At Essex Farm

Marker at Essex Farm commemorating the day the poem was written: May 3, 1915.

I listened to the national Remembrance Day ceremonies from Ottawa on the radio this year. Felt strange to be observing a time of silence at 5 p.m. my time instead of the traditional 11 a.m.

As always on November 11, I was thinking of my maternal grandfather, who came home from that First World War, and my great-uncle, Forrest, who did not. And I thought about Flanders Fields, which I visited in the summer of 2014, and wrote about that November.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place,”
– John McCrae

There are no longer crosses in Flanders fields. Those were temporary wooden markers, erected in haste during a lull in the shelling. The incessant, almost ceaseless shelling. The crosses are gone but the graves are still there, marked now with rounded white headstones. The poppies though still grow in the fields and by the roadside.

Inside the dressing station at Essex Farm.

At Essex Farm, where Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote what is possibly the most famous Canadian poem, there is a small cemetery, 1,200 graves; nothing like nearby Tyne Cot with its 12,000 allied servicemen interred there, the largest of the Commonwealth war cemeteries. Essex Farm is peaceful today, but that century-old conflict seems very close. This was the aid station, where Doctor McCrae plied his trade, patching up the wounded, or, more often than not, easing their way into the next life. There were no antibiotics in 1915; the success rate for doctors at the front was dismal.

Carved into the side of a hill, the bunkers where McCrae operated are vastly different from any hospital I have been in. Dark and cramped, definitely not antiseptic, the surgeons worked as long as the casualties kept streaming in. Today it is difficult to imagine the horrors of the conflict from a century ago, the noise, muck and the stench of death don`t have the same power when they reside on the printed page.

Our generation doesn’t think about battlefield medicine, or if it does it takes inspiration from a television comedy, M.A.S.H., set almost a half century after the First World War. On M.A.S.H the heroic surgeons wisecrack their way to success, almost never losing a patient; there is no cemetery outside the door as there was at Essex Farm, a cemetery where those who had been buried were frequently disinterred by the next round of shelling.

John McCrae scribbled his poem after a long shift while looking at his best friend’s grave. He had not been able to save him. At that point the war was still relatively young. The idea of millions more dying in what was essentially a futile exercise that would last another three years was not part of anyone’s consciousness. McCrae was unimpressed with his poetry, tossing the paper he had used to write “In Flanders Fields” in the trash, where it was rescued by a fellow officer who sent it for publication. The poem made McCrae a hero. Because of his propaganda value he was removed from frontline medicine, but it was too late. His health was failing and he didn’t survive the war. Today his name is known to every Canadian school child. At Essex Farm I was asked by our tour guide to read the poem to our group. Standing at that location the familiar words took on new life. I will admit it was an emotional moment.

So many useless deaths. The “war to end all wars” didn’t solve anything. Ten million soldiers dead (including 66,000 Canadians). Twenty million civilians dead. Millions more wounded, both soldiers and civilians, with the seeds sown for an even greater conflict two decades later (and dozens of smaller wars since have seen millions more die). A century later the poppies still do grow in Flanders fields, a reminder that all too often young men (and women) are still dying for no good reason.

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