May 3, 1915 Lest we Forget

“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”. – John McCrae

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Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. Based on his age and training, McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting that lasted more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment, please, what this looked like, what this smelled like, in color.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance the following day, just north of Ypres, he composed this verse.  He called the poem, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember John McCrae’s composition as:

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.

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen and, over a long career, worked in nearly every part of the peach state’s education system.

In 1918, Michael was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal she came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  Two days before the armistice.

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John McCrae was in a grave of his own by this time having succumbed to pneumonia, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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Since that time, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in all wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. A reminder that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic should ever forget where we come from. Nor the price paid by our ancestors, to get us to this place.

December 10, 1917 A Gift of Gratitude

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston. A gift of gratitude, between two peoples.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, and the bonds between two peoples.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of the third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

Nova Scotia, ca 1900

The Norwegian vessel Imo left her mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

SS Imo

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running herself aground.

That’s when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

The ferocity of the blast literally tore Mont Blanc’s cannon from its mount and bent the barrel.

Mont Blanc’s Cannon

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light on the morning of December 7 revealed an apocalyptic scene of devastation, some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast as a blizzard descended over Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts’ Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax, a sum equivalent to some $665,000 today.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train to arrive on the scene.

Halifax Herald

There was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  An enormous Christmas tree.

In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston.  A gift of gratitude, between two peoples. More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

A monument was unveiled on Boston Commons on November 30, 2017, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

2020 tree

This year’s tree stands 48-feet tall tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax explosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.

The trip was a little different this year as the border remains closed, due to COVID restrictions. The 2020 tree arrived by ship in Portland Maine to continue the journey south, by road.

For a small Canadian province, the annual gift is no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

The 2020 tree lighting ceremony on December 3 was, like so many things in this year of years, virtual. There were televised remarks from Mayor Marty Walsh and Karen Casey, Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia, accompanied by Santa Claus and a squadron of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The switch was thrown and and a live audience of…nobody…enjoyed the ceremonial lighting of the tree.

Thank you, Xi Jinping. You have brought so much warmth into our lives.

BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 5: Fireworks explode around the Christmas tree on Boston Common at the conclusion of the festivities at the 78th annual tree lighting at the Boston Common on Dec. 5, 2019. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 2016, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word the following year, on the centennial anniversary of the Halifax catastrophe. “We had massive deaths and injuries”, he said. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”