Getting Blown To Pieces In The Muck Of Western Belgium by Adam Bunch

That's what it looked like just outside the town of Ypres, in western Belgium, in the spring of 1915. The Allies had pushed the Germans out of the town after the first few months of the First World War. And to get it back, the Germans were ready to use a new weapon that they had only tried once before, unsuccessfully, against the Russians on the Eastern Front. So in late April, they hauled thousands of heavy cylinders toward the Allied lines and opened them, freeing the chlorine gas within. The yellow-gray clouds swept down upon ten thousand French troops, suffocating them, burning away at their eyes and lungs, driving them out of their trenches and into enemy fire. Coughing and frothing at the mouth, dying, panicked, the French fell back in disarray, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Allied lines.

But the Germans, surprised at how well their plan had worked, were slow to take advantage of it. And that gave the Canadians the time they needed. Holding urine-soaked cloths over their mouths as feeble protection, they advanced, plugging the hole before the Germans could break through. But thousands died. And then day after day after day they lived in that bombed out hellscape, the skies turned red by the fires burning through the town and the surrounding farms, flashes of exploding artillery shells all around them, the ground shaking, dirt raining down from above, the constant hiss of bullets whizzing by overhead, and, occasionally, the chilling sight of those poisonous clouds silently wafting toward the Canadian lines.

It was after more than a week of this, on the second day of May, that a 22 year-old officer from Ottawa, Alexis Helmer, left his position with another solider to check on some Canadians further down the line. They'd made it only a few steps before a German artillery shell arced down out of the sky. It landed directly on Helmer, blowing him to pieces. The men gathered together whatever parts of him they could find, put them in sandbags and wrapped them with a blanket. That night, in the dark, they buried what was left of him in a small, makeshift cemetery nearby. The chaplain wasn't available, so one of Helmer's friends, John McCrae, performed the service.

McCrae was a surgeon and second in command of the brigade. He'd grown up in Guelph and moved to Toronto as a young man to attend U of T, which is where he learned medicine. While he was here, he joined and eventually commanded our most historied military regiment, the Queen's Own Rifles, was a member of the oldest college fraternity in Canada, Zeta Psi, and even published a couple of poems. He fought in South Africa during the Boer War and when the First World War broke out in 1914, he headed to Europe to fight. While he was at Ypres, he ran a first aid station, tasked with the gruesome chore of treating wounded men in a hole dug out of the bank of a canal, freshly dead bodies periodically rolling down on him from the battle above.

There's some disagreement about the details, but the most common story is that the day after he buried Helmer, McCrae took about twenty minutes to scribble down a few lines in his notebook. He sat on the back of an ambulance parked just outside his first aid station, looking out over the cemetery where he'd laid his friend to rest.  Each grave was marked with a wooden cross,  the ground blanketed with blood red poppies, and in the break between artillery barrages, he could hear birds singing overhead. They say that when he was done, McCrae tore the sheet out of his book and handed it to a solider who had been watching him write. He didn't say a word, just walked away and left the man to read what he'd written:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
 Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It would take only a few months for the poem to show up in a British magazine, but Canadians would be fighting in the mud and marsh around Ypres for the next three and a half years. They would eventually seize the village of Passchendaele, become, apparently, the first colonial force to push back a major European power on European soil, and die there along with hundreds of thousands of French, German and Commonwealth troops. The fighting in Flanders wouldn't end until the war did.

McCrae survived the battle, but not the war. He died of pneumonia in France. By then his poem was already one of the most famous in the world. And a few months later, just two days before the war finally ended, an American teacher read a copy of it in Ladies Home Journal. She was so touched that she immediately pledged to wear a poppy for the rest of her life—and set to work convincing community groups and veterans' organizations around the world to do the same, every year, and remember.


The dates and exact locations can be a bit sketchy, but there's a seemingly endless supply of breathtaking photos from Ypres during WWI. You can see what John McCrae looked like here, and what the cemetery, Essex Farm, looked like just after the war here. There's a (very small, I'm afraid) photo of the German chlorine gas canisters here. Here's a photo of German troops advancing through the clouds of gas, with more troops doing the same here, and Frenchmen who've been killed by it here. There's an explosion from a German barrage here and an example of the kind of damage that could be done here.  You'll find a nice collection of photos of Ypres here, including some of the later battle, Passchendaele. There are lots of photos of that, the Third Battle of Ypres; like here and here and here and here and here. Amazingly, some of them are even in colour: Canadians here and here, and some of the most terrifying Germans you've ever seen here. Even just a quick Google image search will turn up dozens more; I could go on linking for hours.

Also amazing: You can read some of the letters McCrae wrote home to his mother. This site has a bunch of them, but here's an excerpt:

"[O]ne 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. [...] 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." 


Photo: Canadian stretcher-bearers on the battlefields of Ypres

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


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