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LETTER: Writer, formerly of Coley's Point, tells of Flander's Field

Early in the First World War, Newfoundland teenager Frederick Rennie Emerson (1895-1972) volunteered, at St. John’s, to enlist in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment for combat duty in war-ravaged Europe.  

Meanwhile Guelph, Ont. native, Dr. John Alexander McCrae, 23 years older than Emerson, offered his medical expertise to the Canadian Artillery serving the European war effort.

Emerson was denied entry to the Regiment, for health reasons. McCrae was accepted into the Canadian Artillery. He served, across Europe, as a field surgeon and field hospital commander.

Although Emerson and McCrae never met, they are forever linked by a 15-line handwritten poem.

On May 3, 1915, near Ypres, province of West Flanders, Belgium, while seated outside a field military hospital awaiting battle casualties, McCrae — inspired by a friend’s death and burial in combat — wrote the iconic First World War poem, ‘In Flanders Fields.’ Four years later in St. John’s, solo voice and piano sheet music for the poem was created by Emerson, just months before or after he became a lawyer.

McCrae did not hear the debut (or any) performance of ‘In Flanders Fields’, as scored by Emerson. He died of pneumonia, during continuing military surgical service, on Jan. 28, 1918 in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, northern France.

Many details of this unintended partnership of McCrae and Emerson are recounted in Glenn David Colton’s biography of Emerson — Newfoundland Rhapsody — published earlier this year by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Countless Newfoundland lawyers have enriched the province’s abundant culture. Springing to mind are poet Nicholas J.G. Avis, QC; actress Frances Knickle QC, and authors Archibald Bonnell and statesman Edward M. Roberts, QC. But none excel Emerson.

Writes associate music professor Colton (Lakehead University, Thunder Bay), Emerson proved himself “a dynamic presence in Newfoundland’s social, cultural, and intellectual life for much of the twentieth century” including “a central (although largely unheralded) role in the preservation and dissemination of Newfoundland folksongs.”

Emerson received his secondary school education at Bishop Field College, St. John’s, and in the music program at Framlingham College, Suffolk, England. His becoming a lawyer was virtually a foregone conclusion.

From 1829 to 1913, five male Emerson family members — including his father and great uncle — had been admitted to the Newfoundland Bar. Emerson, himself, was admitted on Oct. 6, 1919. His first law office was in a building now occupied by Ship Pub (a legendary St. John’s haunt). He became widely known as ‘the singing lawyer.’ (He is reputed to have sometimes rehearsed in his law chambers.)

He wrote the music to ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1919, writes professor Colton, as “a memorial to the victims of war” and as “a personal homage to his [lawyer] father, who passed away earlier that year.”

At least 17 other musical arrangements for ‘In Flanders Fields’ have been created (including one which received a 2006 Juno Award). But, no other arrangement, in my layperson’s opinion, captures the symbolism, for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, of the crimson poppies of Flanders Fields.

— David C. Day, whose family is from Coley’s Point, is nephew of two unharmed survivors of Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916: Walter Day, and James Day (who later died in action at Arras, northern France in April 1917).  

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