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Monday, November 11, 2013

In Flanders Field and a Director's Cut

Of all the poems that came from the blood and mud of the World War One, one of the most evocative is the poem Flanders Fields written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor who served in the front lines of battle during the Flanders campaigns.

In 2005 my husband and I stumbled on the bunker where he worked, only a few miles outside Ypres (for more about how that influenced my writing see below). There we read the story of how this poem came to be written. 

The bunker where McCrae worked
McCrae came from Ontario in Canada, where he had practised medicine in Montreal. He had served with the Canadian artillery in the Boer War and when the call to arms came again in 1914, he was appointed as a field surgeon to the Canadian artillery. The death of his friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, affected him greatly. He performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance.

McCrae did not live to see peace. He died of meningitis in January 1918 at the age of 45, his legacy this 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.
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.

In my own little town in far away Melbourne, 2000 young men from a total population of only 18,000 marched off to war.

As our church has done every year since the 1920s, on the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day an evensong is held where the memorial light that burns in our chapel is relit. Last night the junior school choir of one of our local schools sang Flanders Fields. The simple, lovely tune carried so clearly by the young innocent voices, evoked the spirit of the poem so strongly that I found myself wiping away the tears, remembering once again my own lost forebear and the many, many families torn apart by that terrible war.

The following video is not the school choir that performed at our church last night but still a lovely rendition of the Jacobson anthem.  Listen carefully and remember...

When you write a a director, you may write a great deal that ends up on the cutting room floor. In writing my story of the First World War,  GATHER THE BONES, I wrote all of Paul's back story - his experience in the trenches during the 3rd Battle of Ypres.

The following excerpt is one of those  "Director's cuts" and is based on that visit to the clearing station where McRae wrote his poem. It is told from the point of view of Paul's friend, Angela, an ambulance driver on the front lines.

It had been a long day and a longer night. Angela pushed a wayward strand of hair out of her eyes and steered the ambulance around the new shell hole across the Ypres road. She had not allowed herself the luxury of conscious thought for twenty four hours, now she allowed the familiar anger to start coursing through her. She had lost count of the broken bodies she had carried from the front lines back to the field hospital. For what? For what? she thought on a note of rising hysteria.
            The men had told her that whatever ground they had taken had been lost as high command dithered and failed to push forward to consolidate the gain. More men had been lost in retreat then in advance.
            She longed for a cigarette and a hot drink and as she brought the ambulance to a screeching halt at the dressing station, she saw the opportunity for both. Rubbing her hands down her filthy trousers, she strode over to the group of medics gathered around the field oven.
            One of them thrust a hot panniken into her hand with something that passed for breakfast. She knew them all and they knew how long and hard she had worked that night.
            “One more trip,” she said, “and that’s it for me. Someone else can bring the jalopy out.”
            One of the men smiled, his teeth uneven in his unshaven face. “Reckon you’ve earned it,” he said.
            She finished the rough breakfast, gulping gratefully on the hot, sweet coffee. “Where’s my patients?”
            “We’ve a couple for you there and if you can wait a bit, we’ve got one just come in. He’s with the doc now.”
            Angela nodded and strolled over to inspect the patients, a young boy, barely able to shave with a chest wound and a veteran corporal with a shattered leg. Both were conscious and stable for the moment. She greeted them cheerfully and was rewarded with smiles. It always amazed her the difference the presence of a woman could make.
            The young Canadian doctor who staffed this aid post worked from a bunker, dug into an earthen bank. There were times when German shells reached this far behind the lines but he continued to work on.
            The door to the bunker was open, allowing the daylight in and Angela could see by the boots that he had an officer on the table.
            “Going to be long?” she enquired.
            The doctor looked up. “Well if you want to come and lend a hand, I’ll be quicker,” he said.
            She washed her hands, found some gloves and a mask and slipped into the bunker.
            “Oh, God!” she said.
            “You’ve seen worse,” the doctor commented.
            “I know him,” she said.
            “Oh. Good friend?”
            She nodded. “Very good friend,” she replied. “Is he bad?”
            “Who knows?” the doctor said with a philosophy born of two long hard years in the front line. “Pass me those forceps.”
            Angela wet a cloth and began to wipe the mud and the blood from Paul’s face. His eyes flickered open at the touch and held hers.
            She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile but lucidity faded as quickly as it had come and he lapsed into unconsciousness again.
            The doctor gave an impatient grunt. “I’ve done enough to hold him together for the moment, but we’d better get him back to the field hospital.” He signaled the medics who came forward to collect the stretcher and load him into the back of the ambulance with the other two men.
            “How bad is he really?” Angela asked through tight lips.
The doctor shrugged. “Shock, loss of blood... He was out in no man's land the better part of twenty four hours.” The doctor looked at her closely. “Angela, you should know better than to allow them to get to you.”
“It’s never been anyone I knew before,” she replied.