Part 2 out of 2
Such, then, was the life in Flanders fields in which the verse was born.
This is no mere surmise. There is a letter from Major-General
E. W. B. Morrison, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., who commanded the Brigade
at the time, which is quite explicit. "This poem," General Morrison writes,
"was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase
of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench
on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station
in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle
men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station.
Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment,
and many times during the sixteen days of battle, he and I watched them
burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row,
grew into a good-sized cemetery. Just as he describes, we often heard
in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash
of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us.
I have a letter from him in which he mentions having written the poem
to pass away the time between the arrival of batches of wounded,
and partly as an experiment with several varieties of poetic metre. I have
a sketch of the scene, taken at the time, including his dressing station;
and during our operations at Passchendaele last November,
I found time to make a sketch of the scene of the crosses, row on row,
from which he derived his inspiration."
The last letter from the Front is dated June 1st, 1915. Upon that day
he was posted to No. 3 General Hospital at Boulogne, and placed in charge
of medicine with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel as of date 17th April, 1915.
Here he remained until the day of his death on January 28th, 1918.
The Brand of War
There are men who pass through such scenes unmoved. If they have eyes,
they do not see; and ears, they do not hear. But John McCrae
was profoundly moved, and bore in his body until the end
the signs of his experience. Before taking up his new duties
he made a visit to the hospitals in Paris to see if there was any new thing
that might be learned. A Nursing Sister in the American Ambulance
at Neuilly-sur-Seine met him in the wards. Although she had known him
for fifteen years she did not recognize him, -- he appeared to her so old,
so worn, his face lined and ashen grey in colour, his expression dull,
his action slow and heavy.
To those who have never seen John McCrae since he left Canada
this change in his appearance will seem incredible. He was of the Eckfords,
and the Eckford men were "bonnie men", men with rosy cheeks. It was a year
before I met him again, and he had not yet recovered from the strain.
Although he was upwards of forty years of age when he left Canada
he had always retained an appearance of extreme youthfulness.
He frequented the company of men much younger than himself,
and their youth was imputed to him. His frame was tall and well knit,
and he showed alertness in every move. He would arise from the chair
with every muscle in action, and walk forth as if he were about to dance.
The first time I saw him he was doing an autopsy at
the Montreal General Hospital upon the body of a child
who had died under my care. This must have been in the year 1900,
and the impression of boyishness remained until I met him in France
sixteen years later. His manner of dress did much to produce
this illusion. When he was a student in London he employed a tailor
in Queen Victoria Street to make his clothes; but with advancing years
he neglected to have new measurements taken or to alter the pattern
of his cloth. To obtain a new suit was merely to write a letter,
and he was always economical of time. In those days jackets were cut short,
and he adhered to the fashion with persistent care.
This appearance of youth at times caused chagrin to those patients
who had heard of his fame as a physician, and called upon him
for the first time. In the Royal Victoria Hospital,
after he had been appointed physician, he entered the wards
and asked a nurse to fetch a screen so that he might examine a patient
"Students are not allowed to use screens," the young woman warned him
with some asperity in her voice.
If I were asked to state briefly the impression which remains with me
most firmly, I should say it was one of continuous laughter.
That is not true, of course, for in repose his face was heavy,
his countenance more than ruddy; it was even of a "choleric" cast,
and at times almost livid, especially when he was recovering
from one of those attacks of asthma from which he habitually suffered.
But his smile was his own, and it was ineffable. It filled the eyes,
and illumined the face. It was the smile of sheer fun, of pure gaiety,
of sincere playfulness, innocent of irony; with a tinge of sarcasm -- never.
When he allowed himself to speak of meanness in the profession,
of dishonesty in men, of evil in the world, his face became formidable.
The glow of his countenance deepened; his words were bitter,
and the tones harsh. But the indignation would not last. The smile would
come back. The effect was spoiled. Everyone laughed with him.
After his experience at the front the old gaiety never returned.
There were moments of irascibility and moods of irritation.
The desire for solitude grew upon him, and with Bonfire and Bonneau
he would go apart for long afternoons far afield by the roads and lanes
about Boulogne. The truth is: he felt that he and all had failed,
and that the torch was thrown from failing hands. We have heard much
of the suffering, the misery, the cold, the wet, the gloom of those
first three winters; but no tongue has yet uttered the inner misery of heart
that was bred of those three years of failure to break the enemy's force.
He was not alone in this shadow of deep darkness. Givenchy, Festubert,
Neuve-Chapelle, Ypres, Hooge, the Somme -- to mention alone the battles
in which up to that time the Canadian Corps had been engaged --
all ended in failure; and to a sensitive and foreboding mind
there were sounds and signs that it would be given to this generation to hear
the pillars and fabric of Empire come crashing into the abysm of chaos.
He was not at the Somme in that October of 1916, but those who returned
up north with the remnants of their division from that place of slaughter
will remember that, having done all men could do, they felt like deserters
because they had not left their poor bodies dead upon the field
along with friends of a lifetime, comrades of a campaign.
This is no mere matter of surmise. The last day I spent with him
we talked of those things in his tent, and I testify that it is true.
Going to the Wars
John McCrae went to the war without illusions. At first,
like many others of his age, he did not "think of enlisting",
although "his services are at the disposal of the Country
if it needs them."
In July, 1914, he was at work upon the second edition of
the `Text-Book of Pathology' by Adami and McCrae, published by Messrs.
Lea and Febiger, and he had gone to Philadelphia to read the proofs.
He took them to Atlantic City where he could "sit out on the sand,
and get sunshine and oxygen, and work all at once."
It was a laborious task, passing eighty to a hundred pages
of highly technical print each day. Then there was the index,
between six and seven thousand items. "I have," so he writes,
"to change every item in the old index and add others.
I have a pile of pages, 826 in all. I look at the index,
find the old page among the 826, and then change the number.
This about 7000 times, so you may guess the drudgery." On July 15th,
the work was finished, registered, and entrusted to the mail
with a special delivery stamp. The next day he wrote the preface,
"which really finished the job." In very truth his scientific work was done.
It was now midsummer. The weather was hot. He returned to Montreal.
Practice was dull. He was considering a voyage to Havre and "a little trip
with Dr. Adami" when he arrived. On July 29th, he left Canada
"for better or worse. With the world so disturbed," he records,
"I would gladly have stayed more in touch with events, but I dare say
one is just as happy away from the hundred conflicting reports." The ship
was the `Scotian' of the Allan Line, and he "shared a comfortable cabin
with a professor of Greek," who was at the University in his own time.
For one inland born, he had a keen curiosity about ships and the sea.
There is a letter written when he was thirteen years of age
in which he gives an account of a visit to a naval exhibition in London.
He describes the models which he saw, and gives an elaborate table of names,
dimensions, and tonnage. He could identify the house flags and funnels
of all the principal liners; he could follow a ship through
all her vicissitudes and change of ownership. When he found himself
in a seaport town his first business was to visit the water front
and take knowledge of the vessels that lay in the stream or by the docks.
One voyage he made to England was in a cargo ship. With his passion for work
he took on the duties of surgeon, and amazed the skipper with a revelation
of the new technique in operations which he himself had been accustomed
to perform by the light of experience alone.
On the present and more luxurious voyage, he remarks that the decks
were roomy, the ship seven years old, and capable of fifteen knots an hour,
the passengers pleasant, and including a large number of French.
All now know only too well the nature of the business which sent
those ardent spirits flocking home to their native land.
Forty-eight hours were lost in fog. The weather was too thick
for making the Straits, and the `Scotian' proceeded by Cape Race
on her way to Havre. Under date of August 5-6 the first reference
to the war appears: "All is excitement; the ship runs without lights.
Surely the German kaiser has his head in the noose at last:
it will be a terrible war, and the finish of one or the other.
I am afraid my holiday trip is knocked galley west; but we shall see."
The voyage continues. A "hundred miles from Moville we turned back,
and headed South for Queenstown; thence to the Channel; put in at Portland;
a squadron of battleships; arrived here this morning."
The problem presented itself to him as to many another.
The decision was made. To go back to America was to go back from the war.
Here are the words: "It seems quite impossible to return,
and I do not think I should try. I would not feel quite comfortable over it.
I am cabling to Morrison at Ottawa, that I am available either as combatant
or medical if they need me. I do not go to it very light-heartedly,
but I think it is up to me."
