Today in preparing for our Remembrance Day service, I read about the man who wrote that famous First World War poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Named John MaCrea, a doctor, he was battalion surgeon to an artillery unit at Ypres. For seventeen days he worked on wounded men in dug out holes in the canal banks. He was in his mid-forties. He didn’t have to enlist at his age. Indeed, he had sworn never to go to war again after his experiences as a doctor in the Boer War. There he had seen more men die of disease and the lack of care they got after being wounded then from the wounds themselves.
But when the call went out in 1914 John McCrea joined up again despite his fear because, he said, he was more afraid of his conscience. Later he describe the seventeen days at Ypres as being like Hades but it was the death of a young friend and former student of his, 22 year old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, which led him to write the poem that has touched so many hearts. Because there was no chaplain McCrae had to do the funeral rite. The next day he wrote the poem sitting on the step of the ambulance looking out over a landscape of makeshift crosses towards the one belonging to Helmer. There were poppies everywhere and an East wind was gently blowing.
What struck me as I read McCrae’s biography was that here was an extraordinarily decent human being who found himself caught up in the most appalling horrors, not once but twice in his life, because he was a doctor. Here was a man who really saw, day by day, the utter cruelty and futility of war; who suffered his own losses and bereavements. He didn’t die in battle but because he always had severe asthma he came down with pneumonia and meningitis and died before the war ended. No doubt the time in the trenches did not help his already fragile health.
“There is no path to peace. Peace is the path,” said Mahatma Ghandi. Every day ordinary human beings get caught up in war. Every day they find themselves involved in something over which they have no control: another man’s quarrel, another man’s sin – but they are in the midst of it. All anyone can do is try to keep their own sense of integrity, their own sense of what is a right way to behave. They make peace in their own tents, among their own. It is not much but to those round them, it makes a deal of difference.