In a break from the young subalterns, we turn now to Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae (November 30, 1872 – January 28,
1918). McCrae was a Canadian poet, artist and surgeon during World War I. His poem In Flanders Fields (below) is one of the best known poems of the war.
McCrae was born in McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario into a military family. When Britain declared war on Germany, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, declared war as well. McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. McCrae’s friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired In Flanders Fields, which was written on May 3, 1915 and first published in the magazine Punch.
In Flanders Fields had initially appeared anonymously in but in the index to that year McCrae was named as the author. The verses swiftly became one of the most popular poems of the war, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated (a Latin version begins In agro belgico…). The poem was also extensively printed in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war, alongside a ‘reply’ by R. W. Lillard, (“…Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught…”). According to his biographer, J. F. Prescott, McCrae, now “a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one”, regarded his sudden fame with some amusement but (still according to Prescott) “he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay.”
On June 1, 1915 McCrae was ordered away from the artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. He would remain there until he died, on January 28, 1918, from pneumonia.
In Flanders Fields is a call to arms, told from the point of view of the dead. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s best known memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.In Flanders Fields 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.