I visited Ypres, Belgium yesterday, and there is much I wish to share about the experience. At this point, I see it as at least three, possibly four, subjects, so I start with why I visited. Today I will discuss John McCrae and his experience in Ypres, I will follow with the story of the soldiers, and end with the weapons and technology of this war. In all episodes, I wish to draw attention to what has not changed. The lack of social progress in the last hundred years.
John McCrae graduated from the University of Toronto with an MD in 1898, and served an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. MD. He was granted a fellowship in pathology at McGill University, but requested a year off from his studies, during which he served as an artilleryman in the second Boer War.
After serving a year in South Africa, McCrae returned to Canada and his studies, resigning from the military in 1904. In 1914 he was drawn to return to service as a surgeon, first in Neuve-Chapelle, France, and then his brigade was moved to Ypres Belgium.
Ypres is one of those beautiful little villages that you might pass on your way somewhere. In this case, it was the Germans, on their way to France, but its history as a battleground dates back to the Romans. Ypres stood between the Germans and the English channel, its strategic importance was verified with every change in warfare, from the invasion of France, to the U-boat ports that denied trade to the British, through access to Dunkirk. in the second world war. The tools of war were changing in 1914, and tactics had not quite caught up. The marvelous German cavalry was no match for a few Belgians on bicycles with machine guns. Although the Germans had initially overrun Ypres, the allies returned and retook Ypres in October of 1914. The battle lines became static, and held throughout the war, and trench warfare was born.
In 1915 German chemist Fritz Haber successfully weaponized chlorine gas (more on him tomorrow). Its first use was on 22 April, 1915, in Ypres. I will not publish any photographs of the effects of chlorine gas on the human body, but if you care to do the math, that bottle of Clorox in the laundry room is about 6% chlorine. Aerosol Chlorine at 1000 ppm is lethal within seconds of exposure. It is a painful, ugly death, after which the acids corrode the remaining tissues, by which I mean to say the effects are horrific to the witnesses who survive.
John McCrae was one of those survivors. Stationed at Essex Farms, a forward field dressing station, he treated the soldiers mere yards from the front lines. On 2 May 1915, his friend and former student Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed by a shell and later buried in the adjacent cemetery. Originally, wooden crosses marked the graves, and the spacing is haphazard as the cemetery itself remained under artillery fire. No stone marks Alexis’s final resting place.
McCrae, a poet as well as surgeon, sat down and wrote a poem in memory of his friend. He discarded it, but it was recovered by another soldier and eventually published. The approachable language and images made it popular immediately, and it has made the poppy a symbol of remembrance.
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.
A month later, McCrae, was transferred to a hospital in France where he was the lieutenant-colonel in charge of medicine. Writing of the days after the first gas attacks he wrote “I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days… Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done”. His fellow staffers at the hospital, many friends from McGill, barely recognized the war torn veteran. On 24 January 1918 he was appointed consulting physician to the 1st British army, the first Canadian to be so honored.He was not to live to receive the honor, dying four days later of pneumonia and meningitis. It has been said that he would not have wanted to survive when so many under his care had died.
The First World War never actually ended, an armistice was called for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. American General John Pershing is said to have stated “Without an actual defeat of the Germans, we’ll be back within twenty years to finish this”. In fact many historians believe the armistice made World War Two inevitable.
Ypres was rebuilt in the classic style, and appears to be an ancient city. In fact, there were no buildings left standing after the war. Over 55,000 soldiers were never identified, and a large portion of the bodies were never found, lost in the mud, blasted to bits, and dissolved by the hydrochloric acid formed when chlorine gas mixes with standing water. The memorial at the Menin Gate turned out to be too small, and the names continue to be listed at the Tyne Cot Memorial, where just days ago three more bodies were buried that were only identified as being from South Africa, by the springbok insignias that survived with their remains.
Other memories of the war are routinely found, this live artillery shell was placed by the side of the road and awaits disposal by the bomb squad.
In 1919, months after the end of the war, Pete Seegar was born. In 1955 he penned the song “Where have all the flowers gone”, which is in many ways reminiscent of Flanders Fields. The song went on to be an anti war song during the Vietnam era, because despite the First World War being known as “The War to end all Wars”, it wasn’t, or we wouldn’t need to number it. In fact, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent has assisted in over one hundred conflicts since the war to end all wars.