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, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Background to John McCrae’s Famous Poem
When the First World War, the Great War, began in August 1914, no one knew that millions of young men and women would die before the conflict ended in 1918. No one knew that villages would be erased from the map, or that entire nations would be changed forever. In fact, people thought the war would be over before Christmas.
The Great War was unlike any other in history. It was a new and horrible artillery battle fought from rat-infested, water-filled trenches dug deep into foreign soil. there would be little noble about it, except the dedication of millions to fight for what they believed. Into the nightmarish terrain of the Western Front stepped John McCrae.
McCrae’s ancestors included soldiers and physicians, and he carried on the tradition. As a boy in Guelph, Ontario, he won a gold medal for being the best drilled cadet in the province. By fifteen he was a bugler in his father’s battery, and by eighteen he was a gunner. While in university, McCrae belonged to the Queen’s Own Rifles. Medical school was followed by American and Canadian hospital work and teaching. All the while, McCrae wrote short stories and poetry in which peace after death was a repeated theme.
McCrae was in England on holiday when war was declared in 1914, yet he answered Canada’s call for recruits. “I’m available as a combatant or medical if they need me,” he cabled home. But after a year in Flanders, McCrae wrote to a close friend, “I saw enough fighting to do me for my natural life.”
Ypres had been the home of a beautiful medieval cathedral and Cloth Hall. By the time John McCrae arrived in Flanders, however, the town, called “Wipers” by the soldiers, was ruined and refugees streamed from it. Troops were camped not far from the Yser Canal, where they cooked meals, wrote letters to loved ones, and strengthened friendships.
A soldier’s day included a great deal of waiting: waiting in line for a once-a-week (or month) shower; waiting for dark to fall so the wounded could be removed from the battlefield; waiting to be seen by a nurse or a doctor; waiting for food and water, and perhaps going for days without either one.
When a soldier wasn’t fighting, there were chores to be done. Trench-digging and covering the much with duckboards (a kind of wooden boardwalk) took up much of the time. Communication lines, trucks, rifles, and even cooking utensils needed repair.
Many off-duty hours were spent “chatting” - removing chats (lice) from the seams of clothing. Such tasks gave a soldier time to gossip with his comrades and learn more about where they came from, whom they loved, and what they would do when the war was over. Emotional ties grew. In the trenches, soldiers fought as much for the protection of the fellow next to them as for any other, more patriotic, reason.
The soldier’s meals were a monotonous menu of canned stew, pork and beans, and “bully” (corned) beef. Three men might share one loaf of fresh or mouldy bread, with tinned fruit for dessert. A mug of hot tea was a welcome source of heat during the winter months. Some soldiers even shaved with cold tea when there were fresh water shortages. Time spent at rest, away from the trenches, meant a man could enjoy treats like bacon and eggs in a nearby cottage, or at a canteen in the village.
Packages received from home were filled with necessities like soap and handmade socks, but also gave the soldiers something they could share: cookies, peppermint drops, cocoa, raisins, and almonds. Such luxuries provided brief moments of pleasure in an otherwise grimy and depressing situation.
Trenches were zigzagging alleys carved deep into the soil and sandbagged for support and protection. Soldiers moved through a three-line system of trenches: the outlying reserve trench; the support trench; and then the fire trench, which looked across “no man’s land,” a shell-scarred area that separated the soldiers’ trenches from the enemy’s. Fierce-looking loops of barbed wire stretched endlessly along the front of the fire trench.
In bad weather, rain filled the trenches. Days of standing in the cold, stagnant water left men with a dangerous condition called trench foot, similar to frostbite. Rats and brutal winter weather added to the misery. Soldiers slept in “funk holes” (shelves scraped into the sides of the trench). There were two-man listening posts where soldiers monitored the enemy’s movements. Many soldiers’ letters described the sound of bullets cracking around them as they sat in the dark, waiting.
Combat could take place at any time of the day or night, and often continued for several days straight. Even when the fighting eased, every soldier was required to “stand to,” fully dressed and ready for action, for an hour at dawn and dusk each day. When the enemy did approach, or it was time for an Allied attack, the gunners manned their artillery and the infantry prepared to “go over the top” (a phrase used to describe the practice of leaping out of the deep trenches into no man’s land).
Snipers and heavy artillery fire, as well as poisonous gas attacks, provided the military doctors with thousands of patients. Bronchitis, pneumonia, and influenza spread quickly among soldiers in such close, unhealthy quarters. War wounds often had to be treated on the field by a soldier’s comrades, rather than a doctor, so each soldier carried a bit of iodine and some bandages in his pocket. After dark, a stretcher squad of four men would lift the wounded to their shoulders and stumble across the bomb-scarred field, all the while dodging snipers’ bullets and mud holes that could claim them.
