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McCrae's Letters to his Mother

Doctor operating in a field hospital, First World War

StarArmy surgeon operating on a soldier in a field hospital

Below you will find a series of letters that John McCrae wrote to his mother from the Western Front. They date from the period that he also wrote 'In Flanders Fields' and they cast a light upon the circumstances under with the poem was written. The letters are taken from In Flanders Fields and other Poems, that was published in 1919.




                                        Friday, April 23rd, 1915.

As we moved up last evening, there was heavy firing about 4.30 on our left,
the hour at which the general attack with gas was made
when the French line broke.  We could see the shells bursting over Ypres,
and in a small village to our left, meeting General ----, C.R.A.,
of one of the divisions, he ordered us to halt for orders.
We sent forward notifications to our Headquarters, and sent out orderlies
to get in touch with the batteries of the farther forward brigades
already in action.  The story of these guns will be read elsewhere.
They had a tough time, but got away safely, and did wonderful service.
One battery fired in two opposite directions at once,
and both batteries fired at point blank, open sights, at Germans in the open.
They were at times quite without infantry on their front,
for their position was behind the French to the left of the British line.

As we sat on the road we began to see the French stragglers --
men without arms, wounded men, teams, wagons, civilians, refugees --
some by the roads, some across country, all talking, shouting --
the very picture of debacle.  I must say they were the "tag enders"
of a fighting line rather than the line itself.  They streamed on,
and shouted to us scraps of not too inspiriting information
while we stood and took our medicine, and picked out gun positions
in the fields in case we had to go in there and then.  The men were splendid;
not a word; not a shake, and it was a terrific test.  Traffic whizzed by --
ambulances, transport, ammunition, supplies, despatch riders --
and the shells thundered into the town, or burst high in the air nearer us,
and the refugees streamed.  Women, old men, little children,
hopeless, tearful, quiet or excited, tired, dodging the traffic, --
and the wounded in singles or in groups.  Here and there I could give
a momentary help, and the ambulances picked up as they could.
So the cold moonlight night wore on -- no change save that
the towers of Ypres showed up against the glare of the city burning;
and the shells still sailed in.

At 9.30 our ammunition column (the part that had been "in") appeared.
Major ---- had waited, like Casabianca, for orders until the Germans were
500 yards away; then he started, getting safely away save for one wagon lost,
and some casualties in men and horses.  He found our column,
and we prepared to send forward ammunition as soon as we could learn
where the batteries had taken up position in retiring, for retire they had to.
Eleven, twelve, and finally grey day broke, and we still waited.
At 3.45 word came to go in and support a French counterattack at 4.30 A.M.
Hastily we got the order spread; it was 4 A.M. and three miles to go.

Of one's feelings all this night -- of the asphyxiated French soldiers --
of the women and children -- of the cheery, steady British reinforcements
that moved up quietly past us, going up, not back -- I could write,
but you can imagine.

We took the road at once, and went up at the gallop.  The Colonel rode ahead
to scout a position (we had only four guns, part of the ammunition column,
and the brigade staff; the 1st and 4th batteries were back in reserve
at our last billet).  Along the roads we went, and made our place on time,
pulled up for ten minutes just short of the position, where I put Bonfire
[his horse] with my groom in a farmyard, and went forward on foot --
only a quarter of a mile or so -- then we advanced.  Bonfire had soon to move;
a shell killed a horse about four yards away from him, and he wisely took
other ground.  Meantime we went on into the position we were to occupy
for seventeen days, though we could not guess that.  I can hardly say more
than that it was near the Yser Canal.

We got into action at once, under heavy gunfire.  We were
to the left entirely of the British line, and behind French troops,
and so we remained for eight days.  A Colonel of the R.A., known to fame,
joined us and camped with us; he was our link with the French Headquarters,
and was in local command of the guns in this locality.  When he left us
eight days later he said, "I am glad to get out of this hell-hole."
He was a great comfort to us, for he is very capable, and the entire battle
was largely fought "on our own", following the requests of the Infantry
on our front, and scarcely guided by our own staff at all.
We at once set out to register our targets, and almost at once
had to get into steady firing on quite a large sector of front.
We dug in the guns as quickly as we could, and took as Headquarters
some infantry trenches already sunk on a ridge near the canal.
We were subject from the first to a steady and accurate shelling,
for we were all but in sight, as were the German trenches
about 2000 yards to our front.  At times the fire would come in salvos
quickly repeated.  Bursts of fire would be made for ten or fifteen minutes
at a time.  We got all varieties of projectile, from 3 inch to 8 inch,
or perhaps 10 inch; the small ones usually as air bursts,
the larger percussion and air, and the heaviest percussion only.

