John McCrae circa 1899

John McCrae (1872-1918), circa 1899. Photo by William Notman & Son. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Alexander McCrae (November 30, 1872 - January 28, 1918) was a Canadian poet, physician, and artist, and a soldier and military doctor during World War I. He is best known for writing the famous war memorial poem "In Flanders Fields".


McCrae was born in McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario to Janet Simpson (Eckford) and Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae; he was the grandson of Scottish immigrants. He attended Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute, and became a member of the Guelph militia regiment. The background of his family is military.

McCrae worked on a B.A. at the University of Toronto in 1892-1893. While there, he was a member of the Toronto militia, the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. He was eventually promoted to Captain and commanded the company. He took a year off his studies at the university due to recurring problems with asthma.

Among his papers in the John McCrae House in Guelph is a letter he wrote on 18 July 1893 to Laura Kains while he trained as an artilleryman at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. "...I have a manservant .. Quite a nobby place it is, in fact .. My windows look right out across the bay, and are just near the water's edge; there is a good deal of shipping at present in the port; and the river looks very pretty."

He was a resident master in English and Mathematics in 1894 at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph.[1]

He returned to the University of Toronto and earned a B.A. McCrae returned again to study medicine on a scholarship. While attending the university he joined the Zeta Psi Fraternity (Theta Xi chapter; class of 1894) and published his first poems.

While in medical school, he tutored other students to help pay his tuition. 2 of his students were among the earliest women doctors in Ontario.[2]

He completed a medical residency at the Robert Garrett Hospital, a children's convalescent home in Baltimore, Maryland.[1]

In 1902, he was appointed resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital and later became assistant pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. In 1904, he was appointed an associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Later that year, he went to England where he studied for several months and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

File:John McCrae leaning against a sundial.jpg

In 1905, he set up his own practice. although he continued to work and lecture at several hospitals. The same year, he was appointed pathologist to the Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital. In 1908, he was appointed physician to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Infectious Diseases. In 1910, he accompanied Lord Grey, the Governor General of Canada, on a canoe trip to Hudson Bay to serve as expedition physician.

McCrae served in the artillery during the 2nd Boer War, and upon his return was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, where he taught until 1911; he also taught at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. He co-authored with J.G. Adami a medical text, A Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine (1912; 2nd ed., 1914).

McCrae was the brother of Dr. Thomas McCrae, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore and close associate of Sir William Osler. He was the great-uncle of former Alberta MP David Kilgour and of Kilgour's sister Geills Turner, who married former Canadian Prime Minister John Napier Turner.

World War IEdit

John McCrae in uniform circa 1914

John McCrae in uniform, circa 1914. Courtesy Guelph Museum and Creative Commons.

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, declared war as well. McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. McCrae's friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer[3], was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired the poem, "In Flanders Fields", which was written on May 3, 1915 and first published in the magazine Punch.

From June 1, 1915, McCrae was ordered away from the artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. C.L.C. Allinson reported that McCrae "most unmilitarily told [me] what he thought of being transferred to the medicals and being pulled away from his beloved guns. His last words to me were: 'Allinson, all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.'"[4]

File:John McCrae's Funeral Procession to Wimereux.jpg

"In Flanders Fields" appeared anonymously in Punch on December 8, 1915, but in the index to that year McCrae was named as the author. The verses swiftly became popular, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated (a Latin version begins In agro belgico...). "In Flanders Fields" was also extensively printed in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war, alongside a 'reply' by R.W. Lillard, ("...Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught...").

For 8 months the hospital operated in Durbar tents (donated by the Begum of Bhopal and shipped from India), but after suffering storms, floods and frosts it was moved in February 1916 into the old Jesuit College in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

McCrae, now "a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one",[5] regarded his sudden fame with some amusement, wishing that "they would get to printing 'In F.F.' correctly: it never is nowadays"; but (writes his biographer) "he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay."[6]

The solider behind 'In Flanders Fields'

The solider behind 'In Flanders Fields'

