As a child I used to walk past a little stone house with a white picket fence every day on my way to school. It had been built in 1858, and was known as the John McCrae birthplace. My school, which was just a few blocks along Water Street, was also called John McCrae School, and every November we would troupe along to the memorial garden next to the house for our Remembrance Day ceremony.
Inside, the house has been restored with simple pine furniture and painted wooden floors to look as it did when John McCrae was born there in 1872. I remember looking round its sparse rooms and thinking how boring it must have been with no TV! We learned that John McCrae studied to become a doctor, but he also became a soldier, first serving in the Boer War in South Africa, and then in Europe during World War I.
The picture above shows John McCrae in about 1914 in his soldier’s uniform. While serving as a field surgeon trying to save the lives of injured soldiers on the front lines at Ypres in 1915, a close friend of his was killed. There was no pastor available to conduct a funeral, so McCrae performed the ceremony himself. The next day he wrote a poem as he sat overlooking the poppy-filled cemetery.
After scribbling the poem in a notebook, he discarded it, thinking it was not worth saving. Another military officer retrieved the poem and sent it to several newspapers in England. On 8 December 1915 it was published in Punch magazine, and it became hugely popular, being reprinted in America and translated into several languages.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae continued to serve as a medic during the remainder of the war. Now famous as a war poet, he continued to write poetry for another three years until his early death from pneumonia in January 1918. A collection of his poetry, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, was published that same year.
There are memorials to McCrae in Belgium, England and Canada, and because of his Scottish ancestry his poem In Flanders Fields features prominently on the memorial for the war dead of Clan MacRae at Eilean Donan castle in the western Highlands.
As a direct result of McCrae’s most famous poem, the poppy was adopted in 1921 by the Royal British Legion as a symbol of the sacrifice made by the fallen soldiers of World War I and since then of subsequent conflicts.
Next year will mark a century since the outbreak of World War I, and a group called the 2014 Real Poppy Campaign has proposed that we should all grow poppies across the UK to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war next August. If the idea takes off, I think the result would be quite amazing.