My work began almost from the start -- steady but never overwhelming,
except perhaps once for a few minutes.  A little cottage behind our ridge
served as a cook-house, but was so heavily hit the second day
that we had to be chary of it.  During bursts of fire I usually took
the back slope of the sharply crested ridge for what shelter it offered.
At 3 our 1st and 4th arrived, and went into action at once
a few hundred yards in our rear.  Wires were at once put out,
to be cut by shells hundreds and hundreds of times, but always repaired
by our indefatigable linemen.  So the day wore on; in the night the shelling
still kept up:  three different German attacks were made and repulsed.
If we suffered by being close up, the Germans suffered from us,
for already tales of good shooting came down to us.  I got some sleep
despite the constant firing, for we had none last night.


                                        Saturday, April 24th, 1915.

Behold us now anything less than two miles north of Ypres
on the west side of the canal; this runs north, each bank flanked
with high elms, with bare trunks of the familiar Netherlands type.
A few yards to the West a main road runs, likewise bordered;
the Censor will allow me to say that on the high bank between these
we had our headquarters; the ridge is perhaps fifteen to twenty feet high,
and slopes forward fifty yards to the water, the back is more steep,
and slopes quickly to a little subsidiary water way, deep but dirty.
Where the guns were I shall not say; but they were not far,
and the German aeroplanes that viewed us daily with all but impunity
knew very well.  A road crossed over the canal, and interrupted the ridge;
across the road from us was our billet -- the place we cooked in, at least,
and where we usually took our meals.  Looking to the south between the trees,
we could see the ruins of the city:  to the front on the sky line,
with rolling ground in the front, pitted by French trenches, the German lines;
to the left front, several farms and a windmill, and farther left,
again near the canal, thicker trees and more farms.  The farms and windmills
were soon burnt.  Several farms we used for observing posts were also
quickly burnt during the next three or four days.  All along behind us
at varying distances French and British guns; the flashes at night
lit up the sky.

These high trees were at once a protection and a danger.
Shells that struck them were usually destructive.  When we came in
the foliage was still very thin.  Along the road, which was constantly shelled
"on spec" by the Germans, one saw all the sights of war:
wounded men limping or carried, ambulances, trains of supply, troops,
army mules, and tragedies.  I saw one bicycle orderly:  a shell exploded
and he seemed to pedal on for eight or ten revolutions and then collapsed
in a heap -- dead.  Straggling soldiers would be killed or wounded,
horses also, until it got to be a nightmare.  I used to shudder every time
I saw wagons or troops on that road.  My dugout looked out on it.
I got a square hole, 8 by 8, dug in the side of the hill (west),
roofed over with remnants to keep out the rain, and a little sandbag parapet
on the back to prevent pieces of "back-kick shells" from coming in,
or prematures from our own or the French guns for that matter.
Some straw on the floor completed it.  The ground was treacherous
and a slip the first night nearly buried ----.  So we had to be content
with walls straight up and down, and trust to the height of the bank
for safety.  All places along the bank were more or less alike,
all squirrel holes.

This morning we supported a heavy French attack at 4.30;
there had been three German attacks in the night, and everyone was tired.
We got heavily shelled.  In all eight or ten of our trees were cut by shells
-- cut right off, the upper part of the tree subsiding heavily
and straight down, as a usual thing.  One would think a piece a foot long
was just instantly cut out; and these trees were about 18 inches in diameter.
The gas fumes came very heavily:  some blew down from the infantry trenches,
some came from the shells:  one's eyes smarted, and breathing
was very laboured.  Up to noon to-day we fired 2500 rounds.  Last night
Col. Morrison and I slept at a French Colonel's headquarters near by,
and in the night our room was filled up with wounded.  I woke up
and shared my bed with a chap with "a wounded leg and a chill".
Probably thirty wounded were brought into the one little room.

