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For the week of Monday, November 28, 2016

On November 30, 1872, John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario. His keen interest in medicine and the military would bring him recognition as a medical officer, but it was his writing, a hobby from his collegiate days, that brought him the most acclaim.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau, ca. 1914
© Library and Archives Canada / C-046284

The First World War saw rapid development of new military tactics and weapons. Medical practices and technology had to keep pace with these developments to ensure that soldiers stayed in fighting shape. The Allied army had a well-organized treatment system. Each battalion was assigned a temporary aid post just behind the frontlines, where medical officers like Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae provided emergency treatment to wounded soldiers. Stabilized patients were moved to a Casualty Clearing Station, which was a basic hospital in a nearby town with the tools to provide care that was more advanced. Soldiers requiring further treatment or recovery time were then sent to a stationary or general hospital.

Tireless doctors and nurses were fighting their own war against new enemies such as gas, gangrene, shell shock, and severe shrapnel wounds. Thanks to their efforts, nearly 9 in 10 injured soldiers who received medical treatment survived. Some modern methods of blood transfusion, shrapnel extraction, bone setting, and infection prevention had their origins in medical work during the First World War.

As solace from this challenging environment, McCrae returned to one of his teenage hobbies: writing poetry. He penned In Flanders Fields in an attempt to come to terms with the death of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who had died during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. The poem was published later that year, and the call to “take up our quarrel with the foe” was heard as a rallying cry for recruitment, Victory Loan campaigns, and other homefront war efforts.

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John McCrae
© Library and Archives Canada; Canada Post Corporation

McCrae was a devoted and skilled physician who worked relentlessly for his patients. Over the course of the war, he was promoted to Chief of Medical Services at the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, and later to the role of Consulting Physician to the First British Army. He was the first Canadian to receive such an honour, but would not live to apply his trademark dedication to the position. After contracting pneumonia and meningitis, Lt.-Col John McCrae died on January 28, 1918.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae is a designated national historic person and his birthplace, McCrae House is a national historic site and museum in Guelph, Ontario.

It is the centennial anniversary of the First World War. To learn more about McCrae and others who worked to keep the frontlines strong, read Forever Remembered and Future War Hero in the This Week in History archives.

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