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Saturday, May 16, 2009

'In Flanders Fields' Written, May 3, 1915

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Today in 1915, the poem “In Flanders Fields” was written by Canadian soldier and physician John McCrae. Written in the French rondeau style, the fifteen line, three stanza poem is still easily recognized by the general public in Europe and North America more than eighty years after its first publication.

John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in November, 1872. He had recurring problems with asthma in his younger years, but that did not stop him from pursuing higher education and a career in the military. He was also an occasional poet. By the time of the Second Boer War in 1899, McCrae was both an experienced doctor and artillery officer. Since Canada was a Dominion of the British Empire, McCrae found himself serving with the British Expeditionary Force sent to South Africa. Upon his return home in 1902, he became a professor of pathology at the University of Vermont.

The First World War began in 1914 and McCrae, now 41, found himself once again on the battlefield, this time as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery with the command of a field hospital. It was here during the Second Battle of Ypres in May, 1915 that McCrae learned of (or may have witnessed) the death of his friend and former student, 22 year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. After presiding over Helmer's funeral, McCrae wrote a short poem in his notebook and then, not satisfied with it, ripped it out and threw it away. An observant fellow officer retrieved the notebook page and submitted it for publication in the British magazine Punch, which printed the poem anonymously on December 8th, 1915. However, the magazine's index listed McCrae as the author.

“In Flanders Fields” became instantly popular and is arguably the most culturally important poem to emerge from the First World War period. McCrae was amused with his sudden rise to fame, but it did not change his work as both a soldier and a healer. He did not, however, have much time to contemplate how his discarded poem might change his life. On January 28th, 1918, while commanding Number 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne, France, Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae died of pneumonia at the age of 45. He was buried with full honors at Wimereux Cemetery, not far from his last command. A collection of McCrae's poems, many of them written before the war, were published soon after his death.

Some recitations of “In Flanders Fields” omit the third stanza because of what critics have called its pro-war stance versus the more sacrificial tone of the first two stanzas. But in remembering what has come before, I believe it is important to remember not just the words or events, but the personalities behind them. John McCrae was a patriot and soldier as well as a doctor; he once noted in a letter that “all the... doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men “. This was the man behind “In Flanders Fields”. With this in mind, here is the poem in its entirety:

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...

Today, a First World War museum called In Flanders Fields exists in Ypres, Belgium near the site where McCrae first mourned for his lost friend so many years ago.

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