Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian doctor, soldier, and poet. A multitalented individual with a reputation as a leading pathologist, McCrae is most famous for writing "In Flanders Fields," a well-known poem written during World War I (1914-1918). While various accounts of the poem's origin have circulated since its 1915 publication, most hold that McCrae began drafting the poem after the death of a close friend during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium.
A dedicated serviceman, McCrae was the first Canadian to serve as the consulting physician to the 1st British Army division. However, his appointment was short-lived, as McCrae died just four days after being promoted to the post. "In Flanders Fields" remains the best-known aspect of his legacy, and the poem continues to be widely read to this day.
Background and Education
McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872. In 1887, as a member of the Guelph Highland Cadet Corps, McCrae was awarded a gold medal as Ontario's top-drilled cadet. After completing his high school education in his hometown, McCrae was awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Toronto, where he studied English literature and medicine. He completed a bachelor of arts degree in 1894 and a doctor of medicine degree four years later, although his studies were interrupted by a recurrent bout of asthma, which forced McCrae to convalesce for a year.
During his year off from the University of Toronto, McCrae returned to Guelph, where he taught English and mathematics to students at Ontario Agricultural College. According to some biographical accounts, McCrae also fell in love with the sister of one of his friends during this time, only to be devastated when the girl died prematurely. The event is referred to in a number of McCrae's early poems, which show thematic preoccupations with death and loss.
In 1899, McCrae undertook postgraduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where he worked under the tutelage of the renowned physician Sir William Osler. McCrae then returned to Canada, taking a fellowship at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. He became the resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital in 1902 and travelled to England to continue his studies in 1904. There he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.
Over the next several years, McCrae earned a reputation as a leading pathologist. He established his own private practice and also travelled extensively, attending medical conferences and working as a lecturer in Vermont and Montreal. McCrae also co-authored and contributed to numerous medical journals, textbooks, and reference works.
McCrae during World War I
When World War I broke out in August of 1914, McCrae was vacationing on an England-bound ship, which he abandoned to volunteer for the Allied war effort. At the time, McCrae was forty-one years old and more than a decade removed from his previous military service, which he had undertaken as part of a Canadian regiment supporting British forces in the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. McCrae was assigned to the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery and appointed as the unit's medical officer.
By 1915, McCrae had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was engaged in field service in Belgium. There, during the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae and his comrades were the victims of the first poison gas attacks in military history. The exposure to the deadly gas served to make McCrae's lifelong battle with asthma considerably worse. The battle also marked the death of McCrae's close friend Alexis Helmer. Helmer's death is widely believed to have served as the initial inspiration for "In Flanders Fields."
The Writing, Publication, and Impact of "In Flanders Fields"
Numerous accounts with conflicting details have been circulated concerning the origins of "In Flanders Fields." According to some stories, McCrae composed the poem in a matter of minutes after attending Helmer's burial ceremony. Others say that he wrote it while overlooking a poppy field the day after his friend was buried. There are also rumours that McCrae's fellow soldiers recovered the poem from a scrap of paper, which McCrae had discarded due to his initial dissatisfaction with the verses. A final account claims that McCrae worked on "In Flanders Fields" over a longer period, writing various drafts to pass the time while stationed at a first aid post. Regardless, it is known that "In Flanders Fields" was first published on December 8, 1915, in Punch, a British magazine.
Although the poem was published without McCrae's name and printed in the bottom corner of a page, it immediately resonated with the public and quickly became part of the popular culture of the era. "In Flanders Fields" was also used for propaganda purposes, with quotes from its verses being used in government advertising campaigns for war bonds. The poem earned a great deal of critical acclaim in addition to widespread international popularity, but McCrae's other published works of poetry received little notice.
McCrae's Death and Legacy
By January of 1918, the war had taken a major physical and emotional toll on McCrae. His asthma had become severe, and numerous historical sources describe him as withdrawn and temperamental, with little sign of the energy and sense of purpose that had previously defined his character. Despite this, he nonetheless earned an appointment as the consulting physician to the 1st British Army division, becoming the first Canadian ever to hold the post. However, McCrae's compromised health left him vulnerable to disease and infection, and he fell ill. McCrae's condition rapidly deteriorated, and he died in Boulogne, France, on January 28, 1918.
"In Flanders Fields" went on to immortalize McCrae. The poem has long been one of the most widely read pieces of World War I literature, and it remains an important part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in McCrae's native Canada. It also inspired the adoption of the poppy as a symbol of wartime sacrifice and remembrance that still serves as a tradition in nations throughout the world.
- 1872: Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30
- 1887: Earns gold medal as Ontario's top-drilled cadet as a member of the Guelph Highland Cadet Corps
- 1894: Completes a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto
- 1898: Earns a medical degree from the University of Toronto medical school
- 1902: Becomes resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital
- 1914: Enlists in the military and serves as a medical officer during World War I
- 1915: Pens his famous poem "In Flanders Fields" after the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium
- 1918: Dies from complications of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, in France
Family: Brother of Thomas and Geills McCrae; died unmarried. Education: Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, 1894; Doctor of Medicine from the University of Toronto, 1898.