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”.
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.
It is thought that doctor John McCrae (30th November 1872 — 28thJanuary 1918) began the draft for his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ on the evening of the 2nd May, 1915 in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres.
It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. The exact details of when the first draft was written may never be known because there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time.
- One account says that he was seen writing the poem sitting on the rearstep of an ambulance the next day while looking at Helmer’s grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.
- Another account says that McCrae was so upset after Helmer’s burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
- A third account by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, states that John told him he drafted the poem partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded at the first aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem’s metre.
John McCrae, was serving as a Major and a military doctor and was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The field guns of his brigade’s batteries were in position on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, about two kilometres to the north of Ypres. The brigade had arrived there in the early hours of 23rd April.
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery and had become good friends with John McCrae. On the morning of Sunday 2nd May Alexis left his dugout and was killed instantly by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening.
Alexis was 22 years old and a popular young officer. Before the outbreak of war he had graduated from McGill University with a degree in Civil Engineering. He was the son of Elizabeth I. Helmer of 122, Gilmour St., Ottawa, and the late Brigadier General R. A. Helmer.
Near to the 1st Canadian Brigade’s position on the canal bank there was a small burial ground which had originally been established during the First Battle of Ypres in the autumn of the previous year, 1914. The Second Battle of Ypres began on 22nd April 1915 and by early May the burial ground also contained graves of French and Canadian casualties. It became known as Essex Farm British Military Cemetery.
Lieutenant Helmer was buried on the 2nd May. In the absence of the chaplain, Major John McCrae conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England’s ‘Order of Burial of the Dead’. A wooden cross marked the burial place. The grave has since been lost. Lieutenant Alexis Helmer is now commemorated on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres; he is one of the 54,896 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.
Lieutenant Colonel Morrison wrote about the small burial ground where Alexis Helmer was originally buried:
“A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry regiment and on numerous occasions during the sixteen day battle, we saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns.”
During 1915 John McCrae sent the poem to The Spectator magazine. It was not published and was returned to him. It was, however, published in Punch magazine on 8th December 1915.