Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #20/50: In Flanders by Ivor Gurney

Editor’s Note: I feel this post is a day late and a dollar short. It is November 14th today (as of the push of the “Publish” button). November 11th is known as Remembrance Day here in Canada. On that day there are many ceremonies held across the country to honour those who served in various wars under the banner of Canada and the Canadian flag. However, I am of the opinion that the act of remembrance is something that should be a year-long affair. After all, my ability to live a life of peace is a year-long affair. Therefore, I publish this post a few days in arrears of the official Day of Remembrance in Canada. My gratitude is not restricted to dates on calendars. Please enjoy these words in the spirit of remembrance in which they were written.

As of the writing of this post, I have been alive for fifty-eight years and not once in all that time has someone tried to kill me. At least to my knowledge. I have never pre-checked the food or drink I consume for poison. When I leave my house, I don’t look down for trip-wires or land mines. There has never been an assassination attempt made on my life as I shop in local stores or stroll along the shoreline of my town. I don’t personally know anyone who has been the victim of a suicide bomber. The truth is that every single day of my life I have known peace. Every single day. Without fail or exception. I have lived a peace-filled life for all of my fifty-eight years and for that, I consider myself extremely lucky.

Part of my ability to make this claim is based on circumstance. I live in Canada and have done so for my whole life. In the time that I have been alive, Canada has never fought a war on home soil. In addition, while there have been wars around the world during my lifetime, Canada has never declared war and become an enemy combatant in any of these conflicts, and therefore, there has been no wartime conscription in which I may have been swept up. This makes me a civilian. I am a civilian in a peaceful country. This allows me to go about the business of living my life without fear of being killed by someone who has set out to do me harm.

This sculpture is dedicated to those who served in the merchant marine. The sculpture sits on the boardwalk along the harbour in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

This makes the act of Remembrance different for me than it does for those who have served in Canada’s Armed Forces. It also makes it different for people like my ninety-one year old mother who still tells stories of German U-boats off the coast of Sydney, Nova Scotia during World War II when she was just a teenager. In fact, along the boardwalk by Sydney’s harbour, there is a commemorative sculpture that honours the men and women of the Merchant Marine. These brave souls sailed an armada of supply ships from North America across the Atlantic Ocean to England, thus circumventing attempts by German forces to erect a blockade of England and starve it into submission and surrender. My mother remembers it all, and for her (as well as those who have served in Peacekeeping missions around the world), the act of Remembrance is a personal and solemn affair. So, as I don my poppy and bow my head, I do so from a different perspective…gratitude.

Flanders Fields in Belgium during WWI.

I am thankful to everyone who bravely faced death so that I may not. I will never know what you know and I imagine that from your perspective, you consider that a lucky thing for me to be able to say. While I have never faced battle, I am under no illusion that doing so is like being in a video game or a Hollywood movie. I am sure that in real life, the enemy soldiers are not all poor shots. My only basis for claiming to have some sense of understanding of what it is like to be at war comes from what I have seen in news reels or documentaries, or else, that I have read from books, newspapers and magazines. For those of us on the civilian side of things, we owe a debt of gratitude, not only to those who fought in wars so that we may enjoy the freedom that we do today, but, also, to those with an artistic bent who painted pictures, wrote stories or composed music that described the hellish conditions of war for the rest of us. In Canada, the most famous example of this comes in the form of a poem entitled “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. His poem is one that most, if not all, Canadian school children learn, and is one that is read aloud across the land on the 11th of November each year. Flanders Fields is an area of land not far from Ypres in Belgium. Not everyone is aware that many of the most horrific battles of World War I were fought in Belgium. The slaughter that was The Battle of Passchendaele took place less than half an hour from Flanders Fields. In photos and films that I have seen, it seems like the battlefields were not, in fact, fields at all. Instead, they were endless expanses of mud, pock-marked by shell craters deep enough and slippery enough to drown many a soldier seeking escape from being exposed above ground in No Man’s Land. I have only seen the photos, as taken by war photographers such as Canadian William Rider-Rider, but for me, those photos are enough to know that I would never have wanted to be there.

Poet/Composer Ivor Gurney.

But someone who was there was a young Englishman named Ivor Gurney. Gurney was a gifted poet, musician and composer when World War I broke out. At that time, it was considered every young man’s patriotic duty to enlist so he did. However, upon enlisting, Gurney showed the first of many indications that he was not your average soldier going off to war. Ivor Gurney enjoyed privilege in his teenage life, and so would have been automatically placed in line for the officer ranks. However, upon enlisting, Gurney asked to be registered as a Private. When asked about this decision in later years, Gurney proclaimed that it was the Officer ranks who always lead the charges out of the trenches, and from what he had heard of battles already fought along The Western Front, being first out of the trenches was often akin to a suicide mission. So, he opted for pragmatism in the face of insanity and stayed in the trenches as long as he could before emerging to fight. Between engagements, Gurney wrote poetry of the same sort that John McCrae did. He wrote of the horrific conditions he found himself in. He wrote about comrades held close and then lost in battle. He also wrote about the mundane things, such as the texture of his rations, the way cigarette smoke rose into the air and of his longing for his home.

