The man behind the poppies

by Linda Sutherland

Ever stop to wonder why we pin a red poppy on our coat lapel in November to commemorate Remembrance Day? How did a flower become an emblem for war and loss?

The answer lies in the words of a poem, written by John McCrae, a Canadian physician and onetime pathology lecturer at McGill, while he was serving at the battlefront in Ypres, Belgium.

On May 3, 1915, the day after he performed a burial service for a close friend, McCrae reportedly sat on the step of an ambulance wagon and composed what is widely considered to be the world’s most famous war memorial 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 amidst 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.

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Later that year, McCrae’s poem was published anonymously in the British magazine Punch. It went on to be translated into many languages and was used in countless fundraising campaigns for the war effort. The poem is also credited with inspiring the use of the poppy as Canada’s official flower of remembrance, a symbol that has since been adopted in Britain and many Commonwealth countries.

A hand-written version of McRae’s famous poem is part of the Osler Library’s collection

In a handwritten letter to his friend, Carlton Noyes, dated 31 May 1916, McCrae included his poem and modestly stated that it had become quite popular. Noyes kept the letter and, upon his death, it was passed on to his wife, May Noyes (née Metcalfe), who was a McGill nursing graduate. When she died in 1940, the letter was sent to McGill and deposited in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine.

John Alexander McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario. Shortly after earning a medical degree from the University of Toronto, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force as an artillery officer and set sail for South Africa to fight in the Boer War. In letters home, McCrae expressed his shock at the poor treatment that sick and injured soldiers received.

At the conclusion of the war in 1901, McCrae returned to Canada and settled in Montreal, where he became a resident pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital (he performed more than 400 autopsies there) and later an assistant pathologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital. In 1905 McCrae became a McGill lecturer in clinical medicine and pathology at McGill and an assistant physician at Royal Victoria Hospital. He also taught at the University of Vermont in Burlington. In addition to being a popular teacher, McCrae was an active contributor to medical literature. He co-wrote a textbook on pathology with McGill colleague John George Adami, and contributed to Sir William Osler's A System of Medicine.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, McCrae enlisted with the Number 3 Canadian General Hospital regiment (also known as the McGill Unit). At the age of 42, he was older than most enlistees. “I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience,” he wrote, shortly before leaving for France.

Accompanying McCrae was his horse, Bonfire. While stationed at Ypres, McCrae wrote letters to his niece and nephew as if they were from Bonfire and signed them with the horse’s hoof print. He also befriended a dog he named Bonneau, which accompanied him on his rounds through the medical wards.

While at Ypres, McCrae witnessed the devastating impact of a German gas attack. Later, on a leave, visiting with his friend Osler in England, McCrae talked about the horror he had seen. "He says it was Hades absolutely..." wrote Osler's wife, Grace, in a letter to her sister.

In April of 1915 McCrae earned the rank of lieutenant colonel. Two months later, he left the battlefront and transferred to Number 3 General Hospital in Boulogne, where he treated wounded soldiers from the battles of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Arras and Passchendale. In January of 1918, McCrae became the first Canadian appointed as a consultant physician to the British Armies in the Field. Unfortunately, he died before taking up this position. On January 28, McCrae, who had suffered from asthma since childhood, succumbed to pneumonia and meningitis.

In their book McGill Medicine: The Second Half Century, 1885-1936, authors Joseph Hanaway and Richard Cruess declared, "Few deaths in the war caused greater anguish in Canada than [the] unexpected loss of McCrae, who had become a household legend because of his poem 'In Flanders Fields.'"

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, 45, was buried with full military honours. Leading the funeral procession was his horse Bonfire and – in the tradition of mounted officers – his owner’s boots were placed backwards in the stirrups.

In the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building at McGill – formerly home to the Faculty of Medicine – is a stained glass window that pays tribute to John McCrae. It shows row-upon-row of crosses amid bright red poppies and – in the upper corner – a plaque bearing an inscription: “Pathologist, Poet, Physician and Soldier, a man among men.”