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'In Flanders Fields'
by John McCrae (1872-1918)
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.
Whenever something is published (especially something which subsequently acquires a certain fame) it is always entirely legitimate to enquire just how much its author actually knew about their subject. John McCrae (1872-1918) was well-acquainted with modern warfare. The 'Kaiser's War' was actually his second as he'd served, with some distinction and as a junior officer, with the Royal Canadian Artillery in the Boer War. By no means a 'name' poet, McCrae wrote poetry for his own pleasure and had met one of his literary heroes, Rudyard Kipling, in South Africa around this time.
Second son of a second-generation Canadian, John David McCrae (who was destined to reach the high rank, for a 'colonial', of Lieutenant General) joined the Cadet Corps at the age of fourteen and, a year later, his father's regiment as a bugler. Academically gifted, at 16 he was awarded a scholarship to the university of Toronto. After a break in his studies due to recurrent asthma, he qualified as a doctor at 26, subsequently becoming a respected lecturer on bacteriology and pathology.
Already onboard ship en route to England at the outbreak of world war one, he lost little time in offering his services to the Canadian government either as medical or artillery officer. At first rejected (due to his age) he saw service during the battle of Neuve Chapelle (March 1915) as Brigade Surgeon, although he found himself unable to resist acting in a combatant role, directing gunfire, when the opportunity arose.
'In Flanders Fields' was composed under conditions of extreme mental and physical stress. In April 1915 McCrae's unit - First Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery - moved onto the Ypres sector, just in time for the second battle of Ypres in which the Germans debuted their new secret weapon, chlorine gas. Completely unprecedented, defensive measures against this threat were rudimentary at best (soldiers were advised to cover their faces with urine-soaked hankerchiefs) and over 60 per cent of the Canadian troops engaged became casualties. Included among this number was lieutenant Alex Helmer, McCrae's student and close friend, killed by shell-fire. On the night of 2nd May, in complete darkness and just behind the lines, Helmer's remains (gathered up into two empty sandbags, their flaps held together with safety-pins) were buried in a makeshift grave - McCrae himself officiating in the absence of a chaplain. The following day and in a brief interlude from ministering to the wounded, McCrae sat in the back of an ambulance just north of Ypres, and wrote his famous poem (at first entitled 'We Shall Not Sleep'). Around him, between the growing number of wooden crosses, the first wild poppies were coming into flower. The story goes that McCrae discarded the poem only for it to be retrieved by his commanding officer, Edward Morrison, who sent it first, unsuccessfully, to The Spectator before having it accepted by Punch. The latter printed it, anonymously, in December 1915, whereupon it quickly took on the status of a modern classic.
'In Flanders Fields' is a Rondeau (fifteen lines, two rhymes and a thrice-repeated refrain). This verse-form was originally a French invention, often used for humerous purposes -but it was McCrae's peculiar inspiration to subvert the genre, to infuse it - quite literally - with a grave cadence, distilling both morbid and bucolic imagery to startling effect. Nowadays, the final bellicose stanza is often omitted -yet it is entirely consonant with its author's outlook in which avocation as healer vies with inclination to perform as man of action.
Two days prior to the Armistice an American Y.M.C.A. worker, Moine Michael, noticed the verses reprinted in a copy of her Ladies Home Journal. Enthused, she immediately bought 25 poppies and handed them out to colleagues in memory of the fallen. Post war, she campaigned for the poppy to be adopted as a symbol of remembrance. A French woman, Anne Guerrin, had the idea of selling artificial poppies in order, initially, to raise funds to aid children affected by the recent hostillities. In 1921 she visited the recently ennobled Earl Douglas Haig who agreed to use his influence in order to amalgamate a number of veterans' associations and form the British Legion - who held their first official Poppy Day on November 11th of that year.
By then, John McCrae was long-dead. He'd been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and become Chief of Medical Services at Number 3 Canadian General Hospital, near Boulogne. The debilitating effect of attending to so many wounded soldiers from the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele had eroded his own health and this - coupled with a recurrance of his old enemy, asthma - led to his death, at the age of forty-five, on January 28th 1918 from double pneumonia.
Fry, S. (2005) The Ode Less Travelled, Hutchinson.
Gardner, B. (1964) Up The Line To Death, Methuen.
Giddings, R. (1988) The War Poets, Bloomsbury.
Graves, D. (1997) A Crown of Life: the World of John McCrae, Spellmount.
Lawrence, W. (2005) Great War Literature Study On War Poets of the First World War, Great War Literature publishing.
Kevin Saving © 2008