Col. ----, R.A., kept us in communication with the French General
in whose command we were.  I bunked down in the trench on the top
of the ridge:  the sky was red with the glare of the city still burning,
and we could hear the almost constant procession of large shells sailing over
from our left front into the city:  the crashes of their explosion
shook the ground where we were.  After a terribly hard day,
professionally and otherwise, I slept well, but it rained
and the trench was awfully muddy and wet.


                                        Sunday, April 25th, 1915.

The weather brightened up, and we got at it again.  This day we had
several heavy attacks, prefaced by heavy artillery fire; these bursts of fire
would result in our getting 100 to 150 rounds right on us or nearby:
the heavier our fire (which was on the trenches entirely) the heavier theirs.

Our food supply came up at dusk in wagons, and the water was any we could get,
but of course treated with chloride of lime.  The ammunition had to be
brought down the roads at the gallop, and the more firing the more wagons.
The men would quickly carry the rounds to the guns, as the wagons had to halt
behind our hill.  The good old horses would swing around at the gallop,
pull up in an instant, and stand puffing and blowing, but with their heads up,
as if to say, "Wasn't that well done?"  It makes you want to kiss
their dear old noses, and assure them of a peaceful pasture once more.
To-day we got our dressing station dugout complete, and slept there at night.

Three farms in succession burned on our front -- colour in the otherwise dark.
The flashes of shells over the front and rear in all directions.
The city still burning and the procession still going on.
I dressed a number of French wounded; one Turco prayed to Allah and Mohammed
all the time I was dressing his wound.  On the front field one can see
the dead lying here and there, and in places where an assault has been
they lie very thick on the front slopes of the German trenches.
Our telephone wagon team hit by a shell; two horses killed
and another wounded.  I did what I could for the wounded one,
and he subsequently got well.  This night, beginning after dark,
we got a terrible shelling, which kept up till 2 or 3 in the morning.
Finally I got to sleep, though it was still going on.  We must have got
a couple of hundred rounds, in single or pairs.  Every one burst over us,
would light up the dugout, and every hit in front would shake the ground
and bring down small bits of earth on us, or else the earth thrown
into the air by the explosion would come spattering down on our roof,
and into the front of the dugout.  Col. Morrison tried the mess house,
but the shelling was too heavy, and he and the adjutant joined
Cosgrave and me, and we four spent an anxious night there in the dark.
One officer was on watch "on the bridge" (as we called the trench
at the top of the ridge) with the telephones.


                                        Monday, April 26th, 1915.

Another day of heavy actions, but last night much French and British artillery
has come in, and the place is thick with Germans.  There are many prematures
(with so much firing) but the pieces are usually spread before they get to us.
It is disquieting, however, I must say.  And all the time the birds sing
in the trees over our heads.  Yesterday up to noon we fired 3000 rounds
for the twenty-four hours; to-day we have fired much less,
but we have registered fresh fronts, and burned some farms
behind the German trenches.  About six the fire died down,
and we had a peaceful evening and night, and Cosgrave and I in the dugout
made good use of it.  The Colonel has an individual dugout,
and Dodds sleeps "topside" in the trench.  To all this, put in a background
of anxiety lest the line break, for we are just where it broke before.


                                        Tuesday, April 27th, 1915.

This morning again registering batteries on new points.
At 1.30 a heavy attack was prepared by the French and ourselves.
The fire was very heavy for half an hour and the enemy got busy too.
I had to cross over to the batteries during it, an unpleasant journey.
More gas attacks in the afternoon.  The French did not appear
to press the attack hard, but in the light of subsequent events
it probably was only a feint.  It seems likely that about this time
our people began to thin out the artillery again for use elsewhere;
but this did not at once become apparent.  At night usually
the heavies farther back take up the story, and there is a duel.
The Germans fire on our roads after dark to catch reliefs and transport.
I suppose ours do the same.


                                        Wednesday, April 28th, 1915.

I have to confess to an excellent sleep last night.  At times anxiety says,
"I don't want a meal," but experience says "you need your food,"
so I attend regularly to that.  The billet is not too safe either.
Much German air reconnaissance over us, and heavy firing from both sides
during the day.  At 6.45 we again prepared a heavy artillery attack,
but the infantry made little attempt to go on.  We are perhaps
the "chopping block", and our "preparations" may be chiefly designed
to prevent detachments of troops being sent from our front elsewhere.

