This is Frank Hurley's famous image of a dressing station.
There is more than a dressing station here. Hurley, a great artist, added the sky effect deliberately. It is surely a "sacrament"?
So too, on May 3rd 1915, when, crushed by the experience of the previous week at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, a 43 year old Canadian doctor, John McCrae, sat down and wrote a poem called "In Flanders Fields".
It too, I think, is a sacrament.
Like the Station of the Cross, the poem is a challenge for the reader. The challenge is to take up the torch, the cross, of the fallen.
What caused McRae to make this demand on others and, most importantly, upon himself?
There were no signs of this commitment in 1914. Then, McCrae was no Byronic Brooke or impassioned idealist like Kipling. He was just a 43 year old bachelor doctor who worried about his mother.
He had been a reluctant volunteer.
It is a terrible state of affairs, and I am going because I think every bachelor, especially if he has experience of war, ought to go. I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience. (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 77)
He was a gunner. Here is is centre of the top row in South Africa.
He had served as a gunner in the Boer War. In 1915, he was a gunner who just happened to be a doctor. He was serving with his old friends in his own battery.
He was on the strength as the Medical Officer of the Brigade. He was the only doctor in the 3 brigades of CFA.
The medical unit that he would join and spend the war professionally, the 3rd McGill Hospital, was about to set sail this week from Montreal.
He was on his own outside of the RAMC system.
So what happened?
In 2 days, 4,475 Canadians were wounded and about 1,000 killed. Another 1,500 were taken prisoner. This is from a force in the field of 18,000.
Something like this had never happened to Canadians before. For us today, this would be the equivalent of a loss of nearly 25,000 men.
In May of 1915, the vast and efficient apparatus of the casualty system had not been created.
The entire burden fell on him and a few others. No one had anticipated such a crisis.
But, on April 21st, McCrae, and the other few doctors in the field, were going about their business with no idea of the onslaught that was to come about.
McCrae had taken position here in a bunker dug into the side of the Yser Canal. He chose this place because it was near the gun line of the 1st Brigade CFA which was his own unit. He must have thought he may have to deal with a few men from his own unit. They must have also liked the idea of having "Jack" look after them.
Here is how the RAMC had set up their network. Note that McCrae is not part of this.
The German attack began at 5.30pm on April 22. More here about the larger battle.
By April 24th, all the Aid Posts had been over-run and also most of the Advanced Dressing stations. All that was left was the Main Dressing Unit and Jack McCrae at Essex Farm.
Almost immediately wounded would have started coming in. At first they would have been gassed Frenchmen and then by April 23rd men from the entire Canadian Division would have reached Jack.
Then fate took a hand. Just east of Essex Farm became where the British had to hold the German. By chance, McRae had chosen the hot spot of the Salient, the North Hinge. From April 23 onwards, men first from the Geddes Brigade and then from the Lahore Division poured into the area as did the reinforcement from the 1st Canadian Brigade. Essex farm became the key aid station for more than two divisions.
Wounded and dying men would continue to arrive night and day until early May. McCrae worked non stop for 5 days and nights. By May 2, he must have been in the kind of trance that can only come when you have had no sleep and have experienced so much.
The Essex Farm DS would have looked a lot like this on the outside. Not neat and tidy!
He was working in an earth and wood dugout burrowed into the bank of the Yser Canal.
It would have been cramped and looked a lot like this.
Here is what it looked like from the air.
The Canal runs left to right at the bottom of the picture so we are looking west. Note the trenches. McCrae is dug into the bank of the canal.
For 8 days and nights an endless stream of broken men came by across those bridges. Jack McCrae not only would have tried his best to fix them but worse, he also had to act as God.
He had to make the triage call. Those who he could not save would have to be left to die on a stretcher with a cigarette.
The sheer volume and the power of the injuries had to have a cumulative effect on him.
No Canadian doctor had ever experienced the results of industrial war before. He was seeing men with no faces, no arms and legs, men with their guts falling out, men dead from concussion and so without a mark upon them. For Jack this was made worse by the fact that the Canadian Division was like a family. So many of these broken men were not anonymous. Many were people that Jack knew or knew of.
In particular, the 1st Brigade CI would have made a point of sending their men to him. He would have known them all. For he had looked after them since they boarded ship in October 1914. Colds, flu, VD, trench foot, sprains and aches, broken bones, he would have known them all.
And then on May 2nd, something happened to him that broke his heart.
His good friend, Alexis Helmer, also in the 1st Brigade CFA, was walking around a gun site with another colleague, Owen Hague of the 2nd Brigade CFA, my grandfather's unit, when a shell landed close by. Both men were killed but Helmer was blown into pieces. There was no body as such. His friends collected the bloody pieces and put them into sand bags.
That night Jack buried his friend with his own hands and, because there was no priest, said what he could remember of the Anglican service for the dead over his body.
"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live"
Here is Essex Farm cemetery when it had crosses row on row. The neat and tidy rows of Portland stone are long into the future. Alexis' grave would have looked like one of these. It was later lost as the guns pounded the area in the next few years. His name is now on the Menin Gate.
So I think that this build up and then this one death transformed McCrae.
As a result, this ordinary man became something extraordinary. Not only in writing the poem but in his work.
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.
This was a cathartic moment for him when he committed himself utterly to the cause. As the years of toil go by with almost no leave, his health breaks down. But he keeps on going. For he too cannot break faith. He accepts the torch from his dead friend, Alexis and in turn passes it on. The entire command of the Canadian Corps come to his funeral in 1918.
And back home in Canada in 1915/16 another 300,000 men volunteer. They take up the torch knowing the reality now of what they have signed up for. They are no longer the romantic originals but men who know what they can expect and still say yes.
Under his influence, the Number 3 McGill Hospital becomes the standard of care. Many of its staff also die of exhaustion in carrying their own torch.
I think that the answer is "Love."
Soldiers do not die for their country. They die for their friends.
The paradox of war is that, in the midst of violence and hatred, is love. It's part of the dreadful attraction of war for men. For there is no love, except maybe of a mother for a child, that man can feel to each other as brothers in arms. There is something about the shared risk and the intimacy of the conversations in the long periods of boredom that creates a love that only those that have lived it can know.
The gospel writer knew.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
The greater tragedy for soldiers who have loved so much and then lost so much is that after a while, they are unable to love again. So much of their heart has been destroyed by losing so much of it. They freeze. They cannot reach out to new men and they cannot reach out to their wives and families. This is one of the aspect of PTSD.
What many have to do, is to show this love to an animal instead.
After this, McCrae withdrew from close friendships with humans and placed his heart in the trust of these two animals Bonfire, his horse, a gift of Dr Todd, and Bonneau, his dog.
They will stay with him to the end and then they too will be lost. No one knows what happened to them.
Faithful until the end.
And here a CBC Radio Tribute