“In Flanders Fields” – John McCrae: Poet, Surgeon, Artilleryman

Yesterday was Veterans Day in the United States, honoring those who have served. Artillery History wishes everyone a happy Veterans Day and a big than you to those who have served!

The US’s Veterans Day grew out of commemorations of the armistice that ended the First World War. In the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Commonwealth nations, 11 November became Remembrance Day, a time to honor service members who died in the line of duty, much like Memorial Day in the US.

The most prevalent symbol of Remembrance Day is the red poppy. As many people know, that originates from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by LtCol John McCrae of the Royal Canadian Forces; he wrote it after the death of a friend in the 1915 Second Battle of Ypres. The poem has given us one of the most enduring symbols and is a powerful commemoration of sacrifice and duty during what at the time was the bloodiest conflict in human history. McCrae himself did not survive the war; he died of pneumonia in France in 1918.

LtCol John McCrae

Born in 1872, McCrae earned a medical degree in 1898 but he also trained as an artilleryman. As a lieutenant in 1900, he deployed with D Battery of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery to the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The most famous action in which D Battery participated was the Battle of Leliefontain on 7 November 1900. British forces had pushed Boers out of the area by 6 November south of present-day eMakhazeni, South Africa, then known as Belfast. But British leadership felt that the Boers would soon be reinforced and therefore, the British planned to withdraw. On 7 November, the Boers attacked the rear of the British column and the Canadians under LtCol François-Louis Lessard of the Royal Canadian Dragoons were tasked with the rearguard. D Battery manned its 12-pounder guns. The Canadians fought hard, and artillery fire was instrumental in repelling multiple enemy attacks until the British column reached high ground near eMakhazeni. Lt E.W.B. Morrison of the Royal Canadian Artillery was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions that day.

John McCrae and other Cadets Loading Canons
Undated photograph purportedly showing John McCrae training on artillery. Source: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/lt-col-john-mccrae
Boer War Picture, 12-pounder field gun in the collection of the Canadian War Museum. This is the No. 5 Gun actually used by
D Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery 12-pounder field gun that was used in the Battle of Leliefontain. Now in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.

At this time I have no direct evidence about McCrae’s involvement in the battle but I surmise he must have been there. I will do more research and hopefully find something to report.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

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.

Happy Birthday, Marines! And, Fallujah 17 Years On

The tenth of November is a sacred date for the United States Marine Corps as it was on this date in 1775 that the Continental Marine Corps was established by an act of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Happy birthday, Marines! This time of year is also appropriate to remember the Second Battle of Fallujah, or Operation al-Fajr/Operation Phantom Fury, which took place 7 November to 23 December 2004 during the Iraq War. US, Iraqi, and British forces attacked the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in order to clear it of insurgents that had gathered there during the spring and summer of that year. The fighting was characterized by difficult urban combat that is often compared to the 1968 Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War.

Artillery was integral to the fight at Fallujah. It was provided by 155mm M198s from Battery M, 4th Battalion, 14th Marines (nicknamed “Palehorse,” now part of 3/14) and Battery C, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, as well as the US Army’s Paladins from Battery A, 3d Battalion, 82d Field Artillery Regiment. Their fires were crucial in all aspects of the fight, particularly during the shaping and attack phases. Their contributions were important enough that a photograph of Mike Battery is featured on the cover of the Marine Corps History Division’s book on the battle as well as at the top of the battle’s wikipedia entry.

4-14 Marines in Fallujah.jpg
Mike Battery, “Palehorse,” 4/14 conducts a fire mission during the Second Battle of Fallujah, 2004. Battery M is now part of 3d Battalion, 14th Marines.

One particular episode illustrates the importance of artillery to coalition operations in Fallujah. On 10 November 2004, the infantrymen of 3d Battalion of the 1st Marines was advancing on the far right flank of the coalition attack, nearest to the Euphrates River. Forward observers kept a rolling barrage 100m in front of the advancing grunts. A platoon commander recalled that “as soon as the sun came, they started hitting the area around the mosque with artillery and two 500-pound bombs.” The artillery fire did not damage the mosque in the area but did flush enemy insurgents out. They jumped in the river and swam across, only for forward observers continue to call fire missions against them. The battalion’s operations officer, Maj. C.C. Griffin, commented favorably on fire support: the attack to the Euphrates “was largely uncontested . . . the artillery really facilitated some rapid movements to the west.”

The coalition forces eventually secured the city of Fallujah by Christmas 2004. It was some of the deadliest fighting for them, with 107 allied KIA and 613 WIA. Insurgent losses may have been upwards of 2,000, and civilian fatalities are estimated at 800.

There are also serious allegations that US forces used white phosphorus munitions, some delivered by artillery, against personnel during the battle. The United Nations’ Protocol III to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons puts restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, such as white phosphorus, against “any military objective located within a concentration of civilians.” The United States was not party to Protocol III at the time of the Second Battle of Fallujah. Incendiary weapons like white phosphorus are permitted for marking, screening, and illumination.

