Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, wrote the war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, which inspired the symbol of the poppy to commemorate members of the military killed in war.
McCrae had published his first poems while studying medicine at the University of Toronto, after which he served in the Canadian Field Artillery during the Boer War. Returning to Canada after the war, he embarked on a successful career as a pathologist and was made a member of the Royal College of Physicians prior to the outbreak of the First World War.
McCrae was appointed to the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery) where he assumed the position of Medical Officer and Major. While serving in Belgium he fought at the Second Battle of Ypres that began on 22 April 1915, an experience he described in a letter to his mother as a ‘nightmare’. During this battle his close friend Alexis Helmer was killed, and McCrae himself performed the burial service on 2 May.
The next day, while apparently sitting in the back of an ambulance, McCrae composed ‘In Flanders Fields’. Cyril Allinson, a Sergeant Major in McCrae’s unit, later recounted watching McCrae write the poem. He was apparently unhappy with the final piece and threw it away, but it was retrieved by another member of the unit.
McCrae edited the poem and submitted it to The Spectator for publication, but following that paper’s rejection succeeded in getting it published in Punch on 8 December 1915. It was met with universal acclaim at the time, and its imagery of red poppies led to the flower’s associated with remembrance in the years following the war.
McCrae continued to serve in the army, but died of a pneumonia-related illness on 28 January 1918. He is buried in France.