Footsteps of John McCrae lead to new appreciation
Written by Tammy Adkin, Guelph Museums Manager
When I was 17 years old, I was chair of the Peace and Justice Club at Assumption College School. I wore “Ban Nukes” buttons and participated in various marches and protests, chanting about turning swords into ploughshares. While my heart was in the right place, I never would have imagined visiting battlefield cemeteries in Europe. In my naiveté, I may have viewed that as a glorification of war. And yet, a couple of weeks ago as I stood in the midst of Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium, I realized there isn’t a more compelling motivator for peace than the thousands of gravestones, row on row, each representing a young life extinguished too soon – each with loved ones left behind, and potential unrealized.
The In the Footsteps of John McCrae Tour of Belgium and France, organized by Guelph Museums to mark the 100th anniversary of Lt. Col. John McCrae’s death, was an emotional journey filled with remarkable moments of reflection and revelation.
Upon arrival in Ypres, Belgium we visited key First World War sites and monuments including Sanctuary Wood, Hill 62, Langemark German Cemetery, and the Brooding Soldier. At Essex Field Dressing Station and Cemetery, where McCrae tended to the wounded and was inspired to write In Flanders Fields, Guelph Museums retired curator, Bev Dietrich, led the group in a collective recital of the poem – one of the most poignant moments of the trip.
That evening, Guelph Museums partnered with the In Flanders Fields Museum to present Sons of ’17, a musical remembrance by Canadian musicians Mike Ford and Murray Foster. The performance reflected on the impact of the war on the Canadian home front and provided context for tour participants and for our Belgian guests.
Our tour group was warmly welcomed by In Flanders Fields Museum director Piet Chielens, who provided an exclusive orientation to their research centre before we visited the museum exhibitions. This was followed by a visit to Talbot House, where Bev Dietrich delivered her Dear John lecture, about the women in John McCrae’s life. At the end of the day, we participated in the daily Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate, laying a wreath on behalf of the City of Guelph.
On Wednesday, May 2, coinciding with the 103rd anniversary of the writing of In Flanders Fields, we held a memorial service at the gravesite of Lt.-Col. McCrae. Under cloudy skies, on a cool and blustery day, we honored Lt.-Col. McCrae with words of reflection, music, prayer and wreaths. The service was an international effort, officiated by Rev. Jan Steyn, a Presbyterian minister from South Africa, currently serving in Paris; and supported by Canadian musicians and Belgian bagpipers. Ten-year old Charly, a student from France who earlier in the year had sent In Flanders Fields-inspired artwork to McCrae House, attended the service and recited the poem in French. The ceremony was attended by dignitaries and guests from Canada, France, Belgium and Australia. Among the many wreaths laid on McCrae’s gravesite that day was a “Messages to McCrae” wreath, created with over 100 messages written by Guelph students and visitors to McCrae House and Guelph Civic Museum. The memorial service was an emotional and fitting tribute to our hometown hero.
The following day, we visited the Canadian National Vimy Memorial where we presented a second performance of Sons of ’17 at the Visitor Centre, toured the trenches, and paid tribute at the Vimy monument. This was followed by a visit to the Somme battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel.
Five tour participants had family connections to soldiers buried in Flanders, and we were able to visit each of their gravesites. In a week filled with extraordinary moments, these were perhaps the most moving – as people honoured the grandfathers and great-uncles they never had opportunity to meet.
The 30 people who travelled with us reflected on the impact of the tour. Some were surprised by the emotional response they had to an event that happened a century ago. Others marveled at how Lt.-Col. McCrae remains recognized and revered so far away from home, 100 years later. All agreed that the experience of tracing McCrae’s service had changed each of us. Together, we remembered, we mourned, we honoured, and we committed to finding a better way. Lest we forget.