One of the most asked questions is: why poppies?

The answer is simple: poppies only flower in rooted up soil. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, and only when someone roots up the ground, they will sprout. There was enough rooted up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact the whole front consisted of churned up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.

John McCrae’s poem may be the most famous one of the Great War – often only the first two verses are cited or printed. This is not just because of the lack of quality in the third verse, but also because this last verse speaks of an unending quarrel with the foe. And if one thing became clear during the Great War it was this: there was no quarrel between the soldiers (except maybe in the heat of a fight). The quarrel existed only in the minds of some stupid politicians and high-ranking officers (who mostly never experienced the horror of the battlefield).

Nevertheless I want to be complete and give you the full and exact version of McCrae’s great poem, taken from his own, handwritten copy. But first, here is the story of how he wrote it – and how the recent death of a dear friend moved him:

Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the South African War, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood here, and Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.

John McCrae, soldier, physician, poet (born 30 November 1872 in Guelph, ON; died 28 January 1918 in Wimereux, France). A noted pathologist and army physician, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was also a poet; he wrote “In Flanders Fields” — one of the most famous poems of the First World War.

As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae, who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent seventeen days treating injured men – Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans – in the Ypres salient.

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later wrote of it:

“I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days… Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.”

One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.

The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Yser Canal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry.

In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.

A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly. “His face was very tired but calm as we wrote,” Allinson recalled. “He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.”

When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:

“The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.”

In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but Punch published it on 8 December 1915:

By the time “In Flanders Fields” was published, McCrae had moved to the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital near Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, near the English Channel. There were more than 1,000 wounded and dying soldiers at the hospital. Contrary to popular belief, McCrae knew that his poem had become popular all over the world and he was pleased at the acclaim it received. However, little attention was paid to other poetry he wrote, such as “The Anxious Dead” in 1917. But in 1919 — the year after his death — the public’s interest in all things related to McCrae was reflected in the brisk sales of Sir Andrew Macphail’s collection of McCrae’s poetry, which was published with a short biography.

By January 1918, McCrae had provided medical care for troops in the British Expeditionary Force for more than three long years. This dedicated service was noticed, and McCrae was appointed as the consultant physician to the First British Army — the first Canadian to be named to the position. McCrae, however, would never take on his new tasks. Weary and weakened, he was susceptible to pneumonia — a condition that killed many troops during the First World War. On 23 January 1918, he became ill. On 28 January, McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis at the No. 14 British General Hospital in Wimereux, France. He was 45 years old.

John McCrae’s Funeral Procession to Wimereux
Courtesy of Guelph Museums, McCrae House, M1972.5.5.2
Glossy black and white photo. Rows of mourners (nursing sisters, officers, soldiers) are seen in the background. In the foreground, five officers have their backs to the camera. Two officers at the beginning of the procession are holding flowers and are pulling the cart holding McCrae’s coffin. McCrae’s coffin is covered with the Union Jack flag and flowers. General Morrison (left) and General Aime (right) are in the front row of mourners, seen between Bonfire (the horse) and the coffin. Arthur Currie is standing at attention in the line of officers. He is right at Bonfire’s nose.

McCrae was buried the next day in the Wimereux Communal Cemetery with full military honours. Bonfire, his beloved horse, was part of the funeral procession and General Arthur Currie was in attendance. Nursing sisters found a few poppies to put on McCrae’s grave on that unseasonably warm and sunny winter day.

John McCrae’s Grave at Wimereux Cemetery, 1925
Black and white photo of John McCrae’s wooden cross grave marker with a metal plaque on it. In the background there are several rows of cross grave markers. Courtesy of Guelph Museums, McCrae House, M1996X.12.2

Article contributions by:
Rob Ruggenberg, website The Heritage of the Great War.
Linda Granfield https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/lt-col-john-mccrae

Bibliography

  • Daniel G. Dancocks, McClelland and Stewart, Welcome to Flanders Fields, Toronto, 1988
  • Herwig Verleyen, In Flanders Fields, Koksijde, België, 1992
  • Piet en Wim Chielens. De Troost van Schoonheid, Groot-Bijgaarden, België, 1996
  • Chrisje en Kees Brants. Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Amsterdam, 1993
  • Rose E.B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade, London 1990
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