Remembrance Day 2015: Why John McCrae's In Flanders Fields still resonates

In Flanders Fields was hardly the only poem penned out of the emotion of the First World War. But its vivid imagery and the haunting evocation of men whose lives were lost have given it a lasting place in the collective Canadian imagination.

Poem written by field surgeon continues to inspire others a century after publication

'In Flanders Fields,' read by Michael Enright

8 years ago
Duration 1:19
Tribute to Canada's Armed Forces

When Micah Brodovsky pauses to consider his favourite words in the iconic First World War poem In Flanders Fields, the Grade 8 student's mind drifts to a line near the end.

It is a simple line — "If ye break faith with us who die" — and comes in the third and final stanza of a poem not only much memorized, but, arguably, etched deeply into the Canadian psyche over the 100 years since it was written.

"The soldiers are dead, but you have to help their memory live on," says Brodovsky, a student at the Guelph, Ont., school named after the poem's author: Lt.-Col. John McCrae.

The soldier behind 'In Flanders Fields'

8 years ago
Duration 6:46
On the 100th anniversary of 'In Flanders Fields', we take a closer look at the man who wrote the iconic Remembrance Day poem.

Brodovsky is part of a group of students at John McCrae Public School who helped organize its annual Remembrance Day assembly, which is expected to see more than 500 students, staff and local residents gather today at McCrae's birthplace across the street from the school.

"Everyone has been affected by world wars, and whether your grandparents or great-grandparents fought or a family member died in it or has a story to tell from it, everyone is deeply affected by those events," Brodovsky says. "That's really important for us to remember."

McCrae, a surgeon in the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery, wrote the poem after the death of a friend in the bloody second battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915. This year, in a nod to the centenary of In Flanders Fields, extra attention is being focused on the poem at McCrae's namesake school.

John McCrae Public School students Sarah Hopkins, left, Caroline Bendall, Micah Brodovsky, Liam Deaton and Rachael Young helped arrange today's Remembrance Day ceremonies for the school. (Beth McEwen/John McCrae Public School)

"It's very cool that this poem that was written 100 years ago is still super, super-present in Remembrance Days," says student Caroline Bendall, who will serve as MC for the school's ceremony.

Bendall has a quick assessment of why the poem has lasted the way it has: "It's very clear, and it's very easy to understand and it's very easy to get an image from." 

In Flanders Fields was hardly the only poem penned out of the emotion of First World War battles. But its vivid imagery of poppies and crosses, and its haunting evocation of men whose lives were lost in that conflict have given it a lasting place in the collective Canadian imagination.

'Gets to your soul'

"People say, 'Well, do you think it will last another 100 years?' " says Linda Granfield, a Toronto author and historian who explored the literary work in her book, In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae, author of the famous poem 'In Flanders Fields,' wrote the iconic work after the death of a friend during the second battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

She thinks it will.

"It gets to your soul. It gets to your emotions. It makes you feel that you're part of this continuum, be it war or peace."

Granfield thinks part of the reason the poem is still with us is "that incredible middle stanza" that begins: We are the dead, short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.

"That reminds us these were wonderful human beings," she says. "These were real people that fought that we lost."

And these losses have not stopped. "We've had one conflict after another and other generations going off to war, some coming back, some not," says Granfield.

From Flanders to Afghanistan

It is that sense of continuing loss, she suggests, that makes In Flanders Fields resonant again, every November in particular.

"Sadly, after Afghanistan, there's another 158 deaths that we focus on as a nation."

For Canadians, of course, it is also a focus that starts at school, in ceremonies such as the one at John McCrae Public School in Guelph or in assignments in days gone by to memorize the stirring lines.

"In Canada, we learn it when we are young, and we recite it in social gatherings, so it becomes lodged in our subconscious," says Kathy Parks, administrator of the Soldiers' Tower commemoration site at the University of Toronto.

Poppies bloom in the walls of First World War trenches along the Western Front in Diksmuide, Belgium, 100 years after John McCrae wrote his iconic poem 'In Flanders Fields.' (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

McCrae was a U of T alumnus, and 1,185 members of the University of Toronto community — including McCrae himself — died in the First World War. Each year, at the Nov. 11 service of remembrance held at Soldiers' Tower, In Flanders Fields is read.

Beyond the evocation of lives lost and the emotional connections the poem has forged, there are also some technical — or literary — reasons it could have gained the legacy it has.

"Another reason I think why it's fairly potent is it's a very well-crafted poem," says Melissa Furrow, an English professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

For those who follow such things closely, it's a rondeau, a form of verse with medieval French roots and something Furrow says is a "comparatively difficult form to do."

"The patterns in it help to shape your reaction to it, so you can feel the development and the conclusion."

Call to arms?

For some, that conclusion — the third stanza begins with "take up our quarrel with the foe" — has been problematic, essentially serving as a call to arms, even though the poem is also invoked as a paean to peace.

"We continue to value it even though part of our valuation may be just based on wishful misreading," says Furrow, who notes that the moral McCrae took from his wartime experience was "having spilt this much blood already, we should make sure that we finish the job and that we get the people who are doing this."

This year, the centenary of the poem has inspired a wide range of responses, from new coins and sculpture to a book of essays that includes the thoughts of noted Canadians, ranging from retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire and historian Tim Cook to author Margaret Atwood.

Sculptor Ruth Abernethy created two bronze likenesses of Lt.-Col. John McCrae, one which is on display in Ottawa, and another in his hometown of Guelph, Ont. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Sculptor Ruth Abernethy, who created bronze statues of McCrae that were unveiled earlier this year in Guelph and Ottawa, feels the way the poem marries the personal commitment of a soldier to the larger goal of preserving nationhood makes it "particularly striking."

McCrae's words offer clarity and contrasts, she says, presenting "the impossible surrealism" of being in battle.

"That's both the physical engagement on the field and the internal struggle to hang your hat on why you would do this, why humanity engages in this," she says.

"We are mesmerized by that poem. It addresses our sunny side. It alludes to the struggle."