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Canadian History for Kids: John McCrae

1915 World War I – Lt.-Col. John McCrae composes his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

This Canadian History for Kids exclusive, looks at an amazing Canadian, John McCrae.

Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, John McCrae was the second son of Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae and Janet Simpson Eckford McCrae.

John McCrae started writing poetry while a student at the Guelph Collegiate Institute. As a young boy, he was also attracted to the military. He joined the Highfield Cadet Corps at 14 and at 17 registered in the Militia field battery commanded by his father.

John McCrae graduated from Guelph Collegiate at 16 and was the first Guelph student to win a scholarship to the University of Toronto.

While in medical school, he coached other students to help pay his tuition. Two of his students were among the first women doctors in Ontario.

While training as a doctor, he continued to write poetry. At university, he had 16 poems and several short stories published in a assortment of magazines.

August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Canada, as a member of the British Empire, was automatically at war, and its citizens from all across the land responded quickly. Within three weeks, 45,000 Canadians had rushed to join the Canadian military. John McCrae was among them. He was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery with the rank of Major and second-in-command.

On April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in the area traditionally called Flanders. Some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place there during what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres.

In the trenches, John McCrae helped hundreds of wounded soldiers. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying.

The day before he wrote his famous poem, In Flanders Fields, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves.

John McCrae was deeply affected by the fighting and losses in France. He became bitter and disheartened. Writing letters and poetry also allowed John McCrae to escape temporarily from the pressures of the war.

During the summer of 1917, John McCrae was troubled by severe asthma attacks and occasional bouts of bronchitis. He became very ill in January 1918 and diagnosed his condition as pneumonia. On January 28, after an illness of five days, he died of pneumonia and meningitis. The day he fell ill, he learned he had been appointed consulting physician to the First British Army, the first Canadian so honoured.

John McCrae buried with full military honours in Wimereux Cemetery, just north of Boulogne, not far from the fields of Flanders. His death was met with great grief among his friends and colleagues.

John McCrae was chosen a Person of National Historic Significance in 1946. A bronze plaque memorial dedicated to Lt. Col. John McCrae was erected by the Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute.

McCrae House was converted into a museum. The current Canadian War Museum has a gallery for special exhibits, called The Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae Gallery.
A line from his poem (“To you from failing hands…”) was painted on the wall of the Montreal Canadiens dressing room at the Forum in Montreal, a reminder to each team that they have much to live up to.

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.
-John McCrae, 1918
And that’s this week’s Canadian History for Kids, exclusive!

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