John McCrae stood staring at the simple wooden coffin.
It contained the remains of his dear friend Alexis Helmer.
McCrae was many things: a physician, author, artist and a poet. And now he was also a soldier. When England declared war on Germany, McCrae’s native Canada, a dominion of the British Empire, entered the war too.
From a hastily dug 8 foot by 8 foot bunker, McCrae treated wounded soldiers. It was during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The fighting had been fierce. There were many casualties.
On this day, May 2, 1915, during the second year of World War I, Alexis Helmer joined the dead.
Alex and John had been close friends from the time they signed up in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of the war. Together, the men had traveled far from home and family to fight for freedom and for the empire. In a letter written to his mother, John described the battle at Ypres as a “nightmare.”
“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.”
John McCrae could have enlisted in the medical corps, given his training, background and his age – he was 41. Instead, he volunteered for a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer. His father had been a military leader and had taught young John the importance of duty and of defending his country.
Now Alex was dead.
Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, filling in for the chaplain who had been called away, conducted the funeral of his friend. He remembered Alex, just so recently pulsating with life, courage and determination. A good and loyal friend he was. Now, suddenly, he was gone.
John was crushed with grief, even as he was filled with pride.
Later that evening, May 3, John sat in the back of an ambulance and wondered about what Alex and all the others who had fallen might say to those who would live after them. He composed a poem but was so disappointed in his effort that he discarded it.
Soldiers retrieved McCrae’s poem and persuaded him to submit it. It made its way into publication – and immortality. One hundred years later, it remains a hauntingly beautiful tribute to the fallen dead of every battlefield – and a poignant reminder to us all.
Flanders fields stretched east and west across the far-flung battle line. For many years, it had been noted that red poppies would often grow over soldiers’ graves. Because of the torn and heavily-limed soil, the poppy was one of the few plants that could grow on a battlefield. In 1855, British historian Lord Macaulay wrote about a battle near Ypres in Belgium in 1693:
“The next summer the soil, fertilized by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveler who … saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet … could hardly help fancying that the figurative prediction of the Hebrew prophet was literally accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood – and refusing to cover the slain.” (Isaiah 26: 21).
McCrae made mention of this phenomenon in the memorable first line of his war poem:
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.
It may be, as some witnessed, that McCrae looked at the grave of his friend before he wrote the second stanza about the loved and the lost: 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. McCrae writes of the legacy of the fallen dead and the duty of every succeeding generation to keep faith:
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.
Presidential candidates – even the brother of the president who waged it – have recently been scrambling to say that, “knowing what we know now”, the war in Iraq was “a mistake.”
That may or may not be true. History will judge.
For the 4,491 young Americans who fought and died in Iraq – those who once “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow” and who “loved and were loved” – laying down their lives for their country was not “a mistake”. It was their “last full measure of devotion.”
Jesus said there is no greater proof of love than the sacrifice of one’s life for others.
The men and women who died in Iraq – and the more than 2,200 who have died in Afghanistan – are no less heroes worthy of our remembrance than are John McCrae and Alexis Helmer.
To you and me, from “failing hands”, the torch of freedom has been passed. May we always “hold it high.” May we never forget those who carried it bravely into battle – for us and for our children.
The fields where “poppies grow” remind us.
John McCrae died in 1918, just as World War I ended. He was 45.
May God bless you and your family.