The poetry of the First World War is arguably one of the most moving genres found anywhere in 20th-century literature. Many of the poets who wrote of their experiences were ordinary young men who found themselves confronted with a vision of hell, and who employed their literary talent to convey the horrors around them in verse. But the author of one of the most famous poems of this period was a middle-aged doctor who once said, of his return to the battlefield after having served in the Boer War, ‘I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience’.
Lieutenant Colonel McCrae
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was the first Canadian to be appointed consulting surgeon to the British Army. Before WW1, he served in the Boer War as an artillery subaltern and in 1914 reenlisted as a Medical Officer and Major of the 1st Brigade CFA, just as the war began.
A year later, he was treating the wounded in Ypres when one of his friends was killed. This event provided the grim inspiration for one of the greatest pieces of war poetry ever consigned to paper.
Dr John McCrae
Before WW1, McCrae was already a published poet in his native Canada, and ‘In Flanders Fields’ is one of a few dozen poems that McCrae wrote on and off the frontline. This short three-paragraph verse was reportedly written on May 3, 1915, in Essex Farm close to Ypres. McCrae composed the poem from the relative safety of a field ambulance the day after he presided over the funeral of his friend and former student, Alex Halmer.
What happened to Alex Helmer?
On Sunday morning, May 2, 1915, Lieutenant Helmer, and his colleague Lieutenant Hague left their respective posts to check on a Canadian Battery close to the France-Belgium border. Helmer was killed instantly when a six-inch high explosive cannon shell detonated a few feet from his position. He was 22 years old when he was killed, a relatively young man in comparison to his mentor John McCrae, and one of over 250,000 allies who died at Ypres.
Who published the poem first?
McCrae knew the poem was special, he even tried to get it published in The Spectator, but it was rejected. In the end, it was printed anonymously on 8 December 1915 after being passed on to Punch Magazine by a young journalist who’d visited McCrae’s hospital. Two years later, McCrae, his name now reunited with his poem, was virtually a household name. The following year, on January 28, 1918, McCrae died of pneumonia aged 45 while serving as a Doctor at Boulogne No.3 General Hospital.
Why was the poem so successful?
Aside from its obvious lyrical attributes, the poem connects the reader with the wishes of the once-living, so they may rest in peace in Flanders Field. But therein lies a warning, by not continuing the fight, the dead will have paid the ultimate for nothing and will never be at peace. This point is brought into focus by the endless rows of crosses that mark the graves of those who lost their lives and, most profoundly, by the poppies that blow around them. And at once, the blood-red poppy became the ultimate symbol for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
In Flanders Field by John McCrae
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.