Flanders Fields and the Poppy
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 fieldsLieutenant Colonel John McCrae
The history behind the poem
The Story of the poem. John McCrae was a Canadian doctor, a professor of medicine at Canada’s McGill University. On the evening of May 2 1915 during the second battle of Ypres, McCrae officiated at the burial of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. The next evening he took a twenty-minute break from his duties and scribbled a short poem.
He was interrupted by a Sergeant Major Cyril Allinson with his post. So he handed the pad and poem to the Sergeant Major and read his mail. As McCrae read his mail, Allinson read the poem. Returning the pad to McCrae after he had finished the mail, Allinson watched in horror as McCrae crumpled his poem into a ball and tossed it aside.
Sergeant Major Allinson had been deeply moved by the poem and retrieved it. After showing it to other soldiers, he sent it to several newspapers in England. The following December is was finally published in “Punch”
About John McCrae
John McCrae was a doctor and a teacher, who served in both the South African War and the First World War. Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, John McCrae was the second son of Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae. Described as warm and sensitive with a remarkable compassion for both people and animals, John McCrae began writing poetry while a student at the Guelph Collegiate Institute.
On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Canada, as a member of the British Empire, was automatically at war, and its citizens from all across the land responded quickly. Within three weeks, 45,000 Canadians had rushed to join up. John McCrae was among them. He was appointed a medical officer with the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery with the rank of Major and second-in-command.
He took with him a horse named Bonfire, a gift from a friend. Later, John McCrae sent his young nieces and nephews letters supposedly written by Bonfire and signed with a hoof print.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in the area traditionally called Flanders. Some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place there during what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres.
On April 22, the Germans used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in a desperate attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
The day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. Unable to help his friend or any of the others who had died, John McCrae gave them a voice through his poem. It was the second last poem he was to write.
Soon after it was written, he was transferred to No. 3 (McGill) Canadian General Hospital in France where he was Chief of Medical Services. The hospital was housed in huge tents at Dannes-Cammiers until cold wet weather forced a move to the site of the ruins of the Jesuit College at Boulogne.
When the hospital opened its doors in February 1916, it was a 1,560-bed facility covering 26 acres. Here the wounded were brought from the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the third Battle of Ypres and from Arras and Passchendaele.
For respite, he took long rides on Bonfire through the French countryside. Another animal companion was a casualty of the war, the dog Bonneau, who adopted John McCrae as his special friend.
During the summer of 1917, John McCrae was troubled by severe asthma attacks and occasional bouts of bronchitis. He became very ill in January 1918 and diagnosed his condition as pneumonia. He was moved to Number 14 British General Hospital for Officers where he continued to grow weak.
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