It was not so easy in those days to get to the war, as he and many others
were soon to discover. There was in Canada at the time
a small permanent force of 3000 men, a military college, a Headquarters staff,
and divisional staff for the various districts into which the country
was divided. In addition there was a body of militia with a strength
of about 60,000 officers and other ranks. Annual camps were formed
at which all arms of the service were represented, and the whole
was a very good imitation of service conditions. Complete plans
for mobilization were in existence, by which a certain quota,
according to the establishment required, could be detailed from each district.
But upon the outbreak of war the operations were taken in hand
by a Minister of Militia who assumed in his own person all those duties
usually assigned to the staff. He called to his assistance
certain business and political associates, with the result that volunteers
who followed military methods did not get very far.
Accordingly we find it written in John McCrae's diary from London:
"Nothing doing here. I have yet no word from the Department at Ottawa,
but I try to be philosophical until I hear from Morrison.
If they want me for the Canadian forces, I could use my old Sam Browne belt,
sword, and saddle if it is yet extant. At times I wish I could go home
with a clear conscience."
He sailed for Canada in the `Calgarian' on August 28th,
having received a cablegram from Colonel Morrison, that he had been
provisionally appointed surgeon to the 1st Brigade Artillery.
The night he arrived in Montreal I dined with him at the University Club,
and he was aglow with enthusiasm over this new adventure.
He remained in Montreal for a few days, and on September 9th,
joined the unit to which he was attached as medical officer.
Before leaving Montreal he wrote to his sister Geills:
"Out on the awful old trail again! And with very mixed feelings,
but some determination. I am off to Val-cartier to-night. I was really
afraid to go home, for I feared it would only be harrowing for Mater,
and I think she agrees. We can hope for happier times.
Everyone most kind and helpful: my going does not seem to surprise anyone.
I know you will understand it is hard to go home, and perhaps easier
for us all that I do not. I am in good hope of coming back soon and safely:
that, I am glad to say, is in other and better hands than ours."
In the Autumn of 1914, after John McCrae had gone over-seas,
I was in a warehouse in Montreal, in which one might find
an old piece of mahogany wood. His boxes were there in storage,
with his name plainly printed upon them. The storeman, observing my interest,
remarked: "This Doctor McCrae cannot be doing much business;
he is always going to the wars." The remark was profoundly significant
of the state of mind upon the subject of war which prevailed at the time
in Canada in more intelligent persons. To this storeman war merely meant
that the less usefully employed members of the community
sent their boxes to him for safe-keeping until their return.
War was a great holiday from work; and he had a vague remembrance
that some fifteen years before this customer had required of him
a similar service when the South African war broke out.
Either `in esse' or `in posse' John McCrae had "always been going
to the wars." At fourteen years of age he joined the Guelph Highland Cadets,
and rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant. As his size and strength increased
he reverted to the ranks and transferred to the Artillery. In due time
he rose from gunner to major. The formal date of his "Gazette" is 17-3-02
as they write it in the army; but he earned his rank in South Africa.
War was the burden of his thought; war and death the theme of his verse.
At the age of thirteen we find him at a gallery in Nottingham,
writing this note: "I saw the picture of the artillery going over
the trenches at Tel-el-Kebir. It is a good picture; but there are four teams
on the guns. Perhaps an extra one had to be put on." If his nomenclature
was not correct, the observation of the young artillerist was exact.
Such excesses were not permitted in his father's battery in Guelph, Ontario.
During this same visit his curiosity led him into the House of Lords,
and the sum of his written observation is, "When someone is speaking
no one seems to listen at all."
His mother I never knew. Canada is a large place. With his father I had
four hours' talk from seven to eleven one June evening in London in 1917.
At the time I was on leave from France to give the Cavendish Lecture,
a task which demanded some thought; and after two years in the army
it was a curious sensation -- watching one's mind at work again.
The day was Sunday. I had walked down to the river to watch the flowing tide.
To one brought up in a country of streams and a moving sea
the curse of Flanders is her stagnant waters. It is little wonder
the exiles from the Judaean hillsides wept beside the slimy River.
The Thames by evening in June, memories that reached from Tacitus
to Wordsworth, the embrasure that extends in front of the Egyptian obelisk
for a standing place, and some children "swimming a dog"; --
that was the scene and circumstance of my first meeting with his father.
A man of middle age was standing by. He wore the flashings
of a Lieutenant-Colonel and for badges the Artillery grenades.
He seemed a friendly man; and under the influence of the moment,
which he also surely felt, I spoke to him.
"A fine river," -- That was a safe remark.
"But I know a finer."
"Pharpar and Abana?" I put the stranger to the test.
"No," he said. "The St. Lawrence is not of Damascus." He had answered
to the sign, and looked at my patches.
"I have a son in France, myself," he said. "His name is McCrae."
"Not John McCrae?"
"John McCrae is my son."
The resemblance was instant, but this was an older man
than at first sight he seemed to be. I asked him to dinner at Morley's,
my place of resort for a length of time beyond the memory
of all but the oldest servants. He had already dined
but he came and sat with me, and told me marvellous things.
David McCrae had raised, and trained, a field battery in Guelph,
and brought it overseas. He was at the time upwards of seventy years of age,
and was considered on account of years alone "unfit" to proceed to the front.
For many years he had commanded a field battery in the Canadian militia,
went on manoeuvres with his "cannons", and fired round shot.
When the time came for using shells he bored the fuse with a gimlet;
and if the gimlet were lost in the grass, the gun was out of action
until the useful tool could be found. This "cannon ball"
would travel over the country according to the obstacles it encountered and,
"if it struck a man, it might break his leg."
In such a martial atmosphere the boy was brought up,
and he was early nourished with the history of the Highland regiments.
Also from his father he inherited, or had instilled into him,
a love of the out of doors, a knowledge of trees, and plants,
a sympathy with birds and beasts, domestic and wild.
When the South African war broke out a contingent was dispatched from Canada,
but it was so small that few of those desiring to go could find a place.
This explains the genesis of the following letter:
I see by to-night's bulletin that there is to be no second contingent.
I feel sick with disappointment, and do not believe that I have ever been
so disappointed in my life, for ever since this business began
I am certain there have not been fifteen minutes of my waking hours
that it has not been in my mind. It has to come sooner or later.
One campaign might cure me, but nothing else ever will,
unless it should be old age. I regret bitterly that I did not enlist
with the first, for I doubt if ever another chance will offer like it.
This is not said in ignorance of what the hardships would be.
I am ashamed to say I am doing my work in a merely mechanical way.
If they are taking surgeons on the other side, I have enough money
to get myself across. If I knew any one over there who could do anything,
I would certainly set about it. If I can get an appointment in England
by going, I will go. My position here I do not count as an old boot
In the end he accomplished the desire of his heart, and sailed
on the `Laurentian'. Concerning the voyage one transcription will be enough:
On orderly duty. I have just been out taking the picket at 11.30 P.M.
In the stables the long row of heads in the half-darkness,
the creaking of the ship, the shivering of the hull from the vibration
of the engines, the sing of a sentry on the spar deck to some passer-by.
Then to the forward deck: the sky half covered with scudding clouds,
the stars bright in the intervals, the wind whistling a regular blow
that tries one's ears, the constant swish as she settles down to a sea;
and, looking aft, the funnel with a wreath of smoke trailing away
off into the darkness on the starboard quarter; the patch of white
on the funnel discernible dimly; the masts drawing maps across the sky
as one looks up; the clank of shovels coming up through the ventilators, --
if you have ever been there, you know it all.
There was a voluntary service at six; two ships' lanterns
and the men all around, the background of sky and sea,
and the strains of "Nearer my God to Thee" rising up in splendid chorus.
It was a very effective scene, and it occurred to me that THIS
was "the rooibaatjees singing on the road," as the song says.
The next entry is from South Africa:
Green Point Camp, Capetown,
February 25th, 1900.
You have no idea of the WORK. Section commanders live with their sections,
which is the right way. It makes long hours. I never knew a softer bed
than the ground is these nights. I really enjoy every minute
though there is anxiety. We have lost all our spare horses.
We have only enough to turn out the battery and no more.
After a description of a number of the regiments camped near by them,
he speaks of the Indian troops, and then says:
We met the High Priest of it all, and I had a five minutes' chat with him --
Kipling I mean. He visited the camp. He looks like his pictures,
and is very affable. He told me I spoke like a Winnipeger.
He said we ought to "fine the men for drinking unboiled water.
Don't give them C.B.; it is no good. Fine them, or drive common sense
into them. All Canadians have common sense."
