Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (November 30, 1872 – January 28, 1918) was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I, and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium.
He is best known for writing the famous war memorial poem “In Flanders Fields”. McCrae died of pneumonia near the end of the war.
McCrae was born in McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario to Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae and Janet Simpson Eckford; he was the grandson of Scottish immigrants. His brother, Dr. Thomas McCrae, became professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore and close associate of Sir William Osler. His sister, Geills married a lawyer, Kilgour, and moved to Winnipeg.
He attended the Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute. He was eventually promoted to Captain and commanded the company. He took a year off his studies at the university due to recurring problems with asthma.
Among his papers in the John McCrae House in Guelph is a letter he wrote on July 18, 1893 to Laura Kains while he trained as an artilleryman at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario.
“I have a manservant .. Quite a nobby place it is, in fact .. My windows look right out across the bay, and are just near the water’s edge; there is a good deal of shipping at present in the port; and the river looks very pretty.”
He was a resident master in English and Mathematics in 1894 at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph.
He returned to the University of Toronto and completed his B.A. McCrae returned again to study medicine on a scholarship. While attending the university he joined the Zeta Psi Fraternity (Theta Xi chapter; class of 1894) and published his first poems.
While in medical school, he tutored other students to help pay his tuition. Two of his students were among the first woman doctors in Ontario.
He graduated in 1898, and was first a resident house-officer at Toronto General Hospital, and then in 1899, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1902, he was appointed resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital and later became assistant pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.
In 1904, he was appointed an associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Later that year, he went to England where he studied for several months and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.
In 1905, he set up his own practice although he continued to work and lecture at several hospitals. The same year, he was appointed pathologist to the Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital. In 1908, he was appointed physician to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Infectious Diseases.
In 1910, he accompanied Lord Grey, the Governor General of Canada, on a canoe trip to Hudson Bay to serve as expedition physician.
McCrae served in the artillery during the Second Boer War, and upon his return was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, where he taught until 1911; he also taught at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
McCrae was the co-author, with J. G. Adami, of a medical textbook, A Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine (1912; 2nd ed., 1914).
When Britain declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, was at war as well. McCrae was appointed as Brigade Surgeon and Major, second in command of the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery).
He treated wounded during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, from a hastily dug, 8 foot by 8 foot bunker dug in the back of the dyke along the Yser Canal about 2 miles north of Ypres.
McCrae’s friend and former militia pal, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired the poem, “In Flanders Fields”, which was written on May 3, 1915 and first published in the magazine Punch.
From June 1, 1915, McCrae was ordered away from the artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. C.L.C. Allinson reported that McCrae “most unmilitarily told [me] what he thought of being transferred to the medicals and being pulled away from his beloved guns.
His last words to me were: ‘Allinson, all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.'”
“In Flanders Fields” appeared anonymously in Punch on December 8, 1915, but in the index to that year McCrae was named as the author.
The verses swiftly became one of the most popular poems of the war, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated (a Latin version begins In agro belgico…). “In Flanders Fields” was also extensively printed in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war, alongside a ‘reply’ by R. W. Lillard, (“…Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught…”).
For eight months the hospital operated in Durbar tents (donated by the Begum of Bhopal and shipped from India), but after suffering storms, floods and frosts it was moved in February 1916 into the old Jesuit College in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
McCrae, now “a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one”, regarded his sudden fame with some amusement, wishing that “they would get to printing ‘In F.F.’ correctly: it never is nowadays”; but (writes his biographer) “he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay.”
On January 28, 1918, while still commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia with “extensive pneumococcus meningitis”. He was buried the following day in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery, just a couple of kilometres up the coast from Boulogne, with full military honours.
His flag-draped coffin was borne on a gun carriage and the mourners – who included Sir Arthur Currie and many of McCrae’s friends and staff – were preceded by McCrae’s charger, “Bonfire”, with McCrae’s boots reversed in the stirrups. Bonfire was with McCrae from Valcartier, Quebec until his death and was much loved.
McCrae’s gravestone is placed flat, as are all the others in the section, because of the unstable sandy soil.