• “In Flanders Fields” poem at McCrae House in Guelph, Ont

    “In Flanders Fields” poem at McCrae House in Guelph, Ont. (Lx 121/Creative Commons)

Most Canadians are familiar with John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” and can recite parts of it by heart. But few know the story behind the famous poem.

Born in Guelph, Ont., McCrae was a major and military doctor during the First World War. While McCrae saw plenty of bloodshed and death, one particular event greatly affected him. His friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed on May 2, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, and McCrae performed the ceremony at Helmer’s funeral.

There are different accounts of why McCrae wrote the poem. One version is that McCrae drafted the poem to pass the time while waiting for wounded soldiers to arrive. Another is that McCrae was upset by Helmer’s funeral and wrote the poem as an attempt to compose himself.

But the most common is that McCrae crafted the poem while sitting on the rear of an ambulance, looking at Helmer’s grave and the poppies on it. It only took 20 minutes to jot down the famous 15 lines in his notebook. He then handed his notebook to Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson, who was delivering mail that day. There are some accounts that McCrae was unhappy with the poem and tossed it away, but Morrison retrieved it.

The Spectator magazine in London was offered the poem, but refused to publish it and returned it to McCrae. Fortunately, Punch magazine did publish it on Dec. 8, 1915 and, within a few months, it was the most popular poem of the war.

John McCrae’s funeral procession to Wimereux, France. McCrae died from pneumonia on Jan. 28, 1918. (Guelph Museums, Reference No. M972.5.5.2)