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