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by: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army
One of the most memorable war poems ever written, and arguably, the most known poem of all time. In Flanders FieldsÂ is a legacy of the terrible battle in the spring of 1915 in the Ypres salient.
Major JohnÂ McCrae, despite being a doctor for years and service in the South African War found it impossible to get used the screams, bloodÂ and suffering, having seen enough to last a lifetime.
McCrae joined the McGillÂ facultyÂ in 1900 after graduation, and was attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade as a surgeon.Â After theÂ 17 day ordeal ofÂ treating battle injured Canadians, British, Indians, French and German soldiers, McCrea wrote: 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.
Â The death of aÂ young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915, particularly affected McCrae.Â With no chaplain available, McCrea performed the funeral ceremony for Lieutenant Helmer, buried in the little cemetery outside McCrae’s station.
The next day, surrounded by the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, while sitting on the back of an ambulance parked nearÂ his station, the major spent 20 minutes of precious rest timeÂ venting his anguish, scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.Â
Cyril Allinson, aÂ young sergeant-major, while delivering mail that dayÂ spotted McCrae writing.Â Allinson recalled. The majorÂ continued writing whileÂ I stood there quietly. His face tired but calm asÂ heÂ Â wrote.Â He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.”,” When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail and,Â handed me his pad.Â Allinson was moved by what he read:
“The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.”
McCrae tossed the poem away.Â Fortunately,Â a fellow officer retrieved, and sent it to newspapers in England. Initially rejected, it was finally published by Punch on December 8 1915.Â