History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. ~Winston Churchill

03 May, 2015

The Crosses, Row on Row

One hundred years ago yesterday, a young Canadian soldier named Alexis Helmer was killed at the guns during the Second Battle of Ypres. One hundred years ago today, his good friend, a Canadian doctor named John McCrae, was moved to set down those evocative lines, "In Flanders fields, the poppies blow...." 

As McCrae himself wrote of the battle, afterwards: 

"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 it was sticking to our utmost by a weak line all but ready to break, knowing nothing of what was going on, and depressed by reports of anxious infantry."*

McCrae was situated at an advanced dressing station, called Essex Farm, the first point of care for wounded soldiers, just behind the front line. Since many men sadly did not make it further, advanced dressing stations were usually joined by hastily constructed cemeteries, Like most front line cemeteries, the crosses were makeshift, the layouts haphazard. After the war, the crosses were gradually replaced by the carved headstones in place today. McCrae's "crosses, row on row" exist only in photographs. 

For the centenary of a poem that's struck a chord like few others, a collection of those photographs of wartime cemeteries, in Flanders fields. 

* John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields and Other Poems." 1919. Online

© IWM (Q 17851)

Cemetery at the Hospice Notre Dame, Ypres. Source

© IWM (Q 17852)

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. Source

© IWM (Q 9042)

A British officer and his dog at Wavans War Cemetery (which includes the grave of top British ace James McCudden), 1918. Source

© IWM (Q 87887)

French military cemetery, March 1918. Source

© IWM (Q 17847)

Hooge Crater Cemetery. Source

© IWM (Q 87883)

Graves of British soldiers in a German military cemetery. Source

© (IWM Q 60487)

Cemetery at Mont St. Eloi, 1916. Source

Two soldiers at the the cemetery in Vlamertinghe, October 3, 1917. Source

© IWM (Q 17858)

The caption sites this at Boeschepe, on the road to Poperinghe, stating it has "20, 000 graves"; no Belgian WWI cemeteries have near that many (Tyne Cot, near Passchendaele, is the largest, with 12,000 graves), and there aren't any cemeteries right at Boeschepe. The largest in the area is Reninghelst New Military Cemetery, with 800. Source

© IWM (Q 1541)

A makeshift cemetery at Bernefay Wood, 1916. Source

© IWM (Q 17867)

A British Cemetery on the Ploegsteert Rd, Messines. Source

© IWM (Q 17849)

A British Cemetery near Zillebeke (there are many options in the area). Source

Puchevilliers cemetey, 1916-1923. Source

© IWM (Q 5875)

A Canadian military funeral at Poperinghe, 1917. Source

© IWM (Q 17850)

Menin Road South Cemetery, Ypres. Source

© IWM (E(AUS) 166)

Two Australian soldiers in a graveyard at Becordel-Becourt, near Albert.  Source

© IWM (Q 678)

Fleurbaix, 1916. Source

Essex Farm Cemetery, beside the dressing station where McCrae was stationed while writing "In Flanders Fields." Source

An Australian laying flowers on the grave of a friend, Franvilliers, 1918-1923. Source

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