In Flanders Fields

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Dec 05, 2009

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow 
Between the crosses row on row..."

Mayor John McCrae, MD

Those words begin one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915. Here is the story of the making of that poem. 

Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the South African War, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood. Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime. 

As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade of the Canadian Army, Major McCrae, who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent seventeen days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in the Ypres salient. 

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later wrote of it, "I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done." 

One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in a little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain. 

The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry. 

In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook. 

A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. "His face was very tired but calm as he wrote," Allinson recalled. "He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave." 

When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read: 

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.

Allinson continued, "The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both." 

The poem was nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England, and finally, on December 8, 1915, it was published in the London Punch

After reading and rereading this poem and the story behind it, my mind has gone from Afghanistan to the Valley Forge National Park and from Arlington Cemetery to Gettysburg. All around us are examples of men and women who have made and continue to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. 

I think we would all agree with Bob Riley who said, "I have believed that sacrifice is the pinnacle of patriotism." 

Yes, the torch is now ours to hold high. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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