Today, 11 November, is Canada’s Remembrance Day when we honour those soldiers who died while they fought for peace during the Boer War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and peacekeeping in various locations including Afghanistan. My great uncle was listed as missing in action in 1917 in France. My uncle, in the first group of Canadian soldiers, fought in WWII and came back a changed man.
John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor, was born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872. He was attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade as a field surgeon when he went into the line at Ypres in April 1915 with former military service in the South African War.
In the first week of April 1915, the soldiers of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade were moved to reinforce the Ypres salient where the British and Allied line pushed into the German line in a concave bend. On April 22, the Germans sought to eliminate this salient by using poison gas. Following an intensive artillery bombardment, they released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches into a light northeast wind. As thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted over their trenches the French colonial defences and British colonial forces on either side of the Canadians crumbled, and the troops, completely bemused by this terrible weapon, died or broke and fled, leaving a gaping four-mile hole in the Allied line. A soldier in the Canadian lines discovered the neutralization of the chlorine gas was possible by pressing urine soaked rags over their noses and mouths. The Canadians were the only division that were able to hold the line.
All through the night, the Canadians fought to close this gap. On April 24, the Germans launched another poison gas attack, this time at the Canadian line. In those forty-eight hours of battle, the Canadians suffered over 6,000 casualties, one man in every three, of whom more than 2,000 died. Canadians gained a reputation as a formidable fighting force. Moreover, it was the first time that a colonial force caused a major European power to retreat.
Following the service of a friend, Alexis Helmer, McCrae penned the thirteen lines on a scrap of paper that would immortalize the poppy in his famous war time poem.
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.
[2-John McCrae Memorial at McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario]
For history buffs go to the CBC news archives link for radio and film broadcasts about Vimy Ridge and other battles: http://archives.cbc.ca/war_conflict/first_world_war/clips/14167/
Photo Credit:  Martin LaBar CC=nc-sa-flickr, -Bill Barber CC=nc-flickr.