned to the city after wartime service with the British Army in France.
The short print run is explained by the fact that these copies were for distribution amongst Rudge’s closest friends and colleagues as Christmas presents in December 1921. They would have been given out just a month before the 4th anniversary of McCrae’s death.
A review of the book in the New York Tribune of 8th January 1922, suggests a supplementary second printed run of 500 copies might also have been published for wider purchase by the general public:
IN FLANDERS FIELDS.
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D.
Illuminated by Ernest Clegg, late of the Bedfordshire Regiment, British Expeditionary Force. Published by William Edwin Rudge, New York.
Among the poems inspired by the late war not one achieved the fame justly given to McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” The simple beauty of its thought and the purity of its diction gave it recognition by the lover of the fine thing in literature, and by the people of the mass, who almost unerringly sense true values when they meet them. This edition of the poem, superbly illuminated by Ernest Clegg, is limited to 500 copies. In it one finds a brief biography of McCrae, his poem and four colored plates, illustrating lines of the verse. A loose leaf, also illuminated, is printed in a way that fits it for use as a dedication of the little book to any one whom the purchaser desires to honour. We have not seen anything more beautiful in the field of tribute to those who fell in Flanders or in France. The edition should be exhausted speedily.
New York Tribune
Sunday, Jan 8th 1922
As noted above, the book also included a special page dedicating the book to those who had died in the Great War and where the names of individual War casualties might also be added for special personal remembrance in the blank space below, as indeed seems to have occurred in several surviving copies of the book.
It is a curious anomaly that a copy of the poem written in McCrae’s own hand (seemingly from memory) and illustrated in the front of the 1919 US edition and the version published in Rudge’s 1921 edition, as transcribed & calligraphied by Ernest Clegg, have the first line of the poem ending with the word “grow” instead of the more commonly accepted version, “blow“:
As we shall in the next post, Rudge’s choice of Clegg to illustrate McCrae’s poem was an inspired one. As a decorated war veteran and artist – one whose own military career in both South Africa and in Flanders had very closely mirrored that of McCrae himself – Clegg, no doubt moved by his own experiences & recollections of the trenches, powerfully encapsulates McCrae’s poetic imagery, the poignancy of his premature death and the enduring bond of duty, faith and honour between the surviving generations & all those who had given up their lives during the previous four long years of conflict.
Indeed it was a fate from which Clegg had himself escaped by the very narrowest of margins in the summer of 1916, an experience which would leave deep & lasting emotional & physical scars.
As his Army files reveal, in later years Clegg would have considerable cause to be thankful for the unrivalled professional skills of the Canadian medical profession and in particular one of McCrae’s wartime colleagues and fellow CAMC officers, Lt Colonel Frederick (Frank) McKelvey Bell [1878-1931]:
McKelvey Bell had been one of the first Canadian medics to be deployed in France in 1914. Having taken part in the battle of Mons, he had established the 2nd Canadian Stationary Hospital at Paris-Plage on the outskirts of Le Touquet, the hospital located in the Hotel du Golf with medical officers, nurses and orderlies billeted in adjacent seaside villas and the nearby golf course clubhouse.
He later recounted his war experiences in Flanders, which he described as the pill of fact but thinly coated with the sugar of fiction, in The First Canadians in France, The Chronicle of a Military Hospital in the War Zone [George H Doran, New York, 1917]. The book is dedicated to Surgeon General Guy Carleton Jones CMG and to all the Canadian Medical Services Overseas:
The wise and skillful guidance of the former and the efficient fulfilment of onerous duties by all have given to the Canadian Medical Service a status second to none in the Empire: The sick and wounded soldier has been made to feel that a Military Hospital may be not only a highly scientific institution—but a Home.
A sentiment that John McCrae would doubtless have echoed & endorsed during his own time at Boulogne.
McKelvey Bell observes with moving detail the arrival of the first convoy of three hundred wounded soldiers at Le Touquet (on December 4th 1914), in scenes similar to those that must have been regularly witnessed by John McCrae at nearby Boulogne from the summer of 1915 onwards. They also perhaps mirrored the experiences of Ernest Clegg at one of the Allied Base Hospitals a year later, in June 1916:
Some of the boys could stand or walk, and they clambered slowly and painfully down the steep steps and stood in little wondering groups. God knows they looked tired, and their clothes were still covered with the dried mud from the trenches; for during a battle speed and the necessities of the moment are the important things—the refinements of civilisation must await time and opportunity. Many were smoking cigarettes; some had bandages about their head or hands or feet; some had their arms in slings; but from none was there the slightest groan or sound of complaint. They waited with soldierly but pathetic patience until we were ready to take care of them…There were others who had been severely wounded; some with broken arms or legs; some shot through the head or chest. It was wonderful to see the gentleness and kindness of our own rough lads as they lifted them tenderly from bed to stretcher, and carried them from the train to the waiting ambulances….
He goes on to describe the manner in which the casualties were then admitted:
We saw the boys again at the entrance to the hospital, lying in rows on stretchers, or standing patiently in line, waiting until their names and numbers were duly recorded. Each one, as this procedure was completed, was given a little card on which the name of his ward and the number of his bed was written. He was then conducted or carried to his allotted place. How tired they looked as they sat wearily upon the edge of their beds, waiting for the orderlies to come and assist them to undress! But even here they were able to smile and crack their little jokes from bed to bed.
