From poppies to peace: Poem remembers the fallen

Undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous poems, written by a Canadian doctor on a blood-soaked battlefield in war-ravaged Belgium during World War 1, In Flanders Fields has become an international plea for world peace.

Dr. John McCrae had just buried one of his closest friends, killed by a direct hit from a German shell. The friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was buried in a crude grave marked by a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were just beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves.

McCrae had been in the trenches every day for several weeks attending hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers near Ypres, Belgium, in an area traditionally called “Flanders.”

“It was a nightmare,” he wrote his mother. “For 17 days and 17 nights, none of us have had our clothes off… gunfire and rifle fire never ceased.”

McCrae sat in the morning sun on May 3, 1915, outside his makeshift field hospital, listening to the chirping of birds amid the thunder of the guns. He looked over at the nearby cemetery with its rows and rows of crosses amid brightly colored poppies.

Tearing a page out of his dispatcbook, he quickly wrote a short poem of just 15 lines, yet an immortal 15 lines —

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.

John McCrae

It was printed anonymously on Dec. 8, 1915, in Punch, a leading British magazine. The short but moving poem struck a nerve, and struck a chord with soldiers and civilians alike. Within two years, it had been reprinted throughout the British Empire and the United States, playing a major role in attracting public donations for the war effort through the sale of Victory Bonds.

But McCrae never returned home to enjoy the acclaim. He had suffered much in three years of war, including a poison gas attack which seriously aggravated his asthma. Yet throughout his time, he worked with little rest and under horrendous conditions to care for the wounded.

McCrae died on January 8, 1918, of pneumonia and meningitis in the military hospital at Wimereux, just up the coast from Boulogne, France, and was buried the next day with full military honours in the Wimereux cemetery. A hundred nursing sisters in uniform formed a line at the graveside. One later wrote, “All came as we did, because we loved him so.”

Canadians mourned the death of their soldier/doctor/poet with nation-wide tributes, including a stained-glass window at McGill University with the inscription: “Pathologist, Poet, Soldier, Physician, Man Among Men.”

Famed Canadian writer Stephen Leacock wrote in tribute: “John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields will live as long as the memory of the heroic struggle of the Canadians that formed its inspiration.”

Today, while millions know the poem In Flanders Fields, few know anything of the author.

John McCrae was born on Nov. 30, 1872, in Guelph, the second son of a soldier, Lt. Col. David McCrae. Always interested in the military, he joined the Militia field battery in Guelph, commanded by his father. He also attended the University of Toronto and graduated as a medical doctor in 1898 — it was while at university, he developed a flair for writing poetry. McCrae took part in the Boer War, not as a doctor but as an officer in the Guelph contingent of the Canadian Field Artillery.

Following the Boer War, he dropped his military connections and concentrated on medicine, gaining renown for his work in Montreal, lecturing at McGill and other universities, even writing several medical textbooks. When Canada declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, McCrae was one of the first to join, as brigade-surgeon to the Canadian Forces Artillery with the rank of major.

McRae’s homestead in Guelph, a small stone cottage turned into a museum, sits on a quiet street overlooking the Speed River. In 1966, a group of Guelph citizens purchased the cottage, built in 1857, to honor McCrae’s memory. Today, it’s a small but interesting museum, with several rooms displaying furniture from the year McCrae was born plus historical displays illustrating his life.

This Nov. 30 will be a major event at the homestead as it marks the 125th anniversary of McCrae’s birth.

“November 30 will be a major happening here,” says Val Harrison, program co-ordinator at the Centre. “We’ll be opening a new exhibit on John McCrae’s life and celebrating his birthday with parades and church services. Even a big birthday cake.”

For the past eight years, the Guelph Amateur Radio Club has used the homestead as a base to broadcast during Remembrance Day Week, transmitting messages of peace to thousands of “ham” radio operators around the world. Club members will be sending and receiving messages at the homestead from Nov. 4 to 11. And beside the cottage, a memorial cenotaph and garden of remembrance is the scene of many ceremonies of remembrance by Guelph veterans.

After McCrae’s tragic death in France, Moina Michael, in charge of a New York YWCA hostel, was intrigued by the concept of a poppy as symbol of peace after reading In Flanders Fields and distributed some for people to mark Armistice Day. A friend took her idea back to France and set war widows and orphans to work making artificial poppies to raise funds specifically for war-torn areas.

In 1921, the British Legion picked up the idea and within a year, it had spread to Canada, United States, New Zealand and Australia. And today, that symbol of peace, the poppy, along with McRae’s famous poem, lives on as a reminder of the sacrifices made by armed forces in numerous conflicts throughout the decades.