Sunday, November 10, 2013

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Flanders Fields

He was born in the small city of Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 1872. He was the son of a military officer and the grandson of Scottish immigrants. He was a doctor, yet his lasting legacy comes to us from the brutality of war and from a poem that still speaks a century after his death.

John McCrae studied in his home province at the Royal Military College and the University of Toronto. He later worked as a professor and surgeon on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, he started writing poetry. Perhaps, it was a way to distract himself from the routines of medical study. He was a man of contrasts - even as a doctor, he went off to war, serving in the Boer War in South Africa as a captain of artillery. How did he reconcile his oath to do no harm with the duties of a military officer?

He was old enough when the First World War started that he could have stayed home. This was a man past forty, after all. Instead, he went off to the Great War, to the hell of trench warfare, to serve as a field surgeon and gunner in the front lines. It was a war that resolved nothing and killed millions, but McCrae was hip deep in it, seeing the full effects of machine gun fire, artillery attacks, and poison gas on his fellow soldiers. He saw comrades die, on a scale that would have seemed unthinkable a few years earlier. The death of a friend inspired him to write the poem that he’d be remembered by.

During the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, he was sitting at the back of a field ambulance, looking out on poppies growing across the ruined landscape of Flanders. He wrote the poem down and then discarded it, but a friend saved it to be published in a magazine. In our time, we’d call it going viral. In his time, it was just a poem that caught the imagination of the reader. In 1919, it was republished posthumously in a collection of his works.

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 the 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 didn’t survive to see the war end. In 1918, he contracted pneumonia and died. He was buried with full military honours in a Commonwealth cemetery in France. Yet his name endures, because that poem resonated with so many people. It is read across national borders at this time of year, because it speaks on a fundamental level.

Today, McCrae’s legacy is secure. Schools bear his name. There is a gallery in the Canadian War Museum named for him. Plus, his extraordinary poem has endured the ravages of time. Though he is buried in France, his name adorns a tombstone in the McCrae family plot in his hometown. His former house now serves as a local museum explaining the history and the legacy.

Remembrance Day is observed annually in Commonwealth Countries on November Eleventh. The veterans of McCrae’s war are all gone now. Veterans of the war that followed are fewer each year. Still, we remember them. We honour them. Lest we forget.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.


  1. Excellent timing, Lyn! The poem itself turns up in my photoblog in the next couple of days as well....

  2. Very thought-provoking, William. Demonstrates how the poet's life experience drives the poem.

  3. i love it and your writing skill is perfect you are great admin keep it up

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