The Power of Remembrance: The Real Story Behind “In Flanders Fields”
Early on the morning of May 3, 1915, John McCrae sat wearily near his field dressing station, a crude bunker cut into the slopes of a bank near the Ypres-Yser Canal in Belgium. A Canadian military surgeon, he had been at the French line for 12 days under incessant German bombardment, and the toll of dead and wounded had been appalling.
From his position on the road along the canal running into Ypres, McCrae wrote: “I saw all the tragedies of war enacted. A wagon, or a bunch of horses or a stray man, would get there just in time for a shell. One could see the absolute knockout; or worse yet, at night one could hear the tragedy, a horse’s scream or the man’s moan.”
The previous night he had buried a good friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, blown to pieces by a direct hit from a German shell. Now, as he sat in the early morning sunshine, he could hear the larks singing between the crash of the guns. He could see the rows of crosses in a nearby cemetery.
The field where the cemetery lay was thick with scarlet poppies, their dormant seeds churned up by the guns, blooming despite-or because of-the carnage. McCrae took in the scene and quickly wrote a 15-line poem. Speaking as from the dead to the living, “In Flanders Fields” was to become the most famous poem of the Great War—perhaps of any war.
John McCrae’s family had long shown a penchant for military service and poetry. Back in their native Scotland, McCraes had fought against the English in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions. From 1688 to 1693, they had compiled the famous Fernaig manuscript, containing Gaelic poetry by them and others.
McCrae’s father, David, showed more interest in the militia than in the family wool business in Guelph, Ontario. He organized a local artillery battery in response to the Fenian raids from the United States in 1866 and subsequently served with the regular army.
McCrae was born in Guelph on November 30, 1872. His mother, Janet, loved to read poetry to the boy and his brother and sister.
Young McCrae joined the Highland Cadet Corps at Guelph Collegiate Institute and later entered his father’s militia unit as a bugler, then became a gunner. He was also a talented student, winning a scholarship at 16 to study at the University of Toronto.
That’s where he had his first encounter with death. On March 15, 1890, he wrote to his mother about the loss of a sweetheart, 19-year-old Alice McRae, from typhoid fever. “I have been reading ‘In Memoriam,'” he wrote, “and always find myself substituting ‘my girlfriend’ for the ‘Arthur’ of the poem.” Perhaps because of his love for Alice, McCrae never married.