In the U.S. they call it Veteran’s Day. Here in Canada it is Remembrance Day. But not matter, the aims are the same: Honour and Remember.
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
between the crosses row on row”
Probably the most well-known poem in Canadian history was written by Major John McCrae on May 3rd, 1915. How the poem came to be is a Canadian legacy. McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30th, 1872. He was educated at the University of Toronto, became a physician, worked at McGill University in Montreal, and in the spring of 1915 he found himself working at a Canadian army field hospital near the Belgian town of Ypres.
“That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amidst the guns below.”
The spring of 1915 was an especially deadly time for the Canadian forces battling the Kaiser’s army in World War One, supposedly the “war to end all wars”.
Ypres was the first major battle fought by Canadian soldiers in the war, and it also marked the first use on the Western Front of chlorine gas. Reportedly, a light north east wind blew the gas toward the allied lines. French and Algerian forces, without the protection of gas masks, were forced to retreat, many dying along the way. A wide gap in the lines opened as a result and the German army quickly rushed forward to take advantage of this opportunity. This was on the 22nd of April.
The 1st Canadian Division, along with British troops, hurried to fill the gap and halt the German advance. They did so, but at a heavy cost.
“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.”
In a week of fierce fighting, the Canadian army suffered over 6,000 casualties. By the beginning of May, Major McCrae, all told, had spent seventeen straight days treating the wounded. He was later quoted as saying, “I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days … Seventeen days of Hades!”
On May 2nd a young friend and former student of McCrae’s had been killed by an artillery blast. McCrae performed the burial service for the soldier – Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, of Ottawa. The next day, war-weary and sore of soul, and surrounded by fields of blooming red poppies, McCrae wrote the words that would forever live on:
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you, from failing hands we throw
The torch;be yours to hold it high.”
On the days before, and on, the 11th of November — Remembrance Day — a majority of Canadians wear a red poppy over their hearts, in recognition of the sacrifices others have made before them. Far from being a tribute to war, as some might suggest, the red poppy is a reminder to all of us to keep our efforts alive to prevent further wars.
Major McCrae died of pneumonia at a field hospital in France on January 28th, 1918. A copy of the peom, in McCrae’s hand writing, can be seen at the McCrae Museum in Guelph, Ontario. (See map.)
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Remembrance Day, November 11th, falls this year on a Sunday. Services and other solemn ceremonies will be held across Canada and in many other Commonwealth Nations on that day.
The “official” Remembrance Day holiday will be on Monday the 12th with many government offices, businesses, stores and services either closed or unavailable on that day. (See video.)