Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918) was a Canadian doctor, soldier and poet, who began the tradition of using red Flanders poppies as a memorial to the fallen. His poem In Flanders Fields was first published in Punch in 1915.
McCrae was born on 30 November 1872; in Guelph, Ontario, to a Scottish family. He would become one of the favourite sons of his hometown. He attended Guelph Collegiate, then won a scholarship to the University of Toronto. He studied for a BA, then later Medicine, graduating in 1898 with the gold medal.
At this stage McCrae was already publishing poems. However the young student could have had no idea then in what circumstances his writing would become famous.
His military service began in the Highfield Cadet Corps, when he was 14. When the Boer War began in 1899, McCrae joined up, delaying a fellowship in Pathology at McGill University. He was horrified by some of his experiences in the artillery there.
Back home, Dr McCrae completed his studies in Montreal. He worked there at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Eventually he became a lecturer at McGill University.
In 1914, McCrae again became one of about 45 000 Canadians to join up. He was promoted from an ordinary soldier to the Brigade Surgeon at the Number 3 General Hospital. This must have been a harrowing job for such a compassionate man; just as it was for the doctors and orderlies of All Quiet On the Western Front, in the hospital behind enemy lines.
The death that affected Dr McCrae the most was his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed on 2 May 1915. He wrote his most famous poem while sitting in an ambulance, as a tribute to his friend.
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
Like so many young men who went to the Great War, Dr McCrae was fated not to return. In 1918, he fell sick with pneumonia, then meningitis. He died on 28 January. He was buried with full military honours and many attended his funeral.
His childhood home in Guelph has been a museum since 1968.
Peddie, John. “The Story of John McCrae”. firstworldwar.com: a multimedia history of world war one. Retrieved from: http://www.firstworldwar.com/poetsandprose/mccrae_story.htm
Hutchcroft, Anthony. “Biography of John McCrae”. Flanders Fields Music. 2008-13. Retrieved from: http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/johnmccrae-bio.html
”The Red Poppy”. The Australian Army. 27 August 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.army.gov.au/Our-history/Traditions/The-Red-Poppy
“Poems”. Australian War Memorial. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/customs/poems/
“Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae”. Veterans Affairs Canada. 31 August 2015 Retrieved from: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/mccrae