2022 11 13: In Flanders Field

Posted on 14 Nov 2022

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“In Flanders Field” is perhaps the most well-known piece of war poetry.  It weaves together, not simply the tragedy of war, but the struggle to remain faithful to the sacrifice and duty of others.  The author of the poem, Canadian doctor John McCrae was accustomed to the struggles of battle and victims of war.  Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, John McCrae was the second son of Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae and Janet Simpson Eckford McCrae. The McCraes were Scottish Presbyterians and John was a man of high principles and strong spiritual values.  Following in the family tradition, McCrae served in South Africa in 1900 as a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Second Boer War, and upon his return he was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, where he taught until 1911. He also taught at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

In April 1915, as a part of the Canadian forces of British Empire, McCrae was sent to serve the was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in the area traditionally called Flanders. Some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place there during what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres. On April 22, the Germans used for the first time a deadly chlorine gas against the Allied troops in a desperate attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days. In the trenches, John McCrae tended to the hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was surrounded by the dead and the dying. In a letter to his mother, he wrote of the Battle of Ypres: “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. 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.”

On May 2, 1915, John McCrae’s close friend, 20 years his younger, and former student Alexis Helmer was killed by a German shell. That evening, in the absence of a Chaplain, John McCrae recited from memory a few passages from the Church of England’s “Order of the Burial of the Dead.”  He knew the opening words from childhood, “I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”  The liturgy went on to the book of Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand upon the earth” and from 1 Timothy, “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”  For security reasons Helmer’s burial was performed in complete darkness. The next day, May 3, 1915, McCrae was seen sitting at the back of an ambulance near the grave.  As he was writing In Flanders Fields, a friend Sergeant Major Cyril Allinson who was delivering the mail silently watched and later recalled, “McCrae’s face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.” Within moments, McCrae had completed the “In Flanders Fields” poem and when he was done, without a word, McCrae took his mail and handed the poem to Allinson.

Allinson himself, was deeply moved; he wrote, “The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind.”

Allinson may have been correct that In Flanders Field was a perfect description of that day, but I think McCrae was saying more about the battlefield and tragedy of death. Our work as a nation does not end with simply remembering and honoring the dead. Perhaps that is what McCrae was struggling with as he glanced over to his friend’s grave?  Why did he die? What was the quarrel? Who was the foe? Who died and who sent him to his death?  What torch should be taken up?

The man, whom McCrae honored with his poem, and those whom we honor today as the heroic dead, did not die in order that you and I might be free, and then simply do as we please.  The heroic dead died in order that you and I might be free to live, and freely do that which is our high duty in life and ought to be done.  It was a sense of honor to God and country.

Regretfully, we are a nation today that has forgotten that message of hope and duty. We aspire to be one nation and we are proud to raise that torch of democracy for the word all to see. But at this time, we are not a united nation.  We are divided. Sadly, with far more in common with each other than that which separates us, we continue to see only the differences.  After the long political campaign of the past year has come to a close, we choose to see ourselves as us and them. Unless we as a community of faith, centered on the life and witness and love of Jesus Christ choose to act differently, then we are just as guilty of breaking faith with the heroic dead as those we criticize.

Remembrance Sunday, my friends, is a call to action for the living.  Do not let the sacrifice of those who died, and those who have offered their very treasure be in vain. Take up that torch of freedom. The integrity of our national soul cannot be kept unless you and I turn to the matters that concern your life and mine showing honor and respect to our neighbor.  I am afraid to say, that anything less would be dishonoring and desecrating their sacrifice- and breaking faith with them.

During the summer of 1917, McCrae was troubled by severe asthma attacks and occasional bouts of bronchitis. He became very ill in January 1918 and diagnosed his own condition as pneumonia. He was moved to Number 14 British General Hospital for Officers where he continued to grow weak. On January 28, after an illness of five days, he died of pneumonia and meningitis. He was buried the following day in the Commonwealth War Graves with full military honors. His flag-draped coffin was borne on a gun carriage was preceded by McCrae’s charger, “Bonfire”, with McCrae’s boots reversed in the stirrups.

With the assurance of Jesus Christ as the resurrection and the life, John McCrae did not break faith those who had been killed in battle-especially his friend and student Alexis Helmer.  McCrae lived and died, trusting the promise that he had known since childhood that even though he died, he would live again in Jesus Christ. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.