I have said nothing of what goes on on our right and left;
but it is equally part and parcel of the whole game; this eight mile front
is constantly heavily engaged.  At intervals, too, they bombard Ypres.
Our back lines, too, have to be constantly shifted on account of shell fire,
and we have desultory but constant losses there.  In the evening
rifle fire gets more frequent, and bullets are constantly singing over us.
Some of them are probably ricochets, for we are 1800 yards, or nearly,
from the nearest German trench.


                                        Thursday, April 29th, 1915.

This morning our billet was hit.  We fire less these days,
but still a good deal.  There was a heavy French attack on our left.
The "gas" attacks can be seen from here.  The yellow cloud rising up
is for us a signal to open, and we do.  The wind is from our side to-day,
and a good thing it is.  Several days ago during the firing
a big Oxford-grey dog, with beautiful brown eyes, came to us in a panic.
He ran to me, and pressed his head HARD against my leg.
So I got him a safe place and he sticks by us.  We call him Fleabag,
for he looks like it.

This night they shelled us again heavily for some hours --
the same shorts, hits, overs on percussion, and great yellow-green air bursts.
One feels awfully irritated by the constant din -- a mixture of anger
and apprehension.


                                        Friday, April 30th, 1915.

Thick mist this morning, and relative quietness; but before it cleared
the Germans started again to shell us.  At 10 it cleared,
and from 10 to 2 we fired constantly.  The French advanced,
and took some ground on our left front and a batch of prisoners.
This was at a place we call Twin Farms.  Our men looked curiously
at the Boches as they were marched through.  Some better activity
in the afternoon by the Allies' aeroplanes.  The German planes
have had it too much their way lately.  Many of to-day's shells
have been very large -- 10 or 12 inch; a lot of tremendous holes
dug in the fields just behind us.


                                        Saturday, May 1st, 1915.

May day!  Heavy bombardment at intervals through the day.
Another heavy artillery preparation at 3.25, but no French advance.
We fail to understand why, but orders go.  We suffered somewhat
during the day.  Through the evening and night heavy firing at intervals.


                                        Sunday, May 2nd, 1915.

Heavy gunfire again this morning.  Lieut. H---- was killed at the guns.
His diary's last words were, "It has quieted a little and I shall try
to get a good sleep."  I said the Committal Service over him,
as well as I could from memory.  A soldier's death!
Batteries again registering barrages or barriers of fire at set ranges.
At 3 the Germans attacked, preceded by gas clouds.  Fighting went on
for an hour and a half, during which their guns hammered heavily
with some loss to us.  The French lines are very uneasy,
and we are correspondingly anxious.  The infantry fire was very heavy,
and we fired incessantly, keeping on into the night.  Despite the heavy fire
I got asleep at 12, and slept until daylight which comes at 3.


                                        Monday, May 3rd, 1915.

A clear morning, and the accursed German aeroplanes over our positions again.
They are usually fired at, but no luck.  To-day a shell on our hill
dug out a cannon ball about six inches in diameter -- probably of Napoleon's
or earlier times -- heavily rusted.  A German attack began,
but half an hour of artillery fire drove it back.  Major ----, R.A.,
was up forward, and could see the German reserves.  Our 4th was turned on:
first round 100 over; shortened and went into gunfire, and his report
was that the effect was perfect.  The same occurred again in the evening,
and again at midnight.  The Germans were reported to be constantly massing
for attack, and we as constantly "went to them".  The German guns
shelled us as usual at intervals.  This must get very tiresome to read;
but through it all, it must be mentioned that the constantly broken
communications have to be mended, rations and ammunition brought up,
the wounded to be dressed and got away.  Our dugouts have the French Engineers
and French Infantry next door by turns.  They march in and out.
The back of the hill is a network of wires, so that one has to go carefully.


                                        Tuesday, May 4th, 1915.

Despite intermittent shelling and some casualties the quietest day yet;
but we live in an uneasy atmosphere as German attacks are constantly
being projected, and our communications are interrupted and scrappy.
We get no news of any sort and have just to sit tight and hold on.
Evening closed in rainy and dark.  Our dugout is very slenderly
provided against it, and we get pretty wet and very dirty.
In the quieter morning hours we get a chance of a wash
and occasionally a shave.


