Saturday, 27 January 2018

Commemorating John McCrae (1872 - 1918) - Canadian writer, artist, poet, doctor and artillery officer

Although, strictly speaking John McCrae is not forgotten, most people know his very famous poem "In Flanders Fields" which was written following the death of one of his friends and first published anonymously in "Punch" magazine on 8th December 1915, few people know much about the man. 

Sunday, 28th January 2018 marks the Centenary of the death of Canadian poet, writer, artist, doctor and artilleryman John McCrae, who served in the Canadian Army during WW1 on the Western Front from 1914 until his death.  McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”, written following the death of his friend and fellow artilleryman Alex Holmer, in May 1915,  inspired American poet Moina Belle Michael to write a poem and make a vow always to wear a red poppy in Remembrance. 

McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada on 30th November 1872.  He was a keen sportsman and broke his nose playing Rugby while at university studying medicine.  McCrae was a talented artist, writer and poet and he served in the Canadian Artillery during the Boer War in South Africa.  In 1914, McCrae was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery who were among the first Canadian troops to reach the Western Front.  In 1915 McCrae was promoted to the rank of  Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of No. 3 General Hospital in Dannes-Carniers.  This was a tented hospital.

John McCrae died of Pneumonia on 28th January 1918 at the Canadian (McGill) Hospital in Boulogne.  He was buried in Wimereux Cemetery in France.

"In Flanders Fields"

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.
John McCrae's WW1 poetry collection "In Flanders Fields and Other Poems" was published in 1918.

The photograph shows John McCrae with his horse Bonfire and dog Bonneau, who were with him on the Western Front.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Claude Edward Cole Hamilton Burton (1869 - 1955) - British journalist and poet

WW1 Researcher Debbie Cameron sent me a poem written by Claude Edward Cole Hamilton Burton who, I discovered from Catherine Reilly’s “Bibliography of English Poetry of WW1” used the pen-names Touchstone and C.E.B.   Debbie has been researching a soldier who was in one of the Sportsman’s Battalions, to which Touchstone’s poem was dedicated.  
“The Sportsmen”

Sportsmen of every kind,
God! We have paid the score
Who left green English fields behind
For the sweat and stink of war!
New to the soldier's trade,
Into the scrum we came,
But we didn't care much what game we played
So long as we played the game.

We learned in a hell-fire school
Ere many a month was gone,
But we knew beforehand the golden rule,
"Stick it, and carry on!"
And we were a cheery crew,
Wherever you find the rest,
Who did what an Englishman can do,
And did it as well as the best.

Aye, and the game was good,
A game for a man to play,
Though there's many that lie in Delville Wood
Waiting the Judgment Day.
But living and dead are made
One till the final call,
When we meet once more on the Last Parade,
Soldiers and Sportsmen all!

By Touchstone (of the "Daily Mail"), July 1916.

Claude Edward Cole Hamilton Burton was born in Bushey, Hertfordshire, UK on 27th August 1869.  His parents were Dr. William Edward Burton, a medical practitioner from Ireland and his wife Janet.  Claude had the following siblings: Lilian Mary, b. 1967 and Charles Vaudeleur, b. 1868. The family lived in Marylebone, London and Claude became a journalist, working for The Daily Mail” and the “London Evening News”.  In 1921, he married Lilian M. Harragin.  Claude retired to live in Hailsham, Sussex, UK, where he died in 1955.

Claude’s WW1 collection, “Fife and Drum: Poems”, was published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, 1915 and his poems were reproduced in three WW1 anthologies.

With many thanks to Debbie who sent me this link to a WW1 book about the Battalions:

Saturday, 20 January 2018

William Fox Ritchie (1887 – 1918) – Scottish

Richard Conoghan kindly sent me a poem written in 1915 by William Fox Ritchie and I had to research the poet.

William was born on 15th June 1887 in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, UK.  His parents were George and Margaret (nee Craig) Fox Ritchie.  William’s father was a gamekeeper and forester. 

Educated at Pinwherry and Colmonell public schools, William joined Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a Regiment of the British Army, on 3rd April 1909.  He served in Malta for three years before being posted to India.   His Regiment was among the first to be sent to Flanders in 1914, which means he was an Old Contemptible.  

Invalided home with Frost-bite, William trained as a Musketry Instructor but then applied for active service.  He was posted to join 12 Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Salonika.  William was a Sergeant when he was killed at the age of 31 at Grande Couronne, Salonika.  He was buried in Colonial Hill Cemetery, which is now known as Doiran Military Cemetery, in Greece.  He was an extremely brave man and was recommended by his Commanding Officer to receive the Croix de Guerre for bravery.

A poem written by William Fox Ritchie in March 1915.   Reproduced here by kind permission of Ritchie  

“A Candid Opinion”

 Do we want to back to the trenches?
To get biscuits and bully to eat
To get caught by a sniper’s chance bullet
Or crippled with frost bitten feet.  

There are some say they’re anxious to get back
There are others who say they are not.
It is not that they care for the danger
Or are frightened that they will get shot. 

It’s the awful conditions you live in,
Midst the rain and the mud and the dirt.
Where you’d give a month’s pay for a square meal,
And twice that amount for a shirt.

No, I’m not at all anxious to go back,
But I’ll hve to go that’s understood
So I’m willing and ready to go there
And if needs be to stop there for good. 

