John McCrae

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae's grandfather had emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1849 and as a consequence to this John McCrae was born on the 30th November 1872 in Guelph, a small town near Toronto.

Like many of their ancestors the McCraes were inclined towards military service and John's father had served in the local Militia Unit during the Fenian Raids of Irish Nationalists.

In 1888 McCrae entered Toronto University where he performed well, going on to study and graduate in medicine in 1898. Throughout his training and subsequent appointments he showed a sensitivity to the suffering of others. He also started to confide his thoughts to paper, writing articles for a variety of publications and the occasional poem.

Only one of his poems could be termed as a great one but it has given McCrae and his work as a doctor an immortality that otherwise might have passed this worthy man by.

Following service during the Boer War he returned to Canada and resumed his medical practices as a pathologist and as a family doctor.

War against Germany

By coincidence on the 4th August 1914 as war was being declared on Germany McCrae was mid Atlantic en route for England. He immediately offered his services, but it was only a month later on his return to Canada that he was able to finally join the colours again.

He was given the appointment of Doctor, with the rank of Major, to the 1st Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.

His Unit finally reached Belgium in February 1915 where they were sent to relieve the French 11th Division to the south of Poelkapelle. On arrival McCrae found himself promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

 

The first gas attacks: April 1915

On the 22nd April 1915 the Germans launched the 2nd Battle of Ypres with a gas attack. This was the first time that gas had been used as a weapon and was directed at French Territorial soldiers in the area of Steenstraat and Pilkem near Boezinge.

The First Gas Attacks The First Gas Attacks

At this time McCrae was running a Field Dressing Station on the main road between Ieper and Boezinge. It was located next to a Royal Engineers Bridge over the Ieperlee called the Brielen Bridge. The local farm had been nicknamed Essex Farm and it was this name that was eventually to be given to the cemetery which had grown up alongside the Dressing Station.

The Field Dressing Station

The Field Dressing Station - at the time McCrae was here it would not have been concreted

Originally a simple set of timbered dugouts the Dressing Station was eventually upgraded to concrete sometime in 1917.

During the gas attacks McCrae wrote of the French injured and dying. As the battle reached its height with the secondary attacks against the Canadian positions, the Field Dressing Station ended up even closer to the front line.

Along the canal bank

Along the canal bank

The Colonel of McCrae's Artillery Unit wrote how:

During periods of the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station.

As the cemetery increased in size, so the crosses multiplied - row on row.

Essex Farm Cemetery

Essex Farm Cemetery

 

In Flanders Fields

On the 3rd May 1915 McCrae composed one of the most famous and popular poems to come from the war.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, through poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The ultimate inspiration behind the poem is thought to have come from the death of one of McCrae's friends: Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of the 2nd Battery CFA. Helmer had been hit by shellfire whilst working his own guns on the 2nd May. His badly shattered body was buried in Essex Farm Cemetery with McCrae present. Helmer's grave must have been lost at a later stage because he is now commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ieper.

Following an initial refusal by the Spectator In Flanders Fields was eventually published by Punch on the 8th December 1915. It was an instant success read and copied by front line troops and families at home alike.

On the 1st June McCrae had moved from Essex Farm to Number 3 Canadian General Hospital near Boulogne. He was to remain here for the remainder of his life.

A lifelong asthma sufferer McCrae's had been injured as a result of the gas attacks in Flanders and his health began to decline. The incessant line of battle casualties had a mental as well as physical toll on him and he began to doubt his famous poem and its call for others to take up the torch of the dead.

On the 24th January 1918 he was appointed as the consulting physician to the British Army. That same day he went down with flu and an asthma attack set in. Within 24 hours he had developed a lung infection and he had to be moved to Number 14 British General Hospital for Officers at Wimereux, a small seaside town between Boulogne and Calais.

On the 27th January he suffered a brain haemorrhage and slipped into unconsciousness. John McCrae never recovered: on the 28th January 1918 he died at the age of 45.

He was buried in Wimereux Communal cemetery, his gravestone lying flat like many of the others in the cemetery.

John McCrae's Grave at Wimereux

John McCrae's Grave at Wimereux

Wimereux Communal John McCrae's Grave at Wimereux
 

The poppy as a symbol

McCrae's poem made such an impact on society that the idea of wearing the poppy became a way of remembering the dead.

Moina Michael, an American war secretary with the YMCA, was deeply moved by McCrae's work and it was she who first wore a poppy as act of keeping the faith. Others that she had bought she sold to friends, giving the money to Servicemen in need.

Madame Guerin from the French YMCA, inspired by this idea, suggested that artificial poppies should be made and sold to help ex-Servicemen and their dependants.

The idea of mass producing poppies and selling them as a charity was put to Field Marshal Earl Haig and he agreed with the idea. Thus the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Day was brought into being.

Today the poppy has become a powerful symbol, and any drive across the old battlefields will show you why. The red poppy is an eye catching spot of colour along many roadsides and field edges. In some places there seem to be fields of them a high contrast to the rows of white crosses that dot other fields.

Essex Farm

To the immediate left of Essex Farm cemetery and along the canal bank you will find the dug outs that formed part of McCrae's Field Dressing Station. A plaque at the entrance to the dugouts explains their significance in the writing of the poem.

Essex Farm Cemetery

Essex Farm Cemetery

It should be remembered when looking at them that these are the 1917 concrete structures that replaced the old timber ones that McCrae would have worked in.

 

Essex Farm Cemetery Essex Farm Cemetery