27 January 2018
Remembering John McCrae
Sunday marks 100 years since the poet John McCrae died. He was a Canadian Medical Officer during the First World War. In 1915 he wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, following the death of his friend during the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem has became one of the most well-known poems of remembrance.
Born on 30 November 1872 in Ontario, Canada, John McCrae studied medicine at the University of Toronto and then trained as an artilleryman at the Royal Military College of Canada. He had a distinguished medical career, lecturing in medicine and pathology, but also saw service in South Africa during the First and Second Boer Wars. Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 he became a Medical Officer to the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery.
In 1915, McCrae worked at an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) to the north of the Belgian town of Ypres near CWGC Essex Farm Cemetery. It is believed that it was near here that McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields after he had officiated at the funeral of his friend and former student Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died on 2 May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. Alexis is commemorated on the CWGC Menin Gate Memorial.
In Flanders Fields was printed in Punch Magazine on 8 December 1915, and instantly struck a chord with the general public across the world and McCrae became a household name.
From June 1915, John was ordered to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital near Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France. In early January 1918 he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was sent to No.14 British Hospital where he died aged 45 on 28 January 1918.
Wimereux Communal and Essex Farm cemeteries
McCrae is buried in CWGC Wimereux Communal Cemetery, Grave IV.H.3.
A memorial seat in the cemetery features four lines from the poem In Flanders Fields. The cemetery also has a commemorative plaque in his memory.
Around the boundary of CWGC Essex Farm Cemetery there are two memorials to McCrae.
In Flanders Fields and the Poppy
After the Armistice of the First World War on 11 November 1918, Moina Michael, an American working for the YMCA and a writer, was inspired by the poem to purchase some red poppies. She wore one herself and sold the remainder to her friends, giving the money she raised to ex-servicemen. She went on to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England. The Royal British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered nine million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year, raising more than £106,000 to help First World War veterans with employment and housing.
In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, 1915
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.