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Number of schools: 120
Other organizations: 3
Names on memorials: 47,679
Latest additions:
St. Michael’s College
Newman Club of the University of Toronto

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In Flanders Fields the poppies blow— at home and far away

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.

On the University of Toronto’s memorial wall: “In Flanders Fields” is inscribed beneath a symbolic torch—John McCrae (B.A. 1894; M.B. 1898)

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.

In Flanders Fields Museum—on the 2nd floor of Ieper’s historic Cloth Hall, rebuilt after WWI destruction (photo by Martha Jackson)

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.

A tribute left at the medical station where McCrae worked—his poem copied in English and French (photo by Martha Jackson)

Humberside was home: a neighbour’s tribute to those who died

I think it caught people’s attention, and maybe made them think about Remembrance Day just a little bit longer.
Claire Franceschetti commenting on her Remembrance Day project

Thirty-four simple wooden crosses honour some of the Humberside students who died in the World Wars.

They had lived down the street, around the corner, or maybe right next door. They were young Humbersiders who went off to two World Wars and didn’t come back. The local newspapers reported the losses—always mentioning their old school. Parents, loved ones, and friends absorbed the grief. Humberside Collegiate listed their names on memorials which still hang proudly in the entranceway.

The world moved on.

In 2017, living happily in the Humberside neighbourhood, but moved by the uneasy political climate of our times, Claire Franceschetti decided on a personal tribute to the young people who had fought and died. As a mother of three, aware that it is the young who go to war, Claire wanted to remind us of the freedom Canadians take for granted.

Within this binder—clippings with home addresses, parents’ names, mentions of school—poignant reminders of close neighbourhood connection.

Claire’s grandfather, James Madden, had been at Dunkirk with the British army in 1940. Her father knew some of the family stories of that time. There were many reasons for remembrance.

In Claire’s words, this is how the project evolved,

“I went to my local Home Depot where a helpful lumber clerk named Peter cut the scrap wood to appropriate lengths. With the “help” of my 10-year-old son, I painted the lumber, and then assembled the crosses, and attached a red poppy to each one…

… I went to Humberside Collegiate Institute and took pictures of the WWI and WWII memorial plaques with the HCI student names. From there, I used the Canadian Virtual War Memorial online search tool to find the soldiers’ details.

Where possible, I noted the soldiers’ home addresses… when I found that some of these soldiers lived right around the corner from me… it occurred to me that it would be really striking to include their home addresses (on the crosses) where possible.

Many of the names from the plaque did not lead to info on the Virtual War Memorial site, so I tried to pull the names that had some info. My selection of names was random. I printed off the details that I found, and included them in a binder for interested passersby to read.

The Little Free Library holds a binder of information about the students

The binder was housed in the Little Free Library that I had previously installed on my corner lot.

Finally, the installation took place on a sunny afternoon one week before Remembrance Day. My dad was happy to help me do this. In total, 34 crosses were installed. All in all, it was a good project.”

Groups of teacher-led students, mums with strollers, homeward-bound workers, and seniors with walkers were among the many who stopped to look at the memorial during For King and Country’s visit.

Thank you to Claire and her family for this one-of-a-kind tribute.

A “Rescued” Memorial: Humberside Sailors of WWII

For some years, this “Greetings from Humberside” poster hung over the fireplace of a steak house in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Attractive, colourful, and no doubt at times a conversation piece, it was a long way from home.

Framed greeting at Humberside Collegiate

The whole of Humberside Collegiate Institute in Toronto sent greetings to their sailors posted in Halifax.

Humberside Collegiate Institute is about 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) from Sydney. What was the story?

During the Second World War, collegiate staff and students decided to link the security of life in West Toronto to the perils of putting out to sea so far from home.

A greeting-card style poster appeared. Hundreds of signatures crowded the big space. (Three separate signatures just above the school crest—lower right corner—may be those of the designers of the scroll: Jack Walling; Kay Kinnier; Lorne Eadie.)

We hope that this heartfelt message from home lifted the spirits of those stationed down east in the navy during the uncertain days of war.

The embarking sailors probably arranged safekeeping for their special gift, but in time the war ended, people dispersed, and the poster embarked on adventures of its own, until a sharp-eyed shopper realized its value.

The document’s travels—and rescue—are summarized at the bottom of the frame, as follows:

“Greetings From Humberside Scroll”

This document was found in Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1988. It was displayed as part of the decoration of a steak house. It was used as a focal point over the fireplace in the lobby. It was purchased from a local antique dealer and given as a gift to Chuck Armitage, a graduate of Humberside.

It is believed that the whole school got together during the Second World War and sent their regards to the Humberside students who were serving in the Canadian navy stationed in Nova Scotia. It seems like everybody took part in this wonderful event of school spirit.

It will serve as a perpetual reminder of the commitment of Humberside students to the safety and security of their country.

The sailors named are now in our For King and Country database along with the names from the two traditional bronze memorials also displayed at the school.

On Remembrance Day 2017, a special thank you to those who seventy-odd years ago worked to cheer up their far off Humberside mates—and to all who played a part in returning this one-of-a-kind memorial to its rightful place.

If you recognize any of these names, or can add to the story, please let us know.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea…
Robert Louis Stevenson

A close-up of some of the names on the Humberside Collegiate poster