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 it high.
          If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
                                In Flanders fields.

John McCrae (1872-1918)

John McCrae was a physician, veteran of the Boer War and when Canada declared war on Germany in 1914 and fought on the Western Front during World War I. This poem is memorable for many reasons. Historically it commemorates a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915. Ypres, Belgium is in the area traditionally called Flanders where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place during what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres. It is considered a turning point for the Allies.

Today Flanders covers parts of northern France and Belgium, and by the spring of that year poppies that had lain dormant for years began to bloom bright red and profusely. With the Western front consisting of nothing more than churned up soil from all of the fighting, McCrae sat in that field surrounded by the striking sight of these blossoms the like of which no one had ever seen. He had spent seventeen days treating injured men during this terrible conflict and he writes about it in his journal:

    "I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
There was one death that affected McCrea deeply. A young friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa who had been killed by a shell burst on May 2nd 1915. What body parts could be found were gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial. Lieutenant Helmer was buried near the 1st Canadian Brigade's position where there was a small burial ground which had originally been established during the First Battle of Ypres in the autumn of the previous year, 1914. The Second Battle of Ypres began on April 22nd, 1915 and by early May the burial ground also contained graves of French and Canadian casualties. It became known as the Essex Farm British Military Cemetery.

Lieutenant Colonel Morrison writes about the small burial ground where Alexis Helmer was originally buried:

    "A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry regiment and on numerous occasions during the sixteen day battle, we saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John (McCrae) described it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns."
With the company chaplain away John McCrae performed a simple service at the graveside by reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England's 'Order of Burial of the Dead'. A wooden cross marked the burial place, but the grave has since been lost. By one account McCrae scribbled down these fifteen lines in twenty minutes shortly after the funeral as he gazed across to the wild poppies blowing in the easterly breezes in the ditches in that part of Europe. Dissatisfied with it, by another's account, McCrae threw the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but Punch published it anonymously on December 8th 1915.

While the images became a part of the collective memory of the war they still captivate future generations with its rural scene during the season of rebirth and hope. The rondeau marches along in its short and insistent rhythm and commands the reader's attention to the eye-filling resplendent beauty while echoes contrast side by side in stark reality with the exuberance of Nature and the solemnity of Death.

    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
          In Flanders fields.
It's not hard to imagine the the soldiers on the lush fields in Ypres feeling this deep down in their soul. Images that....
    have the red flowers of traditional pastoral elegy--which go back to Milton (and beyond); the crosses which suggest the idea of Calvary and sacrifice; the sky as seen from a trench; the larks singing in the midst of the horrors and terrors of man's greatest folly; the contrast between the song of the larks and the voice of the guns; the special significance of dawn and sunset with the anticipated echoes of Gray's Elegy; the conception of soldiers as lovers; and the antithesis drawn between beds and graves. The poem sails across the imagination laden with literary associations ransacked from the riches of the past.

(Robert Giddings)

The poem was translated into several languages and used in a 1917 Canadian campaign to help raise money for the war effort. The goal of the campaign was to raise $150 million. With the help of the powerful In Flanders Fields the campaign raised around $400 million.

It created a great sensation, and was used widely as a recruiting tool, inspiring other young men to join the Army. Not only does the historical value make this a timeless piece because people during the war interpreted it primarily as a pro-war poem, it has been often read later as an anti-war poem. Poetry was a passionate hobby of John McCrae, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, was published in 1918 and was among the top 10 non-fiction bestsellers for both 1918 and 1919 in America. Unfortunately he became sick with pneumonia and died at the No. 3 General Hospital, January 28th, 1918 in Wimereux near Boulogne.

Because of In Flanders Fields' popularity, the poppy was adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead of Britain, France, the United States, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. These lines are enshrined in the innermost thoughts and hearts of all soldiers who hear them. John McCrae was their voice.

for those who have paid the ultimate price so that I may raise my children in freedom.


In Flanders Field, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae:

Robert Giddings, The War Poets, pp. 55-6.

First World War. org:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

"Welcome to Flanders Fields", by Daniel G. Dancocks, McClelland and Stewart. Toronto, Canada, 1988

CST Approved.

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