John McCrae is not famous at all. His poem, "In Flanders Fields," is.

He was born in Guelph, Ontario, in 1872, a descendant of Scottish Presbyterians. In 1898, aged twenty-six, he graduated as a doctor from the University of Toronto and took up an internship for a short while at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore before winning a pathology fellowship at McGill. However, he never seems to have taken up this post since, in 1899, he was granted leave of absence to serve as a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery in the war in South Africa. Post-War he worked as a pathologist in Montreal for a time before becoming a clinician and, according to a friend, “the most talented physician of his generation”

When war broke out again in 1914 he got himself appointed, in the rank of Major, as a surgeon with the First Canadian Artillery Brigade. In April 1915 they were ordered to the Ypres salient just days before the major offensive when, for the first time, the Germans released poisonous gas. In the following two or three weeks, half the brigade was killed. McCrae’s friend and student, Alexis Helmer, died on 2nd May. Next day, McCrae wrote out the complete "In Flanders Fields" while waiting for casualties behind the lines. Some say he used the back of a senior officer as a desk. It was published anonymously in Punch in December 1915 (his name was revealed when it was printed in the yearly index.) It was immediately and enormously popular, even circulating in the United States which, of course, was not yet in the war.

That June, 1915, now a half colonel, McCrae was posted to the big Canadian Army hospital near Boulogne on the Channel coast. The terrible losses seem to have destroyed him emotionally. In January 1918 he became consulting physician to the First British Army but died of pneumonia and meningitis before he could take up the post. He is buried in the military cemetery at Wimereux, though his real memorial is the sixteen lines of "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 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 hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold up high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep
Though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Persistence of the Victorians: Things Remembered and Things Forgot


Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

Prescott, John. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John MacCrae. Boston Mills Press. Erin, Ont. 1985

Project Gutenberg.

Last modified 12 June 2008