Crimson in Memory

By Emily Miranker, Events and Projects Manager

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.

Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote this poem on a May morning in 1915 in Ypres, what had been a stunning Belgian medieval city then horribly bombarded in the ghastly slaughter of the First World War. The evening before McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields, he presided over the burial of his friend Lt. Alexis Helmer, who died by German shellfire on May 2.[1]

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John McCrae in uniform circa 1914.  Source: William Notman and Son – Guelph Museums, Reference No. M968.354.1.2x

McCrae was one of many soldiers serving in WWI who found writing poetry an outlet for the horrors and grief, hope and homesickness of the conflict; others include Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rudolf Binding, and Laurence Binyon. In Flanders Fields may be among the best known poems from the era today, in part due to the power and symbolism of the poppy flowers he evoked.

The flowers McCrae was looking at that May were Papaver rhoeas, the corn poppy beautifully shown in The British Flora Medica by Benjamin Barton. The sensation caused by the publication of McCrae’s poem got the flower rechristened the Flanders poppy.

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Red or corn poppy. Source: The British flora medica: a history of the medicinal plants of Great Britain by Benjamin H. Barton and Thomas Castle (1877).

In the popular mind, the corn (or Flanders) poppy is often confused or conflated with its cousin, Papaver somniferum –bringer of sleep- the opium poppy. Papaver somniferum pods contains a resin that has morphine and codeine (the only flowering plant known to contain morphine).[2] Both species spread to Europe and across Asia from the Middle East, helped along by trade routes as well as the Crusades. Since ancient times the opium poppy was used as a pain killer, making it a constant companion throughout history to the battlefield wounded, to veterans, and to civilian populations. In high enough doses, it can cause death. By contrast, the corn poppy’s milky sap contains alkaloid rhoeadine, a sedative. From ancient times to the present, the corn poppy has been used to make soporific tea, a milder respite than that offered by its cousin.

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Opium poppy. Source: Medical Botany by William Woodville (1793).

The corn and opium poppies have had a long relationship with people and war. Indeed, the opium poppy gave its name to conflicts over British trade rights and Chinese sovereignty in the min-19th century,  called The Opium Wars.

Poppies have been on many battlefields as relief from pain, a resource to fight over, and as a vivid, little sign of hope or remembrance. The flower as an official symbol for remembrance has roots in New York City.

University of Columbia professor and humanitarian Moina Belle Michael wrote a response to McCrae’s poem, We Shall Keep the Faith, in 1918. Inspired by McCrae’s imagery, she wore a silk version in remembrance of the war’s dead, and spearheaded the American movement to have the flower officially recognized as a memorial symbol, and for money from its sale to help veterans. Across the Atlantic, another Poppy Lady, Anna Géurin, campaigned for selling flowers particularly to aid the women and orphans of France.[3]

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Eastern poppy. Source: The Botanical Magazine, v2, plate 57 (1788).

Poppies grow most readily in churned earth, so they flourish around people who constantly disturb, till, and work soil for various reasons: to build, to garden, to bury the dead. Before the upheavals of trenches and bombardment, poppies grew in Flanders, but not to the extant described by American William Stidger working for the YMCA in French battlefields in WWI:

“a blood-red poppy…[by the millions] covering a green field like a blanket…I thought to myself: They look as if they had once been our golden California poppies, but that in these years of war every last one of them had been dipped in the blood of those brave lads who died for us, and forever after shall they be crimson in memory of these who have given so much for humanity.”[4]

A grisly fact underlay the profusion of poppies on the Western Front. The soil of Flanders had not been rich enough in lime to sustain massive numbers of poppies. The infusion the earth received from the rubble of towns and the calcium from human bones allowed the poppies to flourish in greater numbers than ever before; a fitting beacon of regeneration as well as an ever present sign of the dead and destruction.

References:
[1] David Lloyd. Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and the Commemoration of the Great in Britain, Australia and Canada. Oxford: Berg; 1998.
[2] Nicholas J. Saunders. The Poppy: A History of Conflict, Loss, Remembrance & Redemption. London: One World; 2013.
[3] The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy. The Great War 1914 – 1918. Accessed April 13, 2017.
[4] William Stidger. Soldiers Silhouettes on our Front. New York, Scribner’s Sons; 1918.

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War Wounded

Paul Theerman, Associate Director

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the Great War on the side of the Allied powers. By the following fall, those powers were victorious, in part due to the American presence, adding industrial might and men to the stalled conflict and making up for the Russian withdrawal after the October Revolution.

