Sunday, November 11, 2007

In Flanders Fields

[Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, MD to his Mother]

France, May 17th, 1915.

The farther we get away from Ypres the more we learn of the enormous power the Germans put in to push us over. Lord only knows how many men they had,and how many they lost. I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days. All the gunners down this way passed us all sorts of `kudos' over it. Our guns --those behind us, from which we had to dodge occasional prematures --have a peculiar bang-sound added to the sharp crack of discharge.The French 75 has a sharp wood-block-chop sound, and the shell goes over with a peculiar whine -- not unlike a cat, but beginning with n --thus, -- n-eouw. The big fellows, 3000 yards or more behind,sounded exactly like our own, but the flash came three or four seconds before the sound. Of the German shells -- the field guns come with a great velocity -- no warning -- just whizz-bang; white smoke, nearly always air bursts. The next size, probably 5 inch howitzers, have a perceptible time of approach, an increasing whine, and a great burst on the percussion -- dirt in all directions. And even if a shell hit on the front of the canal bank, and one were on the back of the bank, five, eight, or ten seconds later one would hear a belated WHIRR, and curved pieces of shell would light --probably parabolic curves or boomerangs. These shells have a great back kick; from the field gun shrapnel we got nothing BEHIND the shell --all the pieces go forward. From the howitzers, the danger is almost as great behind as in front if they burst on percussion. Then the large shrapnel-- air-burst -- have a double explosion, as if a giant shook a wet sail for two flaps; first a dark green burst of smoke; then a lighter yellow burst goes out from them. Then the 10-inch shells: a deliberate whirring course --a deafening explosion -- black smoke, and earth 70 or 80 feet in the air. These always burst on percussion. The constant noise of our own guns is really worse on the nerves than the shell; there is the deafening noise, and the constant whirr of shells going overhead. The earth shakes with every nearby gun and every close shell.

I think I may safely enclose a cross section of our position. The left is the front: a slope down of 20 feet in 100 yards to the canal, a high row of trees on each bank, then a short 40 yards slope up to the summit of the trench, where the brain of the outfit was; then a telephone wired slope, and on the sharp slope, the dugouts, including my own. The nondescript affair on the low slope is the gun position, behind it the men's shelter pits. Behind my dugout was a rapid small stream, on its far bank a row of pollard willows, then 30 yards of field, then a road with two parallel rows of high trees. Behind this again, several hundred yards of fields to cross before the main gun positions are reached. More often fire came from three quarters left, and because our ridge died away there was a low spot over which they could come pretty dangerously. The road thirty yards behind us was a nightmare to me. I saw all the tragedies of war enacted there. A wagon, or a bunch of horses, or a stray man, or a couple of men, would get there just in time for a shell. One would see the absolute knock-out, and the obviously lightly wounded crawling off on hands and knees; or worse yet, at night, one would hear the tragedy -- "that horse scream" -- or the man's moan. All our own wagons had to come there (one every half hour in smart action), be emptied, and the ammunition carried over by hand. Do you wonder that the road got on our nerves? On this road, too, was the house where we took our meals. It was hit several times, windows all blown in by nearby shells, but one end remained for us.

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 be done. On the fifteenth day we got orders to go out,but that was countermanded in two hours. To the last we could scarcely believe we were actually to get out. The real audacity of the position was its safety; the Germans knew to a foot where we were. I think I told you of some of the "you must stick it out" messages we got from our [French] General, -- they put it up to us. It is a wonder to me that we slept when, and how, we did. If we had not slept and eaten as well as possible we could not have lasted. And while we were doing this, the London office of a Canadian newspaper cabled home "Canadian Artillery in reserve." Such is fame!

Tuesday, June 1st, 1915.

1-1/2 miles northeast of Festubert, near La Bassee. Last night a 15 pr. and a 4-inch howitzer fired at intervals of five minutes from 8 till 4; most of them within 500 or 600 yards --a very tiresome procedure; much of it is on registered roads. In the morning I walked out to Le Touret to the wagon lines, got Bonfire, and rode to the headquarters at Vendin-lez-Bethune, a little village a mile past Bethune. Left the horse at the lines and walked back again. An unfortunate shell in the 1st killed a sergeant and wounded two men; thanks to the strong emplacements the rest of the crew escaped. In the evening went around the batteries and said good-bye. We stood by while they laid away the sergeant who was killed. Kind hands have made two pathetic little wreaths of roses; the grave under an apple-tree, and the moon rising over the horizon; a siege-lamp held for the book. Of the last 41 days the guns have been in action 33. Captain Lockhart, late with Fort Garry Horse, arrived to relieve me. I handed over, came up to the horse lines, and slept in a covered wagon in a courtyard. We were all sorry to part -- the four of us have been very intimate and had agreed perfectly -- and friendships under these circumstances are apt to be the real thing. I am sorry to leave them in such a hot corner, but cannot choose and must obey orders. It is a great relief from strain, I must admit, to be out, but I could wish that they all were.

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.

-John McCrae

-from In Flanders Fields and Other Poems by Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, M. D. ; with an Essay in Character by Sir Andrew Macphail (New York-1919)

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