Colonel John McCrae, who was Professor of Medicine at McGill University in Canada before WW1 (joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto), first described the red poppy, the Flanders’ poppy, as the flower of remembrance.
Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the Boer War as a gunner, but went to France in WW1 as a medical officer with the first Canadian contingent. It was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood here, and MAJ John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime. As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, MAJ McCrae, had spent seventeen days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in the Ypres salient.
One death particularly affected MAJ McCrae. A young friend and former student, LT Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May. LT Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.
The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Canal de l'Yser, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. At the second battle of Ypres in 1915, when in charge of a small first-aid post, he wrote in pencil on a page from his despatch book a poem that has come to be known as "Flanders’ Field" which described the poppies that marked the graves of soldiers killed fighting for their country. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook (2).
A young soldier watched him write it (written May 3, 1915 after the battle at Ypres). Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant major stood there quietly. "His face was very tired but calm as we wrote," Allinson recalled. "He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave." When he finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:
The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. The word blow was not used in the first line though it was used later when the poem later appeared in Punch. But it was used in the second last line. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.
In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer -- either LTCOL Edward Morrison, the former Ottawa newspaper editor who commanded the 1st Brigade of artillery, or LTCOL J.M. Elder, depending on which source is consulted -- retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. "The Spectator," in London, rejected it, but "Punch" published it on 8 December 1915.
McCrae's "In Flanders’ Fields" remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.
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.
We Shall Keep The Faith
Oh! You who sleep in Flanders’ fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew;
We caught the torch you threw;
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died.
We cherish, too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders’ Fields.
And now the torch and poppy red
Wear in honour of our dead
Fear not that ye have died for naught
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ Fields.
Remember our Canadian soldiers on November 11th. We owe so much to them, and the least we can do is remember and honour their memory as human beings, as Canadians. Lest we forget.