Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 3, 2015

100 Years Ago Today: John McCrae Writes "In Flanders Fields"

A native of Guelph, Ontario, and a veteran of the South African War (1899 -1902), John McCrae began the First World War as a surgeon attached to the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, 1st Canadian Division. After undergoing a baptism by fire at Neuve Chapelle, France, in March 1915, the Canadians moved to Flanders in mid-April, taking up position in the salient around the town of Ypres. McCrae was detailed to a dressing station at Essex Farm north of Ypres dug into a canal bank.

Essex Farm Today and McCrae with Bonneau

After the events described above , on 2 May, McCrae's good friend, 22-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was blown apart by enemy artillery fire. With the parts of Helmer's body collected in a blanket, McCrae himself read the funeral service. The next day, McCrae, who had been publishing poetry for many years, completed “In Flanders Fields”.

Eyewitness accounts vary in detail, but agree that he worked on the poem while sitting on the back step of an ambulance near his medical aid post, known as Essex Farm. In the field around him crosses marked the graves of dead soldiers, including those of Helmer and other Canadians killed the previous day. Accounts also agree that poppies grew in the area at the time and McCrae's own notes refer to birds singing despite the noise of battle.

McCrae's Poem Led to the Red Poppy Becoming the Symbol of the Great War

John McCrae set the poem aside to concentrate on caring for the wounded at Ypres. He took it up again that fall after leaving the Ypres salient to serve in the relatively quieter circumstances of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne. When at last he had worked it to a satisfactory state he sent it to the British publication Spectator, only to see his work rejected. He resubmitted it to Punch magazine, which published it anonymously, in its issue of 8 December 1915. "In Flanders Fields" immediately gained popularity amongst the soldiers in the trenches as an evocative summation of their view of the war. This feeling grew as the war continued until, in the words of one writer, its images became "an eternal motif, part of the collective memory of the war.” Its author, whose identity soon became known, continued to serve as a medical officer until, overcome by fatigue and stress, he died of pneumonia and meningitis at Wimereux, France on 28 January 1918.

Sources: Canadian Government and Veterans Websites

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.

Grave at Wimereux Communal Cemetery, Adjacent to the Cross of Remembrance
 (Steve Miller Photo)


  1. I last visited Essex Farm in 1996. They were in process of preserving the bunkers. They were filled with dirty water and walls covered in modern day graffiti. It is nice to see the completed project in the photo above.

  2. John MaCrae was originally an artillery officer, and served in this capacity with E Battery of the Canadian Contingent in the Boer War. Shortly after war commenced in August 1914, McCrae volunteered for service as an artillery officer, but instead was accepted as a medical officer. He remained closely connected to the guns, and some have remarked that McCrae was an artillery officer who knew somethiing of medicine and poetry. His early published poems predate the Great War; however, these and later works are overshadowed by "In Flanders Fields"

    Today, 3 May 2015, to mark both the penning of his famous poem and the gallant stand of the 1st Canadian Division at the Second Battle of Ypres, a statue of Lt. Col. McCrae was unveiled on Green Island in the nation's capital.

  3. Lovely background and biography.

  4. According to Wikipedia, he graduated from medical school in 1898.