Willie F. Ritchie, 91st Highlanders, 23/04/1915

With many thanks to Richard for sending me the poem via Twitter.  Additional information found via Find my Past.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

James Miles Langstaff (1883 - 1917) – Canadian

James was born in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada on 25th  July 1883.  His parents were Dr. James Langstaff, MD and Louisa F. Langstaff.  James studied at the University of Toronto and won 7 scholarships for further study.  He went on to study law at Osgoode Hall, Toronto and graduated in 1912 with the Gold Medal and Van Koughnet Scholarship.  James was a keen tennis player.

He joined the 75th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry in WW1 as a Lieutenant and was posted to the Western Front where he was Mentioned in Despatches and recommended for a Military Cross.   He was soon promoted and gained the rank of Major.

Major James Langstaff was killed in action on 1st March 1917 during a Canadian attack on the German Lines near Vimy Ridge and was buried in Villers Station Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

From “The Dead” written by James Langstaff shortly before he was killed:

"These laid the world away; poured out the red

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be

Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene

That men call age; and those who would have been.

Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth.

Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.

Honour has come back, as a king, to earth.

And paid his subjects with a royal wage;

And Nobleness walks in our ways again;

And we have come into our heritage."


Shell Dodging, January 1917

"Up in the trenches the men get fairly expert at detecting the direction of shells and are able to dodge them to some extent. This is particularly the case with some of the Trench mortar shells, "rum-jars," as they are called, which not only can be heard coming but actually be seen in the air. They have a very high trajectory and are a long time in the air relatively to the distance they have to go. On the other hand, some other shells are impossible to dodge — "whizz-bangs," for instance, which have a very low trajectory and at certain ranges out- strip the sound of the explosion, so that a man struck by one never hears the shell that hit him. It is a very interesting study, comparing the time which is taken by the sound of the shell and the shell itself to traverse various ranges. Sound travels at a constant speed of 1,100 feet per second (whereas a gun starts off with a certain muzzle velocity) and gradually overtakes the shell and eventually precedes it if the range is long enough. Thus, at certain short ranges or with very fast guns the shell beats the sound; at longer ranges the shell passes you at the same instant that you hear it "whirr"; and at still longer ranges you hear the shell before it arrives.
It takes one some time to get on to all these phenomena — I can remember I used often to be puzzled at hearing the sharp bark of our own field guns apparently from just behind my back, at the very moment the shell was heard scrunching overhead. The reason was, of course, that I happened to be at just the exact range where the sound of the shell was overtaking the shell itself."

I know that I have been guided in many things. Other people might refuse to admit that it was guidance, but I've been there myself, and I've lived through the experiences myself, and I'm sure. Also, since getting over here, I really believe that I have been conscious of guidance and support and wisdom in difficult places. In the raid we pulled off at Ypres, for example, I'm positive that I had special guidance. Our party was to go over at midnight, but the scout officer, who had been out for two hours trying to locate the hole our guns had blown in the German wire, had not returned and nobody knew just where the gap was. Our artillery barrage was beginning and the zero hour arrived and still the scout had not returned. I had to make a decision one way or the other and I ordered the party out to take a chance on locating the gap. It looked like a rash order, but it turned out all right for the party had gone only a few yards when they came across the scout officer returning with the information!

This may not sound very convincing, but I'm sure of it, and about other things that have happened.

February 13, 1917.

Anyhow everything is all for the best, and I'm trying to make the most of the time over here and I hope that I am learning from these experiences, and picking up from day to day more patience and tact and judgment and firmness and knowledge of human nature and power to handle men, that will perhaps be useful to me in the future and make this not waste time.

*February 27, 1917. I believe more and more in prayer and I'm sure that I've got strength and wisdom through it for tasks over here.   (* Taken from his last letter).


Written by Major J. M. LangstafT during the early months of his enlistment:


The tyrant lord has drawn his sword,

And has flung the scabbard away.

He has said the word that loosed his horde

To ravage, destroy, and slay.

"Then where are those who will dare oppose

The blast of my fury's flame?"

But a salty breeze swept across the seas.


And back the clear answer came:

"We have heard the boast of your mighty host,

And slaves will we ne'er become,

Let our deeds declare what bur hearts will dare.

We come! We come! We come!"


The Mother of Men has called for them,

The nations she reared long ago;

"In Freedom's name I make my claim,

By the tokens that freemen know.

Let the world behold, as in ages old.


That my strength can never decay.

In a cause that's right, wall ye rise and fight?

Give me answer: yea or nay!"

"We have heard your call, mother of all.

From the shores of your island home.

Let him die in thrall who denies that call

We come! We come! We come!"

The lion's young, they forth have sprung

At the sound of the lion's roar.

To defend the lair they once did share

By the far-flung ocean's shore.

With eye aflame and ruffled mane.

They greet the approaching fray.

Let the foe beware who roused that lair,

For list to the lion's bay.

*'We have heard on the air the bugle's blare

And the roll of the muttering drum;

To the surging beat of ten thousand feet.

We come! We come! We come!"


A SONNET ON WAR Written by Major J. M. Langstaff for the Regimental Paper shortly before his death.


I never thought that strange romantic war

Would shape my life and plan my destiny;

Though in my childhood's dreams I've seen his car

And grisly steeds flash grimly thwart the sky.

Yet now behold a vaster, mightier strife


Than echoed on the plains of sounding Troy,

Defeats and triumphs, death, wounds, laughter, life.

All mingled in a strange complex alloy.

I view the panorama in a trance

Of awe, yet coloured with a secret joy.

For I have breathed in epic and romance.

Have lived the dreams that thrilled me as a boy.

How sound the ancient saying is, forsooth!

How weak is Fancy's gloss of Fact's stern truth!


—J. M. L.


and the full text of a special memorial to James is available as a download here