The Life of John McCrae

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Lt. Col. John McCrae, the author of In Flanders FieldsThe Author of In Flanders Fields

Lt. Col John McCrae was a Canadian poet, surgeon and author during World War I. He is best remembered for writing In Flanders Fields.

The grandson of Scottish immigrants, John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario on November 30, 1872.

John McCrae’s Early Life

In 1892, McCrae went to the University of Toronto to study for his Bachelor degree. However, he was forced to take a year off due to poor health.

While at the University of Toronto, McCrae joined the local militia, the Queen’s Own Rifles. He was eventually promoted to the rank of Captain and became a company commander.

In the summer of 1893, McCrae went to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario where he began training to become an artillery officer.

In 1894, McCrae returned to Guelph, where he taught math and English at the Ontario Agricultural College, on the site of what is now the University of Guelph.

McCrae eventually returned to the University of Toronto to complete his undergraduate studies. Following his graduation, McCrae re-enrolled at the University of Toronto, this time with the intent to study medicine. While he was a medical student, McCrae tutored other students, in order to help pay his tuition. Among McCrae’s students were the first women to graduate from the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine. McCrae also completed a residency at the Robert Garrett Children’s Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1902, McCrae became a resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital. In 1904, he became a pathologist at the Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital. In 1910, McCrae served as the expedition’s doctor for a canoe trip on Hudson Bay that was organized by the Governor General.

John McCrae and In Flanders Fields

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, McCrae was assigned to the Canadian Artillery as a field surgeon. In 1915, he was placed in charge of a field hospital, shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres. It was around this time that he wrote In Flanders Fields, following the death of Lt. Alex Helmer, who was a friend and former student.

In June, 1915, McCrae was ordered to Northern France where he supervised the construction of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne-sur-Mer.

The poem In Flanders Fields was first published in Punch on December 8, 1915. McCrae’s poem quickly became one of the most popular poems of the war. In Flanders Fields was quoted extensively in the United States by the Wilson Administration, which was trying to drum up support for American participation in the war.

Shortly after the publication of In Flanders Fields, American English Professor Miona Michaels wrote a poem called We Shall Keep the Faith, in response to In Flanders Fields. She is also recognized as being the first person to wear a red poppy in honour of war veterans. The image of the poppy comes directly from the first two lines of McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses row on row…”

The Legacy of In Flanders Fields

In the decades since the end of World War I, In Flanders Fields has risen to near mythic status in Canada and has become one of the country’s unofficial national symbols. As a result, virtually all Remembrance Day ceremonies held in Canada include a recitation of In Flanders Fields. The importance of In Flanders Fields in Canadian culture is such that in many parts of Canada it has become an informal part of the school curriculum.

Today there are a number of instutions named after John McCrae, including a number of public schools in York Region, Guelph and Ottawa. The Canadian War Museum’s traveling exhibit hall is named The Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae Gallery. Additionally, McCrae’s birthplace in Guelph was turned into museum in 1966. A line from the poem, “To you from failing hands we throw the torch,” can be found on the walls of the Montreal Canadians’ dressing room where it serves to remind players of the legendary hockey team’s own place in Canadian history.

John McCrae died from complications of pneumonia on January 28, 1918.

Sources

Prescott, John F. John McCrae. Canadian Dictionary of Biography Online. Nov.9/09

McCrae, John. In Flanders Fields. Libri Vox. Read by Gordon Mackenzie Nov.9/09

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