In Flanders Fields - Story behind the Famous Poem by John McCrae - Preface

Following the horrific death of his young friend - Alexis Helmer - during the Second Battle of Ypres, Major John McCrae (a Canadian medical doctor from Guelph, Ontario) wrote "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.

McCrae's poem was published in the British magazine, Punch, in December of 1915.  It was soon printed elsewhere, including the United States (then contemplating whether to join the war).

During the late afternoon of April 22, 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres began.  (The First Battle of Ypres—near a town in northern Belgium of the same name—took place during the autumn of 1915.)  The Second Battle produced massive casualties:

Finally, after four days of severe fighting, most of the Canadian forces were withdrawn on 26 April [1915]. About 6000 officers and men of the Canadian Division had been killed, wounded, captured, or had simply disappeared.  ("Ypres: Inexperienced Canadians Hold the Line," article from The Canadian Encyclopedia online.)

During June of 1915, McCrae was transferred to Northern France where he set up a hospital (referred to as No. 3 Canadian) at Dannes-Camiers (near Boulogne-sur-Mer).  The conditions were atrocious.  

Still working near Boulogne, McCrae developed pneumonia and died on the 28th of January, 1918.  By that time, he was a Lt. Colonel. 

His poem remains the most famous written during the first world war.  In this video clip, the 15-line work of art is read by Anthony Davies.

It was also during the Second Battle of Ypres, in 1915, that Germany first used chemicals as a weapon of war on the Western Front.  Chlorine gas (in April) and mustard gas (in June) caused men to die in horrifying ways.

One soldier - Lance Sgt. Elmer Cotton - lived to tell about it:

It [chlorine gas] produces a flooding of the lungs - it is an equivalent of death to drowning, only on dry land.

The effects are these - a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife-edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death.

The colour of the skin turns a greenish black and yellow ... and the eyes assume a glassy stare.  It is a fiendish death to die.  (Lance Sergeant Elmer Cotton, quoted by Scott Christianson, in Fatal Airspage 31.)

Despite such awful reports, of battle activities on the fields of Flanders, red poppies were growing in those same war-scarred fields. What do we know about them ?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 25, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Nov 10, 2018

Media Credits

Video clip, featuring "In Flanders Fields" - as read by Anthony Davies - is online, courtesy worcesterjonny's channel at YouTube.


The photos displayed inside the text, from Library and Archives Canada and Australian War Memorial, have the following descriptions and sources:

Street in Ypres, during July, 1916. Online via Library and Archives Canada; MIKAN no. 3403739.


A notice, on the ruins of Ypres Cathedral, says:  “This is holy ground. No stone of this fabric may be taken away. It is a heritage for all civilised peoples. By order, Town Mayor, Ypres.” Online via Australian War Memorial, P00735.019.

Unidentified Canadian soldier, with mustard-gas burns, following Germany’s introduction of chemical weapons during the Second Battle of Ypres.  Online via Library and Archives Canada; MIKAN no. 3194270.


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"In Flanders Fields - Story behind the Famous Poem by John McCrae" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 25, 2013. Jan 18, 2020.
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