The McCrae effect: spur offers a physical connection to In Flanders Fields author

Article / November 7, 2015 / Project number: 15-0163

Ottawa, Ontario  — The poem In Flanders Fields is as fine a legacy as anyone could hope to leave. Other artifacts from the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae are much more rare, but one recently discovered item is on display at an Ottawa military museum.

Most of LCol McCrae’s personal effects sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean along with the His Majesty's Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle when it was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1918. Only a few items entrusted separately to friends survived.

One of the soldier-poet’s spurs, the unexpected discovery by a McCrae biographer, has come home to the Bytown Gunners Firepower Museum, a repository of artifacts from the history of 30 Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (30 RCA). During the First World War, 30 RCA raised the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, in which LCol McCrae served.

Alberta-based author Susan Raby-Dunne said the find is just one of several fortunate happenings that occurred during the research for Bonfire: The Chestnut Gentleman, her 2012 recounting of LCol McCrae’s First World War experiences through the eyes of his horse, Bonfire.

She added that another McCrae biographer, Dianne Graves, has had similar experiences and called the phenomenon “The McCrae effect.”

Just things like me finding a poppy growing after a couple of really hard frosts in Alberta,” Ms. Raby-Dunne said. “This was around the third week of October and everything was dead. And I was at a friend’s farm and I found a single red poppy beside a path.

The McCrae effect was at work again in 2012 when, as part of a Calgary-area literature festival, Ms. Raby-Dunne attended a reading by Terry Fallis, a two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

She introduced herself and mentioned her book, then about to be released.

He looked at me and said, ‘My grandfather served with John McCrae in World War One. And he brought home one of McCrae’s spurs after he died.’ And then he said to me, ‘Would you like to use it for your book launch and events?’ And he mailed it to me and said, ‘Keep it as long as you’d like.’ So that was a really exciting, serendipitous event.

Mr. Fallis’ paternal grandfather was Dr. Leslie Clinton Fallis, a medical officer who served with LCol McCrae in Boulogne, France.

It was a neat thing to have when I did book signings and things like that,” said Ms. Raby-Dunne. “People would want to hold it and they’d get goosebumps just thinking that this thing was worn by John McCrae when he rode Bonfire.

Ms. Raby-Dunne subsequently suggested Mr. Fallis donate the spur to the Bytown Gunners’ Firepower Museum, which he graciously did.

Nicole Hood, a researcher with the museum, has created a display that, in addition to the spur, features a rare collection of LCol McCrae’s poetry published by the American Legion. It includes words from Major-General E.W.B. Morrison, former commanding officer of 1st Field Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery (now 30 RCA) and a close, personal friend of LCol McCrae’s.

Ms. Hood said MGen Morrison’s words suggest LCol McCrae was hesitant about sharing the now classic poem. “I believe that Major-General Morrison had an influence on his publishing In Flanders Fields.

Ms. Raby-Dunne said that fits her impression of LCol McCrae.

He would have been a sort of self-effacing guy that probably had to be convinced that it was worth publishing. My sense of him would be that he wouldn’t want anyone to think he was capitalizing on anything so tragic. And then he eventually kind of got on board with it and was happy to see it come out.

The display also includes a group photo with LCol McCrae, MGen Morrison and Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, the soldier whose death is thought to have been the catalyst for In Flanders Fields. Lt Helmer was a friend whose death was “a tipping point” for LCol McCrae, Ms. Hood said.

It’s argued that either the day of or the day after, he started writing the poem itself.

In Flanders Fields has come to be seen as something of an anti-war statement, and the author himself as a reluctant soldier, or even a pacifist. Ms. Raby-Dunne said people she met while promoting her book were surprised to learn this was not the case. While he was an accomplished physician and pathologist in civilian life, LCol McCrae was a passionate artillery officer who served in that capacity with MGen Morrison in the Boer War as well as the First World War. At the urging of military officials, however, he entered the medical corps in 1915 after writing the poem.

I always remind people that he was a man of his time and a loyal subject of the British Empire,” Ms. Raby-Dunne said. “So for him, it was just a no-brainer to go and fight. There was no issue for him. He certainly was worried about the outcome but he never had any doubt that it was his role to go and fight over there.

Major Mike Calnan, currently 30 RCA’s Second-in-Command, said the spur is an exciting addition to the museum and a powerful symbol.

Remember that the spur is also a symbol of all the knightly virtues. We even have expressions in our language like ‘a man earning his spurs.’ So to me that makes the spur even more special because he was a man who impacted our society in so many ways. He was a great doctor. He was a learned pathologist who wrote several books on the topic. He was a fellow of colleges in England and in Canada and he was a marvelous poet who brings tears to people’s eyes every year. And he was a fantastic artillery officer. So he epitomizes what that spur represents.

The museum’s collection also includes a display devoted to MGen Morrison, with a photo essay of his 1925 funeral procession. It was “considered the biggest military event to date” at the time, Ms. Hood explained. 30 RCA gave another salute to their former commander in 2013, when the ribbon was cut on Morrison Artillery Park, the regiment’s armoury.

If you don’t have strong roots to hold up the tree, it tends to blow around and fall over in a heavy wind,” Maj Calnan added. “And to me the strong roots of any regiment are its history, its traditions and acknowledging those who went before us and their contributions. That’s what our museum allows us to do. All our soldiers are expected to go through the museum. We build the museum into all our plans for social activities and as a result our soldiers are invested in the idea and actually participate in the restoration of artifacts and help out with the museum. As far as I’m concerned the museum is as important a part of the unit as the operational parts.

The Bytown Gunners Firepower Museum was first opened in the 1970s at Canadian Forces Reserve Barracks Dow’s Lake and was accredited in 2013 by the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage. It is located at 307 De Niverville Road in Ottawa, Ontario and is open to the public by appointment. For more information, please contact Melissa Kehoe at melissa.kehoe@forces.gc.ca or 613-993-8324.

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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