By Harriet P. Gross
The flags that our Jewish War Veterans this past Monday, Memorial Day, are still waving on the graves of their deceased comrades. In advance of the holiday this year, I made a presentation to residents of the Legacy/Preston Hollow who, like I, are old enough to remember reciting the poem “In Flanders Fields” in our school days. None of us were dry-eyed when I read it aloud. Now seems a like good time for younger people to also learn these lessons about our history.
First, about the poem: Major John McCrae, was a military doctor, second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery just north of Ypres, a strategic Belgian site during World War I. Lieutenant Alexis Helmer had become McCrae’s good friend during the fight against the Germans in what people called then, with naive optimism none of us has seen since, “the war to end all wars.” The brigade had arrived there on April 23, 1915. On the morning of Saturday, May 2, Helmer stepped out of his dugout to be cut down instantly by a direct hit from an 8-inch enemy shell. He was 22 years old.
No grave was dug for him because there was no body left. Helmer’s comrades gathered all that could be found of his scattered remains into sandbags during brief moments of no shooting. That evening, the bags were wrapped in an army blanket and laid in a shallow hole scooped from the earth. The brigade’s commanding officer and chaplain had been called to duty elsewhere, so McCrae conducted the brief memorial service and marked the place with a small wooden cross.
In those days, no war correspondents with cameras recorded such events for live TV, so we must rely on what people wrote about them. When he returned to his brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison penned this:
“A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry regiment, and on numerous occasions during the 16-day battle, we saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all this had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described it in his poem, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns. … ” This burial ground on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser Canal, at the time of Helmer’s death primarily a dugout for medical bunkers, eventually became the Essex Farm British Military Cemetery.
If you visit the Belgian World War I battlefields today, you’ll see Jewish stars and crosses at Essex Farm and other cemeteries. The markers for known dead are marble now, and to avoid the inevitable staining that follows when rain-washed stones picked from the ground and placed on Jewish graves, sterile white aquarium pebbles are provided.
McCrae’s poem is an enduring tribute to his friend and to all the many others who died in the battlefields of Ypres. The names of those who have no known graves are now inscribed at the site on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. Helmer’s is one of 54,896 listed there …
“In Flanders Fields” is not just a beautiful poem; it incorporates a subtle truth that most readers miss, but a doctor like its author would know. “If ye break faith with us who die,” he wrote, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” Poppies are a narcotic; the dead voice that speaks out in this poem threatens us into eternity: if we do not take up the fight for peace and freedom, those who lie there will never rest – not even though they are already dead, not even under a blanket of flowers that can put the living to sleep.
(Flag Day is approaching on June 14. I’ll return to this subject then.)