Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

“In Flanders Fields,” Remembrance Day’s Heartfelt Verse

Written in May 1915 on the battlefield in Ypres, Belgium, the day after a friend’s death, In Flanders Fields describes the anguish and faith of soldiers mired in war

In Flanders Fields Penned by John McCrae 1915 - Unknown (http://www.32battalion.net/32%20Battalion%20In%20Flanders%20Fields.htm)

During the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae found himself tending to the wounded, the dying and the dead in the midst of the gory Battle of Ypres. The young doctor was born on November 12, 1872 in Guelph, Ontario. He graduated from high school at age 16 and received a scholarship for the University of Toronto. He participated in the Highfield Cadet Corps and at 17, joined the Militia field battery. Attending university for three years, his schedule was interrupted for a year when he was struck down with severe asthma, said Veterans Affairs Canada. During that year, he worked as assistant resident master teaching Math and English at Guelph’s Agricultural College. McCrae returned to the University of Toronto to complete the final year of a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1894. Medical school was his next step.

Through the University of Toronto, McCrae interned at fascinating medical facilities including working with ailing children at a convalescent home in Baltimore, Maryland. To earn his tuition fees, he tutored students, including two women “who were among the first women doctors in Ontario,” said Veterans Affairs. While at university, he was also Company Captain in the Queen’s Own Rifles. McCrae completed his medical degree in 1898 and went on to further studies at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1899.

Military Physician in South Africa

Late in 1899, McCrae joined the Canadian Field Artillery, D Battery and sailed for the war theatre in South Africa. He spent a year there, and several more years with the 1st Brigade of Artillery, resigning in 1904. The next ten years McCrae filled with many appointments, such as physician and pathologist at the Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Infectious Diseases, and as lecturer and medical author. Friendly, outgoing, compassionate and no doubt charming, he was a popular doctor and teacher, with many friends.

In Flanders Fields

Feeling the call to serve again when World War One broke out in 1914, McCrae re-joined the military as a Major in the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery. The good doctor did not go to Europe alone – he took his horse, Bonfire, with him. McCrae was promoted to the position of brigade-surgeon. It was there, a year later, that McCrae was serving in the field, surrounded by all the bloody, terrifying misery that that war produced; it was also there that his friend and fellow officer, Alexis Helmer, was killed in a German shell attack. A day later, May 13, 1915, McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields.

Poet, Artist and Writer

McCrae was a talented man, not only at medicine, graduating at the top of his class, but also in writing, art and poetry. When his young sweetheart died, he expressed his thoughts in verse, and he continued to place his heart and his emotions of distress at events and war through words of many later poems, including In Flanders Fields. McCrae had 16 poems and writings published while a student at University of Toronto, including a piece in the prestigious Saturday Night magazine. When home in Canada, he was a member of the Pen and Pencil Club (a group of artists, writers and poets that included Stephen Leacock) and a member of the Shakespearean Club, and when overseas, often wrote detailed letters to many family members.

Advanced to the post of Chief Medical Officer at the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in France, asthma continued to bother McCrae. In 1917, he suffered severe attacks and bronchitis, which gradually lead to pneumonia and then meningitis. McCrae died at age 45 on January 8, 1918 in Europe; his horse Bonfire lead the funeral procession. Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was buried with military honours at Wimereaux Cemetery in France, according to the Guelph Museum

In Flanders Fields struck the heart-chords of civilians and soldiers alike when it was published in the December 8, 1915 issue of Punch Magazine in England. It was viewed as representing the aching voices of soldiers killed in battle. The poem was adopted by Canada and several Allied countries as part of the Remembrance Day ceremonies. The poppy, also mentioned in the poem, has also become a standard of Remembrance Day. Flanders Fields Cemetery is located in Belgium.

In Flanders Fields

May we never forget.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.
They 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.

This article by Susanna McLeod first appeared on Suite101.com.

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