As soon as they were undressed, they were given a refreshing bath, in which they revelled after their weeks of dirty work and mud. After the bath came clean, warm pyjamas, a cup of hot cocoa or soup, a slice of bread and butter, and last, but to the soldier never least, a cigarette.
To him the cigarette is the panacea for all ills. I have seen men die with a cigarette between their lips—the last favour they had requested on earth. If the soldier is in pain, he smokes for comfort; if he is restless he smokes for solace; when he receives good news, he smokes for joy; if the news is bad, he smokes for consolation; if he is well—he smokes ; when he is ill—he smokes. But good news or bad, sick or well, he always smokes.
Subsequent pages are full of the pathos, wit & dark humour of a typical cross-section of wounded Jocks & Tommies. In Chapter XVIII of the book, McKelvey Bell relives the Second Battle of Ypres through the quasi-fictional eyes of Capt Jack Wellcombe, a British RAMC officer, on duty in an fronline Field Ambulance Post, close by McCrae’s Artillery Brigade, who had finally received the order to move forward:
They [the Canadian artillery] chose the most advanced position in the line of guns, close to the Yser, and soon were in their places ready for the fight. Shells fell about them in thousands, but the men happy to be in the thick of the battle turned to their guns with a will and worked like mad. The dawn broke, but there was no cessation of the fight. The guns became hot, and screeched complainingly as each shell tore through the swollen muzzle, but still there was no reprieve or rest, and all day long they belched forth smoke and death over the Yser’s bank.
There’s a clear echo of McCrae’s own description:
..the streams of wounded coming in had to receive attention, and during those frightful days no man flinched before his precarious and arduous duty. In the seventeen consecutive days and nights of the artillery battle there was never a full minute’s break in the bombardment from either side.
The chapter concludes with the poignant scene of Wellcombe and a distraught Canadian Battalion Commander laying to rest the remains of four of officers in a nearby cemetery, echoing the account of McCrae’s burial of his close friend, Alexis Helmer at Essex Farm during those very same days:
The colonel repeated the burial service from memory, word for word:
“Ashes to ashes—dust to dust …”
But before the earth closed over them he stood at the foot of each grave, silent as the grave itself, and dropping a rose tenderly upon each stood at attention, his right hand at the “salute.” As the earth fell dully upon the blankets he turned away with tears in his eyes and said simply: “Poor brave chaps ! I loved them all ! God keep them. They did their duty!”
McKelvey Bell subsequently returned to Canada and would later witness at first hand the devastation of war visited without warning upon civilian Canada in the infamous Halifax explosives disaster of 1917, the source for another of his books, curiously a romantic novel. In the post-war period Bell moved to New York, where he had previously trained as a house surgeon in 1903-4, and was for many years on the staff of the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital in lower Manhattan.
Returning to McCrae’s war experiences, the change to a purely administrative & medical role at No.3 Hospital in the summer of 1915, now far removed from his original artillery brigade unit and front line combat, proved a difficult & traumatic transition, and one that would ultimately cost him his life two and half years later. For much of his time in Boulogne he insisted on living outdoors in a tent, in all weathers, all year-round, in the same way as his former comrades on the front line. Inevitably this began to take an increasingly heavy toll on his health. Respite from his medical activities came in the form of long rides through the French countryside on his faithful horse, Bonfire, and the supportive company of an adopted stray named Bonneau, a lively spaniel, who regularly accompanied him on his hospital ward rounds, and was a familiar sight to both medical & nursing staff and patients. It was also during this period that McCrae continued to write poetry, including his last poem, The Anxious Dead, which first appeared in the Spectator magazine of June 30th 1917, and echoes many of the themes and ideas of In Flanders Fields :
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone.)
O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
To them, and Caesar, that we still make war.
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
That we will keep the faith for which they died.
Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.
After debilitating attacks of both asthma and bronchitis during the summer of 1917, McCrae’s health deteriorated rapidly in the early weeks of 1918, when he was diagnosed with pneumonia and moved to No.14 British General Hospital (for Officers). On January 28th, following several days of severe illness which had seen his condition progressively worsen, he finally passed away. On the following day, amid bright spring sunshine, McCrae was buried with full military honours at the nearby Wimereux Cemetery:
John McCrae’s funeral cortège, Wimereux cemetery, Jan 29th 1918.
Courtesy of Guelph Museums
The funeral cortege included both Bonneau and Bonfire, the latter, as seen in the above photograph, bearing McCrae’s riding boots reversed in their stirrups.
My special personal thanks go to Linda Granfield, author of In Flanders Fields, The Story of the Poem of John McCrae, without whom the spark of inspiration for this and the posts that follow might never have been ignited!
- Punch or the London Charivari, December 8th 1915
- In the Day of Battle – Poems of the Great War (ed. Carrie Ellen Holman) [William Briggs, Toronto, 1916]
- In Flanders Fields & others Poems by Lieut-Col John McCrae, M.D. With an essay in character by Sir Andrew Macphail [G P Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1919]
- In Flanders Fields (Illustrated by Ernest Clegg) [William E Rudge, Mount Vernon, NY, 1921]
- Lt Col F McKelvey Bell: The First Canadians in France, The Chronicle of a Military Hospital in the War Zone [George H Doran, NY, 1917]
- Linda Granfield & Janet Wilson: In Flanders Fields – the Story of the Poem of John McCrae [Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Markham, Ont, Canada 1985-2014]
- John F Prescott: In Flanders Fields – The Story of John McCrae [Boston Mills Press, Erin, Ont, Canada 1985]
- Moina Michael: The Miracle Flower, The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy [Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, USA, 1941]