On this day in 1915, John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in the battlefields of Belgium during the First World War, wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”. One of the most popular and often-quoted poems from the First World War, “In Flanders Fields” invocation of the poppies growing over the graves of fallen soldiers has been adopted by Commonwealth countries through the “remembrance poppy” as a symbol of those soldiers who have died in conflict. Almost one hundred years after the poem was first written, “In Flanders Fields” is taught in classrooms throughout the Commonwealth, and in particular, Canada, John McCrae’s native land.
Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872, John McCrae wrote poetry throughout his lifetime, alongside his medical work. Once the First World War began in the summer of 1914, McCrae quickly enlisted to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Despite McCrae’s medical training and expertise, he opted to join a fighting unit instead of the medical corps, and served as both a gunner and a medical officer. McCrae fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans first used poison gas on the battlefield. For seventeen days, the Canadians were able to hold their position against the German assault, however conditions were nightmarish and casualties high. Amongst those that were killed in the battle was Alexis Helmer, a former student and close friend of McCrae’s. After performing the burial service of his friend, the next day, May 3rd 1915, McCrae sat down on the back of an ambulance, and noting how quickly the poppies grew over the graves of his fallen comrades, wrote the following poem:
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.
It would be months before McCrae’s poem became published. On December 8th 1915, McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was published in Punch magazine. It became an instant hit. McCrae’s poem soon became republished around the globe, and translated in several languages, and utilized to bolster support for the war effort in Europe. The words of “In Flanders Fields” were used to sell war bonds and promote soldier recruitment drives throughout the Allied countries.
Later in the war, McCrae was transferred out of his fighting unit (much to his chagrin) to a military hospital, and rose to the rank of colonel by 1918. On January 13th 1918, McCrae caught a case of pneumonia, and in light of the years of stress that war had placed on his body, fell ill with cerebral meningitis later on. On January 28th 1918, John McCrae passed away at a military hospital in Wimereux, France, where he was buried with full military honours.
The most well-known legacy of “In Flanders Fields” are the remembrance poppies worn throughout the Commonwealth during the weeks leading up to Remembrance/Armistice Day. First introduced by the American Legion in 1920, the Remembrance Poppy was then shortly adopted by the Royal British Legion with support from Field Marshall Douglas Haig. From there, the Remembrance Poppy was introduced throughout the Empire. Today, Legions associations are actively involved with the production and sale of poppies during the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, with funds going to support veterans and their families.
Here is a link to a Heritage Minute clip that was released by the Canadian government to commemorate John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”: https://www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/john-mccrae.