                                        Wednesday, May 5th, 1915.

Heavily hammered in the morning from 7 to 9, but at 9 it let up;
the sun came out and things looked better.  Evidently our line
has again been thinned of artillery and the requisite minimum to hold is left.
There were German attacks to our right, just out of our area.
Later on we and they both fired heavily, the first battery getting it
especially hot.  The planes over us again and again, to coach the guns.
An attack expected at dusk, but it turned only to heavy night shelling,
so that with our fire, theirs, and the infantry cracking away constantly,
we got sleep in small quantity all night; bullets whizzing over us constantly.
Heavy rain from 5 to 8, and everything wet except the far-in corner
of the dugout, where we mass our things to keep them as dry as we may.


                                        Thursday, May 6th, 1915.

After the rain a bright morning; the leaves and blossoms are coming out.
We ascribe our quietude to a welcome flock of allied planes
which are over this morning.  The Germans attacked at eleven,
and again at six in the afternoon, each meaning a waking up of heavy artillery
on the whole front.  In the evening we had a little rain at intervals,
but it was light.


                                        Friday, May 7th, 1915.

A bright morning early, but clouded over later.  The Germans gave it to us
very heavily.  There was heavy fighting to the south-east of us.
Two attacks or threats, and we went in again.


                                        Saturday, May 8th, 1915.

For the last three days we have been under British divisional control,
and supporting our own men who have been put farther to the left,
till they are almost in front of us.  It is an added comfort.
We have four officers out with various infantry regiments
for observation and co-operation; they have to stick it in trenches,
as all the houses and barns are burned.  The whole front is constantly ablaze
with big gunfire; the racket never ceases.  We have now to do
most of the work for our left, as our line appears to be much thinner
than it was.  A German attack followed the shelling at 7;
we were fighting hard till 12, and less regularly all the afternoon.
We suffered much, and at one time were down to seven guns.
Of these two were smoking at every joint, and the levers were so hot
that the gunners used sacking for their hands.  The pace is now much hotter,
and the needs of the infantry for fire more insistent.
The guns are in bad shape by reason of dirt, injuries, and heat.
The wind fortunately blows from us, so there is no gas,
but the attacks are still very heavy.  Evening brought a little quiet,
but very disquieting news (which afterwards proved untrue);
and we had to face a possible retirement.  You may imagine our state of mind,
unable to get anything sure in the uncertainty, except that
we should stick out as long as the guns would fire, and we could fire them.
That sort of night brings a man down to his "bare skin", I promise you.
The night was very cold, and not a cheerful one.


                                        Sunday, May 9th, 1915.

At 4 we were ordered to get ready to move, and the Adjutant picked out
new retirement positions; but a little later better news came,
and the daylight and sun revived us a bit.  As I sat in my dugout
a little white and black dog with tan spots bolted in over the parapet,
during heavy firing, and going to the farthest corner began to dig furiously.
Having scraped out a pathetic little hole two inches deep,
she sat down and shook, looking most plaintively at me.  A few minutes later,
her owner came along, a French soldier.  Bissac was her name,
but she would not leave me at the time.  When I sat down a little later,
she stole out and shyly crawled in between me and the wall;
she stayed by me all day, and I hope got later on to safe quarters.

Firing kept up all day.  In thirty hours we had fired 3600 rounds,
and at times with seven, eight, or nine guns; our wire cut and repaired
eighteen times.  Orders came to move, and we got ready.  At dusk
we got the guns out by hand, and all batteries assembled at a given spot
in comparative safety.  We were much afraid they would open on us,
for at 10 o'clock they gave us 100 or 150 rounds, hitting the trench parapet
again and again.  However, we were up the road, the last wagon
half a mile away before they opened.  One burst near me,
and splattered some pieces around, but we got clear,
and by 12 were out of the usual fire zone.  Marched all night,
tired as could be, but happy to be clear.

I was glad to get on dear old Bonfire again.  We made about sixteen miles,
and got to our billets at dawn.  I had three or four hours' sleep,
and arose to a peaceful breakfast.  We shall go back to the line elsewhere
very soon, but it is a present relief, and the next place
is sure to be better, for it cannot be worse.  Much of this narrative
is bald and plain, but it tells our part in a really great battle.
I have only had hasty notes to go by; in conversation
there is much one could say that would be of greater interest.
Heard of the `Lusitania' disaster on our road out.  A terrible affair!