The next letter is from the Lines of Communication:
Van Wyks Vlei,
March 22nd, 1900.
Here I am with my first command. Each place we strike
is a little more God-forsaken than the last, and this place wins up to date.
We marched last week from Victoria west to Carnovan, about 80 miles.
We stayed there over Sunday, and on Monday my section was detached
with mounted infantry, I being the only artillery officer.
We marched 54 miles in 37 hours with stops; not very fast,
but quite satisfactory. My horse is doing well, although very thin.
Night before last on the road we halted, and I dismounted for a minute.
When we started I pulled on the lines but no answer. The poor old chap
was fast asleep in his tracks, and in about thirty seconds too.
This continuous marching is really hard work. The men at every halt
just drop down in the road and sleep until they are kicked up again
in ten minutes. They do it willingly too. I am commanding officer,
adjutant, officer on duty, and all the rest since we left the main body.
Talk about the Army in Flanders! You should hear this battalion.
I always knew soldiers could swear, but you ought to hear these fellows.
I am told the first contingent has got a name among the regulars.
Three weeks later he writes:
April 10th, 1900.
We certainly shall have done a good march when we get to the railroad,
478 miles through a country desolate of forage carrying our own transport
and one-half rations of forage, and frequently the men's rations.
For two days running we had nine hours in the saddle without food.
My throat was sore and swollen for a day or two, and I felt
so sorry for myself at times that I laughed to think how I must have looked:
sitting on a stone, drinking a pan of tea without trimmings,
that had got cold, and eating a shapeless lump of brown bread;
my one "hank" drawn around my neck, serving as hank and bandage alternately.
It is miserable to have to climb up on one's horse with a head
like a buzz saw, the sun very hot, and "gargle" in one's water bottle.
It is surprising how I can go without water if I have to on a short stretch,
that is, of ten hours in the sun. It is after nightfall that the thirst
really seems to attack one and actually gnaws. One thinks of all
the cool drinks and good things one would like to eat. Please understand
that this is not for one instant in any spirit of growling.
The detail was now established at Victoria Road. Three entries appear*:
* I only count two. . . . A. L., 1995.
April 23rd, 1900.
We are still here in camp hoping for orders to move, but they have
not yet come. Most of the other troops have gone. A squadron of the M.C.R.,
my messmates for the past five weeks, have gone and I am left an orphan.
I was very sorry to see them go. They, in the kindness of their hearts,
say, if I get stranded, they will do the best they can to get a troop for me
in the squadron or some such employment. Impracticable, but kind.
I have no wish to cease to be a gunner.
Victoria Road, May 20th, 1900.
The horses are doing as well as one can expect, for the rations
are insufficient. Our men have been helping to get ready a rest camp near us,
and have been filling mattresses with hay. Every fatigue party comes back
from the hospital, their jackets bulging with hay for the horses.
Two bales were condemned as too musty to put into the mattresses,
and we were allowed to take them for the horses. They didn't leave
a spear of it. Isn't it pitiful? Everything that the heart of man and woman
can devise has been sent out for the "Tommies", but no one thinks
of the poor horses. They get the worst of it all the time. Even now
we blush to see the handful of hay that each horse gets at a feed.
The Boer War is so far off in time and space that a few further
detached references must suffice:
When riding into Bloemfontein met Lord ----'s funeral at the cemetery gates,
-- band, firing party, Union Jack, and about three companies.
A few yards farther on a "Tommy" covered only by his blanket,
escorted by thirteen men all told, the last class distinction
that the world can ever make.
We had our baptism of fire yesterday. They opened on us from the left flank.
Their first shell was about 150 yards in front -- direction good.
The next was 100 yards over; and we thought we were bracketed.
Some shrapnel burst over us and scattered on all sides.
I felt as if a hail storm was coming down, and wanted to turn my back,
but it was over in an instant. The whistle of a shell is unpleasant.
You hear it begin to scream; the scream grows louder and louder;
it seems to be coming exactly your way; then you realize
that it has gone over. Most of them fell between our guns and wagons.
Our position was quite in the open.
With Ian Hamilton's column near Balmoral.
The day was cold, much like a December day at home, and by my kit going astray
I had only light clothing. The rain was fearfully chilly.
When we got in about dark we found that the transport could not come up,
and it had all our blankets and coats. I had my cape and a rubber sheet
for the saddle, both soaking wet. Being on duty I held to camp,
the others making for the house nearby where they got poor quarters.
I bunked out, supperless like every one else, under an ammunition wagon.
It rained most of the night and was bitterly cold. I slept at intervals,
keeping the same position all night, both legs in a puddle and my feet
being rained on: it was a long night from dark at 5.30 to morning.
Ten men in the infantry regiment next us died during the night from exposure.
Altogether I never knew such a night, and with decent luck hope never to see
As we passed we saw the Connaughts looking at the graves of their comrades
of twenty years ago. The Battery rode at attention and gave "Eyes right":
the first time for twenty years that the roll of a British gun has broken in
on the silence of those unnamed graves.
We were inspected by Lord Roberts. The battery turned out very smart,
and Lord Roberts complimented the Major on its appearance.
He then inspected, and afterwards asked to have the officers called out.
We were presented to him in turn; he spoke a few words to each of us,
asking what our corps and service had been. He seemed surprised
that we were all Field Artillery men, but probably the composition
of the other Canadian units had to do with this. He asked
a good many questions about the horses, the men, and particularly about
the spirits of the men. Altogether he showed a very kind interest
in the battery.
At nine took the Presbyterian parade to the lines, the first
Presbyterian service since we left Canada. We had the right,
the Gordons and the Royal Scots next. The music was excellent,
led by the brass band of the Royal Scots, which played extremely well.
All the singing was from the psalms and paraphrases: "Old Hundred"
and "Duke Street" among them. It was very pleasant to hear the old reliables
once more. "McCrae's Covenanters" some of the officers called us;
but I should not like to set our conduct up against the standard
of those austere men.
The Boers opened on us at about 10,000 yards, the fire being accurate
from the first. They shelled us till dark, over three hours.
The guns on our left fired for a long time on Buller's camp,
the ones on our right on us. We could see the smoke and flash;
then there was a soul-consuming interval of 20 to 30 seconds
when we would hear the report, and about five seconds later the burst.
Many in succession burst over and all around us. I picked up pieces
which fell within a few feet. It was a trying afternoon,
and we stood around wondering. We moved the horses back,
and took cover under the wagons. We were thankful when the sun went down,
especially as for the last hour of daylight they turned all their guns on us.
The casualties were few.
The next morning a heavy mist prevented the enemy from firing.
The division marched out at 7.30 A.M. The attack was made in three columns:
cavalry brigade on the left; Buller's troops in the centre, Hamilton's on
the right. The Canadian artillery were with Hamilton's division.
The approach to the hill was exposed everywhere except where some cover
was afforded by ridges. We marched out as support to the Gordons,
the cavalry and the Royal Horse Artillery going out to our right
as a flank guard. While we were waiting three 100-pound shells
struck the top of the ridge in succession about 50 to 75 yards in front
of the battery line. We began to feel rather shaky.
On looking over the field at this time one could not tell
that anything was occurring except for the long range guns replying
to the fire from the hill. The enemy had opened fire as soon as our advance
was pushed out. With a glass one could distinguish the infantry pushing up
in lines, five or six in succession, the men being some yards apart.
Then came a long pause, broken only by the big guns. At last we got the order
to advance just as the big guns of the enemy stopped their fire.
We advanced about four miles mostly up the slope, which is in all
about 1500 feet high, over a great deal of rough ground
and over a number of spruits. The horses were put to their utmost
to draw the guns up the hills. As we advanced we could see artillery
crawling in from both flanks, all converging to the main hill, while far away
the infantry and cavalry were beginning to crown the heights near us.
Then the field guns and the pompoms began to play. As the field guns
came up to a broad plateau section after section came into action,
and we fired shrapnel and lyddite on the crests ahead and to the left.
Every now and then a rattle of Mausers and Metfords would tell us
that the infantry were at their work, but practically the battle was over.
From being an infantry attack as expected it was the gunners' day,
and the artillery seemed to do excellent work.
