Flanders Fields

April 25, 2009 by Julie Perry Nelson

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae, May, 1915

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.”

I remember this poem from childhood and have often thought of visiting Flanders Fields.  On April 25, 2009, I was able to do just that.  Flanders Fields is a region of the country of Belgium and during World War I, there was intense fighting with a number of battles fought in that region.  We visited the EssexFarmCemetery where John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor, wrote this famous poem after conducting the burial service for a friend of his who had been killed by a German artillery shell during the Second Battle of Ypres on May 2, 1915.  John McCrae was a surgeon in an advanced dressing station at that site where the wounded were triaged (separated into three groups: the slightly wounded who were treated and sent back to battle, the “blighty,” a slang term that meant the wounds were serious enough for the soldier to be sent home, and the ones for whom there was no hope).  The dressing station still exists at the site.  Dr. McCrae was killed the following year.  After walking around the cemetery, our guide read the poem to us.

The town of Ypres was destroyed in the fighting.  British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces fought the Germans; the Americans had not yet arrived in this part of the Western front.  German military used poison gas here for the first time and trench warfare started here.  The fighting was brutal and there were 750,000 casualties.  The town of Ypres has been rebuilt and the largest Gothic building in Europe houses a most interesting World War I Memorial Museum.

In Flanders, there are 155 cemeteries: 137 British, 13 Belgian, 1 French, and 4 German. In the cemeteries there is a large white cross with a sword on it with the inscription, “Their name liveth forevermore” inscribed on the base. This quote, suggested by Rudyard Kipling, is from Ecclesiastes 44:14.  (Kipling’s son went missing in a battle in France; his body was never found.)  The British and Belgian cemeteries have memorial stones similar to those in Arlington Cemetery while the French memorials were white crosses and the German cemetery had groups of three crosses made of basalt-lava which were quite dark.   In the EssexFarmCemetery, there are 1200 burials including a 15 year old rifleman and a German.  One of the memorial stones had an inscription that read, “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war” – a poignant reminder of the heartache caused by war.  In another cemetery we visited, TyneCotCemetery, there are 12,000 headstones and panels naming another 35,000 men.  Thus in Flanders, there are an incredible number of dead and their memorials.  We were about two weeks early for the poppies but many of the graves had either fresh flowers or artificial poppies.

That evening we went to the Last Post at the Menin Gate at the edge of Ypres.  The Menin Gate, dedicated in 1928, is a memorial to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient, a region of the battlefield near Ypres.  At 8:00 pm, buglers from the local fire brigade close the road and sound the Last Post (a bugle call).  This ceremony has been carried on since July 2, 1928 (except during occupation by the Germans in World War II when the ceremony was conducted in Surrey, England).  As part of the ceremony, individuals and groups laid wreaths in and around the memorial.  It was most impressive, solemn, and moving.

To commemorate VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the Queen of the Netherlands lays a memorial wreath commemorating the fallen at 8 pm the evening before.  Everyone participates in two minutes of silence at that time; our tour group did as well.  We are so lucky that we were spared fighting on U.S. soil during that war and those that followed.  Thank God for the men (and women) willing to fight for freedom.

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