Man Rescued from Historic Cannon in Istanbul

… And no, it wasn’t me!

Man stuck in historic cannon rescued by firefighters
Man gets pulled from cannon in Barbaros Park, Istanbul (photo: https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/man-stuck-in-historic-cannon-rescued-by-firefighters-168069)

The man wriggled into one of the many muzzle-loading cannons in Barbaros Park in Istanbul, apparently for some pictures. But he got stuck, and soon bystanders called firefighters. The firefighters reportedly had to use oil to help the man slide back out! He did not suffer any serious injury. No word on whether he’s a fan of old cannons and/or reader of this site.

A news report from Hürriyet Daily News says that the cannon is “at least 300 years old and was used by the Ottoman navy.” I can find no other information about the cannons in the park. Barbaros Park, situated in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul, right on the Bosphorus Strait, celebrates Khayr al-Dīn (his name is also anglicized as Hayreddin), a 16th-century Ottoman admiral. Born Khiḍr on the island of Lesbos around 1478, he was instrumental in securing large parts of North Africa for the Ottoman Empire and establishing Ottoman naval superiority. He and his brother captured Algiers from the Spanish in 1516. In 1533, Sultan Suleiman I made Khayr al-Dīn Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy. He captured Tunis from the Hafsid dynasty in 1534 and four years later led his fleet to victory over the western Holy League at the Battle of Preveza off the coast of northwestern Greece; the Ottomans remained the dominant naval force in the eastern Mediterranean until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Khayr al-Dīn died in 1546. Barbaros Park takes its name from his Italian nickname, Barbarossa (“Red Beard”), and includes a monument in his honor.

Agostino dei Musi’s portrait of Khayr al-Dīn, c. 1535. Source: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O29482 (c) Royal Academy of Arts

This post is also our first in a long time and marks what I hope will be a revival of this project. Kind of like crawling out a centuries-old cannon to say hello again! As such I refurbished the About page to reflect where I’m at now and the goals of this site. So welcome readers old and new and I look forward to sharing more posts!

Sources:

“Man stuck in historic cannon rescued by firefighters.” Hürriyet Daily News, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/man-stuck-in-historic-cannon-rescued-by-firefighters-168069. Accessed 16 Oct. 2021.

Rafferty, John P.. “From Pirate to Admiral: The Tale of Barbarossa”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Invalid Date, https://www.britannica.com/story/from-pirate-to-admiral-the-tale-of-barbarossa. Accessed 16 Oct. 2021.

Alexander Hamilton’s Commission

For the past year or more, just about everything having to do with Alexander Hamilton has taken off due to—do I even have to mention it?!—the musical about his life.

The fact that he was an artillery officer has not escaped my notice. The best place to start then, is probably at the beginning–Hamilton’s commission as an artillery officer.

On 14 March 1776 (I know, I missed posting this on the actual anniversary!), the Committee of Safety of the New York Provincial Congress appointed Hamilton “captain of the Provincial company of artillery of this colony.”[1]

(more…)

Recent Artillery Posts From Around The Web

Two recent blog posts about historical cannons caught my attention, so I thought I would share them.

From The New York History Blog: “17th Century Cannon Returned To New York.” A cannon dredged from the St. Lawrence River, which saw service in the French and Indian War and American Revolution, is returned from loan to the Canadian War Museum to the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site in New York.

From the Heinz History Center Making History Blog: “A Closer Look: An 18th Century Cannon.” Living History Coordinator Justin Meinert conducts a detailed autopsy of the British 6-pounder cannon, detailing its engravings and parts, from muzzle to cascabel. A reproduction is located at the Fort Pitt Museum, and an original is on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is very similar to what I did with an 18th century French cannon that found its way to Galesburg, Illinois.

A 17th century cannon excavated from the St. Lawrence River is prepared to return to New York after being on loan to the Canadian War Museum.

A 17th century cannon excavated from the St. Lawrence River is prepared to return to New York after being on loan to the Canadian War Museum.

Cannons & Current Events: Spanish Armada Cannons Raised Off Irish Coast

Ships from the 16th century Spanish Armada have come to light off the west coast of Ireland, allowing excavation and the recovery of many artifacts. This included cannons from the infamous navy, which were raised from the sea off Streedagh Strand, County Sligo, Republic of Ireland, around 15 June. In 1588, storms and squalls dashed the Armada against the rocky coasts of Ireland, and dashed King Philip II of Spain’s hopes of invading England. Nowadays, storms are pushing pieces of the ships onto the coast, prompting calls for excavation and preservation.

A cannon from La Juliana on the sea bed before it was raised.

A cannon from La Juliana on the sea bed before it was raised.

(more…)

Cannons & Current Events: Oldest Cannonball in England?

A piece of a lead cannonball has been discovered in the fields of Northampton, United Kingdom, and dated to the Battle of Northampton in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It is believed to be the oldest surviving cannonball in England.

Northampton Cannonball

(more…)