General Buller pushed up the hill as the guns were at work,
and afterwards General Hamilton; the one as grim as his pictures,
the other looking very happy. The wind blew through us cold like ice
as we stood on the hill; as the artillery ceased fire the mist dropped over us
chilling us to the bone. We were afraid we should have to spend the night
on the hill, but a welcome order came sending us back to camp,
a distance of five miles by the roads, as Buller would hold the hill,
and our force must march south. Our front was over eight miles wide
and the objective 1500 feet higher than our camp, and over six miles away.
If the enemy had had the nerve to stand, the position could scarcely
have been taken; certainly not without the loss of thousands.
For this campaign he received the Queen's Medal with three clasps.
Children and Animals
Through all his life, and through all his letters, dogs and children
followed him as shadows follow men. To walk in the streets with him
was a slow procession. Every dog and every child one met must be spoken to,
and each made answer. Throughout the later letters the names
Bonfire and Bonneau occur continually. Bonfire was his horse,
and Bonneau his dog.
This horse, an Irish hunter, was given to him by John L. Todd.
It was wounded twice, and now lives in honourable retirement
at a secret place which need not be disclosed to the army authorities.
One officer who had visited the hospital writes of seeing him
going about the wards with Bonneau and a small French child following after.
In memory of his love for animals and children the following extracts
You ask if the wee fellow has a name -- Mike, mostly, as a term of affection.
He has found a cupboard in one ward in which oakum is stored,
and he loves to steal in there and "pick oakum", amusing himself
as long as is permitted. I hold that this indicates convict ancestry
to which Mike makes no defence.
The family is very well, even one-eyed Mike is able to go round the yard
in his dressing-gown, so to speak. He is a queer pathetic little beast
and Madame has him "hospitalized" on the bottom shelf of the sideboard
in the living room, whence he comes down (six inches to the floor)
to greet me, and then gravely hirples back, the hind legs looking
very pathetic as he hops in. But he is full of spirit and is doing very well.
As to the animals -- "those poor voiceless creatures," say you. I wish
you could hear them. Bonneau and Mike are a perfect Dignity and Impudence;
and both vocal to a wonderful degree. Mike's face is exactly like the terrier
in the old picture, and he sits up and gives his paw just like Bonneau,
and I never saw him have any instruction; and as for voice,
I wish you could hear Bonfire's "whicker" to me in the stable or elsewhere.
It is all but talk. There is one ward door that he tries whenever we pass.
He turns his head around, looks into the door, and waits.
The Sisters in the ward have changed frequently, but all alike "fall for it",
as they say, and produce a biscuit or some such dainty which Bonfire takes
with much gravity and gentleness. Should I chide him for being too eager
and give him my hand saying, "Gentle now," he mumbles with his lips,
and licks with his tongue like a dog to show how gentle he can be
when he tries. Truly a great boy is that same. On this subject
I am like a doting grandmother, but forgive it.
I have a very deep affection for Bonfire, for we have been through
so much together, and some of it bad enough. All the hard spots
to which one's memory turns the old fellow has shared,
though he says so little about it.
This love of animals was no vagrant mood. Fifteen years before
in South Africa he wrote in his diary under date of September 11th, 1900:
I wish I could introduce you to the dogs of the force. The genus dog here
is essentially sociable, and it is a great pleasure to have them about.
I think I have a personal acquaintance with them all. There are our pups --
Dolly, whom I always know by her one black and one white eyebrow;
Grit and Tory, two smaller gentlemen, about the size of a pound of butter --
and fighters; one small white gentleman who rides on a horse, on the blanket;
Kitty, the monkey, also rides the off lead of the forge wagon.
There is a black almond-eyed person belonging to the Royal Scots,
who begins to twist as far as I can see her, and comes up in long curves,
extremely genially. A small shaggy chap who belongs to the Royal Irish
stands upon his hind legs and spars with his front feet --
and lots of others -- every one of them "a soldier and a man".
The Royal Scots have a monkey, Jenny, who goes around always trailing a sack
in her hand, into which she creeps if necessary to obtain shelter.
The other day old Jack, my horse, was bitten by his next neighbor;
he turned SLOWLY, eyed his opponent, shifted his rope so that he had
a little more room, turned very deliberately, and planted both heels
in the offender's stomach. He will not be run upon.
From a time still further back comes a note in a like strain.
In 1898 he was house physician in a children's hospital at Mt. Airy,
Maryland, when he wrote:
A kitten has taken up with a poor cripple dying of muscular atrophy
who cannot move. It stays with him all the time, and sleeps most of the day
in his straw hat. To-night I saw the kitten curled up under the bed-clothes.
It seems as if it were a gift of Providence that the little creature
should attach itself to the child who needs it most.
Of another child:
The day she died she called for me all day, deposed the nurse
who was sitting by her, and asked me to remain with her.
She had to be held up on account of lack of breath;
and I had a tiring hour of it before she died, but it seemed
to make her happier and was no great sacrifice. Her friends arrived
twenty minutes too late. It seems hard that Death will not wait
the poor fraction of an hour, but so it is.
And here are some letters to his nephews and nieces which reveal his attitude
both to children and to animals.
From Bonfire to Sergt.-Major Jack Kilgour
August 6th, 1916.
Did you ever have a sore hock? I have one now, and Cruickshank puts bandages
on my leg. He also washed my white socks for me. I am glad you got
my picture. My master is well, and the girls tell me I am looking well, too.
The ones I like best give me biscuits and sugar, and sometimes flowers.
One of them did not want to give me some mignonette the other day
because she said it would make me sick. It did not make me sick.
Another one sends me bags of carrots. If you don't know how to eat carrots,
tops and all, you had better learn, but I suppose you are just a boy,
and do not know how good oats are.
BONFIRE His * Mark.
* Here and later, this mark is that of a horse-shoe. A. L., 1995.
From Bonfire to Sergt.-Major Jack Kilgour
October 1st, 1916.
Did you ever eat blackberries? My master and I pick them every day
on the hedges. I like twenty at a time. My leg is better
but I have a lump on my tummy. I went to see my doctor to-day,
and he says it is nothing at all. I have another horse
staying in my stable now; he is black, and about half my size.
He does not keep me awake at night. Yours truly,
BONFIRE His * Mark.
From Bonfire to Margaret Kilgour, Civilian
November 5th, 1916.
This is Guy Fox Day! I spell it that way because fox-hunting
was my occupation a long time ago before the war. How are Sergt.-Major Jack
and Corporal David? Ask Jack if he ever bites through his rope at night,
and gets into the oat-box. And as for the Corporal, "I bet you" I can jump
as far as he can. I hear David has lost his red coat. I still have
my grey one, but it is pretty dirty now, for I have not had a new one
for a long time. I got my hair cut a few weeks ago and am to have new boots
next week. Bonneau and Follette send their love. Yours truly,
BONFIRE His * Mark.
In Flanders, April 3rd, 1915.
My dear Margaret:
There is a little girl in this house whose name is Clothilde.
She is ten years old, and calls me "Monsieur le Major".
How would you like it if twenty or thirty soldiers came along
and lived in your house and put their horses in the shed or the stable?
There are not many little boys and girls left in this part of the country,
but occasionally one meets them on the roads with baskets of eggs
or loaves of bread. Most of them have no homes, for their houses
have been burnt by the Germans; but they do not cry over it.
It is dangerous for them, for a shell might hit them at any time --
and it would not be an eggshell, either.
Bonfire is very well. Mother sent him some packets of sugar,
and if ever you saw a big horse excited about a little parcel,
it was Bonfire. He can have only two lumps in any one day,
for there is not much of it. Twice he has had gingerbread
and he is very fond of that. It is rather funny for a soldier-horse,
is it not? But soldier horses have a pretty hard time of it, sometimes,
so we do not grudge them a little luxury. Bonfire's friends are King,
and Prince, and Saxonia, -- all nice big boys. If they go away and leave him,
he whinnies till he catches sight of them again, and then he is quite happy.
How is the 15th Street Brigade getting on? Tell Mother I recommend Jack
for promotion to corporal if he has been good. David will have to be a gunner
for awhile yet, for everybody cannot be promoted. Give my love to Katharine,
and Jack, and David.
Your affectionate uncle Jack.
Bonfire, and Bonneau, and little Mike, are all well. Mike is about
four months old and has lost an eye and had a leg broken,
but he is a very good little boy all the same. He is very fond of Bonfire,
and Bonneau, and me. I go to the stable and whistle, and Bonneau and Mike
come running out squealing with joy, to go for a little walk with me.
When Mike comes to steps, he puts his feet on the lowest steps
and turns and looks at me and I lift him up. He is a dear ugly little chap.
