This Week in History


Forever Remembered

This story was initially published in 1999

On November 11, 1918, the "war to end all wars" came to a close. In the midst of conflict, a masterpiece was born. Dr. John McCrae, who had spent the war tending to its victims, ensured through his poem In Flanders Fields that the sacrifices made by those who fought will never be forgotten.

John McCrae with his dog Bonneau ca. 1914

John McCrae with his dog Bonneau, ca. 1914
© Library and Archives Canada / C-46284

Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, McCrae took an early interest in the military, joining the Highfield Cadet Corps at 14. The first Guelph student to receive a scholarship to the University of Toronto, McCrae obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1894 and went on to receive a Bachelor of Medicine degree and the gold medal for medicine from the University's medical school in 1898. It was here that he honed his writing skills, publishing 16 poems and several short stories.

In 1899, he postponed a pathology fellowship at McGill University, Montréal, to fight in the Boer War. Witnessing first hand the ravages of war and appalled by the poor treatment of the wounded, McCrae resigned from the military upon returning. He continued his medical career in Montréal as a respected teacher and doctor, pursuing his studies in pathology and setting up his own practice in 1905.

In Flanders Fields
When the First World War began in 1914, McCrae's strong sense of duty impelled him to rejoin the military. He became brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery and was stationed in Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally known as Flanders. There he saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war and tended hundreds of wounded every day in the trenches.

On May 2, 1915, a close friend and former student of McCrae's, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed. Soon after, McCrae composed In Flanders Fields, a moving but haunting anthem of remembrance and one of the most enduring war poems ever written. Published in December 1915, it enjoyed widespread popularity and came to symbolize the sacrifices of soldiers in the Great War. McCrae himself never saw the end of the war. On January 28, 1918, after becoming the first Canadian appointed consulting physician to the First British Army, McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae is commemorated by Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaques in Ypres, Belgium and Guelph, Ontario. His birth place in Guelph, McCrae House, has also been designated as a national historic site.

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