==
                                        Northern France, May 10th, 1915.

We got here to refit and rest this morning at 4, having marched
last night at 10.  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.  The men and the divisions are worthy of all praise
that can be given.  It did not end in four days when many of our infantry
were taken out.  It kept on at fever heat till yesterday.

This, of course, is the second battle of Ypres, or the battle of the Yser,
I do not know which.  At one time we were down to seven guns,
but those guns were smoking at every joint, the gunners using cloth
to handle the breech levers because of the heat.  We had three batteries
in action with four guns added from the other units.  Our casualties
were half the number of men in the firing line.  The horse lines
and the wagon lines farther back suffered less, but the Brigade list
has gone far higher than any artillery normal.  I know one brigade R.A.
that was in the Mons retreat and had about the same.  I have done
what fell to hand.  My clothes, boots, kit, and dugout at various times
were sadly bloody.  Two of our batteries are reduced to two officers each.
We have had constant accurate shell-fire, but we have given back no less.
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.

During all this time, we have been behind French troops,
and only helping our own people by oblique fire when necessary.
Our horses have suffered heavily too.  Bonfire had a light wound
from a piece of shell; it is healing and the dear old fellow is very fit.
Had my first ride for seventeen days last night.  We never saw horses
but with the wagons bringing up the ammunition.  When fire was hottest
they had to come two miles on a road terribly swept,
and they did it magnificently.  But how tired we are!
Weary in body and wearier in mind.  None of our men went off their heads
but men in units nearby did -- and no wonder.


                                        France, May 12th, 1915.

I am glad you had your mind at rest by the rumour that we were in reserve.
What newspaper work!  The poor old artillery never gets any mention,
and the whole show is the infantry.  It may interest you to note on your map
a spot on the west bank of the canal, a mile and a half north of Ypres,
as the scene of our labours.  There can be no harm in saying so,
now that we are out of it.  The unit was the most advanced
of all the Allies' guns by a good deal except one French battery
which stayed in a position yet more advanced for two days,
and then had to be taken out.  I think it may be said that we saw the show
from the soup to the coffee.


                                        France, May 17th, 1915.

The farther we get away from Ypres the more we learn of the enormous power
the Germans put in to push us over.  Lord only knows how many men they had,
and how many they lost.  I wish I could embody on paper
some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days.  All the gunners
down this way passed us all sorts of `kudos' over it.  Our guns --
those behind us, from which we had to dodge occasional prematures --
have a peculiar bang-sound added to the sharp crack of discharge.
The French 75 has a sharp wood-block-chop sound, and the shell goes over
with a peculiar whine -- not unlike a cat, but beginning with n --
thus, -- n-eouw.  The big fellows, 3000 yards or more behind,
sounded exactly like our own, but the flash came three or four seconds
before the sound.  Of the German shells -- the field guns come
with a great velocity -- no warning -- just whizz-bang; white smoke,
nearly always air bursts.  The next size, probably 5 inch howitzers,
have a perceptible time of approach, an increasing whine,
and a great burst on the percussion -- dirt in all directions.
And even if a shell hit on the front of the canal bank,
and one were on the back of the bank, five, eight, or ten seconds later
one would hear a belated WHIRR, and curved pieces of shell would light --
probably parabolic curves or boomerangs.  These shells have a great back kick;
from the field gun shrapnel we got nothing BEHIND the shell --
all the pieces go forward.  From the howitzers, the danger is almost as great
behind as in front if they burst on percussion.  Then the large shrapnel
-- air-burst -- have a double explosion, as if a giant shook a wet sail
for two flaps; first a dark green burst of smoke; then a lighter yellow burst
goes out from the centre, forwards.  I do not understand the why of it.