The dogs are often to be seen sprawled on the floor of my tent.
I like to have them there for they are very home-like beasts.
They never seem French to me. Bonneau can "donner la patte"
in good style nowadays, and he sometimes curls up inside the rabbit hutch,
and the rabbits seem to like him.
I wish you could see the hundreds of rabbits there are here
on the sand-dunes; there are also many larks and jackdaws.
(These are different from your brother Jack, although they have black faces.)
There are herons, curlews, and even ducks; and the other day
I saw four young weasels in a heap, jumping over each other from side to side
as they ran.
Sir Bertrand Dawson has a lovely little spaniel, Sue, quite black,
who goes around with him. I am quite a favourite, and one day
Sir Bertrand said to me, "She has brought you a present," and here she was
waiting earnestly for me to remove from her mouth a small stone.
It is usually a simple gift, I notice, and does not embarrass by its value.
Bonfire is very sleek and trim, and we journey much. If I sit down
in his reach I wish you could see how deftly he can pick off my cap
and swing it high out of my reach. He also carries my crop;
his games are simple, but he does not readily tire of them.
I lost poor old Windy. He was the regimental dog of the 1st Batt. Lincolns,
and came to this vale of Avalon to be healed of his second wound.
He spent a year at Gallipoli and was "over the top" twice with his battalion.
He came to us with his papers like any other patient,
and did very well for a while, but took suddenly worse. He had all
that care and love could suggest and enough morphine to keep the pain down;
but he was very pathetic, and I had resolved that it would be true friendship
to help him over when he "went west". He is buried in our woods
like any other good soldier, and yesterday I noticed that some one has laid
a little wreath of ivy on his grave. He was an old dog evidently,
but we are all sore-hearted at losing him. His kit is kept
should his master return, -- only his collar with his honourable marks,
for his wardrobe was of necessity simple. So another sad chapter ends.
September 29th, 1915.
Bonneau gravely accompanies me round the wards and waits for me,
sitting up in a most dignified way. He comes into my tent
and sits there very gravely while I dress. Two days ago
a Sister brought out some biscuits for Bonfire, and not understanding
the rules of the game, which are bit and bit about for Bonfire and Bonneau,
gave all to Bonfire, so that poor Bonneau sat below and caught the crumbs
that fell. I can see that Bonfire makes a great hit with the Sisters
because he licks their hands just like a dog, and no crumb is too small
to be gone after.
I was glad to get back; Bonfire and Bonneau greeted me very enthusiastically.
I had a long long story from the dog, delivered with uplifted muzzle.
They tell me he sat gravely on the roads a great deal during my absence,
and all his accustomed haunts missed him. He is back on rounds faithfully.
The Old Land and the New
If one were engaged upon a formal work of biography rather than
a mere essay in character, it would be just and proper to investigate
the family sources from which the individual member is sprung;
but I must content myself within the bounds which I have set,
and leave the larger task to a more laborious hand. The essence of history
lies in the character of the persons concerned, rather than in the feats
which they performed. A man neither lives to himself nor in himself.
He is indissolubly bound up with his stock, and can only explain himself
in terms common to his family; but in doing so he transcends
the limits of history, and passes into the realms of philosophy and religion.
The life of a Canadian is bound up with the history of his parish,
of his town, of his province, of his country, and even with the history
of that country in which his family had its birth. The life of John McCrae
takes us back to Scotland. In Canada there has been much writing of history
of a certain kind. It deals with events rather than with the subtler matter
of people, and has been written mainly for purposes of advertising.
If the French made a heroic stand against the Iroquois, the sacred spot
is now furnished with an hotel from which a free 'bus runs to a station
upon the line of an excellent railway. Maisonneuve fought his great fight
upon a place from which a vicious mayor cut the trees which once sheltered
the soldier, to make way for a fountain upon which would be raised
"historical" figures in concrete stone.
The history of Canada is the history of its people, not of its railways,
hotels, and factories. The material exists in written or printed form
in the little archives of many a family. Such a chronicle is in possession
of the Eckford family which now by descent on the female side
bears the honoured names of Gow, and McCrae. John Eckford had two daughters,
in the words of old Jamie Young, "the most lovingest girls he ever knew."
The younger, Janet Simpson, was taken to wife by David McCrae,
21st January, 1870, and on November 30th, 1872, became the mother of John.
To her he wrote all these letters, glowing with filial devotion,
which I am privileged to use so freely.
There is in the family a tradition of the single name for the males.
It was therefore proper that the elder born should be called Thomas,
more learned in medicine, more assiduous in practice, and more weighty
in intellect even than the otherwise more highly gifted John.
He too is professor of medicine, and co-author of a profound work
with his master and relative by marriage -- Sir William Osler.
Also, he wore the King's uniform and served in the present war.
This John Eckford, accompanied by his two daughters, the mother being dead,
his sister, her husband who bore the name of Chisholm,
and their numerous children emigrated to Canada, May 28th, 1851,
in the ship `Clutha' which sailed from the Broomielaw bound for Quebec.
The consort, `Wolfville', upon which they had originally taken passage,
arrived in Quebec before them, and lay in the stream,
flying the yellow flag of quarantine. Cholera had broken out.
"Be still, and see the salvation of the Lord," were the words
of the family morning prayers.
In the `Clutha' also came as passengers James and Mary Gow; their cousin,
one Duncan Monach; Mrs. Hanning, who was a sister of Thomas Carlyle;
and her two daughters. On the voyage they escaped the usual hardships,
and their fare appears to us in these days to have been abundant.
The weekly ration was three quarts of water, two ounces of tea,
one half pound of sugar, one half pound molasses, three pounds of bread,
one pound of flour, two pounds of rice, and five pounds of oatmeal.
The reason for this migration is succinctly stated by the head of the house.
"I know how hard it was for my mother to start me, and I wanted land
for my children and a better opportunity for them." And yet his parents
in their time appear to have "started" him pretty well, although his father
was obliged to confess, "I never had more of this world's goods
than to bring up my family by the labour of my hands honestly,
but it is more than my Master owned, who had not where to lay His head."
They allowed him that very best means of education, a calmness of the senses,
as he herded sheep on the Cheviot Hills. They put him to the University
in Edinburgh, as a preparation for the ministry, and supplied him with
ample oatmeal, peasemeal bannocks, and milk. In that great school of divinity
he learned the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; he studied Italian,
and French under Surenne, him of blessed memory even unto this day.
John Eckford in 1839 married Margaret Christie, and he went far afield
for a wife, namely from Newbiggin in Forfar, where for fourteen years
he had his one and only charge, to Strathmiglo in Fife. The marriage
was fruitful and a happy one, although there is a hint in the record
of some religious difference upon which one would like to dwell
if the subject were not too esoteric for this generation.
The minister showed a certain indulgence, and so long as his wife lived
he never employed the paraphrases in the solemn worship of the sanctuary.
She was a woman of provident mind. Shortly after they were married
he made the discovery that she had prepared the grave clothes for him
as well as for herself. Too soon, after only eight years, it was her fate
to be shrouded in them. After her death -- probably because of her death --
John Eckford emigrated to Canada.
To one who knows the early days in Canada there is nothing new
in the story of this family. They landed in Montreal July 11th, 1851,
forty-four days out from Glasgow. They proceeded by steamer to Hamilton,
the fare being about a dollar for each passenger. The next stage
was to Guelph; then on to Durham, and finally they came to the end
of their journeying near Walkerton in Bruce County in the primeval forest,
from which they cut out a home for themselves and for their children.
It was "the winter of the deep snow". One transcription from the record
will disclose the scene:
At length a grave was dug on a knoll in the bush
at the foot of a great maple with a young snow-laden hemlock at the side.
The father and the eldest brother carried the box
along the shovelled path. The mother close behind was followed
by the two families. The snow was falling heavily. At the grave
John Eckford read a psalm, and prayed, "that they might be enabled
to believe, the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
unto them that fear Him."
John McCrae himself was an indefatigable church-goer. There is a note
in childish characters written from Edinburgh in his thirteenth year,
"On Sabbath went to service four times." There the statement stands
in all its austerity. A letter from a chaplain is extant in which
a certain mild wonder is expressed at the regularity in attendance
of an officer of field rank. To his sure taste in poetry the hymns were
a sore trial. "Only forty minutes are allowed for the service," he said,
"and it is sad to see them `snappit up' by these poor bald four-line things."