On January 28, 1918, while still commanding No 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia with "extensive pneumococcus meningitis".[7] He was buried the following day in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery, just a couple of kilometres up the coast from Boulogne, with full military honours.[8] His flag-draped coffin was borne on a gun carriage and the mourners - who included Sir Arthur Currie and many of McCrae's friends and staff - were preceded by McCrae's charger, "Bonfire", with McCrae's boots reversed in the stirrups.[8] McCrae's gravestone is placed flat, as are all the others in the section, because of the unstable sandy soil.[9]

"In Flanders Fields"Edit

Main article: In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Field, Hasfield Church - - 1551910

McCrae's poem on the wall of Hasfield Church, Gloucestershire, UK. Courtesy

The poem "In Flanders Fields" was written after McCrae witnessed the death, and presided over the funeral, of a friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer.[10] By most accounts it was written in his notebook[11] and later rejected by McCrae. Ripped out of his notebook, it was rescued by a fellow officer, Francis Alexander Scrimger, and later published in Punch magazine. However, this story is rejected by the editor at the time:
A legend has already grown up around the publication of "In Flanders Fields" in Punch. The truth is, 'that the poem was offered in the usual way and accepted; that is all.' The usual way of offering a piece to an editor is to put it in an envelope with a postage stamp outside to carry it there, and a stamp inside to carry it back. Nothing else helps.[12]


A collection of McCrae's poetry, In Flanders Fields, and other poems, was published in 1919, after his death.[13]

The Canadian government has placed a memorial to McCrae that features "In Flanders Fields" at the site of the dressing station that sits beside the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Essex Farm Cemetery.

The Story Behind John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” poem-0

The Story Behind John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” poem-0

"In Flanders Fields," which made poppies the best-known symbol of the war, was the inspiration for the British Legion's annual poppy campaign, in which veterans would sell poppies to raise money to help other veterans. The campaign is still going strong, 100 years later, and has spread to other English-speaking countries.

Several institutions have been named in McCrae's honour, including John McCrae Public School (part of the York Region District School Board in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario), John McCrae Public School (in Guelph, Ontario), John McCrae Senior Public School (in Scarborough, Ontario) and John McCrae Secondary School (part of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board in the Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven). The current Canadian War Museum has a gallery for special exhibits, called The Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae Gallery. Guelph is home to McCrae House, a museum created in his birthplace. A line from the Poem ("To you from failing hands..") was painted on the wall of the Montreal Canadiens' (Ice Hockey) dressing room at the Forum in Montreal, a blunt reminder to each team that they have much to live up to.

The Cloth Hall of the city of Ieper (Ypres in French and English) in Belgium has a permanent war remembrance called the "In Flanders Fields Museum", named after the poem.[14]

There are also a photograph and short biographical memorial to McCrae in the St George Memorial Church in Ypres.

A bronze plaque memorial dedicated to Col John McCrae was erected by Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute.[15]

McCrae was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in 1946.[16]


Poems by John McCraeEdit

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

See alsoEdit


  • Busch, Briton Cooper (2003). Canada and the Great War: Western Front Association papers. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 978 0773525467
  • Holt, Tonie and Valmai (1996). Poets of the Great War, "Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae". Barnsley: Leo Cooper (Reprinted 1999). ISBN 978 0850527063
  • Peddie, John. The Story of John McCrae Guelph Museums, Guelph, Ontario. Accessed: 2010-02-25
  • Prescott, J F (1985). In Flanders fields: the story of John McCrae. Boston Mills Press. ISBN 978 0919783072


  1. 1.0 1.1 Peddie
  2. "The Early Years". Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. Veteran Affairs Canada. Retrieved 2008-12-06. 
  3. "Casualty Details Helmer, Alexis Hannum". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 
  4. Prescott, 99.
  5. Prescott, 106.
  6. Prescott, p. 107.
  7. Holt, 54-62.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Busch, 75; Holt, 62. Prescott, 129.
  9. Busch. 75.
  10. "Casualty Details Helmer, Alexis Hannum". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 
  11. Michael Robert Patterson. "". Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  12. Macphail, Andrew (1919). "John McCrae: An essay in character". In Flanders Fields and Other Poems. 
  13. 'In Flanders Fields, and other poems' at Project Gutenberg
  14. In Flanders Fields
  15. Col John McCrae plaque
  16. "Persons of National Historic Significance," Wikipedia, Web, Apr. 22, 2011.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).