"In Flanders Fields"

Sunday, April 25th,1915: “On the front field one can see the dead lying here and there, and in places where an assault has been they lie very thick on the front slopes of the German trenches…”
Monday, April 26th,1915: “Another day of heavy actions, but last night much French and British artillery has come in, and the place is thick with Germans.  There are many prematures (with so much firing) but the pieces are usually spread before they get to us.  It is disquieting, however, I must say.  And all the time the birds sing in the trees over our heads.”
Thursday, April 29th,1915: “This night they shelled us again heavily for some hours – the same shorts, hits, overs on percussion, and great yellow-green air bursts.  One feels awfully irritated by the constant din – a mixture of anger and apprehension.”
Saturday, May 1st,1915: “May day!  Heavy bombardment at intervals through the day.  Another heavy artillery preparation at 2-35, but no French advance.  We suffered somewhat during the day.  Through the evening and night heavy firing at intervals.”
Sunday, May 2nd,1915: “Heavy gunfire again this morning.  Lieut. H ---- was killed at the guns.  His diary’s last words were, “It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep’.”1

“In Flanders Fields” was penned during the first year of World War, sketched quickly and unceremoniously on the Belgian battlefield in the middle of the Second Battle of Ypres.   A bloody battle lasting from April 25 to May 22, 1915, it will be forever remembered as the moment the German army revealed a deadly new weapon: chlorine gas.

The Second Battle of Ypres’ also marked the Canadian Army’s first major engagement in the Great War.

Lt. Col. John McCrae, an army veteran, had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces upon the war’s outbreak in August 1914.  McCrae was appointed a major and brigade surgeon to the 1st Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.  After first being stationed in Neuve-Chapelle, France earlier, McCrae’s unit was moved to defend the Ypres (Iper) Salient in Belgium in April 1915.

Ypres was the last major Belgian town still in Allied hands and the last stronghold to protect the important French ports along the English Channel. The Ypres Salient was comparatively quiet when the 1st Brigade arrived, but at 5pm on April 22nd a poisonous cloud of yellow gas brought a devasting end to the relative calm.  Within the first four days alone, the Canadians suffered some 6,000 casualties; according to John F. Prescott, “Half of the brigade died in the subsequent 17 nightmarish days of battle.”

Although McCrae was a war veteran and trained doctor, nothing could have prepared him for the trauma and devastation of that bloody battle.  The short account of those long days that his letters and diary provide allude not only horror of watching helplessly as bodies were blown to pieces, but to the grueling exhaustion and psychological torment of living amid constant torment.  McCrae also noted the irony of the natural landscape attempting to carry on as if its beauty wasn’t under assault by the ravages of war: “Yesterday in the press of bad smells I got a whiff of a hedgerow in bloom.  The birds perch on the trees over our heads and twitter away as if there was nothing to worry about."4

Just as the birds still sang, the men in the trenches still found fleeting moments of joy, brought about by the friendships they formed with one another.  Despite being 20 years his senior, McCrae found a kindred spirit in a young, 22-year-old lieutenant, Alexis Helmer.   Lt. Helmer had recently graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering from McGill University, where McCrae had done a fellowship in pathology and served as a lecturer in medicine.  As a student at McGill, Helmer had been an active member of the Canadian Officers Training Corps, and after graduating, had intended to go to the Royal Military College in Kingston.  Like McCrae, he had enlisted at the war’s outbreak.

On May 2, 1915, a shell exploded in front of Helmer, killing him instantly.  The unit had to wait for the shelling to stop to collect Helmer’s remains.  Another McGill graduate was also killed that day; he and Helmer were buried together in a nearby cemetery.  All of the army chaplains were occupied elsewhere, so McCrae led the ceremony.  McCrae wrote the following afterward:

“Heavy gunfire again this morning.  Lieut. Helmer was killed (and Lt. Hague severely wounded) at the guns.  He was our Mess Sec[retar]y and a very nice boy – grad[uate] of R.M.C & M.Gill.  His diary’s last words were – ‘It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep!’  His girl’s picture had a hole right through it – and we buried it with him.  I said the Committal service over him, as well as I could from memory.  A soldier’s death! …”5

McCrae’s burden had already been heavy; the death of his young marked the point that he could no longer carry that burden without some release.  He turned to his art – poetry – to find that momentary solace. 