On Easter Sunday, 1915, he wrote: "We had a church parade this morning,
the first since we arrived in France. Truly, if the dead rise not,
we are of all men the most miserable." On the funeral service of a friend
he remarks: "`Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God,' --
what a summary of the whole thing that is!" On many occasions he officiated
in the absence of the chaplains who in those days would have as many
as six services a day. In civil life in Montreal he went to church
in the evening, and sat under the Reverend James Barclay of St. Pauls,
now designated by some at least as St. Andrews.
The Civil Years
It will be observed in this long relation of John McCrae that little mention
has yet been made of what after all was his main concern in life.
For twenty years he studied and practised medicine. To the end
he was an assiduous student and a very profound practitioner.
He was a student, not of medicine alone, but of all subjects
ancillary to the science, and to the task he came with a mind braced
by a sound and generous education. Any education of real value
a man must have received before he has attained to the age of seven years.
Indeed he may be left impervious to its influence at seven weeks.
John McCrae's education began well. It began in the time
of his two grandfathers at least, was continued by his father and mother
before he came upon this world's scene, and by them was left deep founded
for him to build upon.
Noble natures have a repugnance from work. Manual labour is servitude.
A day of idleness is a holy day. For those whose means do not permit
to live in idleness the school is the only refuge; but they must prove
their quality. This is the goal which drives many Scotch boys
to the University, scorning delights and willing to live long,
John McCrae's father felt bound "to give the boy a chance,"
but the boy must pass the test. The test in such cases
is the Shorter Catechism, that compendium of all intellectual argument.
How the faithful aspirant for the school acquires this body
of written knowledge at a time when he has not yet learned the use of letters
is a secret not to be lightly disclosed. It may indeed be
that already his education is complete. Upon the little book
is always printed the table of multiples, so that the obvious truth
which is comprised in the statement, "two by two makes four",
is imputed to the contents which are within the cover.
In studying the table the catechism is learned surreptitiously,
and therefore without self-consciousness.
So, in this well ordered family with its atmosphere of obedience,
we may see the boy, like a youthful Socrates going about
with a copy of the book in his hand, enquiring of those,
who could already read, not alone what were the answers to the questions
but the very questions themselves to which an answer was demanded.
This learning, however, was only a minor part of life, since upon a farm
life is very wide and very deep. In due time the school was accomplished,
and there was a master in the school -- let his name be recorded --
William Tytler, who had a feeling for English writing
and a desire to extend that feeling to others.
In due time also the question of a University arose.
There was a man in Canada named Dawson -- Sir William Dawson.
I have written of him in another place. He had the idea
that a university had something to do with the formation of character,
and that in the formation of character religion had a part.
He was principal of McGill. I am not saying that all boys who entered
that University were religious boys when they went in,
or even religious men when they came out; but religious fathers
had a general desire to place their boys under Sir William Dawson's care.
Those were the days of a queer, and now forgotten, controversy
over what was called "Science and Religion". Of that also
I have written in another place. It was left to Sir William Dawson
to deliver the last word in defence of a cause that was already lost.
His book came under the eye of David McCrae, as most books of the time did,
and he was troubled in his heart. His boys were at the University of Toronto.
It was too late; but he eased his mind by writing a letter.
To this letter John replies under date 20th December, 1890:
"You say that after reading Dawson's book you almost regretted
that we had not gone to McGill. That, I consider, would have been
rather a calamity, about as much so as going to Queen's."
We are not always wiser than our fathers were, and in the end
he came to McGill after all.
For good or ill, John McCrae entered the University of Toronto in 1888,
with a scholarship for "general proficiency". He joined the Faculty of Arts,
took the honours course in natural sciences, and graduated from
the department of biology in 1894, his course having been interrupted
by two severe illnesses. From natural science, it was an easy step
to medicine, in which he was encouraged by Ramsay Wright, A. B. Macallum,
A. McPhedran, and I. H. Cameron. In 1898 he graduated again,
with a gold medal, and a scholarship in physiology and pathology.
The previous summer he had spent at the Garrett Children's Hospital
in Mt. Airy, Maryland.
Upon graduating he entered the Toronto General Hospital as resident
house officer; in 1899 he occupied a similar post at Johns Hopkins.
Then he came to McGill University as fellow in pathology
and pathologist to the Montreal General Hospital. In time he was appointed
physician to the Alexandra Hospital for infectious diseases;
later assistant physician to the Royal Victoria Hospital,
and lecturer in medicine in the University. By examination
he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians, London.
In 1914 he was elected a member of the Association of American Physicians.
These are distinctions won by few in the profession.
In spite, or rather by reason, of his various attainments
John McCrae never developed, or degenerated, into the type
of the pure scientist. For the laboratory he had neither the mind
nor the hands. He never peered at partial truths so closely
as to mistake them for the whole truth; therefore, he was unfitted
for that purely scientific career which was developed
to so high a pitch of perfection in that nation which is now
no longer mentioned amongst men. He wrote much, and often,
upon medical problems. The papers bearing his name amount to
thirty-three items in the catalogues. They testify to his industry
rather than to invention and discovery, but they have made his name known
in every text-book of medicine.
Apart from his verse, and letters, and diaries, and contributions
to journals and books of medicine, with an occasional address to students
or to societies, John McCrae left few writings, and in these
there is nothing remarkable by reason of thought or expression.
He could not write prose. Fine as was his ear for verse
he could not produce that finer rhythm of prose, which comes from
the fall of proper words in proper sequence. He never learned
that if a writer of prose takes care of the sound the sense will take care
of itself. He did not scrutinize words to discover their first
and fresh meaning. He wrote in phrases, and used words at second-hand
as the journalists do. Bullets "rained"; guns "swept"; shells "hailed";
events "transpired", and yet his appreciation of style in others was perfect,
and he was an insatiable reader of the best books. His letters are strewn
with names of authors whose worth time has proved. To specify them
would merely be to write the catalogue of a good library.
The thirteen years with which this century opened were the period
in which John McCrae established himself in civil life in Montreal
and in the profession of medicine. Of this period he has left a chronicle
which is at once too long and too short.
All lives are equally interesting if only we are in possession
of all the facts. Places like Oxford and Cambridge
have been made interesting because the people who live in them
are in the habit of writing, and always write about each other.
Family letters have little interest even for the family itself,
if they consist merely of a recital of the trivial events of the day.
They are prized for the unusual and for the sentiment they contain.
Diaries also are dull unless they deal with selected incidents;
and selection is the essence of every art. Few events have any interest
in themselves, but any event can be made interesting by the pictorial
or literary art.
When he writes to his mother, that, as he was coming out of the college,
an Irish setter pressed a cold nose against his hand, that is interesting
because it is unusual. If he tells us that a professor took him by the arm,
there is no interest in that to her or to any one else.
For that reason the ample letters and diaries which cover these years
need not detain us long. There is in them little selection, little art --
too much professor and too little dog.
It is, of course, the business of the essayist to select;
but in the present case there is little to choose. He tells of
invitations to dinner, accepted, evaded, or refused;
but he does not always tell who were there, what he thought of them,
or what they had to eat. Dinner at the Adami's, -- supper at Ruttan's, --
a night with Owen, -- tea at the Reford's, -- theatre with the Hickson's, --
a reception at the Angus's, -- or a dance at the Allan's, -- these events
would all be quite meaningless without an exposition of the social life
of Montreal, which is too large a matter to undertake, alluring as the task
would be. Even then, one would be giving one's own impressions and not his.
Wherever he lived he was a social figure. When he sat at table
the dinner was never dull. The entertainment he offered was not missed
by the dullest intelligence. His contribution was merely "stories",
and these stories in endless succession were told in a spirit of frank fun.
They were not illustrative, admonitory, or hortatory.
They were just amusing, and always fresh. This gift he acquired
from his mother, who had that rare charm of mimicry without mockery,
and caricature without malice. In all his own letters there is not
an unkind comment or tinge of ill-nature, although in places,
especially in later years, there is bitter indignation against
those Canadian patriots who were patriots merely for their bellies' sake.
Taken together his letters and diaries are a revelation
of the heroic struggle by which a man gains a footing in a strange place
in that most particular of all professions, a struggle comprehended
by those alone who have made the trial of it. And yet the method is simple.
It is all disclosed in his words, "I have never refused any work
that was given me to do." These records are merely a chronicle of work.
Outdoor clinics, laboratory tasks, post-mortems, demonstrating, teaching,
lecturing, attendance upon the sick in wards and homes, meetings,
conventions, papers, addresses, editing, reviewing, -- the very remembrance
of such a career is enough to appall the stoutest heart.
