At the start of World War I, Montreal physician and surgeon Lieutenent Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was stationed in Ypres, Belgium, in the area of the country known as Flanders. In the spring of 1915, shortly after losing a close friend in battle, McCrae was inspired by the battlefield graves filled with blooming poppy flowers to write one of history’s most famous poems called ‘In Flanders Fields.’
In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (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.
McCrae volunteered at age 41 and wrote to a friend that “I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience.” In April 1915, McCrae and a young friend, Alexis Helmer, joined the 18,000 soldiers of the First Canadian Division in their positions near Ypres, Belgium. The Second Battle of Ypres commenced on 22 April and lasted for six hellish weeks. It was during this battle that the Germans launched the first large-scale poison gas attacks of the war.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare,” McCrae wrote to his mother, “… And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
Ten days into the battle Alexis Helmer was killed. The chaplain was absent, so as the brigade doctor McCrae conducted the service for his friend, that influenced him to write the first few lines of the poem.
Today, McCrae’s poem is much revered for the remembrance of the many lives lost during World War I – and now all soldiers lost due to war and conflict – and is read by millions in Canada and around the world each Remembrance Day.
We must remember those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives in the line of duty, and the many wounded that have suffered both physically and mentally. More importantly, it is worth making sure that our children know the past, and thus avoid repeating our most gruesome moments in history.