11 Nov – Lest We Forget

Remembrance Day; A Prelude

Article by: 26972 OCdt (II) Chantel Fortier – 2 Squadron

Every year, Canadians are called on nationwide to offer two minutes of their time on November 11th to remembering the fallen soldiers of past wars. It’s a day, too, for honouring the veterans still with us, many of whom turn out in force to the various services offered in every locality. This past Friday, cadets of the Royal Military College were invited to attend a ceremony at the Rideaucrest Home, a prelude to the events of Tuesday, where many such veterans resided.

It was a different experience. For many cadets still attending the College, there is uncertainty, even discomfort in accepting the praise of men and women thanking them for service. As yet, we have done so little. Yet sitting next to the flag, in front of an elderly audience, I was struck by the understanding that we were not being thanked personally, not really. In uniform, offering our silence to the dead of ages past, we were acting as proxies for the whole of the military. These people – poppies brilliantly red on their lapels – were giving us what they could not give those who had served, been injured, died or returned in person. We were fulfilling a role, a very important role, and in many cases for people who had been deeply affected by war and had so little else to give.

Many veterans and veterans’ spouses stepped up to tell us their stories. A retired colonel; a Navy LT; friends and family, mothers and fathers and grandparents. Perhaps the most touching was the contribution of a couple, the man of whom had given a number of years to the military and contributed in his postings to Egypt and other troubled places. Upon reclaiming their seats, the man was visibly affected by his recollections; his wife dabbed his cheek and held his hand tightly for the remainder of the ceremony. Facing an uncertain future with the Canadian military and actions in the Middle East, as well as domestic events, this intimate gesture was strangely reassuring. It provided a glimpse of the things we represented whenever we donned our uniform – not merely action overseas to try and stem the flow of conflict, but to protect our citizens, to take upon ourselves whatever duties were required to ensure that they would live in peace.

It is suiting that Remembrance Day is not a day of celebration, but ceremony. This day, honouring the living and the dead in service, weighs on all shoulders as a reminder of what we stand for and the civilian community that stands behind us, hands ready to catch us if we should fall. In this, even we, mere cadets of RMC, should remember to ignore the discomfort of someone offering us their gratefulness; because we are not accepting their thanks for ourselves, but for all the military community, and gratitude is the greatest collective gift Canada can give her men and women in uniform, today and forever.

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RMCC and the “In Flanders Fields” Connection

841 HELMER, Alexis Hannum

Alexis was born on 29 June 1892 in Ottawa. His father died a Brigadier General and he was brought up by his mother Elizabeth. [I wonder if the father served in the Boer War and if he and John McCrae may have been friends, accounting for his “fatherly” disposition toward Alexis.]

Attended RMC 26 Aug 1909; graduated 20 Jun 1912. #841. Class size 38. Final year: Sgt (3 bars). One of his classmates was L. Miller Cosgrove #851.

Upon graduation, Helmer signed up for a Science degree at McGill University and joined the COTC (Canadian Officer Training Corps). He graduated the following year with a BSc and joined CPR.

On 27 Aug 1914, he enlisted with the 2nd Battery of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery in Valcartier Quebec, and proceeded overseas on 22 Sep 1914 as a Lieutenant. He was promoted to Senior Subaltern (Lieutenant). The battery was positioned behind the Yser Canal in February 1915 supporting 1st Canadian Division.

Germans launched their first gas attack on 22 April, punching through the French Territorial Division (Moroccans), pushing back towards the Yser Canal – very close – before being held by 1st Canadian Brigade and other British reinforcements. The Germans launched another gas attack on 24 April. The gas drifted over Helmer’s guns and he was gassed. He refused to be evacuated to hospital and the next day he was back at his guns, resuming command of his section.

Helmer’s name had been brought forward to his commanding officer, BG MacLaren DSO, for “gallantry under fire and devotion to duty” on both 24 and 27 April. He had been serving as a Forward Observation Officer (FOO).

On Sunday morning, 2 May, the Germans launched a furious bombardment and Helmer was out front observing as best he could for his guns. A German shell exploded nearby and he was killed outright. His hurried burial was attended by MG Morrison, Maj. John McCrae and Lt. Miller Cosgrove, his classmate at RMC (#851). It was Cosgrove who reported this upon his return to Canada as a Lt-Col in 1919. In this report, he wrote that McCrae left the scene for his dugout “muttering” and immerged 20 minutes later with the verses. I can’t confirm this part of the story but, after reciting the poem, he crumpled up the paper and threw it away. However, someone noticed this and retrieved the poem. He had it submitted to Punch Magazine in Great Britain but it was ignored until, in its 8 Dec 1915 publication, the poem appeared without a credit. It had no position of prominence and would easily be missed but, fortunately, it wasn’t. Eventually the author was identified and the poem became one of the benchmarks for the Great War.

Major General Sir E. W. B. Morrison, at the time commander of 1st Brigade, CFA, wrote of his “soldierly qualities and kindliness of disposition which made him a favourite with every officer and man in the brigade and to his absolute devotion to duty which characterized him to the moment of his death.” Someone else wrote “His men simply adored him”. [Ref. RMC Archives]

Researched by Paul Van Nest

 “In Flanders Fields” remains one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is recited each year at Remembrance Day ceremonies throughout Canada.

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.

In January 1918, McCrae was diagnosed with pneumonia. Five days later he was dead. He was one of 60,000 Canadian who would never return home.

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