But John McCrae was never appalled. He went about his work gaily,
never busy, never idle. Each minute was pressed into the service,
and every hour was made to count. In the first eight months of practice
he claims to have made ninety dollars. It is many years
before we hear him complain of the drudgery of sending out accounts,
and sighing for the services of a bookkeeper. This is the only complaint
that appears in his letters.
There were at the time in Montreal two rival schools,
and are yet two rival hospitals. But John McCrae was of no party.
He was the friend of all men, and the confidant of many. He sought nothing
for himself and by seeking not he found what he most desired.
His mind was single and his intention pure; his acts unsullied
by selfish thought; his aim was true because it was steady and high.
His aid was never sought for any cause that was unworthy,
and those humorous eyes could see through the bones
to the marrow of a scheme. In spite of his singular innocence, or rather
by reason of it, he was the last man in the world to be imposed upon.
In all this devastating labour he never neglected the assembling of himself
together with those who write and those who paint. Indeed,
he had himself some small skill in line and colour. His hands were
the hands of an artist -- too fine and small for a body that weighted
180 pounds, and measured more than five feet eleven inches in height.
There was in Montreal an institution known as "The Pen and Pencil Club".
No one now living remembers a time when it did not exist.
It was a peculiar club. It contained no member who should not be in it;
and no one was left out who should be in. The number was about a dozen.
For twenty years the club met in Dyonnet's studio, and afterwards,
as the result of some convulsion, in K. R. Macpherson's. A ceremonial supper
was eaten once a year, at which one dressed the salad, one made the coffee,
and Harris sang a song. Here all pictures were first shown,
and writings read -- if they were not too long. If they were,
there was in an adjoining room a tin chest, which in these austere days
one remembers with refreshment. When John McCrae was offered membership
he "grabbed at it", and the place was a home for the spirit
wearied by the week's work. There Brymner and the other artists
would discourse upon writings, and Burgess and the other writers
would discourse upon pictures.
It is only with the greatest of resolution, fortified by
lack of time and space, that I have kept myself to the main lines
of his career, and refrained from following him into by-paths and secret,
pleasant places; but I shall not be denied just one indulgence.
In the great days when Lord Grey was Governor-General he formed a party
to visit Prince Edward Island. The route was a circuitous one.
It began at Ottawa; it extended to Winnipeg, down the Nelson River
to York Factory, across Hudson Bay, down the Strait,
by Belle Isle and Newfoundland, and across the Gulf of St. Lawrence
to a place called Orwell. Lord Grey in the matter of company
had the reputation of doing himself well. John McCrae was of the party.
It also included John Macnaughton, L. S. Amery, Lord Percy,
Lord Lanesborough, and one or two others. The ship had called
at North Sydney where Lady Grey and the Lady Evelyn joined.
Through the place in a deep ravine runs an innocent stream which broadens out
into still pools, dark under the alders. There was a rod --
a very beautiful rod in two pieces. It excited his suspicion.
It was put into his hand, the first stranger hand that ever held it;
and the first cast showed that it was a worthy hand. The sea-trout
were running that afternoon. Thirty years before, in that memorable visit
to Scotland, he had been taken aside by "an old friend of his grandfather's".
It was there he learned "to love the trooties". The love and the art
never left him. It was at this same Orwell his brother first heard
the world called to arms on that early August morning in 1914.
In those civil years there were, of course, diversions:
visits to the United States and meetings with notable men --
Welch, Futcher, Hurd, White, Howard, Barker: voyages to Europe
with a detailed itinerary upon the record; walks and rides upon the mountain;
excursion in winter to the woods, and in summer to the lakes; and one visit
to the Packards in Maine, with the sea enthusiastically described.
Upon those woodland excursions and upon many other adventures
his companion is often referred to as "Billy T.", who can be no other
than Lieut.-Col. W. G. Turner, "M.C."
Much is left out of the diary that we would wish to have recorded.
There is tantalizing mention of "conversations" with Shepherd --
with Roddick -- with Chipman -- with Armstrong -- with Gardner --
with Martin -- with Moyse. Occasionally there is a note of description:
"James Mavor is a kindly genius with much knowledge"; "Tait McKenzie
presided ideally" at a Shakespeare dinner; "Stephen Leacock does not keep
all the good things for his publisher." Those who know the life in Montreal
may well for themselves supply the details.
Dead in His Prime
John McCrae left the front after the second battle of Ypres,
and never returned. On June 1st, 1915, he was posted to
No. 3 General Hospital at Boulogne, a most efficient unit
organized by McGill University and commanded by that fine soldier
Colonel H. S. Birkett, C.B. He was placed in charge of medicine,
with the rank of Lieut.-Colonel as from April 17th, 1915,
and there he remained until his death.
At first he did not relish the change. His heart was with the guns.
He had transferred from the artillery to the medical service
as recently as the previous autumn, and embarked a few days afterwards
at Quebec, on the 29th of September, arriving at Davenport,
October 20th, 1914. Although he was attached as Medical Officer
to the 1st Brigade of Artillery, he could not forget that he was
no longer a gunner, and in those tumultuous days he was often to be found
in the observation post rather than in his dressing station.
He had inherited something of the old army superciliousness towards
a "non-combatant" service, being unaware that in this war
the battle casualties in the medical corps were to be higher
than in any other arm of the service. From South Africa he wrote
exactly fifteen years before: "I am glad that I am not `a medical' out here.
No `R.A.M.C.' or any other `M.C.' for me. There is a big breach,
and the medicals are on the far side of it." On August 7th, 1915,
he writes from his hospital post, "I expect to wish often
that I had stuck by the artillery." But he had no choice.
Of this period of his service there is little written record.
He merely did his work, and did it well, as he always did
what his mind found to do. His health was failing. He suffered
from the cold. A year before his death he writes on January 25th, 1917:
The cruel cold is still holding. Everyone is suffering,
and the men in the wards in bed cannot keep warm. I know of nothing
so absolutely pitiless as weather. Let one wish; let one pray;
do what one will; still the same clear sky and no sign, --
you know the cold brand of sunshine. For my own part I do not think
I have ever been more uncomfortable. Everything is so cold
that it hurts to pick it up. To go to bed is a nightmare
and to get up a worse one. I have heard of cold weather in Europe,
and how the poor suffer, -- now I know!
All his life he was a victim of asthma. The first definite attack
was in the autumn of 1894, and the following winter it recurred
with persistence. For the next five years his letters abound in references
to the malady. After coming to Montreal it subsided; but he always felt
that the enemy was around the corner. He had frequent periods in bed;
but he enjoyed the relief from work and the occasion they afforded
for rest and reading.
In January, 1918, minutes begin to appear upon his official file
which were of great interest to him, and to us. Colonel Birkett
had relinquished command of the unit to resume his duties
as Dean of the Medical Faculty of McGill University. He was succeeded by
that veteran soldier, Colonel J. M. Elder, C.M.G. At the same time
the command of No. 1 General Hospital fell vacant. Lieut.-Colonel McCrae
was required for that post; but a higher honour was in store,
namely the place of Consultant to the British Armies in the Field.
All these events, and the final great event, are best recorded
in the austere official correspondence which I am permitted to extract
from the files:
From D.M.S. Canadian Contingents. (Major-General C. L. Foster, C.B.).
To O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F., 13th December, 1917:
There is a probability of the command of No. 1 General Hospital
becoming vacant. It is requested, please, that you obtain
from Lieut.-Col. J. McCrae his wishes in the matter. If he is available,
and willing to take over this command, it is proposed to offer it to him.
O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F., To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents,
28th December, 1917: Lieut.-Colonel McCrae desires me to say that,
while he naturally looks forward to succeeding to the command
of this unit, he is quite willing to comply with your desire,
and will take command of No. 1 General Hospital at any time you may wish.
D.G.M.S. British Armies in France. To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents,
January 2nd, 1918: It is proposed to appoint Lieut.-Colonel J. McCrae,
now serving with No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, Consulting Physician
to the British Armies in France. Notification of this appointment,
when made, will be sent to you in due course.
D.M.S. Canadian Contingents. To O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F.,
January 5th, 1918: Since receiving your letter I have information
from G.H.Q. that they will appoint a Consultant Physician
to the British Armies in the Field, and have indicated their desire
for Lieut.-Colonel McCrae for this duty. This is a much higher honour
than commanding a General Hospital, and I hope he will take the post,
as this is a position I have long wished should be filled
by a C.A.M.C. officer.
