Monday, October 17, 2005



A significant number of military historians who research the First World War do so in memory of family relatives who served in the Great War. My own late father, Pte. Thomas Allinson, served in The Green Howards Regiment, and to my eternal regret, I seldom took the opportunity to break through his modest silence and ask him about the horrors he faced in the trenches. However, one casual mention by my father only dawned on me as significant many years later, which sparked me to finally set about learning the factual details to confirm his anecdote.
The incident is described in "Welcome to Flanders Fields - The Great Canadian Battle of the Great War: Ypres, 1915", by Daniel G. Dancocks. It recounts, "On May 3, Canadian army medical officer Maj. John McCrae had spent 17 weary days performing surgery on hundreds of wounded soldiers. He took a brief respite on the back of an ambulance outside his forward dressing station beside the Canal de l'Yser."
One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried close by later that day, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.
Dancocks goes on: "McCrae vented his anguish about the appalling suffering he witnessed, by quickly composing a poem. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches there, and he spent twenty minutes or so of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook."
"A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly. 'His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,' Allinson recalled. 'He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Lt. Helmer's grave nearby.' When McCrae finished writing, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO."
"Sgt. Maj. Allinson was moved by what he read, saying later, 'The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word 'blow' in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.'"
Remarkably enough, McCrae thought so little of his own poem, he was tempted to just throw it away. Fortunately, a fellow officer submitted it to editors in England, and 'Punch' magazine published it on 8 December, 1915. It quickly became one of the most famous of war poems, and continues to be highly regarded as such to this day.
I now feel quiet family pride that a Canadian cousin of my father -- an Allinson -- was the first person to read the immortal words of "In Flanders Field," moments after it was penned by Major John McCrae.
-- Sidney Allinson.

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