As you know, each year I follow the excellent initiative of my predecessor and read out the names of some of the fallen from this school. Mr Moule started this about 10 years ago; I have two opportunities annually to read them out alphabetically, in Chapel and in here; after 10 years we have only reached the letter P in the list of those OBs who fell in the First World War. Most people are understandably horrified by the youth of these men, many only a year or two older than you. However, yesterday in Chapel, I was also amazed at the sheer range of age. Brigadier-General Brian Phillpotts, for example, was 46 years old when he died in France in 1916, and Lieutenant-Colonel John Puckle was 47 years old when he drowned in 1917. They could have had sons fighting.
Today’s story involves Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, who had served in the Boer War and then signed up for the First World War when he was also in his forties. He could have joined as an out and out medic, but in fact joined a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer; he fought, most famously, in a region of Belgium called Flanders, and took part there in the Battle of Ypres. When I read the names of the fallen in a moment, you will hear that many OBs died along that stretch of land, alongside about a quarter of a million others, in just a couple of months. McRae, who had seen a lot of active service, described this awful Battle of Ypres as a nightmare to his mother in one of his letters home. He wrote that “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.” That last bit, “a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way” shows quite what a patriotic and professional soldier he was. Amid all the carnage, he had a job to do.
McCrae’s most famous contribution to the war, however, as many of you will know, came about through the unlikely medium of poetry, and in particular one poem that he wrote at the height of that awful battle of Ypres, just after he had buried one of his closest friends. I am going to read it to you, and I want you all to look it up this evening. It became one of the most famous poems of the war, and a national emblem of Canada, where it has, even recently, appeared on $10 notes. As I read it, I want you to notice that it falls into two distinct parts – the first seeks to line up the everyday beauty of life, of nature, against the brutality and finality of war. See the flowers; hear the birds. The second, perhaps disturbingly, calls his countrymen to join them in the battle; this is a call to arms, despite (or because of) the fact that it is a poem written from the perspective of the dead men – and particularly from the standpoint of his friend, whom McCrae has just buried. Here it is. It is only short.
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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.
It is remarkable that McCrae wrote this in response to his friend’s death. War is awful, he seems to say, but get out here and do your bit – I do not want my friend’s death to be in vain. We had nice lives only recently – we loved and were loved – don’t break faith with us. This must be a battle worth fighting. Sure enough, this poem became a rallying cry for those back home; it was published shortly after it was written and it appeared on banners aiming to gather new recruits. It also signalled the start of our tradition of wearing poppies today – well done to you all for wearing one. For many years before McCrae’s poem, soldiers had noticed poppies growing in areas of war, and around the graves of their friends. Poppies apparently particularly like growing in soil with a heavy lime content and the churning of the land caused by massive shell explosions allows it to flourish. It was McCrae’s poem, however, which developed our tradition. They are still seen as symbols not only of remembrance, but also of hope, as they grow and flourish in the most terrible of circumstances – as in fact did the poem you have just heard and the hymn you are about to sing.
McCrae died of pneumonia towards the end of the War. He had the great distinction of not only being forever remembered himself, but also inspiring an act of remembrance for all his friends and fellows forever more. Do make sure that you look him up later.