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John McCrae Writes His Wartime Poem: In Flanders Fields

Today on May 3, 1915, Canadian lieutenant-colonel John McCrae wrote his famous wartime poem: In Flanders Fields.

“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."

John McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, artist, and soldier during World War I. The lieutenant colonel served as a battlefield surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. He also served as an artillery officer during the Second Boer War at the turn of the century. The horrors and dramatic loss of life throughout his life inspired his best-known work, In Flanders Fields. A few weeks after writing his poem, he was ordered to leave the frontlines to establish the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers in Northern France. On December 8, 1915, his poem first appeared in Punch magazine, which quickly turned him into a household name across Canada and the United States.

Sadly, McCrae did not survive the war and died of pneumonia at the young age of 45. He received a full honorary funeral service and burial ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery. A broader collection of his poetry was published shortly after his death. In Flanders Fields subsequently became an international success and remains as the First World War's most celebrated poem. It's since been translated into several languages around the world. McCrae's poem is now synonymous with remembrance day ceremonies and the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in The Great War. Interestingly, red poppies have been associated with war since the Napoleonic period after another writer first noted how the flowers grew over the graves of soldiers.

"The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way." — an excerpt from a letter John McCrae wrote to his mother.


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