Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Doctor, Soldier, Poet

My family and I visited Ypres (now Ieper) in Belgium a few years ago when I was doing research on my first Muskoka Novel, The Summer Before The Storm, set during WW1. The first thing that struck me, besides the fact that the city has been beautifully restored from the rubble of war, was that Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” – penned on the battlefields nearby - was plastered everywhere about the town, even in our hotel lobby. The WW1 museum, housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, is called “In Flanders Fields”. How surprised I was when I boasted to the owner of the English bookstore that I lived in John McCrae’s hometown, only to have him casually reply, “Oh, you’re from Guelph, Ontario.”

I know that the small museum in Guelph honouring John McCrae regularly has visitors from Europe, so their respect for this famous doctor-poet is more than lip service for tourists.
The author paying homage at John McCrae's grave in Wimereux, France
 I found humanist John McCrae a fascinating person, and couldn’t resist having some of my characters work with him in France in Elusive Dawn. Two of them attend his funeral. Here are excerpts from a letter one writes about it.

We attended [McCrae’s] poignant funeral in Wimereux along with so many others, including lots of brass hats, which speaks of the esteem in which the Col. was held. What was almost hardest to bear was to see the Colonel’s horse, Bonfire, following the flag-draped coffin, with the Colonel’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups. I’ve never seen a sadder animal, for surely he must have known that his beloved master was gone. I cried hardest then… Among the many flowers was a wreath of artificial poppies that the officers from the Colonel’s hospital had managed to procure from Paris. I do think that the Colonel’s most famous poem resonates with everyone, for it seems as if a veil of sorrow has descended on all the staff and patients here. His words will live on and touch many more lives – children yet unborn. That is a noble legacy, is it not?