Christo­pher Moore

His­to­rian says she has iden­ti­fied mys­tery woman men­tioned by ‘In Flan­ders Fields’ poet John McCrae.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - Christo­pher Moore com­ments in ev­ery is­sue of Canada’s His­tory.

Solv­ing a mys­tery sur­round­ing John McCrae’s fa­mous poem.

More than sixty thou­sand Cana­di­ans died in the First World War. Shall “their name liveth for ev­er­more”? As the other war memo­rial in­scrip­tion, “Lest we for­get,” re­minds us, re­mem­brance al­ways strug­gles with for­get­ting.

Dur­ing the cen­te­nary of the First World War (1914–18), per­sonal con­nec­tions with in­di­vid­ual sol­diers of that war are be­ing sought ev­ery­where. Long lists of sol­diers’ names are read out or pro­jected on walls. Sol­diers’ let­ters home are be­ing archived and pub­lished. Stu­dents re­search the lives and deaths of young men who left their com­mu­ni­ties a cen­tury ago, never to re­turn.

In ad­vance of Re­mem­brance Day 2017, I talked with writer and his­to­rian Linda Gran­field about her own per­sonal en­counter, this time not with a sol­dier but with the girl who was left be­hind.

For twenty years, Gran­field has been writ­ing about how Cana­dian poet Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poem “In Flan­ders Fields” came to sym­bol­ize the grief and mem­ory of the First World War.

McCrae wrote that poem in May 1915, af­ter his young friend Alexis Helmer, an ar­tillery of­fi­cer from Ottawa, was killed in ac­tion. Gran­field knew that McCrae had writ­ten in a pri­vate let­ter of bury­ing Helmer’s shell-shat­tered re­mains along with the photo of “his girl” they had found in a pocket of his uni­form. But who, she won­dered, had been Helmer’s girl? What be­came of her?

Helmer died at just twenty-two, and there was not much to doc­u­ment his pri­vate life. The trail was cold. Then Gran­field turned up a 1915 news­pa­per ar­ti­cle with a note about Helmer’s fi­ancée.

She had a name: Muriel Robert­son. “By March 2016 I was like a dog wor­ry­ing a bone,” Gran­field says. She knows the al­lure of ge­neal­ogy’s puz­zles and road­blocks, but ev­ery Robert­son lead she fol­lowed was a dead end. Fi­nally, some­one who was re­motely con­nected but did not have the an­swers sug­gested some­one else who might — and that per­son sug­gested an­other. Gran­field found her­self in con­ver­sa­tion with Ann Spitzer of South Carolina. Spitzer’s grand­mother Muriel Robert­son had in­deed been “Helmer’s girl.” And there was a photo. The face from the pic­ture buried with Alexis Helmer was seen again.

Gran­field learned that Muriel Robert­son — who also lost a brother in the war — served as a VAD, a vol­un­teer aid worker, in Eng­land dur­ing the war.

In May 1918, she mar­ried some­one rather like Helmer, a Cana­dian mil­i­tary en­gi­neer on leave from the bat­tle­front. He sur­vived the war, and af­ter­wards an en­gi­neer­ing job took them away to the United States, where they raised two daugh­ters.

Spitzer told Gran­field that she had never known of her grand­mother’s lost first love. But in their fam­ily, “In Flan­ders Fields” had al­ways been a touch­stone. She had known the poem all her life.

Gran­field is now re­search­ing the fam­ily of the RCAF pi­lot who wrote the Sec­ond World War poem “High Flight.”

But she con­tin­ues her work with the McCrae House mu­seum in Guelph, On­tario. And now she finds some­thing new in the lines “loved and were loved: and now we lie/ In Flan­ders Fields.”

“It speaks to McCrae’s sen­si­tiv­ity,” she said. “It is not just about the in­sis­tence on the fight; it is also about the real losses he un­der­stood around him.” Robert­son’s story evokes for Gran­field all of the griev­ing vic­tims of war.

For a loved one lost in bat­tle, par­ents and chil­dren may grieve for­ever. Young peo­ple go on. But the echoes of all those deaths still trem­ble in the leaves of count­less fam­ily trees. Cen­te­nary en­coun­ters like Gran­field’s sug­gest that the names will live on for a while yet.

For a loved one lost in bat­tle, par­ents and chil­dren may grieve for­ever. The echoes of all those deaths still trem­ble in count­less fam­ily trees.

Clock­wise from top left: Poet Lt. Col. John McCrae, Alexis Helmer, whose death in­spired McCrae’s “In Flan­ders Fields,” and Muriel Robert­son, a vol­un­teer aid worker dur­ing the Great War who was Helmer’s girl­friend.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.