In Flanders’ Fields

Gem Fire Air
In Flanders' Fields
marty kleva
May 28, 2007

permanent url

In Flanders’ Fields

— Major John McCrae

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.

Today, May 28th, the last Monday in May, America celebrates Memorial Day as part of the national holiday weekend. It was not always so, as the first Memorial Day came from the original idea in the Spring of 1866 by Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY who suggested that the patriots who had died in the Civil War should be honored by decorating their graves. From this, Decoration Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan in his General Order No. 11 and was first observed on May 30, 1868.

We presently celebrate Decoration Day as Memorial Day and in May in 1971, it was declared a national holiday to be held on the last Monday .

I have chosen the occasion to be memorialized by the most famous of poems written during a war, In Flanders’ Field, a poem written during the spring of 1915 in WWI by Canadian army surgeon John McCrae after he had endured what he describes as “Seventeen days of Hades!” — seventeen days of treating the wounded brought to his field station on the fields of Flanders, a field that was abundantly strewn with blooming poppies.

For those of you who are not familiar, Flanders is in western Belgium. It is a flat, boggy country where people speak Flemish, a place that holds old and famous cities like Antwerp, Bruges (Brussels) and Ypres. For centuries the fields of Flanders have been soaked with the blood of the English, Europeans, and Prussians alike in such battles as the one between Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo.

In this muddy churn of soggy soil, Major McCrae witnessed the death of a young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, killed by an 8-inch German shell burst on May 2, 1915. According to reports, his remains were scattered all over the place. Soldiers gathered them, put them in sandbags, and laid them on an army blanket that was closed with safety pins.

This report by Rob Ruggenberg describes the events of McCrae’s inspiration and anguish for In Flanders’ Field.

The burial (of Helmer), in the rapidly growing cemetery (called Essex Farm), just outside McCrae's dressing station, was postponed until late that evening. McCrae performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England's Order of Burial of the Dead. This happened in complete darkness, as for security reasons it was forbidden to make light.

The next evening, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Yser Canal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry.

As McCrae sat there he heard larks singing and he could see the wild poppies that sprang up from the ditches and the graves in front of him (see the drawing right by Edward Morrison, or this picture of the cemetery, made shortly after the war). He spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook. A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant major stood there quietly.

"His face was very tired but calm as he wrote", Allinson recalled. "He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."

When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:

"The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."

Commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Morrison, and a former Ottawa newspaper editor, verifies Allison’s recollections. This is how Morrison describes the scene:

"This poem was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station.

Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the sixteen days of battle, he and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery.

Just as he describes, we often heard in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us."

The poem, initially named We Shall Not Sleep, was nearly not published as McCrae being dissatisfied with it tossed the poem away, but Morrison retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator, in London, rejected it and sent the poem back, but Punch published it on 8 December 1915.

Although in later times, the poppy became associated with Armistice Day in November, the original symbol of the poppy was birthed in McCrae’s poem with the spring breeze blowing across a bloodied battlefield in Flanders.

There are some subtle symbolic references here, especially with those varieties of the poppy whose seedpod is the source of opium — a drug that is a strong painkiller having the additional backdoor hazard of addiction. The modern wars with the Taliban have an incorporated issue with the production of opium from their practice of growing huge quantities of poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Poppy and opium are associated with deep sleep, the poppy being known from the time of Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan as the flower associated with human sacrifice. In the 12th and early 13th centuries, he led warrior hordes south on campaigns for the conquest of India, and west to envelope Russia as far as the shores of the Black Sea.

In today’s time, who is sleeping? What is being sacrificed?

Over 3,430 American military have died in the Iraq war, as well as many thousands more Iraqi civilians and non-military American contractors. In our own Civil War, over a million of Americans died and during Gen. Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North, at Antietam, Maryland, in one day alone, Sept. 17, 1862, more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing.

In a recent newsletter, Bob Bauman of the Sovereign Society wrote:

To observe that so many have died in the American cause over so many centuries only accentuates the meaning and importance of the cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion. They died before their time, with promises unrealized, and in the service of their country. Their very real sacrifice for our liberties makes it all the more important that we guard against diminution of those liberties in our own time -- whether the threat is from abroad, or from within our own government.

Each of us always needs to be prepared for that unexpected hour of death, we know not when. The call to duty and service to country remains distant and unreal for too many Americans. As a nation we need always to be certain that in any war, including the so-called "war on terror," our cause is defensible and just.

None of those men who came home from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, Viet Nam, and now Iraq have come home whole and untouched, even if they have not been physically wounded. The traumas of war are not readily evident when the cry to war is heralded, especially as it is heralded as a duty to fight for freedom, and glorified as an act to bring an end to things like ‘terror’.

In Tibetan Buddhist thought, it is said that our existence is made up of six realms, and that it is only in the human realm that we can get off the Wheel of Suffering, aka Karma. This cannot be accomplished in any of the other realms — not even in the blissful state of ignorance that compels the God realm, nor the agonized yearnings that typifies the Hungry Ghost realm. Only when a person sees the spectrum of reality in toto and realizes his/her place in it is the opportunity available to exit the Wheel of Suffering.

For all the wars fought both in the past and presently by the U.S., including those we have been and are directly and covertly engaged with, all represent the Wheel of Karma and are similar to the treadmill of the familiar hamster wheel — one that goes nowhere and which only suffices to either work off nervous energy and/or embed it more deeply into the psyche — all within the cage of someone else’s construction.

At least since the times of the last Crusades, and most especially in the present, our entire reality is a cage of war, now a disc of digitally engraved fear and hatred burned into the human psyche. The disc is forever in the perpetual motion of pick a target > instigate a conflict > convince the people there is a threat to their security > create an event that triggers mass fear > declare a war and send thousands to their deaths and to a life lived in, as Major John McCrae says, the Hell realm.

When we get off the treadmill that like the poppy, lulls us to sleep, inside a cage constructed by others who manipulate war for their own profits —

When we decide to form an informed conscience and mind about what the conflict is truly about and what political and financial motivations are behind it —

When we can clarify the issues and get the pertinent facts and not be filled by fear, hatred, and prefigured reactions —

Then and only then might we begin to genuinely examine the possibility of establishing peace.

By doing the above, I would think that were we to be able to speak today with those who lie in Flanders, they might know that we do not break faith with their last thoughts and that they might at last sleep more peacefully knowing that we are fully awake.

Con Amore,

~ mek


Labels: , , , , , , ,