Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae (November 30, 1872 – January 28, 1918) was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres. He is best known for writing the famous war memorial poem “In Flanders Fields”.
Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, John McCrae was the second son of Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae and Janet Simpson Eckford McCrae. He had a sister, Geills, and a brother, Tom. John studied medicine at university, graduating in 1898 from University of Toronto Medical School.
With encouragement from his father, John always had a keen interest in the military, and when the South African War broke out in 1899, he felt a duty to fight. He sailed to Africa in December that year with the Canadian Field Artillery. He resigned in 1904 after being made Major and would not be involved in military dealings until 1914.
Within three weeks of the outbreak of the First World War , almost 50,000 Canadians had rushed to volunteer, including McCrae who was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery with the rank of Major and second-in-command. Just before his departure, he wrote to a friend:
It is a terrible state of affairs, and I am going because I think every bachelor, especially if he has experience of war, ought to go. I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience. (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 77)
It is thought that McCrae began the draft for his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ on the evening of the 2nd May, 1915 in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres. Earlier that day, his good friend, Lt Alexis Helmer was killed by shell fire and McCrae asked to conduct the burial service owing to the chaplain being called away on duty elsewhere. It is believed that after the service, during the evening of the 2nd May, 1915 he sat down and began the draft of one of the most iconic war poems ever.
In Flanders Fields was first published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915. Within months, this poem came to symbolize the sacrifices of all who were fighting in the First World War. Today, the poem continues to be a part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada, Britain and other countries throughout the world.
In Flanders Fields (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.
On January 28, 1918, while still commanding No 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia. He was buried the following day in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery, just a couple of kilometres up the coast from Boulogne, with full military honours. McCrae’s gravestone is placed flat, as are all the others in the section, because of the unstable sandy soil.