In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

In Flanders Fields

. . . lest we forget.

Canadian Major John McCrae sat on the back of an ambulance, parked just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, in France. Although he had been a member of Montreal’s McGill faculty since 1900, and had served in the South African war, he was finding it impossible to get used to what he was experiencing. It was May of 1915, and the Great War raged around him.

As a Canadian surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, his experience here in the Ypres Salient was an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. In the last seventeen days he had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.

He had been particularly affected by the death of his young friend and former student, Alexis Helmer, from Ottawa. Alex had been killed the day before by a shell burst and had been buried later that day in the little cemetery nearby. In the absence of a chaplain, Major McCrae had personally performed the funeral ceremony for his friend.

His heart was heavy as he gazed at the scenes around him. In the nearby cemetery, he could see the wild poppies that sprang up quickly in the freshly turned earth in that part of Europe. And then, as he sat there on the back of the ambulance, the words began to flow into his mind. He grabbed a pen and paper and quickly wrote them down.

Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two-year-old sergeant major was delivering mail that day and approached Major McCrae as he wrote. He looked up, and then went on writing while the young soldier waited quietly. When he finished five minutes later, the major took his mail from Allinson and without a word, handed him the finished poem to read. What Cyril Allinson read astounded him.

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 hand 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.

Allinson looked around and realized that the poem was almost an exact description of the scene before them.

Unhappy with it, Major McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to the newspapers in England, where shortly after that it was published by Punch Magazine. The effects of the poem washed across England like a giant wave. All of Britain was moved and encouraged by the words, and it quickly spread throughout the allied nations.

Soon, the poppy became a symbol of life and resurrection. Each part of the flower represented some part of this war experience. Life and freedom became represented, all in this tiny red flower.

In 1918, Colonel John McCrae was seriously wounded and taken to a hospital on the coast of France. He was placed in a room where he might look out the window toward the Dover cliffs across the channel. Before he died three nights later, his final words were reported to be: “Tell them this, if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep.”

Canadian Colonel John McCrae was buried in the cemetery of Wimereux, and his poem, “In Flanders Fields,” remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the brave men who fought for freedom in the Great War, and in the one that followed. Every year on November 11, Canadians from Cape Breton Island to Victoria wear their poppies in respect, and when McRae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” is read in the Remembrance Day ceremonies, we stand in silence and we remember.

Colonel John McCrae
story adapted from Welcome to Flanders Fields,
by Daniel G. Dancocks

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