This plaque is displayed at Westminster Abbey. It features the names of England’s sixteen great “War Poets”. Ivor Gurney is listed near the middle of the plaque.

Like many soldiers who survived WWI, Gurney got lucky, in a way, because of injury and by being gassed with mustard gas. In both cases, Ivor Gurney’s injuries allowed him to be removed from the front lines and placed in the care of hospital staff. It was while recovering from being gassed that Gurney actually met a nurse with whom he fell in love. Eventually, Gurney was given an honourable discharge on the basis of “shellshock”. At the time, not much was understood about what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. One hundred years ago, mental illness was something that wasn’t discussed in civilized society. So, when Ivor Gurney was discharged, he was unable to cope with civilian life and ended up being declared insane, and, as a result, was committed to mental health facilities for most of his adult life. While this may sound tragic…and, of course, it is…the fact is that the regimented nature of life in a mental institution helped instill a sense of discipline in Gurney. At the core of who he was, Ivor Gurney was an artist and a creator. With the majority of life decisions now made for him by hospital staff, Gurney was free to focus his thoughts solely on creativity. Thus, Gurney’s period of hospitalization ended up being the most prolific of his entire life. While a patient in a variety of psychiatric hospitals, Ivor Gurney created over three hundred musical compositions, as well as several complete volumes of poetry. One of his most famous compositions was called “In Flanders”. It was based upon a poem by his friend, fellow poet, F.W. Harvey. “In Flanders” is a lament by a soldier for the peaceful valleys of home in England. This poem/composition helped English citizens come to better understand the conditions under which the men in their lives fought and died. Ivor Gurney died at the age of 47. Like many talented artists, Gurney’s creativity was always tenuous in nature. To others, he always seemed to live on the very edge between brilliance and complete instability. As prolific as he was, there was an equal amount of his work that was incomprehensible, and that has only survived destruction because of how it provided a window for others to see into the madness that was Gurney’s mind. But, when the storms of his mind subsided long enough for his creativity to rise to the fore, Ivor Gurney produced some of the clearest and most articulate visions of the apocalyptic nature of war in the history of English music and literature.. Consequently, after his death, Gurney’s work was assessed properly in its complete depth and vast scope. Because of this re-evaluation, Gurney was accorded a much higher degree of respect for his work. This resulted in Gurney being acknowledged in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey as one of the sixteen greatest War Poets in English history.

So, when it comes to Remembrance, I remain grateful for the life I am able to live. To those who fought in the trenches and on the beaches, in the air and on the sea, I thank you. I thank you, and in doing so, I acknowledge that I will never know what you know. My knowledge comes from the artists who painted pictures for the rest of us with their paintings, their poetry and their music. To them, I am thankful for their vision and their skill at providing a sense of the horror of it all and giving scope to the epic nature of what war truly is. But most of all, I place my hand over my heart in gratitude that someone like me should be so lucky as to learn about war through the notes of a song or the words of a poem while never having to have lived through it. As I write these final words, I do so without fear. I am as safe as one can be on this day. My to-do list today includes many things, but facing death from an enemy combatant is not one of them.

The link to the video for the composition “In Flanders” by Ivor Gurney can be found here. ***Lyrics can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Ivor Gurney Trust can be found here.

The link to the video of Leonard Cohen reading the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae can be found here.

The link to the official website for the museum at Flanders Fields in Belgium can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Juno Beach Centre in France can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Vimy Ridge Memorial can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can be found here. (The CWGC acts to maintain all war graves containing the bodies of Commonwealth soldiers regardless of where they are buried throughout the world).

The link to the official website for photographer William Rider-Rider can be found here. *(Mr. Rider-Rider’s photographs account for many of the most famous and important photographs taken by a Canadian photographer during WWI).

The link to the official Government of Canada website for all things to do with Remembrance can be found here. *(This includes maps/links to all memorial cairns/cenotaphs in Canada, all soldiers listed in the Book of Honour at Parliament Hill and much, much more).

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

3 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #20/50: In Flanders by Ivor Gurney”

  1. How fortunate are we indeed. I share your sentiment about the gratitude we should have for those who allow us the unfettered freedom we have every day, in particular here in Canada. My father served in WWII and my mother a “War Bride” as Newfoundland was not part of Canada as I’m sure you know until after the war. Lovely piece of music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. I don’t just write about music. Sometimes, I write about life and family or public education and kid lit (because I was a teacher). So, anyway, you don’t have to read this but here is the link to a previous post from 2018 that describes how the Armed Forces have played a remarkable role in shaping the lives my family live today. It is based on research conducted into our family history by my eldest daughter, who is a huge History nerd. Anyway, I wrote this as a storyteller so, hopefully, you will find our story interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

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