Then the 10-inch shells:  a deliberate whirring course --
a deafening explosion -- black smoke, and earth 70 or 80 feet in the air.
These always burst on percussion.  The constant noise of our own guns
is really worse on the nerves than the shell; there is the deafening noise,
and the constant whirr of shells going overhead.  The earth shakes
with every nearby gun and every close shell.  I think I may safely enclose
a cross section of our position.  The left is the front:  a slope down
of 20 feet in 100 yards to the canal, a high row of trees on each bank,
then a short 40 yards slope up to the summit of the trench,
where the brain of the outfit was; then a telephone wired slope,
and on the sharp slope, the dugouts, including my own.
The nondescript affair on the low slope is the gun position,
behind it the men's shelter pits.  Behind my dugout was a rapid small stream,
on its far bank a row of pollard willows, then 30 yards of field,
then a road with two parallel rows of high trees.  Behind this again,
several hundred yards of fields to cross before the main gun positions
are reached.

More often fire came from three quarters left, and because our ridge died away
there was a low spot over which they could come pretty dangerously.
The road thirty yards behind us was a nightmare to me.
I saw all the tragedies of war enacted there.  A wagon, or a bunch of horses,
or a stray man, or a couple of men, would get there just in time for a shell.
One would see the absolute knock-out, and the obviously lightly wounded
crawling off on hands and knees; or worse yet, at night,
one would hear the tragedy -- "that horse scream" -- or the man's moan.
All our own wagons had to come there (one every half hour in smart action),
be emptied, and the ammunition carried over by hand.  Do you wonder
that the road got on our nerves?  On this road, too, was the house
where we took our meals.  It was hit several times, windows all blown in
by nearby shells, but one end remained for us.

Seventeen days of Hades!  At the end of the first day if anyone had told us
we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands
and said it could not be done.  On the fifteenth day we got orders to go out,
but that was countermanded in two hours.  To the last we could scarcely
believe we were actually to get out.  The real audacity of the position
was its safety; the Germans knew to a foot where we were.
I think I told you of some of the "you must stick it out" messages we got
from our [French] General, -- they put it up to us.  It is a wonder to me
that we slept when, and how, we did.  If we had not slept and eaten
as well as possible we could not have lasted.  And while we were doing this,
the London office of a Canadian newspaper cabled home "Canadian Artillery
in reserve."  Such is fame!


                                        Thursday, May 27th, 1915.

Day cloudy and chilly.  We wore our greatcoats most of the afternoon,
and looked for bits of sunlight to get warm.  About two o'clock
the heavy guns gave us a regular "black-smithing".  Every time we fired
we drew a perfect hornet's nest about our heads.  While attending to
a casualty, a shell broke through both sides of the trench, front and back,
about twelve feet away.  The zigzag of the trench was between it and us,
and we escaped.  From my bunk the moon looks down at me,
and the wind whistles along the trench like a corridor.  As the trenches
run in all directions they catch the wind however it blows,
so one is always sure of a good draught.  We have not had our clothes off
since last Saturday, and there is no near prospect of getting them off.


                                        Friday, May 28th, 1915.

Warmer this morning and sunny, a quiet morning, as far as we were concerned.
One battery fired twenty rounds and the rest "sat tight".
Newspapers which arrive show that up to May 7th, the Canadian public
has made no guess at the extent of the battle of Ypres.  The Canadian papers
seem to have lost interest in it after the first four days;
this regardless of the fact that the artillery, numerically a quarter
of the division, was in all the time.  One correspondent writes
from the Canadian rest camp, and never mentions Ypres.  Others say
they hear heavy bombarding which appears to come from Armentieres.



                                        Wednesday, April 28th, 1915.

This morning is the sixth day of this fight; it has been constant,
except that we got good chance to sleep for the last two nights.
Our men have fought beyond praise.  Canadian soldiers have set
a standard for themselves which will keep posterity busy to surpass.
And the War Office published that the 4.1 guns captured were Canadian.
They were not:  the division has not lost a gun so far by capture.
We will make a good job of it -- if we can.


                                        May 1st, 1915.

This is the ninth day that we have stuck to the ridge,
and the batteries have fought with a steadiness which is beyond all praise.
If I could say what our casualties in men, guns, and horses were,
you would see at a glance it has been a hot corner; but we have given
better than we got, for the German casualties from this front
have been largely from artillery, except for the French attack of yesterday
and the day before, when they advanced appreciably on our left.
The front, however, just here remains where it was,
and the artillery fire is very heavy -- I think as heavy here
as on any part of the line, with the exception of certain cross-roads
which are the particular object of fire.  The first four days
the anxiety was wearing, for we did not know at what minute
the German army corps would come for us.  We lie out in support
of the French troops entirely, and are working with them.
Since that time evidently great reinforcements have come in,
and now we have a most formidable force of artillery to turn on them.

