Canada and the First World War


John McCrae is best remembered as the author of In Flanders Fields, the most recognizable poem of the First World War.

The Man

McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario and served as a gunner in the South African War. He was later a professor of medicine and physician at McGill University in Montreal. McCrae enlisted quickly at the outbreak of the First World War, hoping for a position as a gunner, but doctors were in short supply and he accepted an appointment as brigade-surgeon in an artillery brigade.

The Poem

At the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915, McCrae spent 17 days caring for the wounded and performing surgery on Canadian and Allied troops. Exhausted and saddened by the death of a close friend, he composed In Flanders Fields during a brief rest. The poem was published on 8 December 1915 in Punch magazine, where it achieved almost instant world-wide fame. It captured the Allies’ belligerent mood and the requirement to “keep faith” with those who had already died.

The Legacy

McCrae had become an internationally-recognized poet, but continued to work as a surgeon. He served in a number of Canadian hospitals during the war and pushed himself and his staff hard. McCrae was often sick but took little rest and succumbed to pneumonia on 28 January 1918. He is buried in Wimereux Cemetery, in France. McCrae’s poem is read by millions in Canada and around the world each Remembrance Day. A history museum in the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium is named after his poem; the special exhibition gallery in the Canadian War Museum, Canada’s national museum of military history, is named for McCrae.

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