McCrae, John, Lieutenant-Colonel (1872-1918)


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.

Lt. Col. John McCrae, Canadian soldier, physician and poet, best known for his poem, "In Flanders Fields," was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 1872. At 17, he joined the Canadian Militia [Reserve] as a private, eventually becoming a lieutenant in the Canadian Field Artillery. Meanwhile, he continued studies at the University of Toronto medical school. While training as a doctor, he also developed as a poet, and had sixteen poems published in various magazines. John McCrae received a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Toronto, awarded the Gold Medal, and became resident at Toronto General Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland.

On the outbreak of the South African [Boer] War, McCrae postponed acceptance of the Governor's Fellowship in pathology awarded him by McGill University, Montreal. Instead, he volunteered for service as commander of D Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. Though suffering from chronic asthma, he saw active service in South Africa for a year as a gunnery officer. While there, he was disturbed by seeing the poor medical treatment of sick and wounded soldiers. After returning home and being promoted to the rank of major, McCrae resigned his Militia comission in 1904.

He resumed his medical practice, being appointed resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital, and later going to England, where he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. His abilities led to increasingly important responsibilities, including that of pathologist at Montreal's Foundling & Baby Hospital, physician to the Royal Alexandria Hospital, and lecturer at the University of Vermont. He wrote widely on medical subjects and co-authored textbooks, while still writing a series of poems.

During this hectic schedule, McCrae managed to also carry on an active social life, with many friends, and travelled widely. He regularly attended St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Montreal, became a member of the Shakespear Club, and was invited to join the Pen & Pencil Club, an exclusive group of artists and writers which included Stephen Leacock among its members. As well as being a poet, McCrae was an accomplished sketch artist, who drew numerous scenes of his travels in South Africa, the United States, and Britain.

McCrae re-joined the Canadian army within days of the outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914. This time, he chose to serve as a doctor, in the Canadian Army Medical Corps [later, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps]. He was appointed brigade surgeon to the First Brigade, Canadian Artillery, with the rank of major. He took his favorite horse, Bonfire, with him to France, but had scant riding opportunities for some time. From early 1915 onwards, McCrae served in Forward Dressing Stations in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium -- the area known as Flanders.

After a year of almost unrelieved work at treating wounded soldiers, Lt.Col. McCrae was close to collapse, with frequent re-occrences of his asthma. He wrote his most famous poem the day after one of his closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried beneath a simple wooden cross. "In Flanders Fields" was first published in Punch Magazine, December 8, 1915. It became immediately popular, quoted and re-printed all over the world, seeming as it did to echo perfectly the pathos of sacrifice in battle on the Western Front. Soon afterwards, McCrae was transferred out of the front line to No. 3 General Hospital at Boulogne. There, he worked devotedly with the large medical staff, treating thousands of wounded evacuated from the trenches.

Perhaps McCrae's next most famous poem, published in 1917, was:


	Oh guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
	Above their heads the legions passing on
	(Those fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
	And died not knowing how the day had gone.)

	Oh flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
	The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
	Then let your mighty chorus witness be
	To them and Caesar, that we still make war.

	Tell them, Oh guns, that we have heard their call,
	That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
	Thaat we will onward till we win or fall,
	That we will keep the faith for which they died.

	Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
	They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
	Shall greet in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
	And in content may turn them to their sleep.

McCrae's health deteriorated noticeably, he lost much of his boyish enthusiasm, and took frequent solitary rides on Bonfire, accompanied by his spaniel dog, Bonneau, a stray rescued from the battlefield. In January, 1918, McCrae fell seriously ill, just after receiving word he was appointed consulting surgeon to the British Army, the first Canadian to be so honoured. Col. McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918. He was buried with full military honours in Wimereaux Cemetery, near Boulogne, France. The large funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, from Lt.Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, Canadian Corps Commander, to nurses and medical orderlies. His horse, Bonfire, led the burial procession, its master's boots reversed in the stirrups.

Lt.Col. McCrae's burial site is also commemorated by a large plaque at the main cemetery entrance and by a memorial seat built into a wall nearby. His family home at Guelph, Ontario, has been preseved as a museum, beside a memorial cenotaph and garden of remembrance. However, it is "In Flanders Fields" that remains his most poignant memorial, remaining the most famous poem of the First World War. It was translated into a score of languages, and led to the poppy being adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead of Britain and the Commonwealth. To this day, John McCrae's poem is read aloud at Remembrance Day ceremonies held every November 11th throughout each nation of the Commonwealth.


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