In 1915 the carnage of the First World War was already too evident. The Allies and Germans were in yet another bitter contest of bloody attrition known as the Second Battle of Ypres.
Even as the machine guns chattered and shells exploded around him, Canadian artillery officer and surgeon Major John McCrae M.D (later Colonel) paused to write some thoughts on paper.
As the Canadian Artillery Brigade surgeon at the front lines in Flanders, Belgium, he was all too familiar with the horrors of war and its companion, death.
In a letter to his mother he wrote.”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 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. (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)”
Yet one death in particular haunted him. He had just attended a burial ceremony for a young friend and former medical student, Lt Alexis Helmer, killed by a German shell.
What he wrote was a simple poem, a mixture of tragic loss and a call to arms called “In Flanders Fields”. It became one of the most iconic poems of the war. One hundred years later it still seems as poignant.
Before the war, McCrae was a physician, teacher, and pathologist in Montreal at the Royal Victoria Hospital and Montreal General Hospital, today both affiliated with the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).
On this Remembrance Day, a special ceremony was held at the MUHC to mark the centenary of that poem and to remember both its author, John McCrae, and another Montreal doctor, Francis Scrimger, V.C.
A piper from the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch) led the ceremony which featured a reading of the poem, along with an original copy in McCrae’s handwriting. (Although not “the” original, McCrae had later written a few copies to send to friends and family)
Dr. Jonathan Meakins, former Chair of Surgery at McGill, professor emeritus at Oxford, and currently Director of the RBC Arts and Heritage Centre spoke at today’s ceremony.
”We want to enhance the memory of two of our own who fought in World War,” he said. “Both Captain Francis Scrimger, the first Canadian officer awarded the Victoria Cross, and John McRae, who wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, were doctors at the Royal Victoria and Montreal General hospitals. We’re proud to think part of their legacy came from this institution. We also want to highlight the sacrifice of all the men and women from the Armed Forces, including doctors and nurses from the original McGill Hospitals, during World Wars I and II.”
The symbol of Remembrance.
During the war an American woman who was a professor, had taken leave from her university to volunteer with the YWCA, Moved by the poem she vowed to wear the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. After the war she began selling silk poppies to raise money for American veterans. Still later, a French woman took the idea to Europe where it soon spread to England and then to all Commonwealth countries eventually becoming the iconic symbol of Remembrance we know today. Strangely it did not really catch on in the U.S.
In that same battle of 1915, another Montreal doctor, Francis Scrimger, was operating at a forward dressing station under heavy fire. For his actions he was later awarded the Empire’s highest honour for valour, the Victoria Cross. His Citation reads:
“On the afternoon of 25th April, 1915, in the neighbourhood of Ypres, when in charge of an advanced dressing station in some farm buildings, which were being heavily shelled by the enemy, he directed under heavy fire the removal of the wounded, and he himself carried a severely wounded Officer out of a stable in search of a place of greater safety. When he was unable alone to carry this Officer further, he remained with him under fire till help could be obtained.
During the very heavy fighting between 22nd and 25th April, Captain Scrimger displayed continuously day and night the greatest devotion to his duty among the wounded at the front.” (London Gazette, no.29202, 23 June 1915)
Scrimger survived the war and died in Montreal in 1937 at age 57.
As for the author of the iconic poem, John McCrae had overworked himself and contracted pneumonia. He did not survive the war, dying at his field hospital in Ypres in January 1918, where he is buried.