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The GreatWar 1914-1918

Inspiration for the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

John McCrae in uniform, circa 1914. (1)
John McCrae

It is thought that doctor John McCrae (30 November 1872 – 28 January 1918)
began the draft for his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” on the
evening of the 2 May, 1915 in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres.

John McCrae was serving as a Major and a military doctor and
was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The
field guns of his brigade’s batteries were in position on the west bank
of the Ypres-Yser canal, about two kilometres north of Ypres. The
brigade had arrived there in the early hours of 23 April 1915.

It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for
McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. The exact
details of when the first draft was written may never be known because
there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time.

  • One account says that he was seen writing the poem the next day, sitting on the rear step
    of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the vivid
    red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.
  • Another account says that McCrae was so upset after Helmer’s burial that
    he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
  • A third account by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel
    Morrison, states that John told him he drafted the poem partly
    to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded at the first
    aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem’s metre.

The Death of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer

Lieutenant Alexis Helmer (2)
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer (source: A Crown of Life)

Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade
Canadian Field Artillery. He had become good friends with John McCrae.
On the morning of Sunday 2 May Alexis left his dugout and was killed instantly
by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be
found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for
burial that evening.

Alexis was 22 years old and a popular young officer.
Before the outbreak of war he had graduated from McGill University with
a degree in Civil Engineering. He was the son of Elizabeth I. Helmer of
122, Gilmour Street, Ottawa, and the late Brigadier General R. A. Helmer.

Near to the 1st Canadian Brigade’s position on the canal bank there was a small
burial ground which had originally been established by the French Army in the autumn of 1914, the previous year,
during the First Battle of Ypres. Several months later the Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1915.
By early May 1915 the burial ground contained the graves of French and Canadian Army casualties. It became known as
Essex Farm British Military Cemetery, after the farm in the vicinity named as Essex Farm on British military maps.

Lieutenant Helmer was buried on 2 May. In the absence of the chaplain,
Major John McCrae conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting
from memory some passages from the Church of England’s “Order of Burial
of the Dead”. A wooden cross marked the burial place. The grave has since
been lost. Lieutenant Alexis Helmer is now commemorated on Panel 10 of
the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres;
he is one of the 54,896 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields
of the Ypres Salient.

The Burial Ground at Essex Farm

Headstones at Essex Farm Cemetery. The trees now line the western bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, where the dugouts were
located for the original roughly dug medical bunkers used in May 1915.
Headstones at Essex Farm Cemetery, near Ypres.

Lieutenant Colonel Morrison wrote about the small burial ground where Alexis Helmer was originally buried in
May 1915:

“A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry
regiment and on numerous occasions during the sixteen day battle, we
saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting.
So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at
all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described
it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing
in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning
salvos of our own nearby guns.” (3)

Publication of “In Flanders Fields”

Poppies growing near Connaught Cemetery on the 1916 Somme battlefields.
Poppies at Connaught Cemetery, Somme battlefield.

During 1915 John McCrae sent the poem to The Spectator magazine. It
was not published and was returned to him. It was, however, published
in Punch magazine on 8 December 1915.

The version of the first line in the December 1915 publication of the poem in Punch magazine has
the word “blow”. McCrae did also use the word “grow” in the first line in
other handwritten and printed versions.

“In Flanders Fields”

Read the poem:

“In Flanders Fields” Poem

Related Topics

Essex Farm Military Cemetery

Find out more about how the cemetery developed from the early days of May 1915 when John McCrae was there. The remains of later concrete dressing station bunkers can still be seen there today.

Essex Farm Military Cemetery

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ypres

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, where Alexis Helmer is commemorated by name.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.

Find out more about the famous British memorial to the many thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave in the Ypres Salient, and who are named on this memorial:

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing

Second Battle of Ypres, April-May 1915

Major John McCrae was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery in the Second
Battle of Ypres. Read our innovative Battle Study on the build-up to the battle and the surprise trial gas
attack north of Ypres on 22 April 1915 by the German Fourth Army.

Battle Study: Second Battle of Ypres

McCrae House, Guelph, Canada

Visit the website of the arts centre and museum at Guelph which was the birthplace of John McCrae.

