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article imageJohn McCrae and Poppy Day

By Bob Gordon     Nov 11, 2009 in Arts
In Guelph, Ontario, Remembrance Day is deeply felt throughout the community. Guelph is known as the "Royal City," but that is not why.
Guelph was the hometown of John Kenneth MacAlister, the town's first Rhodes Scholar, who was tortured and killed by the Nazis while operating as a secret agent, but that is not why.
Guelph is the hometown of John McCrae (Nov. 30, 1872 — Jan. 28, 1918), author of the most famous poem of the trenches, “In Flanders Fields."
McCrae was from a military family. His father raised local men and formed a contingent for the Boer War and remained involved with the militia. The younger McCrae served in that unit, and when the Great War started he enlisted immediately.
McCrae was also an accomplished surgeon when he volunteered. After graduating from the University of Toronto he completed a medical residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1902, he was appointed resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital and later also became assistant pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He was an established and esteemed physician when he decided to enlist at the age of 42, roughly double the average age of a volunteer.
He was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery with the rank of Major and second-in-command.
In the spring of 1915, the Canadian and German armies fought a ghastly and costly battle around the small Belgian town of Ypres. Known as the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae's unit was in the thick of it. McCrae also had to confront personal challenges. He had to perform a burial service for his closest friend, a former student Alexis Helmer.
There are confusing stories regarding the actual writing of the poem. One, certainly not implausible, is that he wrote the poem the day after Helmer's burial while sitting on an ambulance waiting for more wounded to come in.
Initially, magazines rejected it. It was six months later, in December, when it appeared in Punch. The poem reads:
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.
Poppy
Two different styles of Canadian Memorial Poppies
Canadian War Museum
Moina Michael, an American woman from Athens, Georgia was so inspired by the poem that, two days prior to the Armistice she began to wear a poppy year-round to commemorate the war dead.
Next year the program went ahead with the endorsement of the British Legion and the Great War Veterans Association (GRVN) in Canada.
In 1921, the GRVA sold poppies for the first time and five years later the GWVA became the Legion.
But the poppy remained as it does today, 88 years later.
More about Flanders, Poppy, Remembrance
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