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.
Lt-Col John McCrae (30 November, 1872 – 28 January 1918) was second-in command and Brigade doctor of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. On 2nd May 1915 he was stationed at Essex Farm Dressing station, near Ypres when his friend Lt Alexis Helmer was killed as a German artillery shell exploded near to him. The brigade chaplain was away on other matters, and as Doctor, McCrae was asked to officiate at his friend’s funeral.
Several accounts exist, none confirmed, as to how and why McCrae came to write the poem, but the most popular seems to recall him writing the poem that night, into the next day, initially whilst sitting on the rear step of an ambulance outside of the dressing station. It is thought McCrae needed to find a way to deal with the loss of his friend and had been inspired by the bunches of poppies that had sprouted between the rows of crosses at the Essex Farm cemetery. One source states that McCrae claimed to have had the idea for the poem and was playing around with the pentameters.
Whatever the inspiration, after the poem was subsequently published, McCrae became synonymous with the words, and often grumbled good-humouredly that he wished at least the later re-prints would get the words right. It has been claimed that McCrae wasn’t happy with the finished article and screwed it up into a ball and threw it to the ground. Several comrades rescued it and persuaded McCrae to offer it for publication. He allowed them to convince him and the poem was published in Punch, initially anonymously on December 8th 1915. A subsequent year-end publication of the magazine listed McCrae as the author.
The poem was used throughout the rest of the war as an inspirational device for motivational purposes including extensive publishing in America when they were considering joining the war effort. Several ‘response’ poems have been written since its publication. Most notably ‘America’s answer’ attributed to R W Lilliard,
Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead.
The fight that ye so bravely led
We’ve taken up. And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep
With a cross to mark his bed,
In Flanders Fields.
Fear not that ye have died for naught.
The torch ye threw to us we caught.
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And Freedom’s light shall never die!
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders Fields.
This poem was later incorporated into similar works by other poets, including Moina Michael’s ‘We shall keep the faith’, written in November 1918 as the war drew to a close.
‘In Flanders Fields’ remains to this day one of the most well-known poems from the Great War and is viewed by many as an ode to sacrifice and conflict, and a memorial to the 1914-1918 war particularly.
Lt-Col McCrae died of pneumonia with complications of meningitis on 28th January 1918. His most famous work continues to be representative of many institutions and symbolism of the war… when we think of poppies, we remember the fields of Flanders.
In a twist of irony, after the war when the Imperial war graves commission (now CWGC) set about concentrating and re-interring the remains of the fallen into the dedicated cemeteries that we are now familiar with, Essex Farm cemetery was left mostly as it had been laid during the war. With 1200 dead, who were interred, sadly 103 were unidentified and subsequently are recorded as unknown. 19 of these are known to be burials within the cemetery, however the location lost. A special memorial is in place for these 19, and their names are recorded as is their due, on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing. Lt Alexis Helmer is one of them.
Lest we forget.