"In Flanders Fields"|
A Canadian soldier writes a haunting poem about the tragedy of war
As a young man, John McCrae was eager for the taste of battle. Years later on the battlefields of the First World War, he wrote an enduring poem about the horrible legacy of war: "In Flanders Fields."
John McCrae grew up in Guelph, Ontario and devoured stories about adventure and heroic battle. He developed into a tall, handsome award-winning cadet and served as a military officer while at university.
When Britain went to war in South Africa in 1899, McCrae eagerly signed up with other Canadian volunteers. After witnessing the ravages of The Boer War, McCrae returned to home, his boyish enthusiasm for battle gone.
McCrae moved to Montreal and became a respected doctor and accomplished poet. In 1914, he watched with dread as war broke out in Europe.
"It will be a terrible war," he wrote to his brother Tom, "and somebody's finish when all is said and done."
At 41, McCrae volunteered.
"I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience," he wrote his mother.
Because of his age and training, McCrae could have volunteered in the medical corps, but he chose to be a gunner in the artillery, and to serve at the unit's medical officer.
He befriended a young man in his unit named Alexis Helmer. At 22, Helmer had just graduated from McGill University and was engaged to be married.
In April 1915, Helmer and McCrae joined the 18,000 soldiers of the First Canadian Division that took up positions near Ypres, the last Belgium city not occupied by the German army.
For weeks, Canadians fought alongside French and British soldiers at the Battle of Ypres. During the battle, the Germans launched the first gas attacks of the war and both sides bombarded each other with endless artillery fire.
"The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare," McCrae wrote to his mother of the battle. "We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even ... In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds ... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way."
On May 2, Alexis Helmer, was killed.
"Lieutenant Helmer was killed at the guns - a very nice boy," wrote McCrae. "His diary's last words were, 'It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep.' His girl's picture had a hole right through it and we buried it with him. I said the Committal Service over him, as well as I could from memory."
The next day, while sitting on the back of an ambulance, McCrae looked at Helmer's grave and wrote a few lines of verse. It was the beginning of a poem called "In Flanders Fields."
McCrae continued to work on his poem after he was assigned to a new hospital unit in France. He finally sent finished copy to The Spectator in London, where it was rejected. But a journalist who visited the hospital took a copy back to Punch magazine, which printed it in December 8, 1915. Within months it became the most popular poem of the war.
In January 1918, McCrae was diagnosed with pneumonia. Five days later he was dead. He was one of 60,000 Canadian who would never return home.
"In Flanders Fields" remains one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is recited each year at Remembrance Day ceremonies throughout Canada.
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.