Fortunately the weather has been good; the days are hot and summerlike.
Yesterday in the press of bad smells I got a whiff of a hedgerow in bloom.
The birds perch on the trees over our heads and twitter away
as if there was nothing to worry about.  Bonfire is still well.
I do hope he gets through all right.


                                        Flanders, March 30th, 1915.

The Brigade is actually in twelve different places.  The ammunition column
and the horse and wagon lines are back, and my corporal visits them every day.
I attend the gun lines; any casualty is reported by telephone, and I go to it.
The wounded and sick stay where they are till dark, when the field ambulances
go over certain grounds and collect.  A good deal of suffering is entailed
by the delay till night, but it is useless for vehicles to go on the roads
within 1500 yards of the trenches.  They are willing enough to go.
Most of the trench injuries are of the head, and therefore there is
a high proportion of killed in the daily warfare as opposed to an attack.
Our Canadian plots fill up rapidly.

                                        April 1st, 1915.

We moved out in the late afternoon, getting on the road a little after dark.
Such a move is not unattended by danger, for to bring horses and limbers
down the roads in the shell zone in daylight renders them liable
to observation, aerial or otherwise.  More than that, the roads are now
beginning to be dusty, and at all times there is the noise which carries far.
The roads are nearly all registered in their battery books,
so if they suspect a move, it is the natural thing to loose off a few rounds.
However, our anxiety was not borne out, and we got out of the danger zone
by 8.30 -- a not too long march in the dark, and then for
the last of the march a glorious full moon.  The houses everywhere
are as dark as possible, and on the roads noises but no lights.
One goes on by the long rows of trees that are so numerous in this country,
on cobblestones and country roads, watching one's horses' ears wagging,
and seeing not much else.  Our maps are well studied before we start,
and this time we are not far out of familiar territory.
We got to our new billet about 10 -- quite a good farmhouse;
and almost at once one feels the relief of the strain of being
in the shell zone.  I cannot say I had noticed it when there;
but one is distinctly relieved when out of it.


                                        Tuesday, June 1st, 1915.
          1-1/2 miles northeast of Festubert, near La Bassee.

Last night a 15 pr. and a 4-inch howitzer fired at intervals of five minutes
from 8 till 4; most of them within 500 or 600 yards --
a very tiresome procedure; much of it is on registered roads.
In the morning I walked out to Le Touret to the wagon lines, got Bonfire,
and rode to the headquarters at Vendin-lez-Bethune, a little village
a mile past Bethune.  Left the horse at the lines and walked back again.
An unfortunate shell in the 1st killed a sergeant and wounded two men;
thanks to the strong emplacements the rest of the crew escaped.
In the evening went around the batteries and said good-bye.  We stood by
while they laid away the sergeant who was killed.  Kind hands have made
two pathetic little wreaths of roses; the grave under an apple-tree,
and the moon rising over the horizon; a siege-lamp held for the book.
Of the last 41 days the guns have been in action 33.  Captain Lockhart,
late with Fort Garry Horse, arrived to relieve me.  I handed over,
came up to the horse lines, and slept in a covered wagon in a courtyard.
We were all sorry to part -- the four of us have been very intimate
and had agreed perfectly -- and friendships under these circumstances
are apt to be the real thing.  I am sorry to leave them in such a hot corner,
but cannot choose and must obey orders.  It is a great relief from strain,
I must admit, to be out, but I could wish that they all were.



John MacCrae with his dog Bonneau

Star John McCrae with his dog Bonneau

McCrae had a great love for animals. He brought his horse Bonfire (mentioned in several letters above), from Canada when he enlisted. His dog Bonneau, who helped occupy the physician’s time between tending the wounded, was reportedly a stray that McCrae adopted in France.

The letter above is McCrae's last letter from the Front, dated June 1st, 1915. Upon that day he was posted to a General Hospital at Boulogne. There he worked until January 1918, when he fell seriously ill with pneumonia. He died on January 28th, 1918. He was buried in Wimereux.


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