John McCrae statues to be unveiled a century after In Flanders Fields

A century after he scribbled the simple but poignant stanzas of In Flanders Fields, John McCrae is being honoured with two statues.

Bronzes created for Ottawa and Guelph, Ont., hometown of the doctor, artist and poet

The first unveiling of a bronze memorial to Lt.-Col. John McCrae will be held in Ottawa next month. (Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery/Canadian Press)

A century after he scribbled the simple but poignant stanzas of In Flanders Fields, John McCrae is being honoured with two statues.

One of the larger-than-life bronzes will be installed in Ottawa on May 3, while a duplicate will be unveiled in McCrae's hometown of Guelph, Ont., later this summer.

The Ottawa statue will be placed at the National Artillery Memorial on Sussex Drive, just east of the downtown core.

For those who think of McCrae as a doctor and a poet, the location might seem an odd choice, but his first calling was as an artilleryman. And his brother gunners want to honour that heritage.

Jim Selbie, a retired general who now holds the honorary post of Colonel Commandant of The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, said McCrae exemplified the concept of the citizen-soldier:

Both physician and gunner

"He had two professions, both of which he had a great commitment to, that of a physician but equally that as a gunner. You still see that today amongst a lot of our reserve officers and I think that's something to celebrate."

Mike McKay, a Guelph businessman and a retired reservist lieutenant-colonel, was one of the driving forces behind the statue project.

"I'm the guy that volunteered, and being a soldier I should have known to never volunteer,' he joked in a recent interview.

McKay helped organized a fundraising project to find the $300,000 for the Guelph statue. A second effort raised about $460,000 for the Ottawa statue.

The Guelph project was covered mainly by private donations, although the Ottawa end was supported by help from National Defence and Veterans Affairs as well as an unexpected $50,000 from the government of Flanders, in Belgium.

Soldier perched on broken tree trunk

The statue itself, by Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy, shows McCrae sitting on a broken tree trunk, his cap perched on his medical bag in front of him and poppies scattered on the ground.

In 1915, McCrae held a unique position. At the start of the war, he sought to rejoin the artillery. He had commanded a Canadian battery during the Boer War and wanted back into combat.

But by then, he was also a physician and the army wanted doctors more than gunners. So he became major in an artillery uniform, simultaneously second-in-command of the 1st Canadian artillery brigade and its brigade surgeon.

In early May, following the second battle of Ypres and after presiding at the funeral of a friend and former student who had been blown to fragments by a shell, McCrae jotted down the first draft of his famous poem. He wrote of what he saw and heard around him; the poppies, the ranks of crosses and the trilling of birdsong against the grumble of the guns.

"The call specially asked for John McCrae at the writing of In Flanders Fields,' Abernethy said in an interview from her home near Wellesley, Ont.

She stared by sculpting McCrae writing the poem, but that presented a problem.

Artist captures McCrae holding poem

"If you're writing something on your knee, you're looking down at what you're writing. As a portrait, it just means that his face is hard to see. So for that reason, we decided that he had just finished writing the poem, at which point he signs his name and looks up and that was the moment I wanted."

Abernethy, whose works include the iconic bronze of Oscar Peterson and his piano outside the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, included the entire poem on McCrae's notebook.

Retired general Michael Jeffery, a former commander of the army and another artilleryman, said it is important to remind people that McCrae was a gunner.

"As one of his medical corps colleagues said, and it's almost a quote: For McCrae, his heart was always with the guns, even after becoming a medical officer."

Lt.-Col. John McCrae died of pneumonia on Jan. 28, 1918 and was buried with in Wimereux Cemetery, just north of Boulogne, France, not far from the killing fields of Flanders which he immortalized.


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