At the dressing-station, doctors and nurses treated those with minor injuries and determined which of the seriously wounded soldiers would be sent to better-equipped hospital in France, or to England for major rehabilitation. Once he was back on his feet, a soldier who had spent a few weeks in a soft hospital bed in England would find himself in the muddy trenches again, replacing yet another wounded comrade.
May 1915. In Flanders, the French and Belgian lands bordered by the North Sea, it was the time for fresh green shoots and white blossoms. But the First World War had raged for nearly a year and winter’s gloom remained, etched upon the skies by blackened tree trunks, ruined Church spires, and barbed wire.
For nearly two weeks John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, had attended to the horrible injuries suffered by the soldiers in the continuing Second Battle of Ypres. While shells exploded around them, McCrae and his staff cared for hundreds of wounded men each day. And others, companions they had shared a meal with just hours before, were buried a few steps from the dressing-station door. “It was HELL all the time,” McCrae later wrote. “We really expected to die in our tracks. We never had our boots off, much less our clothes.”
On the second dismal day of May, one death in particular touched John McCrae. A close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed early that morning when an enemy shell exploded at this feet. John McCrae, doctor, could do nothing to save him; but John McCrae, soldier and friend, recited prayers as Helmer’s remains were lowered into the Flanders soil and the grave marked with a wooden cross.
McCrae sat on the back of an ambulance, writing within sight of the new grave. Helmer’s death inspired McCrae to write “In Flanders Fields,” a poem that to this day relays the images of war, loss, love, and renewal. After he completed the poem, John McCrae was back at work in the dressing station. The war was to continue for three more years - in Flanders fields and beyond.
Soon after he wrote “In Flanders Fields,” John McCrae sent the poem to England for possible publication. It appeared, without his name, in the December 9, 1915 issue of Punch magazine. The public response was overwhelming. The poet’s identity was subsequently revealed, and his work became known as “the most popular English poem of the Great War.” People recited, translated, and replied to McCrae’s poem. “In Flanders Fields” was particularly well received in the United States, a country not yet involved in the conflict. In just fifteen lines, McCrae had captured the mood of the times.
Although, as a doctor, McCrae was committed to saving lives, he was equally committed to the war effort. “It is a terrible state of affairs,” he wrote, “and I am going to war because I think every bachelor, especially if he has experience of war, ought to go. I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience.” At forty-one, McCrae was too old and unpractised to command an artillery brigade as he wished, be he was named brigade-surgeon.
The publication of “In Flanders Fields” enabled McCrae to help the cause more than he had ever imagined. Men inspired by the final stanza’s call-to-arms joined the army when it most needed new recruits. In 1917 the first Victory Loan Bonds in Canada used lines from the poem in their advertisements. The bonds raised $400 million for the war effort, and John McCrae was pleased by such news.
Throughout his adolescense and university years, McCrae had artistically arranged hundreds of tickets, magazine illustrations, and photographs in a colourful scrapbook. On one page, he pasted pictures of famous poets and copied the lines “They are slaves who will not dare / All wrongs to right, all rights to share.” Twenty years later, John McCrae was doing his best to right wrongs, and he urged the world’s citizens to join him.
1916-1918. John McCrae treated injured soldiers in dressing stations, tent hospitals, and buildings so cold there was frost on the floor. He handled the survivors of some of the war’s most devastating battles (Second Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele). People who knew McCrae noticed changes in his appearance and personality. He spent more time along and looked older than he actually was. He no longer entertained companions with lively stories, told with a winning smile. “I am very tired of it,” he wrote to a friend. His hospital treated nearly five thousand men in the first half of July 1916, and almost seven hundred on the twenty-first of July alone.
John McCrae was demoralized and unhealthy by the winter of 1918. Ill in bed, he learned of his appointment as consulting physician to the First British Army. Within a week of the announcement, on the twenty-eighth of January, McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis. The sun shone brightly as John McCrae, doctor, soldier, and poet, was buried with full military honours in the cemetery at Wimereux, France.
News of McCrae’s death spread quickly around the world. His elderly father, David McCrae, began to paste hundreds of tributes into his own scrapbook. Like so many other lost sons, John McCrae would sleep forever where the poppies grow. But even in death, his voice, through his famous poem, continued to call on citizens to support a war that was nearing its end at least.
Extract from: “In Flanders Fields, The Story of the Poem by John McCrae”; Linda Granfield, Illustrations by Janet Wilson; 1995; ISBN 0-7737-2991-7 (bound); ISBN 0-7737-5925-5 (paperback)
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