Website: www.guelpharts.ca


(1) Photograph of John McCrae (public domain). William Notman and Son – Guelph Museums, Reference No. M968.354.1.2x Source Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCrae#/media/File:John_McCrae_in_uniform_circa_1914.jpg

(2) Photograph of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Featured in A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae , by Dianne Graves

(3) From the papers of Edward W B Morrison, featured in A
Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae , by Dianne Graves, p. 202

A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae , by Dianne Graves

In Flanders Fields, The Story of John McCrae , by John F Prescott

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A Short Analysis of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’

Feb 22

Posted by interestingliterature

An introduction to one of the most famous poems of WWI

Although  the association between fields of poppies and commemorating the war dead  predates the First World War, the war-poppies connection was certainly popularised by WWI and in particular by this John McCrae poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. John McCrae (1872-1918), a Canadian lieutenant colonel, was inspired to write it after he conducted the burial service for an artillery officer, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the conflict. In the chaplain’s absence, McCrae, as the company doctor, presided over the burial of the young man.

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 was inspired to write the poem on 3 May 1915, following Helmer’s funeral. In summary, the poem observes how poppies blow in the fields where the fallen soldiers (including Helmer) are buried. The sound of the guns firing John McCrae on the western front has almost drowned out the natural birdsong in the skies above – almost, but not entirely, it’s worth noting. There is yet hope. But not for the men who have died, who until so recently lived and loved. But the poem does not call war futile (as Wilfred Owen, in his poem ‘Futility’, would , later in the War): the final stanza calls for those who are living to take the baton (or, to use McCrae’s symbol, the torch) and continue the fight against the enemy. If the living do not finish the fight begun by those who gave their lives, the dead will not be able to rest in their graves (this makes McCrae’s poem like a modern revenge tragedy, where the ghost of the wronged dead returns and announces that he cannot be at peace until his death is avenged – see Shakespeare’s Hamlet , for instance). The poem begins with the three words that make its title, and ends with the same three words: ‘In Flanders fields’.

Does the idyllic opening stanza of Tennyson ’s Arthurian poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ lurk behind the first stanza of McCrae’s poem? Tennyson’s poem begins:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot.

The two poems share a similar rhythm, references to sky and fields, and similar rhyme words. Coincidence, perhaps. But it’s suggestive to think that McCrae was perhaps recalling Tennyson’s rural paradise in his own poem; in Tennyson’s poem, too, paradise will soon be lost.

On the issue of rhyme, it’s notable that McCrae’s poem utilises just two different rhyme sounds: the ‘I’ sounds of sky/fly/lie/high/die and the ‘O’ sounds of blow/row/below/ago/glow/foe/throw/grow. And, of course, ‘fields’, in that repeated refrain, ‘In Flanders fields’. This makes the poem almost chantlike, and lends conviction to its final stanza in particular.

The phrase ‘We are the Dead’ from the beginning of the second stanza may have inspired the phrase which Winston and Julia use in George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four . But even before WWI was over, the mood had darkened, with later war poets analysing the horrors of war more closely, with ‘warts and all’. Wilfred Owen could not share McCrae’s faith that the war was worth persevering with. Death led simply to more death. McCrae, like Owen, would not survive to see the Armistice: he died of pneumonia in January 1918.

The finest affordable anthology of war poetry is Poetry of the First World War An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics) . It’s well worth investing in, especially as it costs no more than lunch usually does.

For more nature poetry with a darker side, see our analysis of Blake’s poem of corruption and ‘crimson joy’, ‘The Sick Rose’ . Alternatively, check out our top tips for writing a good English Literature essay . For more war poetry, see our analysis of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ . If you’re studying poetry, we recommend checking out these five books for the student of poetry .

Image: John McCrae in c. 1914, by William Notman and Son; Wikimedia Commons .


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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

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Posted on February 22, 2016, in Literature and tagged Analysis , Books , Classics , English Literature , In Flanders Fields , John McCrae , Literary Criticism , Poetry , Summary , War Poetry . Bookmark the permalink . 5 Comments .

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  • Trackbacks 1

  1. Clanmother


    February 22, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    An excellent post. A poem that speaks to the heart.

  2. Mark Wallace


    February 22, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    A powerful poem, though I can’t say I agree with the message.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek


    February 22, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    So easy to forget how many of our ancestors died to achieve all those freedom-comforts we consider birthright nowadays.

  4. nativemericangirl


    February 23, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Reblogged this on nativemericangirls Blog .

  1. Pingback: The Best War Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature


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