John McCrae, a Canadian soldier, doctor and a poet is best remembered for his poem, "In Flanders Fields". Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872, he was educated at Guelph Collegiate and the University of Toronto medical school.
As a youngster John joined the Highland Cadet Corps at the age of 14, and at 17 he joined the Militia Field Battery commanded by his father. By 1896 he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. In the meantime he was training to be a doctor at the University of Toronto. During this period he wrote poetry. Sixteen of his poems were published in various magazines.
In 1898, along with his degree in medicine, John received a gold medal from the University of Toronto for his high marks. When the South African War (Boer War) started in October 1899 John felt it was important to fight. He was commissioned to lead an army from Guelph. Though suffering from chronic asthma, he served in South Africa for a year. While stationed there, seeing the poor medical treatment of sick and wounded soldiers disturbed him.
After returning to Canada and resigning from the military, John picked up his life where he had left off. He resumed his studies and went on to become assistant pathologist at Montreal General Hospital. In 1905 he set up his own practice as well as continuing work at several hospitals.
When the Great War broke out in August 1914, John was among the first to enlist. He was appointed brigade surgeon to the First Brigade Canadian Forces Artillery. Just before he left, he wrote to a friend:
"It is a terrible state of affairs, and I am going because I think every bachelor, especially if he has experience of war, ought to go. I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience."
John sailed for England with the First Contingent on Oct. 3, 1914. After spending four months on the Salisbury Plain, the First Contingent moved to France in early February 1915 and by the 10th of March, John would first experience the fighting of the Great War at Neuve Chapell. He had taken his favorite horse, Bonfire, with him to France, but had few riding opportunities for some time.
McCrae helped the wounded from the trenches near Ypres, Belgium. This area, which is traditionally called Flanders, was the sight of some of the heaviest fighting of the Great War. In April, the Germans launched their initial chlorine gas attack against French troops who were fighting next to the Canadians. The French collapsed as the gas overcame them and it was left to the Canadians to fill the gap and stop the advancing Germans.
On May 2nd Lieutenant Alex Helmer, a friend of John's, was killed in the fighting and buried beneath a simple wooden cross. John wrote his most famous poem the next day and it was Alex's death some say inspired John to write the poem that has become symbolic for the suffering and loss of the Great War. In Flanders' Fields was first published in the British magazine Punch in Dec 1915 and became the most popular poem of the War.
Soon after the poem was written John was transferred to No.3 Canadian Field Hospital in France as Chief of Medical Services. This move away from the front would spare John from some of the dangers of war but not the horror, for here John would treat thousands of the wounded evacuated from the trenches after battles such as the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Arras and Passchendaele.
During the summer of 1917 John was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis possibly aggravated by the gas he inhaled at Ypres. His health deteriorated noticeably. He lost much of his enthusiasm, and took frequent solitary rides on Bonfire, accompanied by his spaniel , Bonneau, a stray rescued from the battlefield.
Just after receiving word he was appointed consulting surgeon to the British Army, the first Canadian to be so honoured, McCrae fell seriously ill with pneumonia. On January 28, 1918, six days after being admitted to hospital, McCrae died. He was 46 years old. He was buried with full military honours in Wimereaux Cemetery, near Boulogne, France. The large funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, from generals to nurses and medical orderlies. His horse, Bonfire, led the burial procession, its master's boots reversed in the stirrups.
McCrae's burial site is 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 preserved as a museum, with a memorial cenotaph and garden of remembrance. It is "In Flanders Fields" that remains his most meaningful memorial, It was translated into many 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 British Commonwealth.
I originally wrote this post in 2003 for my son who was nine at the time.