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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 lived, saw dawn, felt 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.
Doctor Major John McCrae, 1st Field Artillery Brigade May 3, 1915, Second battle of Ypres, Belgium
The poem was rescued from a trash heap when McCrae, not satisfied with the words that he had written, tossed it away. It was originally published in England’s “Punch” magazine in December of 1915.
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.(Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
Unless you have been there, how could any of us truly appreciate the horror that war brings.
McCrae himself didn’t survive the Great War, the war to end all wars. During the summer of 1917, he was troubled by severe asthma attacks and occasional bouts of bronchitis. He became very ill in January 1918 and diagnosed his 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. The day he fell ill, he learned he had been appointed consulting physician to the First British Army, the first Canadian so honoured.
John McCrae was buried with full military honours in Wimereux Cemetery, just north of Boulogne, not far from the fields of Flanders. Bonfire led the procession, McCrae’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups. His death was met with great grief among his friends and contemporaries. A friend wrote of the funeral:
The day of the funeral was a beautiful spring day; none of us wore overcoats. You know the haze that comes over the hills at Wimereux. I felt so thankful that the poet of `In Flanders Fields’ was lying out there in the bright sunshine in the open space he loved so well…. (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 129)
For me, Remembrance Day has always found a focus in one person; Alexander Greenaway, Uncle Alec to me.
My uncle enlisted in the Irish Guard Armored Division in 1943 as a radio man. He saw action in France, The Netherlands and Germany during the Second World War. He landed on the continent on D-Day +6. He took part in Operation Market Garden, the failed Allied offensive of September 1944. If you’ve ever seen the movie A Bridge Too Far then you have a general idea of what happened.
He never spoke very often of his time in the military; at least not to me. But when he did I was rapt. I have always had an extremely healthy fascination with history. The how’s, why’s and wherefore’s of what has transpired.
A few anecdotes that my uncle proffered to me come to mind.
My uncle and a few others visited the grave of a fallen comrade buried in a small graveyard somewhere in France. While paying their respects a German barrage started up, shells falling all around them. Uncle Alec and his friends hit the deck and crawled on their bellies until they could get out of the open and take shelter.
“Afterwards,” he said, “I remember looking down at my uniform. There were little tufts of grass twisted around the buttons.”
Following the bombardment they made their way back to the barracks which were situated several kilometers up the road. On the way they were greeted by any number of newly liberated French families brandishing bottles of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Tommy,” they cried, “Come, eat, drink.”
By the time they made it back to their billet they were more than just a little tipsy.
Another time my Uncle’s tank was out on patrol. The forest they had been driving through suddenly gave way to a clearing. Feeling exposed, the tank commander ordered them to back up into the woods. No sooner had the tank retreated than a shell from an unseen enemy whizzed by the front of their Sherman and exploded on a hill to their left. Unbeknownst to them, a German Tiger tank had pulled up beyond a knoll to their right.
There were more stories of camaraderie, but the one that sticks out most in my mind is the story that my uncle told me about the death of his best friend, Billy Waters. It was during Operation Market Garden which started on September 17th, 1944 and ended on September 25th, 1944, short of their ultimate objective of the Arnhem Bridge. The 3rd Division of the Irish Guard were actively involved in this attempt to push through to Germany’s doorstep and end the war by Christmas.
While their tanks were in line along the approach road to bridge at Nijmegaen a German 88mm gun opened up on the column. My uncle’s tank along with a number of others was dispatched to hunt down and destroy this threat to their flank. It was only after he had returned from this action that he found out one of the tanks destroyed by this threat had been Billy’s.
On his next leave home he went to visit Billy’s mother, to pass on condolences and share in their grief. Mrs. Waters threatened to break both of my uncle’s legs, not because she blamed him in any way, shape or form for her son’s death. On the contrary, she wanted to incapacitate my uncle so that he would not have to return to active service. So much did she think of her son’s friend, she did not want to see the same fate befall him.
58 years later, sitting in my parent’s basement on the occasion of my fathers 70th birthday, this memory was still so fresh in Uncle Alec’s heart that it was all he could do to raise a glass in his friends’ memory. You see, my dad’s birthday is September 22nd a date which fell in the middle of the battle oh so many years ago. So sharp was the emotion that there was nary a dry eye amongst the men who had retired to the basement to have a drink and a friendly game of darts.
My uncle survived the war. He spent time in Palestine, joined the elite British Airborne before ultimately moving from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Toronto, Canada, a place which he called home until his death.
Even in his new homeland he continued to serve, joining the Toronto Metropolitan Police, a job which he held until his retirement. Always on the front line; always ready to give of himself on behalf of others. That was my Uncle Alec.
My uncle joined his fallen comrades this past fall. All of his years with the Guard, the Paras and Metro’s finest could not lay him low. In the end it was illness which felled him. In hindsight his sickness was mercifully short, although it never ever seems that way at the time to those that love him, does it?
Much to my ever lasting shame, I never took the opportunities afforded me to say thank you, to press, even a little, the better to understand all that he had been through. I can only hope that, having gone to his great reward, he can some how sense the admiration that I felt for him.
Not much to hang on too, but in the face of the death of a loved one, sometimes it is all that we have.
And so, while my thoughts have always turned to my uncle as a very real embodiment of all that Remembrance Day has stood for, it is now tinged with a deep melancholy; a tangible sense of loss.
If you know someone who has served; or even know of someone who has served, please take a moment to talk to them; to endeavor to understand the sacrifices they have made, and the brotherhood which they have forged in the process. At the very least, to say thank you.
In the end, regardless of whether or not you agree with the idea of war and the reasons why it is still waged, and probably always will be, remember, it is never started by those who serve their country, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, always marked by the experience even if they don’t.
Have a care, recognize that they are putting themselves in harms way for you, for me, for all of us.
Thank you Uncle Alec. Your duty is well and truly done.
I will never forget you.