How to speak very briefly about John McCrae, soldier, doctor and poet, who in 1915 near a terrible battle field in the fields of Flanders in Belgium penned the first draft of the poem which is carried today on our $10 bills and is from all indications the reason many in Canada and elsewhere wear poppies on and before each Remembrance Day?
McCrae’s life is brilliantly portrayed by Dianne Graves in her 1997 book, A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae. In it--she devoted five years to the research and writing --Graves brings back to life a vanished period, including the high price paid by many Canadians to preserve liberty, the host of persons McCrae knew or met, such as Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Leacock and Sir Alexander Fleming, and much more.
The poem has a direct Ottawa link because Alexis Helmer, 22, from this city and a graduate of Lisgar Collegiate was McCrae’s close friend. As Helmer left his dug-out in May, 1915, a German round exploded beside him. The day after he was buried, McCrae began scribbling the first draft of “In Flanders Fields” as he looked at the small cemetery, with wild flowers growing between the crosses and birds singing overhead.
Busy with helping the many wounded, and probably feeling the guilt of survivors of combat, McCrae did not finish the poem until months later. He was urged to send it for publication. The Spectator magazine rejected it; it was eventually submitted to Punch magazine in London and published first anonymously. It soon became known throughout the English-speaking world. Graves adds, “(I)ts message and rallying call had been used extensively to further the war effort…As American mobilization began, it was quoted widely and John McCrae became a household name in the United States.”
The McCrae family came to Canada from south west Scotland in 1849. Eventually, Thomas McCrae established a successful woollen mill in Guelph. Graves: “At the centre of their life was a strong Presbyterian faith; Thomas was an Elder at St. Andrew’s Church…Deeply religious and essentially modest, the family attended services several times each Sabbath and adhered to strict principles of duty, hard work and service…”
When John McCrae was born in the next generation, his literary bent was evident at a young age when he began a correspondence with his mother which lasted all his life. There are more than 500 of his letters now in the National Archives of Canada. He also began writing poetry quite young and did so much of his life. His sister was Geills (my father’s mother); his brother, Tom, also became a medical doctor.
At thirteen, John’s father, David, took him to the U.K. on a business trip. Visiting the House of Commons, John noticed that when an MP was “speaking no one seems to listen at all”. Some things don’t appear to change on either side of the Atlantic. He later won a scholarship to attend the University of Toronto, where he did an Arts degree before entering medicine. His strong religious faith, notes Graves, “led him to debate against Darwinism…he regularly attended services and missionary meetings.” Later, he became a professor and taught medicine at McGill University.
Following the Canada Corps spectacular success at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, McCrae was appointed commander of the No.1 Canadian General Hospital in France and then Consultant Physician to the British Armies in the Field. Soon afterwards at age 45, he succumbed to pneumonia and meningitis and died on 28 Jan 1918. He is buried near Wimereux in northern France. Laura and I have visited his grave.
More than 120,000 Canadians died in the two world wars. Today soldiers and civilians are dying in Afghanistan; year after year, the poppy reminds us of these terrible losses.