Finding new things to say about “In Flanders Fields” is tricky. Most Canadians can recite a line or two. Many know the whole poem off by heart; maybe pausing to ponder did the poppies “blow” or “grow.” (The answer is “blow” in the first line; “grow” in the last verse.)
On May 3, 1915, John McCrae, soldier and surgeon of the Great War, sat on the back of a field ambulance writing about what he saw around him. It was the Second Battle of Ypres—infamous for the first mass use of poison gas—and other horrors. He had just presided over the battlefield burial of friend and fellow soldier, Alexis Helmer, of Ottawa.
The story goes that after finishing his poem, McCrae crumpled it and threw it away. Perhaps, like many writers, he believed he hadn’t got it quite right. His poetry writing began at Guelph Collegiate, and his work had been published in magazines. An accomplished student, at age 16 he was the first graduate from his home town to win a scholarship to the University of Toronto. (The university still has a John McCrae admission scholarship awarded to the Guelph C.I. student with the highest average.)
Thus, Lt.-Col J. McCrae is one of 629 names carved on the University of Toronto’s memorial wall for those who died in the Great War. Nearby on the memorial is the full text of “In Flanders Fields.” Every person on the wall left a legacy. McCrae’s legacy lives on in countless Remembrance Day observances and the school-day memories of many of us.
John McCrae attended University College from 1888 to 1898. He took one year off to return to the cleaner air of Guelph because of asthma, a life- long ailment. He worked as a resident master at Ontario Agricultural College, at the time an associate college of the University of Toronto.
The thrown-away poem, reportedly retrieved by someone who suggested it deserved a wider audience, first appeared in Punch magazine in December 1915. An immediate success, it was reprinted many times —not always accurately—to McCrae’s bemusement. Translations into many languages followed.
Literary types argue there are better poems about the Great War—more thoughtful; more sensitive; deeper in meaning—but “In Flanders Fields” is the most remembered and the most quoted. Plain words of one or two syllables; rhyme; rhythm; three short verses; “the Dead” who speak, all add to its enduring quality.
In present-day Ieper (Ypres) Belgium, visitors enjoying hearty Flemish stew and a local beer at a modest hotel can see on an opposite wall McCrae’s poem reproduced in full. Steps away in the market square stands Flanders Fields Museum. Originally called Ypres Salient Memorial Museum, the 1998 name change shows the power of a simple poem.
Local tour groups offer trips to John McCrae’s dressing station. “In Flanders Fields” helped to imprint poppies as a symbol of the Great War. Poppies abound on posters children decorate for the Royal Canadian Legion’s annual contests. Remembrance Day is Poppy Day to many a school child.
McCrae was 41 when he entered the Great War, older than many of his comrades. His life so far had read like a Boy’s Own adventure. After his 1898 graduation from the University of Toronto medical program, he became first resident house-officer at Toronto General Hospital, then went off to South Africa to serve in the Boer War, combining career success—in Quebec and the U.S.A. as well as Ontario—with travel and other challenges. In 1910, as expedition physician, he journeyed by canoe and ice breaker on Governor General Earl Grey’s trip from Lake Winnipeg to York Factory on Hudson Bay.
En route to England for a holiday in August 1914, McCrae cut short his trip when war broke out. He returned to enlist at Valcartier, Quebec, on September 22, 1914. He died in a British hospital in Wimereux, France, of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918. He was 45 years old. Nursing sisters found poppies for his grave.
Guelph’s famous son is remembered at home and far away from his birthplace cottage, now a museum proudly bearing his name. Toronto is honoured to have played a part in preparation for an outstanding life.
On November 11, 2018, John McCrae’s words remind us that poppies still blow—and grow—one hundred years after the Great War’s end.