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In Flanders Fields – Guelph memorializes its hometown hero

July 2019

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
          Between the crosses, row on row”

Canadian physician and soldier Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, is one of Canada’s most famous soldiers from that terrible “War to end all wars.” LCol McCrae wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” which is recited each year at Remembrance Day services across Canada.

Born in Guelph, Ontario, on 30 November 1872, McCrae trained as an artilleryman at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, and later studied at the Ontario Agricultural College and the University of Toronto, returning to the latter to attend medical school and graduating with a medical degree in 1898.

In 1900, Lieutenant McCrae served with the Canadian Field Artillery in South Africa during the Second Boer (South African) War. Upon his return to Canada, McCrae held a very busy work schedule. He served at various times as a professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, taught at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, was appointed a resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital and later as and assistant pathologist and an associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital, a pathologist at Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital and a physician at the Alexandra Hospital for Contagious Diseases, later four in Montreal, Quebec.

He also studied in England and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians, accompanied Lord Grey, the Governor General of Canada to Hudson Bay as the expedition’s physician in 1910 and co-authored a medical textbook, “A Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine”.

McCrae was 42 years old when World War I broke out. He was promoted to the rank of Major and assigned to the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery) as Medical Officer. It was the death of his friend from his militia days, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres on 2 May 1915, that inspired McCrae to write “In Flanders Fields,” a poem that was first published in the magazine “Punch”

McCrae was amused by his sudden fame as a result of the poem, but he would never return to Canada and his birthplace where his countrymen could truly show their appreciation. Falling ill due to pneumonia with “extensive pneumococcus meningitis, he died on 28 January 1918, while still serving as the Commanding Officer of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, France.

LCol John McCrae, MD, was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section in Wimereaux Cemetery, near Boulogne.

Despite his body not being repatriated, as was the custom of the day, the McCrae family included John’s name on a tombstone in the family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in Guelph.

The small limestone cottage where McCrae was born has been turned into a museum, The McCrae House, and run by the LCol John McCrae Birthplace Society.

  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.

–LCol John McCrae, MD

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCrae, https://guelphmuseums.ca/venue/mccrae-house.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/in-flanders-fields-guelph-memorializes-its-hometown-hero/

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