In Flanders Fields: My Grandmother’s WWI Reminiscence
First, some background on the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’:
During the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May, 1915 in the gun positions near Ypres. An exploding German artillery shell landed near him. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.
As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
I remember my Grandma Marie, my Mom’s mother, reading this poem to me when I was a little boy. Afterwards she took a packet of envelopes tied with a blue ribbon and yellowed with age from her dresser drawer, and told me they were from her beau who had fought in WWI. I already knew of him from a trip with her and Grandpa to the Jefferson Memorial. I had read his name among the many honored dead from our area who had died in wartime. His last name was Gorman, though I can’t remember now for the life of me what his first name was. Grandma told me he had died of pneumonia while fighting in France. Considering the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, it’s very possible it could’ve been, in fact, the real cause of his death. But that’s irrelevant to this reminiscence. I only mention it because my Dad who was 6-years-old at the time would have died from that very same flu that same year, had it not been for his Mom, Grandma Missouri, nursing him through it. And yes, her name really was Missouri.
After showing me her love letters from the wartime trenches of long ago, Grandma Marie wiped tears from her eyes, placed the packet of envelopes back in the dresser drawer, then stood and quietly walked out of the room. l was always intrigued with those letters, and over the next few years before moving away to my Mom’s, I would return to that dresser numerous times. I would open the drawer and gaze at them, allowing my imagination to run free as only a young boy’s can, and possibly even touch them, but that’s as far as I went. As nosy a scallywag as I was, I guess I knew I was looking at something sacred, and to my credit I left them unmolested. Grandma died in 1966 during the latter part of my tour in Vietnam, and I have no idea what ever became of the letters after her passing. I would give anything to reach out and touch them again.