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In Flanders Fields - Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae
Column published: 10 November 2006
By: Rick Roberts,   Biography & Archived Articles


The following is an excerpt from the Royal Canadian Legion website:

Lest We Forget Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae was born on 30 November 1872 in Guelph, Ontario. At age 14, he joined the Highfield Cadet Corps and, three years later, enlisted in the Militia field battery. While attending the University of Toronto Medical School, he was a member of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

With Britain declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Canada’s involvement was automatic. John McCrae was among the first wave of Canadians who enlisted to serve and he was appointed as brigade surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery.

In April 1915, John McCrae was stationed near Ypres, Belgium, the area traditionally called Flanders. It was there, during the Second Battle of Ypres, that some of the fiercest fighting of the First World War occurred. Working from a dressing station on the banks of the Yser Canal, dressing hundreds of wounded soldiers from wave after wave of relentless enemy attack, he observed how “we are weary in body and wearier in mind. The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare.”

In May, 1915, on the day following the death of fellow soldier Lt Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, John McCrae wrote his now famous work, an expression of his anguish over the loss of his friend and a reflection of his surroundings – wild Poppies growing amid simple wooden crosses marking makeshift graves. These 15 lines, written in 20 minutes, captured an exact description of the sights and sounds of the area around him.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae left Ypres with these memorable few lines scrawled on a scrap of paper. His words were a poem which started, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…” Little did he know then that these 15 lines would become enshrined in the innermost thoughts and hearts of all soldiers who hear them. Through his words, the scarlet Poppy quickly became the symbol for soldiers who died in battle.

The poem was first published on 8 December 1915 in England, appearing in “Punch” magazine.
    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
His poem speaks of Flanders fields, but the subject is universal – the fear of the dead that they will be forgotten, that their death will have been in vain. Remembrance, as symbolized by the Poppy, is our eternal answer which belies that fear.

Sadly, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae died of pneumonia at Wimereux, France on 28 January 1918. He was 44 years old.

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