Bonfire – The Chestnut Gentleman   Leave a comment

I’ve been working away at this book and am just about to launch into Part Three. I’ve been reading John McCrae’s daily journals to colour in the events and times. It’s so amazing to read, ‘Kipling was in camp today,’ and, ‘he’s coming back tomorrow for lunch.’ Rudyard Kipling was a huge Empire booster and supporter of the war. He puffed up with pride as he told McCrae that his own boy, Jack, had joined the Irish Guards and was on his way to the front. Young Jack Kipling, was killed in the Battle of Loos and his father was devastated forever and I think, racked with guilt, too. I believe the younger Kipling was legally blind and should not have even been allowed in the army.

Soldiers at Stonehenge 1914

Sunday night I had a great conversation on the phone with the grandson of a colleague of John McCrae’s; McGill University, tropical medicine and parasitologist, John L. Todd. Doctor Todd gave Bonfire to McCrae for his charger in 1914. Todd had a stable of fine, fox hunters in Quebec and Bonfire was a top notch animal. Later in the war McCrae met an Irish groom who admired Bonfire and said he was a beautiful animal and “He’s done a power o’ leppin’.” Which is Irish slang for he’s done a lot of jumping or ‘leaping.’ McCrae got a kick out of the man’s language.

Canadian soldiers on the Salisbury Plain 1914. There’s a thin layer of soil over chalk. So the water just sat on the surface. The men fared better than the horses.

In Part Two that I just finished, the brigade has spent four months on the Salisbury Plain in the most deplorable conditions imaginable, especially for the horses. There was no shelter for most of that time and it was one of the most awful winters in memory. Out of 123 days it rained for 89. Horses began to fail from standing in mud and water and being exposed to the continuous rain and winds. Many horses died from exposure or had to be put down from the equine version of trench-foot, a condition called hoof-rot or gangrenous dermatitis.

The train station in northern France where McCrae and his brigade detrained is still there.

I’m now beginning Part Three where they sail from England to St.Nazaire, France across the Bay of Biscay and then take the train north to Steenwerck. (St. Nazaire is where I began my journey up the Western Front last June by motorcycle.) From Steenwerck they were billeted around Meteren and Hazebrouck areas and were brought into their first battle on the flank of the British at Neuve Chapelle. Part Four will be entirely the 2nd Battle of Ypres during which McCrae wrote the poem, In Flanders Fields.

British propaganda.

Stay tuned!

Posted May 17, 2012 by windwrangler in Home

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