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Poet gives voice to fallen soldiers

By Archives November 10, 2004

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row

These are John McCrae’s words. He was a Canadian doctor in the First World War. He wrote the poem for a friend. It is recited on Remembrance Day every year in Canada and around the world.

The Guelph native, and former McGill lecturer, wrote about the poppies, little flowers foretelling and forestalling death. Their blood-red petals and pitch-black seeds are directly representative of the colours in battle.

Dormant for years, poppies lay beneath the soil waiting for competing plants to die, and waiting for the soil to be tilled, so they can spring up. Poppies were the only things that grew in the blood-infused, decimated and excoriated ground of the Great War. Every inch of trench and every inch of land, in between and behind the allied and enemy lines, was cut and smashed from millions of tonnes of exploded shells.

Pictures of the time reveal an alien landscape more reminiscent of the moon than earth.

This was McCrae’s home. Born in 1870, and a veteran of the Boer War, McCrae volunteered at the age of 44 to go to Europe to help patch-up wounded Canadian soldiers. He stayed at the front amongst the trenches.

Trench foot, rats, and disease were ubiquitous in the First World War, but even more so in Flanders. Flanders is a low lying, marshy, and water-logged area of western Belgium.

Flanders is the traditional name of a place in Belgium called Ypres. The second battle of Ypres happened in April of 1915.

McCrae and the first Canadian division were assigned the task of defending at Ypres-the deadly location of a bulge in the allied lines. As the battle raged for over two weeks with no respite, McCrae spent a lot of time in the trenches treating soldiers. The Germans were experimenting with chlorine gas on the allied lines to the north, and the effects of the attacks were devastating. The greenish-yellow gas was heavier than air, and drifted down into the trenches and holes where men searched for shelter. Downwind, the only defence the Canadian soldiers had against the chemically burning nature of the gas were wet cloths and rags tied over their faces.

The battle was particularly awful. The raw, inexperienced Canadian soldiers thrust into the front line defended their position valiantly in the hardest defensive campaign the First Canadian Division ever fought.

During this battle, a friend and former student of McCrae’s, Alexis Helmer, was killed by an exploding shell. The next morning McCrae sat on the edge of an ambulance and penned the world famous poem. He was looking across the grave yard, called Essex Farm Cemetery, just behind the front line, and McCrae watched a soft east wind coerce the poppies into movement.

Poppies were growing-the only things growing in the burnt out, bombed out landscape-between the crosses of the grave yard.

McCrae initially tossed the scrap of paper aside, but another soldier scooped it up, preserving the poem for eternity.

Soon after the second battle of Ypres-the Canadians being relieved by the British-McCrae was assigned to a Canadian hospital in France. There he was chief of medical services.

He refused to live in the officers’ huts and chose to stay in a tent, in solidarity with his comrades at the front.

McCrae later caught pneumonia and became very ill in January of 1918. Another victim taken by war, he died on the 28th of that month from meningitis and pneumonia.

Here is his poem in its entirety:

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.