Poppies Grew in Flanders Fields

John McCrae (1872-1918), a respected physician and noted professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, was a member of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during World War I. He is best known as the author of “In Flanders Fields,” one of the most memorable war poems ever written. Flanders, a county in northwestern Europe, was on the North Sea and included part of northwestern France, provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders in Bel- gium and a part of southwestern Netherlands.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

During the Middle Ages Flanders was the center of the rich Flemish cloth industry. The area was the scene of heavy fighting in both World War I and World War II. The terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915 took place when the ground was covered with bright red corn poppies. These poppies, frequently considered weeds in cultivated gardens, flower only in rooted-up soil. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and sprout only when the soil is rooted-up. There was enough churned-up soil on the Western Front when McCrae wrote his poem that poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.

As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, McCrae spent seventeen days treating injured men — Canadians, British, Indians, French and Germans — in a dressing station beside the Yser Canal. It was impossible for him to get used to the suffering, screams and blood, and later he described the sensations of that ter- rible battle as “Seventeen days of Hades”. He was particularly affected by the death of a young friend and former student, Lieu. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, who had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Helmer was buried later that day in a little cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chap- lain. The next day McCrae was sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station. In the cemetery nearby he could see the wild poppies that sprang up everywhere, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.

Cyril Allison, a twenty-two year old soldier who was delivering mail that day, watched McCrae as he wrote. Later Allison recalled, “His face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.” When McCrae finished writing, he took his mail from Allison and handed his pad to the young soldier. Allison, who was deeply moved as he read, remembered, “The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind.” Dissatisfied with the poem, McCrae tossed it away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but Punch published it on December 8, 1915. The Heritage of the Great War has some comments. Often only the first two verses of “In Flanders Fields” are cited or quoted. This is not just because the third verse lacks the quality of the first two, but also because the last verse speaks of an unending quarrel with the foe.

It became clear during the Great War that there was no quarrel between the soldiers (except perhaps in the heat of fight- ing). The quarrel existed in the mind of some politicians and high ranking officers, most of whom never experienced the horror of the battlefield. John McCrae was only about 46 years old when he died in 1918, the year that World War I ended. The Col. John McCrae Birthplace Society was organized to create a museum of his birthplace. After years of collecting objects, photographs and documents relating to his life and his ancestors, the Society officially opened the museum in 1968. The national significance of the site is recognized by the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The house has been designated by the City of Guelph as a building of architectural and historic value under the Ontario Heritage Act.

(With appreciation to John Mead for his research at Lovett Memorial Library.)

In Flanders Fields, poem by John McCrae

In Flanders Fields 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.

(Taken from “Welcome to Flanders Fields “, by Daniel G. Dancocks, McClelland and Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1988)

If you want to see a series of impressive cartoons, paintings and pictures of the Great War, visit The Heritage of the Great War.

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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