I feel a strong but sort of irrational connection to John McCrae, the Canadian artilleryman, doctor and poet who left us “In Flanders Fields” and the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. As a boy I spent two years in John McCrae Elementary School in Windsor. That school has been gone now for about three decades, demolished, a casualty of changing demographics, and replaced with apparently childless houses. But I have so many vignettes of childhood memory from my time at John McCrae in the early seventies . . .
But what I’m writing about now is a very nice little volume I picked up a few months ago: a 1919 edition of In Flanders Fields and Other Poems by Lieut. -Col. John McCrae, M.D. with An Essay in Character by Sir Andrew MacPhail. I’m quite sure the text is available online and as publish on demand — neither, of course, a substitute for a century old hardcover copy — and I would recommend a reading. “In Flanders Fields” is the finest poem in the collection, although I would single out “Slumber Songs” and “Mine Host” for attention, the first a pair of lullabies for a world at it’s end, longing for rest, and the other a brief journey to the Underworld without return. “Disarmament”, like “In Flanders Fields” is a poetic suggestion that the work of soldiers is not finished, here clearly stated:
“If ye have righted all the wrongs of earth
Lay by the sword! Its work and ours is done.”
Looking at the poems back across a century and its horrible wars is fascinating. McCrae stood at the jagged and shattered meeting place of two worlds. He, around forty years old, was the product of a quiet, structured colony of old, ordered imperial Europe. As he stood with his artillery company he looked out across the morass of opposing trenches and no man’s land at a future chaos. The world we live in today, chaotic in its own way, is in no way visible to McCrae. His poems are of complete loss, of Death being the only hope for Rest.
Attached to the poems, indeed, making up most of the book, is Sir Andrew’s “Essay in Character”. The “Essay” is made up largely of McCrae’s own writing, letters home to his mother for the most part. Here we see McCrae valiantly maintaining the old imagination of war as a bit of a boxing match between gentlemen with a cup of tea in the evening. But the image cannot be maintained. The big guns are firing constantly, farmhouses are shattered and burning, in a world made of mud, noise and the screams of wounded men and horses. McCrae’s worlds, both the old order and the chaos of the trenches, are foreign lands to us. On the one hand we have no illusions of the nobility of any social class, and on the other, war today is something very different from the artillery duels and routine poison gas attacks on the trenches of the Great War.
In the poems and the Essay we see the decay and destruction of the old order in the mind and body of a single man. McCrae was a brilliant man, a great physician, an inspiring teacher, a talented artist and poet and by all accounts an exceptional soldier and officer. Watching his struggle to remain cheerful, to encourage family at home, to send notes to children is painful. He constantly writes of his horse and his dogs who seem such a great comfort to him. But, as his poems and MacPhail tell us, McCrae’s inner world is no longer a place of sunshine and pleasant company. Like shattered Europe, McCrae sees only chaos and death.
When Death comes for John McCrae it is an almost pathetic contrast to the horrifying convulsions which destroyed the old order. McCrae’s is no heroic death in battle, no titanic struggle. A telegram dated January 27th, 1918 declares McCrae to be seriously ill with pneumonia. The next day another announces his death that morning. On the 18th he had been healthy and preparing to accept a major promotion. No bang. No wimper. Just a rapid whithering to the Rest of which he so often wrote.
The Great War produced many works describing the great historical, social and psychic break that conflict became. I would suggest that In Flanders Fields, although — or perhaps because — it is cobbled together from disparate bits in different hands, deserves a place in the canon of great works on the Great War.