100th anniversary of the composition of the iconic poem “In Flanders Fields”

John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is one of the best-known literary works to emerge from the First World War. The poem’s most lasting legacy is its popularization of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those killed in war.

McCrae is thought to have written the poem during the second week of the Second Battle of Ypres while he was stationed at what later became the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, just north of the town of Ypres. McCrae, a Major and military doctor, was second-in-command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The exact circumstances in which the poem was written, however, remain the stuff of legend. The most cited stories of the poem’s origin centre on McCrae’s grief over the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an officer of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery who was killed by a direct hit from a German shell on the morning of May 2. One account says that McCrae was so distraught after his friend’s funeral (for which McCrae, himself, said the committal service in the absence of a chaplain) that he composed the poem in just 20 minutes as a means of calming himself down. Another story has it that McCrae was seen writing his poem the next day, May 3, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the poppies that had sprung up near the dressing station. His commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison, tells a third story: that McCrae drafted his poem while passing time between the arrivals of wounded soldiers. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the Imperial War Museum in England has a tracing of an original holograph of the poem, written by McCrae for Captain Tyndale-Lea, which claims that McCrae wrote the poem on April 29, 1915, three days before Lieutenant Helmer’s death.

The handwritten poem on yellowed paper in very faded ink.

A copy of “In Flanders Fields” written in John McCrae’s hand. Morrison was a friend and the commanding officer of the poet as well as a physician, December 8, 1915 (MIKAN 179238)

How the poem was submitted for publication is also a matter of speculation. By one account, McCrae threw the poem away but it was recovered by another soldier and sent to a London newspaper. Possibly McCrae himself submitted it, as he made a number of handwritten copies to give to friends shortly after drafting it. The poem was printed by Punch magazine on December 8, 1915. Within months it became the most popular poem of the war.

While no institution is known to have John McCrae’s original first draft of the poem, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has two manuscript versions of it, both written and signed by McCrae. One is dated December 8, 1915 and is part of a collection donated to LAC by Major-General Sir Edward W.B. Morrison, who was McCrae’s friend and fellow officer. The other is typed on paper and is part of a collection of documents donated by James Edward Hervey McDonald, an original member of the Group of Seven painters. LAC also holds an extensive and richly detailed collection of John McCrae’s letters and diaries, spanning much of his life, from childhood to shortly before his death from pneumonia in January 1918.

Black-and-white photograph showing a man in military uniform sitting down on steps with a dog at his side.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau, circa 1914 (MIKAN 3192003)

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