John McCrae was born in the Canadian city of Guelph in 1872. His paternal grandparents, Thomas McCrae and his wife Jean Campbell, had emigrated from Scotland, arriving in Canada in 1849. He pursued twin careers in medicine and the military; as a young man he joined the local militia, and while a student at the University of Toronto also joined the militia there, attaining the rank of Captain and commanding the company. He studied medicine as a second degree, and though having been awarded a fellowship in pathology at McGill University in 1899, deferred it in order to fight with the Royal Canadian Artillery in the Boer War. On return from that war McCrae completed his fellowship, and was a professor of pathology at McGill until 1911, thereafter working as pathologist and physician in Montreal.
Upon outbreak of war in 1914, McCrae went to the front as Brigade Surgeon in the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery. The spring of 1915 saw him working at Essex Farm dressing station, tending to the wounded and dying soldiers as the Second Battle of Ypres raged on. He was sometimes called upon to perform burial services; on the 2nd of May he carried out this duty for a close friend, Lt Alexis Helmer, who had that day been killed by a shell. McCrae’s skills as a surgeon had not been able to save Helmer, but his keenly felt death triggered the writing of the poem most closely associated with the appalling losses of the First World War, and now known across the world: ‘In Flanders Fields’.
McCrae had been writing poetry and short stories since university days, and had had some published. He sent the poem he wrote there at the medical station by the banks of the Ypres canal to Britain for publication, and it eventually appeared anonymously in Punch in December. Public response was overwhelming and the author’s name and nationality were revealed. The poem’s popularity was immense and it is considered to have boosted recruitment. In Canada the final lines were used on posters for Victory Bonds.
From the summer of 1915 McCrae worked at the Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne, where he was second in command. The hospital coped with huge numbers of wounded from all the ensuing major battles, treating nearly five thousand men – from the Somme – in the first half of July 1916 alone. The strain took its toll; McCrae had always suffered from asthma, and by 1917 his health was very poor. He died of pneumonia on 28 January 1918.
The vivid imagery of poppies in ‘In Flanders Fields’ was taken to heart. The American Moina Michael vowed always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance, and campaigned to have the flower adopted as a national symbol. By the early 1920s most of the Allied countries had indeed adopted it, and the flower and the poem will stand forever for the great sacrifice of those who give their lives in war.