Combat is the most vivid part of war. Victory often depends, however, on maintaining the military effort, and this meant mobilization, training, logistics, supply, and above all, the “medical front.” Armies had to take the wounded soldier, help him heal, and return him to battle. For World War I, that front was where men’s wounds met the medical machine.

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From a training book for stretcher bearers. Image source.

How were men wounded in the war? The strain and the boredom of trench warfare are part of our collective memory; the drama of that war comes from two sources: mustard gas and machine guns. The use of chemical weapons and the mechanization of shooting brought horror to men’s lives at the front. Yet they were not the greatest source of casualties. By far, artillery was the biggest killer in World War I, and provided the greatest source of war wounded.

In his book Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front (2010), Stephen Bull concluded that in the western front, artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front.”[1] Of this total, perhaps a third resulted in death, two-thirds in injuries. Artillery wounded the whole body. If not entirely obliterated, the body was often dismembered, losing arms, legs, ears, noses, and even faces. Even when there was not superficial damage, concussive injuries and “shell shock” put many men out of action. Of course, shooting—in combat as well as from snipers—was another great source of wounding. Gas attacks were a third. Phosgene, chlorine, mustard gas, and tear gas debilitated more than killed, though many ended up suffering long-term disability. Overall the war claimed about 10 million military dead, and about 20–21 million military wounded, with perhaps 5% of those wounds life-debilitating, that is, about a million persons.[2]

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Moving the wounded. Image source.

Outcomes depended on getting treatment quickly. Evacuation and triage became watchwords of the war-wounded. For the British Army, for example, the Royal Army Medical Corps developed an extensive system to move the wounded from the front to the rear, with triage at each step. Stretcher bearers evacuated the wounded to Regimental Aid Posts (RAP)—or at least those that they had the means to move, for when stretcher-bearers were few, the worst cases were left on the field of battle.

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The path from the front to the hospital. Image source.

In one report of a man severely wounded in the abdomen, “Since ‘death awaited him with certainty . . . I gave him a hypodermic of morphia and we propped him up as comfortably as we could’ and left him there.”[3] Behind the RAPs were Advanced Dressing Stations, then further back Main Dressing Stations, and finally, Casualty Clearing Stations. Each move to the rear—always challenging in itself—was based on an assessment of the injury and the chances of survival. The lightly wounded—those likely to recover quickly—and the “moribund”—those likely to die—were kept, and the others sent on. Each station provided stabilization and immediate care, with some basic surgeries, such as amputation, at Casualty Clearing Stations. More advanced treatment occurred at hospitals, either back in Britain or in France. As the war wore on, more of the wounded were kept in France, at hospitals far back from the lines. This was to use less transport and to maintain military morale, with the goal of returning the men to the front as quickly as possible. And indeed, American medical entry into the war came first in the form of hospitals. “The first six [mobile hospitals] to arrive in France took over British General Hospitals and provided hospital level care for the British. Other American hospitals arriving later in the summer of 1917, remained assigned to the American forces.”[4] The Allied pattern of medical triage and evacuation became the model for American efforts.

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The fracture ward; the term “machine shop” likely refers to the frames and power belts that characterized such shops at the turn of the last century. Image source.

How well did the system work? “War is a matter of expedients.”[5] The medical operation was persistently understaffed and under-resourced. In the latter part of the war, as the static front changed to a dynamic one, some medical units had difficulty achieving the mobility needed. And inevitably, given the need continually to evaluate the severity of wounds, and the difficulty of transport, some men ended up in the wrong place, some facilities were too crowded, and others were underused. Finally, in 1918 the medical system began to be overrun with influenza cases. Overall, though, the magnitude of the challenge needs to be kept in mind. In just the American experience, for an army that numbered almost 2 million men in France at the end of the war, 1.2 million men passed through the medical system, with about quarter million military wounded.[6] That is an astounding number for which to provide medical services under severe stress.

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Surgery in a Belgian field hospital. Image source.

References:
[1]“Krilling for Company.” Mud Feud [Review of Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, by Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)]. Papyrocentric Performativity. Published July 14, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017.
[2] The total number of killed from the Allied Powers exceeded that of the Central Powers by over a million; the total wounded exceeded by perhaps 4 million. Accurate statistics are hard come by; these are based on Antoine Prost. War losses. 1914-1918-online: International encyclopedia of the First World War. Published August 10, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017.
[3] Carden-Coyne A. The Politics of wounds: Military patients and medical power in the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2014. P. 65.
[4] Jaffin J. Medical support for the American Expeditionary Forces in France during the First World War. Published 1990. Accessed March 31, 2017. Pp. 95–96.
[5] Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke. Wikiquote. Published October 7, 2006. Updated September 1, 2016. Accessed March 31, 2017.
[6] Jaffin J. P. 166.