P.E.I.'s connection to John McCrae and his famous poem In Flanders Fields

A Prince Edward Island writer had a powerful connection with the author of one of the most famous war poems in the world. Sir Andrew Macphail paid tribute to his friend Lt.-Col. John McCrae in an essay published in 1919, part of a volume of poetry featuring In Flanders Fields.

'He was still very much in grief and this was the best way he could think to show it and to share it'

UPEI's Simon Lloyd holds a copy of the book that includes John McCrae's poetry as well as the essay about McCrae written by Sir Andrew Macphail of P.E.I. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

A Prince Edward Island writer had a powerful connection with the author of one of the most famous war poems in the world.

Sir Andrew Macphail paid tribute to his friend Lt.-Col. John McCrae in an essay published in 1919, part of a volume of poetry featuring the famous In Flanders Fields.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau, circa 1914. McCrae had a great love for animals and brought his horse Bonfire from Canada when he enlisted. On the other hand his dog Bonneau, was reportedly a stray that McCrae adopted in France. (Library and Archives Canada)

Macphail's piece entitled An Essay in Character celebrates McCrae's career and his writing, as well as their friendship.

"They were close friends and Macphail was deeply saddened by McCrae's passing in January of 1918 and I think that partly inspired him to write the essay," said Simon Lloyd, archivist and special collections librarian at the University of Prince Edward Island.

"I think he was still very much in grief and this was the best way he could think to show it and to share it." 

Macphail served at the front with a field ambulance corps at several battles, including Vimy Ridge. (Submitted by Simon Lloyd)

Physicians, writers and soldiers

Macphail grew up on his family's farm in Orwell, P.E.I. He met McCrae in Montreal where they were both practising physicians, as well as writers.

"They were both involved in a very small and quite exclusive club called The Pen and Pencil Club, a place for like-minded men of arts and letters to gather and share ideas, stories, sketches," Lloyd said.

"It was a small group, they were definitely close friends." 

Lloyd says when McCrae was leaving to go overseas, the last person he dined with before leaving Montreal was Macphail.

This presentation version of In Flanders Fields written in John McCrae’s hand, is found in the E.W.B. Morrison fonds in Library and Archives Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

'Extremely traumatic'

Macphail joined the war effort soon after, and his essay talks about McCrae's time on the front lines.

"He found journals and letters that McCrae had kept, especially when he was involved in the battle of Ypres," Lloyd said.

"The time he spent in combat, which he would later describe as a nightmare, fighting constantly for a month and extremely traumatic."

John McCrae, Bonfire and Bonneau, Dec, 1917. (Guelph Museums)

Macphail observed how McCrae was changed by those experiences.

"McCrae was known for being a jolly, friendly person," Lloyd said.

"That didn't change entirely after his combat experience but many people commented that he didn't seem to be quite the same person. He didn't seem as ready to laugh or to smile. He seemed to be carrying a weight around with him.

John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ont. in 1872. His living relatives in Winnipeg continue to read his poem In Flanders Fields at Remembrance Day ceremonies every year. (Supplied by Kilgour family)

Lloyd says some of the essay is very personal.

"You get a very intimate and really vivid portrait of McCrae, how children and animals followed McCrae wherever he went, so very affectionate," Lloyd said.

"Toward the end he also describes, in very evocative and loving detail, McCrae's funeral and concludes how he is greatly missed by his friends."

The City of Guelph has created an interactive exhibit about John McCrae, showcasing his early life in Guelph, his military service and how he came to write In Flanders Fields. (Guelph Museums)

Macphail also writes about In Flanders Fields, which he saw for the first time published in a British magazine.

"Macphail predicted that the poem would become a classic as indeed it did," said Lloyd. 

"He had a very significant connection to certainly the best known Canadian poem ever, the best known poem of the First World War." 

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)

A very moving story

Lloyd is pleased to share P.E.I.'s connection to the famous poem.

"Macphail has come to be regarded as one of the most prominent men of letters to come from Prince Edward Island, a leading figure in Canadian culture," Lloyd said.

"I think it's touching and moving that he invested himself very deeply, emotionally and psychologically, in that profile of McCrae that he contributed. And I think that makes it a very moving story as well as an interesting bit of literary history."  

Lloyd will present the 2018 Memorial Lecture at the Sir Andrew Macphail Homestead on Saturday, Nov. 10th at 7 p.m., discussing the friendship of Macphail and McCrae and the ways their careers intersected.

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About the Author

Nancy Russell

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog.