BORN: 1872, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
DIED: 1918, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
‘‘In Flanders Fields’’ (1915)
John McCrae. The Granger Collection, New York. Reproduced by permission.
Known to his friends and colleagues as a physician and a soldier, John McCrae is best known for his war memorial poem ‘‘In Flanders Fields,’’ perhaps the most popular and best remembered verse of World War I.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Reader and a Cadet. John McCrae was born on November 30, 1872, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada to woolen manufacturer David McCrae and Janet Eckford McCrae. As a child, John developed a love of reading from his mother and later a passion for soldiering from his father.
In 1873, the family moved from the small cottage to a larger home on Woolwich Street. The young McCrae began his schooling at Central Public School before moving on to Guelph Collegiate Institute. At Guelph Collegiate the fourteen-year-old McCrae joined the school’s affiliated Highland Cadet Corps. A year later he joined the local militia regiment of artillery commanded by his father, serving as the regiment’s bugler.
Medical Training. In 1894, McCrae graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Toronto and began medical studies at the university. In the summers of 1896 and 1897, he completed his internship at the convalescent home for children, the Robert Garrett Hospital in Mount Airy, Maryland. There he began writing, publishing his first article, ‘‘The Comedy of a Hospital,’’ in the Presbyterian weekly, The Westminster. His first poems were also published during this time, some of which appeared in the student paper Varsity and in commercial publications, such as Saturday Night and Godey’s. The theme of most of his poems is death, usually described as a welcome rest after the toils of life, often in images of reaping and harvest.
While at the university, McCrae joined The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, a military regiment that eventually promoted him to captain. When McCrae graduated from medical school with his M.D. in 1898, he practiced at the Toronto General Hospital and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore before receiving an appointment as a fellow in pathology at McGill University and a pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital.
Second Boer War. In 1900, McCrae took a temporary leave of his medical studies to soldier in the Second Boer War (also known as the South African War). Joining the Royal Canadian Artillery in December, he was made a lieutenant. His distinguished performance was recorded and his letters home were published in the Guelph Evening Mercury. McCrae’s experiences in South Africa added the theme of war to his poetry. Nearly all his poems written after his return to Canada were published in McGill’s University Magazine.
Reputed Pathologist. Upon his return to Montreal in 1901, McCrae began his appointed residency at Montreal General Hospital and soon established himself as a fine pathologist. In September of 1902, he was awarded his license to practice by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Quebec and became assistant pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital Montreal, yet proceeded to practice clinical work instead. As a lecturer in medicine at his alma mater McGill University, which he began in 1909, McCrae joined forces with his former professor and mentor J. G. Adami to write A Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine (1912).
World War I and Flanders Field. In 1914 the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. As a dominion of the UK, McCrae’s Canada was part of the declaration. Using his influence with a former Boer War compatriot, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Whipple Bancroft Morrison, McCrae ensured his appointment as head field surgeon and major in charge of the First Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His brigade was moved to Belgium in April 1915; it was during the Second Battle of Ypres when in May 1915 McCrae’s friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed—inspiring McCrae’s famous poem, ‘‘In Flanders Fields’’ (1915).
Final Service. The next month McCrae left the artillery brigade. He advanced to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, assigned a post as head of medicine at No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Prescott recounts the reactions of the staff of former McGill University colleagues as McCrae arrived, appearing gaunt, exhausted, and emotionally changed as if ‘‘an icon had been broken.’’ McCrae nevertheless continued to insist on the highest possible standards of service. Among his best practices, he insisted on living as his comrades lived—in tents at the front instead of in a heated shelter assigned to military heads.
The poor conditions and frigid weather lowered McCrae’s resistance to illness, and though he had been forced by order to move to the warmer huts, he succumbed to meningitis and pneumonia. He died on January 28, 1918, four days after he was made consulting physician to the First British Army—the first Canadian to earn such an honorable distinction. He was buried with full military honors in the cemetery at Wimereux, France. According to the Guelph Civic Museum biographers, seventy-five nursing sisters attended McCrae’s funeral; his horse Bonfire led the procession, and in military tradition, bore his master’s boots backward in the stirrups.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
McCrae's famous contemporaries include:
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965): Twice prime minister of the United Kingdom, this statesman and acclaimed orator was also a Nobel Prize-winning author.
Marchese Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937): Pioneer of the radiotelegraph system, he shared a Nobel Prize in Physics (with Ferdinand Braun) in 1909.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965): A prolific author, he was adept at storytelling through his popular novels, stories, and plays.
Charles Talbut Onions (1873-1965): English grammarian and lexicographer, he is best known for his collaborative work on The Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Marcel Proust (1871-1922): Profound and prolific essayist and novelist, he spent his life on one of the most revered works of the century: A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past) (1913-1927).
Works in Literary Context
Influence of World War I. As biographer John F. Prescott notes, McCrae published some thirty poems throughout his life, many during his early twenties. Among these earlier poems were several influenced by the tragic death from infection of a girl with whom he was in love. Likewise, the death of friends and comrades in wartime impacted the physician-poet. McCrae’s close friend Alexis Helmer was killed during the Boer War, as he stood near his dugout by the Yser Canal. After the men collected the parts of Helmer’s body and rearranged them on an army blanket, they gathered for a service, with McCrae presiding and reciting ‘‘Order of Burial of the Dead.’’ According to McCord Museum scholars, it is generally supposed that his dear friend’s death prompted his writing ‘‘In Flanders Fields,’’ dated by McCrae May 3, 1915.
