John McCrae – Flanders Fields

LCol John McCrae, RCA, MD.

John McCrae (30th November 1872 — 28th January 1918) had a dual background before his time in Europe in WW1.  He followed a medical background as student, researcher, mentor and teacher at McGill University with active duty service as an artillery officer in the South African or Boer War.  His past service with the Canadian artillery Militia in Guelph Ontario trained him well for his service in that war.  The contacts he made with his gunner contemporaries in South Africa served him well at the outbreak of WW1 and he offered his services as a gunner, but his qualifications as a doctor made him doubly valuable.  John McCrae served in the rank of major as a military doctor and was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The field guns of his brigade’s batteries were in position on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, about two kilometres to the north of Ypres in the french province of Flanders. The brigade had arrived there in the early hours of 23rd April.

McCrae served equally as a gunner and a doctor during this period alternating between duties as a forward observer and doctor at the field hospital.  It is thought that doctor John McCrae began the draft for his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ on the night of the 2nd May, 1915 following the death and burial of his friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer, while forward with the artillery in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres.  The exact details of when the first draft was completed may never be known because there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time.

  • One account says that he was seen writing the poem sitting on the rear step of an ambulance the next day while looking at Helmer’s grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.
  • Another account says that McCrae was so upset after Helmer’s burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
  • A third account by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, states that John told him he drafted the poem partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded at the first aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem’s metre.

During 1915 John McCrae sent the poem to The Spectator magazine in London. It was not published and was returned to him. It was, however, published in the English Punch magazine on 8th December 1915.

John McCrae is memorialized in Guelph at McCrae House, the birthplace of John McCrae and will soon be recognized by a bronze statue at the National Artillery Memorial in Ottawa in 2015, as he was a gunner. Visit the website of the arts centre and museum at Guelph which was the birthplace of John McCrae at: www.guelpharts.ca

 

Two great books on John McCrae

A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae, by Dianne Graves, Spellmount Limited, 1997, ISBN 1-873376-86-3

In Flanders Fields, The Story of John McCrae, by John F Prescott, The Boston Mills Press, 1985 ISBN 0-919783-07-4

hand writtenjohn pic

Major John McCrae, second in command

of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery

during the Second Battle of Ypres in April and May 1915.

(PAC C19919)