History

Guelph’s famous son: The legacy of John McCrae 

For the 150th anniversary of his birth, we reflect on the life of the Canadian soldier and poet best known for writing the poem "In Flanders Fields" 

  • Nov 08, 2022
  • 632 words
  • 3 minutes
McCrae and his dog, Bonneau, circa 1914. The dog was reportedly a stray he adopted in France. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada / C-046284)
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On the Speed River in Guelph, Ont., is a small cottage called McCrae House, named for doctor, soldier and poet John McCrae, author of the beloved poem “In Flanders Fields.” McCrae was born there 150 years ago in 1872.

Appropriately, the son of a Scot who immigrated to Canada as a child, McCrae was born on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. He grew up in the small city about 160 kilometres west of Toronto, living an idyllic childhood close to nature and farm animals, and surrounded by stories of the fighting among clans of Highland Scots.

A good student, disciplined army cadet and, later, a militia member, McCrae was accepted at the University of Toronto and, while there, contributed poems and sketches to various university publications. Early on, he developed a passion for medicine and enrolled in medical school at McGill University in Montreal.

The famous poem superimposed over a 1919 photo of no man's land in Flanders Fields. (Photo: No Mans Land, Flanders Field, France, 1919. King, W. L. (William Lester))
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McCrae was an enthusiastic Imperialist at a time when Canadian nationalism had not yet solidified. When war broke out in South Africa between the British Empire and Dutch settlers, he felt it was his duty to fight.

He deferred his studies at McGill to serve with the Canadian artillery contingent fighting alongside the British in the South African War. He resumed his studies a year later, while also working in hospitals in Montreal. After graduating, he started his own medical practice, became a popular lecturer and contributed articles to medical journals. 

Although McCrae was already in his 40s when Britain went to war with Germany in 1914, he felt the call of duty once again. Wanting to fight, he used his connections from the South African War to land a position as an artillery officer and brigade surgeon.

He was in Belgium in 1915 when the Second Battle of Ypres began. The battle was terrifying, marking the first time poison gas was used in the war. The Canadians distinguished themselves by holding the lines when the French colonial troops, who received the brunt of the first gas attack, fled in horror. The second attack was aimed at the Canadians.

McCrae was busy night and day in a dressing station in a makeshift shelter now preserved as a historic site named Essex Farm. McCrae’s friend and fellow McGill student Alexis Helmer was killed by artillery during the fighting. With no padre available for the rushed funeral, McCrae conducted the service using the Anglican Burial of the Dead from memory.

A field dressing station during the third battle of Ypres in 1917. (Photo: Hilary Morgan/Alamy Stock photo)
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Shortly afterwards, McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields.” The 15-line poem is in the form of a rondeau, using just two different rhyme sounds.

The poem was published anonymously in the British publication Punch in December 1915 and soon became popular with the troops. There are many surviving copies of the poem in McCrae’s own handwriting — he would make copies for anyone who asked.

McCrae’s time with the artillery was limited. When No. 3 Canadian General Hospital was formed with mostly staff and students from McGill University, McCrae’s services as doctor were requested. Always a soldier who followed orders, McCrae soon joined the hospital near Boulogne, France, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Exhausted from work and disappointment in the Allies’ lack of progress, McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis on Jan. 28, 1918.

Although he knew his poem had become popular, he did not live to see it become a mainstay of remembrance services throughout the English-speaking world. It became the inspiration for the annual poppy campaign in most commonwealth countries. In Canada alone, more than 20 million poppies are distributed annually by the Royal Canadian Legion, raising millions of dollars to support veterans. 

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This story is from the November/December 2022 Issue

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