D.M.S. Canadian Contingents. To D.G.M.S., G.H.Q., 2nd Echelon,
January 15th, 1918: I fully concur in this appointment, and consider
this officer will prove his ability as an able Consulting Physician.
Telegram: D.G.M.S., G.H.Q., 2nd Echelon. To D.M.S. Canadian Contingents,
January 18th, 1918: Any objection to Lieut.-Col. J. McCrae
being appointed Consulting Physician to British Armies in France.
If appointed, temporary rank of Colonel recommended.
Telegram: O.C. No. 3 General Hospital, B.E.F. To D.M.S.
Canadian Contingents, January 27th, 1918: Lieut.-Col. John McCrae
seriously ill with pneumonia at No. 14 General Hospital.
Telegram: O.C. No. 14 General Hospital. To O.C. No. 3 General Hospital,
B.E.F., January 28th, 1918: Lieut.-Col. John McCrae died this morning.
This was the end. For him the war was finished and all the glory of the world
Henceforth we are concerned not with the letters he wrote,
but with the letters which were written about him. They came
from all quarters, literally in hundreds, all inspired by pure sympathy,
but some tinged with a curiosity which it is hoped this writing
will do something to assuage.
Let us first confine ourselves to the facts. They are all contained
in a letter which Colonel Elder wrote to myself in common with other friends.
On Wednesday, January 23rd, he was as usual in the morning;
but in the afternoon Colonel Elder found him asleep in his chair
in the mess room. "I have a slight headache," he said.
He went to his quarters. In the evening he was worse,
but had no increase of temperature, no acceleration of pulse or respiration.
At this moment the order arrived for him to proceed forthwith
as Consulting Physician of the First Army. Colonel Elder writes,
"I read the order to him, and told him I should announce the contents at mess.
He was very much pleased over the appointment. We discussed the matter
at some length, and I took his advice upon measures for carrying on
the medical work of the unit."
Next morning he was sleeping soundly, but later on he professed to be
much better. He had no fever, no cough, no pain. In the afternoon
he sent for Colonel Elder, and announced that he had pneumonia.
There were no signs in the chest; but the microscope revealed
certain organisms which rather confirmed the diagnosis.
The temperature was rising. Sir Bertrand Dawson was sent for.
He came by evening from Wimereux, but he could discover no physical signs.
In the night the temperature continued to rise, and he complained of headache.
He was restless until the morning, "when he fell into a calm,
Next morning, being Friday, he was removed by ambulance
to No. 14 General Hospital at Wimereux. In the evening news came
that he was better; by the morning the report was good,
a lowered temperature and normal pulse. In the afternoon
the condition grew worse; there were signs of cerebral irritation
with a rapid, irregular pulse; his mind was quickly clouded.
Early on Sunday morning the temperature dropped, and the heart grew weak;
there was an intense sleepiness. During the day the sleep increased to coma,
and all knew the end was near.
His friends had gathered. The choicest of the profession was there,
but they were helpless. He remained unconscious, and died at half past one
on Monday morning. The cause of death was double pneumonia
with massive cerebral infection. Colonel Elder's letter concludes:
"We packed his effects in a large box, everything that we thought
should go to his people, and Gow took it with him to England to-day."
Walter Gow was his cousin, a son of that Gow who sailed with the Eckfords
from Glasgow in the `Clutha'. At the time he was Deputy Minister in London
of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada. He had been sent for
but arrived too late; -- all was so sudden.
The funeral was held on Tuesday afternoon, January 29th,
at the cemetery in Wimereux. The burial was made with full military pomp.
From the Canadian Corps came Lieut.-General Sir Arthur Currie,
the General Officer Commanding; Major-General E. W. B. Morrison,
and Brigadier-General W. O. H. Dodds, of the Artillery.
Sir A. T. Sloggett, the Director-General of Medical Services,
and his Staff were waiting at the grave. All Commanding Officers at the Base,
and all Deputy Directors were there. There was also a deputation
from the Harvard Unit headed by Harvey Cushing.
Bonfire went first, led by two grooms, and decked in the regulation
white ribbon, not the least pathetic figure in the sad procession.
A hundred nursing Sisters in caps and veils stood in line,
and then proceeded in ambulances to the cemetery, where they lined up again.
Seventy-five of the personnel from the Hospital acted as escort,
and six Sergeants bore the coffin from the gates to the grave.
The firing party was in its place. Then followed the chief mourners,
Colonel Elder and Sir Bertrand Dawson; and in their due order,
the rank and file of No. 3 with their officers; the rank and file
of No. 14 with their officers; all officers from the Base,
with Major-General Wilberforce and the Deputy Directors to complete.
It was a springtime day, and those who have passed all those winters
in France and in Flanders will know how lovely the springtime may be.
So we may leave him, "on this sunny slope, facing the sunset and the sea."
These are the words used by one of the nurses in a letter to a friend, --
those women from whom no heart is hid. She also adds: "The nurses lamented
that he became unconscious so quickly they could not tell him
how much they cared. To the funeral all came as we did,
because we loved him so."
At first there was the hush of grief and the silence of sudden shock.
Then there was an outbreak of eulogy, of appraisement, and sorrow.
No attempt shall be made to reproduce it here; but one or two voices
may be recorded in so far as in disjointed words they speak for all.
Stephen Leacock, for those who write, tells of his high vitality
and splendid vigour -- his career of honour and marked distinction --
his life filled with honourable endeavour and instinct with
the sense of duty -- a sane and equable temperament -- whatever he did,
filled with sure purpose and swift conviction.
Dr. A. D. Blackader, acting Dean of the Medical Faculty of McGill University,
himself speaking from out of the shadow, thus appraises his worth:
"As a teacher, trusted and beloved; as a colleague, sincere and cordial;
as a physician, faithful, cheerful, kind. An unkind word he never uttered."
Oskar Klotz, himself a student, testifies that the relationship
was essentially one of master and pupil. From the head of
his first department at McGill, Professor, now Colonel, Adami,
comes the weighty phrase, that he was sound in diagnosis;
as a teacher inspiring; that few could rise to his high level of service.
There is yet a deeper aspect of this character with which we are concerned;
but I shrink from making the exposition, fearing lest
with my heavy literary tread I might destroy more than I should discover.
When one stands by the holy place wherein dwells a dead friend's soul --
the word would slip out at last -- it becomes him to take off the shoes
from off his feet. But fortunately the dilemma does not arise.
The task has already been performed by one who by God has been endowed
with the religious sense, and by nature enriched with the gift of expression;
one who in his high calling has long been acquainted with the grief of others,
and is now himself a man of sorrow, having seen with understanding eyes,
These great days range like tides,
And leave our dead on every shore.
On February 14th, 1918, a Memorial Service was held
in the Royal Victoria College. Principal Sir William Peterson presided.
John Macnaughton gave the address in his own lovely and inimitable words,
to commemorate one whom he lamented, "so young and strong,
in the prime of life, in the full ripeness of his fine powers,
his season of fruit and flower bearing. He never lost the simple faith
of his childhood. He was so sure about the main things, the vast things,
the indispensable things, of which all formulated faiths
are but a more or less stammering expression, that he was content
with the rough embodiment in which his ancestors had laboured
to bring those great realities to bear as beneficent and propulsive forces
upon their own and their children's minds and consciences.
His instinctive faith sufficed him."
To his own students John McCrae once quoted the legend from a picture,
to him "the most suggestive picture in the world": What I spent I had:
what I saved I lost: what I gave I have; -- and he added:
"It will be in your power every day to store up for yourselves
treasures that will come back to you in the consciousness of duty well done,
of kind acts performed, things that having given away freely you yet possess.
It has often seemed to me that when in the Judgement those surprised faces
look up and say, Lord, when saw we Thee anhungered and fed Thee;
or thirsty and gave Thee drink; a stranger, and took Thee in;
naked and clothed Thee; and there meets them that warrant-royal
of all charity, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these,
ye have done it unto Me, there will be amongst those awed ones
many a practitioner of medicine."
And finally I shall conclude this task to which I have set
a worn but willing hand, by using again the words which once I used before:
Beyond all consideration of his intellectual attainments
John McCrae was the well beloved of his friends. He will be missed
in his place; and wherever his companions assemble there will be for them
a new poignancy in the Miltonic phrase,
But O the heavy change, now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
11th November, 1918.