Pastoral Style. In The Great War and Modern Memory, critic and scholar Paul Fussell analyzes ‘‘In Flanders Fields’’ (1915) as a poem that carries the mood of pastoral poetry. From ‘‘pastor,’’ ‘‘shepherd,’’ this style is characterized as part of the world of the shepherds as they strolled or lay in the fields tending the flocks. Pastoral poetry was common in several centuries—popularized in the seventeenth century, for example, by poets such as Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser and playwrights such as Ben Jonson. In McCrae’s poem, Fussell suggests, ‘‘We have the red flowers of traditional pastoral elegy; the crosses which suggest the idea of Calvary and sacrifice; the sky as seen from a trench; the larks singing in the midst of the horrors and terrors of man’s greatest folly; [and] the contrast between the song of the larks and the voice of the guns.’’
Antiwar Sentiments. Because of his many experiences with death by disease or war, says Prescott, McCrae’s early poems ‘‘often had death or the search for oblivion and peace after death as their theme. Later poems tended either to be religious, inspired by the plight of his patients, or to deal with war.’’ As McCord Museum notes also indicate, although McCrae returned from the Boer War without physical injury, ‘‘he began to disapprove of the cost of war in human and animal lives.’’
By the time he participated as a medical rescue soldier in World War I, McCrae was developing the theme of the consequences of war. He employed a common literary device, the voice of the dead. In ‘‘In Flanders Fields,’’ for example, the dead speakers, along with the many pieces of imagery, work on a number of levels to present the manifold themes of war—including, as Fussell suggests, the idea of the soldiers as lovers, with a sharp contrast drawn between beds and graves.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who also offered descriptions of the impact of war:
''The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner'' (1945), a poem by Randall Jarrell. In this poem of five lines, the speaker describes the activity and death of the soldier who works in the belly of the World War II fighter plane.
''Dulce et Decorum Est'' (1920), a poem by Wilfred Owen. This poem, taken from a Latin line by Horace (''It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country''), is written from the point of view of a World War I soldier.
''Facing It'' (1988), a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa. In this poem, the speaker stands facing the Vietnam War Memorial, a black wall that holds the names of 58,195 Americans taken by the war.
''The Things They Carried'' (1990), a short story by Tim O'Brien. In a story from the book by the same title, the narrator describes the literal and figurative weights the Vietnam soldiers carried.
''Welcome to Hiroshima'' (1984), a poem by Mary Jo Salter. In this piece, the speaker visits the site of the first atomic bombing, recounting in great detail the fallout.
Works in Critical Context
McCrae’s small body of work has earned an unusual kind of critical reception. Most impacting on the larger culture is his poem, ‘‘In Flanders Field,’’ published anonymously in Punch on December 8, 1915. It quickly became popular among the British troops and during World War I became ‘‘the poem of the army.’’
“In Flanders Field’’. In a short time ‘‘In Flanders Field’’ became a signature for the consequences of World War I. According to H. E. Harmon of South Atlantic Quarterly, ‘‘Perhaps nothing in all literature ever did so much to fire the soul of the western world to the cause of liberty.’’ Told from the point of view of those who died in the conflict, the poem bore a symbol that became adopted by the veterans for November 11, Veteran’s Day. The first lines read, ‘‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.’’ According to the scholar Robert Giddings, these poppies were made into paper handouts by the veterans and have been ‘‘sold’’ (or given to solicit donations) for the last six decades to raise funds for the war-disabled. However, not all critics agree with popular sentiment regarding the work; Paul Fussell, for example, points out that the poem’s fatal flaw is the ‘‘recruiting-poster rhetoric’’ found in its final third.
Responses to Literature
1. Both the Boer War and World War I influenced McCrae’s poetry. To understand the impact the war had on the physician-poet, investigate the circumstances of each war, researching the causes and casualties. Discuss how McCrae’s verses reflect his view of the war. Do you think most people feel the same way about war? Explain your answer using lines from the poems to support your position.
2. Biographer John F. Prescott writes that John McCrae ‘‘was a man of many talents, undergirded by the highest standards of loyalty, service, and duty.’’ Visit the McCord Museum Web site and take the John McCrae Web Tour. Discuss what key individuals, events, and experiences contributed to McCrae’s passion for medicine as well as his success as a poet.
3. Professor Harry Rusche of the Department of English at Emory University has collected the poetry and biographies of six ‘‘Lost Poets of the Great War.’’ Among the six is John McCrae. Visit the Web site and read one poem by each poet—Rupert Brooke, McCrae, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Alan Seeger, and Edward Thomas. Compare the tones: What is the attitude of each poet toward war? What words or lines suggest such an attitude? What do the six poets have in common?
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Giddings, Robert. The War Poets. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1988.
Graves, Dianne, A Crown Life: The World of John McCrae. St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1997.
‘‘John McCrae (1872-1918).’’ Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Edited by Dennis Poupard. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984, pp. 207-212.
Longman Companion to English Literature. Reproduced in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 11. Detroit: Gale, 1983.
The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Prescott, John F. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae. Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1985.
Guelph Civic Museum. McCrae House and The Story of John McCrae. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from http://guelph.ca/museum/.
McCord Museum. John McCrae Web Tour. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/webtours/GE_P3_3_EN.html.
Prescott, John F., Dictionary of Canadian Biography. McCrae, John. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=41698. Last updated on May 2, 2005. Rusche, Harry, Emory University English Department. Lost Poets of the Great War. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets.