In Flanders Fields

Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze "book" at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a soldier, physician and poet.

"In Flanders Fields" is a war poem in the form of a rondeau, written during the First World War by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially unsatisfied with his work, discarded it. "In Flanders Fields" was first published on December 8 of that year in the London-based magazine Punch.

It is one of the most popular and most quoted poems from the war. As a result of its immediate popularity, parts of the poem were used in propaganda efforts and appeals to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world's most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict. The poem and poppy are prominent Remembrance Day symbols throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly in Canada, where "In Flanders Fields" is one of the nation's best known literary works.

John McCrae was a poet and physician from Guelph, Ontario. He developed an interest in poetry at a young age and wrote throughout his life.[1] His earliest works were published in the mid-1890s in Canadian magazines and newspapers.[2] McCrae's poetry often focused on death and the peace that followed.[3]

At the age of 41, McCrae enrolled with the Canadian Expeditionary Force following the outbreak of the First World War. He had the option of joining the medical corps due to his training and age, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer.[4] It was his second tour of duty in the Canadian military. He previously fought with a volunteer force in the Second Boer War.[5]

He considered himself a soldier first; his father was a military leader in Guelph and McCrae grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.[6]

McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. They attacked the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915, but were unable to break through the Canadian line which held for over two weeks. In a letter written to his mother, McCrae described the battle as a "nightmare": "For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds ..... 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."[7] Alexis Helmer, a close friend, was killed during the battle on May 2. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance.[8]

In 1918, American YWCA worker Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, published a poem of her own called "We Shall Keep the Faith".[2] In tribute to McCrae's poem, she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war.[1] At a November 1918 YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed 25 more to those attending.[1] She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.[1] At this conference, Frenchwoman Anna E. Guérin was inspired to introduce the artificial poppies commonly used today. In 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where they were adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion. It was also adopted by veterans' groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.[1]

Above - Moina Michael was a U.S. professor and humanitarian who conceived the idea of using poppies as a symbol of remembrance.

Opposite - Moina Michael on a 1948 U.S. commemorative stamp