The exact moment that McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” is not entirely clear.  According to Dianne Graves, Colonel Lawrence Cosgrave and Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson gave conflicting reports regarding the time Helmer’s burial took place.  Cosgrave claimed the burial took place at 11am:

“… Helmer was a very close friend of Col. McCrae’s and the colonel buried him himself, reading aloud the Anglican service from memory; myself and other officers were present.  It was during the battle and there was no padre at hand to conduct the service.  Col. McCrae was deeply affected by Lieut. Helmer’s death … While watching the grave from the dugout where he sat Col. McCrae admired the vivid red poppies that were beginning to bloom among the graves, larks were flying over the field singing as they circled about, the wind was blowing quietly and the poppies were blowing in the breeze.  It was a sad – but magnificent sight.  Col. McCrae commented on the surroundings out in the battlefield and then went out and wrote “in Flanders Fields”.  He wrote the poem sitting on the back of an ambulance, and he did it to relieve his feelings as he was deeply depressed over Helmer’s death.  He composed the poem in twenty minutes.  He did not decide what would do with the poem at the time but kept it.”6

Allinson, however, claimed the funeral took place after sunset.  McCrae was on duty throughout the night, and when he came off duty the next morning, May 3, Allinson recorded the morning’s events as follows:

“I took the mail first to the fire command post that was dug into the bank near McCrae’s, then crossed past the little cemetery to a razed farmhouse where the mess was located.I saw him sitting on the ambulance step, a pad on his knee.  He looked up when I approached, but continued to write.  He was my senior officer, second in command of the brigade, and I did not interrupt him.  He wrote on for five minutes more, than as I handed him his mail, he handed me the pad.  His face was very tired but calm as he wrote.  He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.  The poem was almost an exact description of the scene in front of us both.”7

It is also not entirely clear what message McCrae intended to convey through his short poem.  To many, McCrae’s three stanzas function as a plea for Remembrance; a call to bring an end to war in order that the deaths of Helmer and all the other soldiers lost would not be in vain.  For instance, the teaching guide produced by the Canadian Legion states “The poem’s subject is universal because soldiers fear that in death they will be forgotten. The poem and the Poppy have worked against that fear, reminding each of us why we remember.”8  But in the hours following Helmer’s death, was McCrae trying to write – in the words of Jonathan Vance – “an ode a generation who gave their best preserve the ideals that, to them, meant everything”?9  Or was he calling for something more literal – for men to join the fight?  Referring to the third verse – “take up our quarrel” – Kevin Patterson writes, “It is an act of astonishing and deluded presumption: Who would assume that, if the masses of war dead could speak – nearly twenty million in that conflagration – what they would urge on would be more of it?”10  To literary critic Nancy Holmes, it is not a plea at all, but a disappointing reassurance of colonial supremacy – that the “never sleeping” Canadian-Britons will ultimately conquer their enemies.11  The list could go on: were any of these the sentiments motivating McCrae to immortalize the poppy-covered crosses surrounding him on Flanders Fields?

Regardless of what McCrae truly intended, what is clear is that Helmer’s tragic death Flanders on May 2 was what ignited McCrae to write his now-famous poem.  From a scrap of paper stuffed in the pocket of a uniform to a revered work of art immortalized in anthologies and inscribed on stone monuments, “In Flanders Fields” remains one of the most iconic commentaries on World War I.



1. Excerpts from the letters and diary of John McCrae; quoted in Andrew Macphail, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems by Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, M.D., with an Essay in Character (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919), 66-68.

2. “Canada and the First World War: The Second Battle of Ypres”, Online Exhibit, Canadian War Museum, https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/land-battles/second-ypres/.

3. John F. Prescott, “Mcrae, John”, Canadian Dictionary of Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mccrae_john_14F.html

4. John McCrae, May 1, 1915; quoted in Macphail, In Flanders Fields, 79.

5. John McCrae, “Diary of the battle of Neuve Chapelle, 1915 and Second Battle of Ypres, 1915”, Gardner-Medwin Family Papers; quoted in Dianne Graves, A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae (St. Catharines, ON: Vanwell Publishing, 1997), 200.

6. Lawrence Cosgrave, “M’Crae Wrote Classic in Twenty Minutes,” Toronto Star, 14 May 1919; quoted in Graves, A Crown of Life, 201-2-2.

7. Cyril Allinson, quoted in W.D. Mathieson, My Grandfather’s War: Canadians Remember the First World War 1914–1918 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1991), 264.

8. “The Royal Canadian Legion Teaching Guide”, page 35, https://www.legion.ca/docs/default-source/contest-winners/teachingguide_jan2014_e.pdf?sfvrsn=6e5253f1_0

9. Jonathan Vance, “A Moment’s Perfection”, in In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, edited by Amanda Betts (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 205.

10. Kevin Patterson, “Soldier Surgeon, Solider Poet”, in In Flanders Fields: 100 Years, 122.

11. Nancy Holmes, “‘In Flanders Fields’ – Canada’s Official Poem: Breaking Faith,” Studies in Canadian Literature 30/1 (2005): 21-26.