Who Was John McCrae, Writer of “In Flanders Fields”?
In 1899, McCrae took up a fellowship in pathology at Montreal’s McGill University. He had barely acclimatized himself to his new duties when military service called again. Volunteers were being sought for the Boer War, and McCrae was quick to offer himself.
He went not as a medical man but as a lieutenant with an artillery unit, spending the better part of a year in South Africa, much of it in fruitless treks as the British forces pursued the elusive Boers. But he did see action and earned a reputation as a clever and popular officer.
Back in Montreal in 1901, he plunged into his medical work as a resident assistant pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital. He was popular with students and staff alike and had, according to his friend and colleague Andrew Macphail, a smile that was “ineffable. It filled the eyes and illumined the face.” Six feet tall and 180 pounds, McCrae nonetheless walked, said Macphail, “as if he were about to dance.
In demand at dinner parties, he seemed to have an endless fund of yarns suitable for every occasion. Once, after he had accompanied the Governor General on a lengthy northern trip, some of it by canoe, Lord Grey remarked, “We travelled 3,000 miles, and McCrae had a story for every mile.
By 1914, McCrae was at the top of his profession. In July, he finished editing the second edition of a pathology textbook he had co-authored. When war was declared, he was attending a conference in Britain.
From there, he cabled an old Boer War comrade and offered his services. He was appointed surgeon to the 1st Brigade, Canadian Corps Artillery, with the rank of major and second in command. McCrae’s South African experience had left him with no illusions about what was in store. Before taking up his post, he wrote his sister: “Out on the awful old trail again! And with very mixed feelings, but some determination.”
After a miserably wet winter on Salisbury Plain in England, his unit sailed for France in February 1915. On April 20, the Canadian division to which McCrae’s unit belonged was ordered to relieve a French division in the Ypres Salient.
On May 2, he wrote to his mother: “Heavy gunfire again this morning. Lieutenant H. was killed at the guns. I said the Committal Service over him as well as I could from memory. A soldier’s death!”
The next morning he wrote “In Flanders Fields.”