Antony Anderson: Remembering John McCrae, Canada’s most viral poet

“In Flanders Fields” has stayed viral all this time, woven into our national collective consciousness
Poppies surround the newly unveiled statue of Lt.-Col. John McCrae to commemorate the Second Battle of Ypres and his poem 'In Flanders Fields,' during a ceremony in Ottawa on Sunday, May 3, 2015. Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press.

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

January 23, 1918: John McCrae falls ill

Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, John McCrae would write “In Flanders Field,” the most well-known and celebrated poem of the Great War.

For years he was enveloped by death. Working in it. Inhaling it. When his own came, it was brisk, indifferent to the fact that he was a surgeon trained to defy mortality. He began to feel sick on January 23rd, 1918 with what turned out to be pneumonia and meningitis. He seemed to sense this was the end. He died a few days later on January 28th, aged 45. 

He had always longed for adventure; all the better, if it could be interwoven within his keen sense of duty. In 1899, he had interrupted medical studies at McGill to volunteer with the Royal Canadian Field Artillery and sail off to South Africa to serve the British Empire’s cause—thus Canada’s cause as well—fighting the beastly Boers to preserve democracy and decency. He nearly drowned when his horse lost its footing and fell on him in the midst of crossing a river. He came back to Canada to teach medicine at McGill, practice as a pathologist at Montreal General Hospital, run his own private practice, and—perhaps this set him apart somewhat—jam with the city’s literary set, writing and reading poems. He never married.  

In 1914, distant adventure beckoned once more and he could not resist. In the blinding patriotic rush, he signed up as a medical officer in the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. One gets the sense he saw himself as much as a soldier on active duty as a doctor. “He would often direct the fire of the batteries in his sector when time permitted and when there was a lull in his duties as a doctor.”1Pamphlet put out by Veteran Affairs 1980

McCrae’s masterpiece was inspired while stationed in northwest Belgium in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, during the second battle of Ypres where the Germans made the unspeakable even more horrific by using chlorine gas for the first time. In a letter to his mother, McCrae wrote, “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare…And behind it all, the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed—and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way. But how tired we are. Weary in body and wearier in mind.”2John McCrae to Janet McCrae, 10 May 1915. Cited in Dianne Graves A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae (Spellmount 1997) p. 205

On May 2, 1915, one of McCrae’s junior comrades, Lt. Alexis Helmer, then 22 years old, was killed instantly by a German shell. His remains were gathered in a sandbag and wrapped in a blanket for burial that same evening. No ministers or chaplains were present so McCrae presided over the makeshift service, reciting the psalms and prayers from memory. He had seen much death by then but the loss of this friend seems to have cut through the numbing routine. 

Lt.-Col. John McCrae, author of the famous poem In Flanders Fields. National Archives of Canada.

McCrae is believed to have written the poem the very next day, though accounts differ. One comrade has McCrae writing it in a matter of 20 minutes while sitting on the backstep of a field ambulance with his friend’s fresh grave in plain view. Another version has McCrae writing in between rounds of treating incoming wounded. Someone else recalls that McCrae threw away his draft and a comrade had to salvage the crumpled paper.3John F. Prescott In Flanders Field: the Story of John McCrae (Boston Mills Press 1985) p. 95 – 96 Perhaps the first draft did come in one of those wonderous waves that startle even the writer but what’s certain is that McCrae continued to refine his work over the summer and fall. He called this new work, “In Flanders Fields”.

He took his writing seriously. While at the University of Toronto medical school, McCrae had seen his poems published in the university’s student newspaper and various arts journals, after which they vanished, if they had ever even surfaced. McCrae felt strongly enough about his latest work to submit it to a popular British magazine. It was rejected. Then a visiting journalist read it, was impressed, and offered to take it back to London to Punch magazine which published it, anonymously, in its December 8, 1915 edition.4Marsh, James H. “In Flanders Fields”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 24 February 2016, Historica Canada. It went, as we now say, viral, becoming the most well-known poem to emerge from the conflict. 

“In Flanders Fields” has stayed viral, woven into our national collective consciousness, so pervasive, so familiar. McCrae had a journalist’s eye for telling detail. Poppies. Larks. Wooden crosses. You can picture them. I can’t think of another Canadian work of art that has stood this global test of time for so long. Possibly Anne of Green Gables. Maybe songs by our various poet laureates—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen—will still be played in a century the way “In Flanders Fields” echoes around the world, even now in social media posts emanating from Ukraine in its brilliant fight for survival. 

This is not a poem for pacifists. It is anguish that reflects the horror of war while still calling us to confront the foes who have unleashed that horror. Maybe it’s that tension between the desire for peace and the need to do one’s duty that enables the poem to continue to inspire us—or at least to wonder how to keep faith with all those who have died in our name. 

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