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What inspired the most beloved and famous of all war poems?

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By 3 May 1915, the Great War had dragged on for over 38 weeks. When it began on 4 August 1914 for Britain and her colonies and dominions, everyone predicted it would be over by Christmas. Young men scrambled to enlist for fear of missing out on "a jolly good adventure". Before peace would reign again, the world would "have to wade through four years of the most concentrated slaughter, mutilation, suffering, devastation and savagery which mankind has ever witnessed", as British Prime Minister David Lloyd George later wrote. The spring of 1915 saw the Germans unleashed deadly chlorine gas for the first time in the history of warfare, during the Second Battle of Ypres. Its effects were terrible and devastating and further compounded by the shells, shrapnel and bullets that would rip soldiers apart if they tried to raise their heads to avoid the gas as it crept along the bottom of the bunkers and trenches. No one saw more carnage and misery than the stretcher bearers, doctors and nurses who tended to the wounded in front line dressing stations and field hospitals. One such dressing station, on the road between Ypres and Boezinge, was where Canadian Army doctor, Major John McCrae was stationed.

It was here on 3 May 1915 that he wrote his celebrated 'In Flanders Fields', a poem that would bring him fame throughout the world during the war and to this day. Although he had been harden to the rigors of war because of his service in the South African War, it was impossible for him to get used to the suffering, screams, and the blood he encountered in Flanders during the Second Battle of Ypres, which saw him up to his ankles in blood and gore for over two weeks straight, with little rest. McCrae wrote to his mother: "Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done". One death in particular deeply affected McCrae. His friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been literally blown apart by a shell burst on 2 May 1915. He was buried later that night in the little cemetery adjacent to the dressing station, called Essex Farm, and which was growing steadily each day. Because no chaplain was available, McCrae himself performed the funeral service in complete darkness, for fear of attack. The next morning, perched on the tailgate of a field ambulance, waiting for the next crop of wounded to arrive, McCrae expressed his profound sorrow by composing another war poem. In the cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies growing in the ditches and among the graves. He is reputed to have taken twenty minutes to composed fifteen lines, in his message book.

A young soldier witnessed this historic event. Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson, saw McCrae intently writing when taking mail to the station. The Major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while Allinson stood quietly watching. 'His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,' Allinson later recounted. 'He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave.' When McCrae finished he retrieved his mail; then, without saying a word, passed his message book to Allinson, who was touched by what he read: 'The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.' McCrae wrote the poem in the form of a French Rondeau using the first-person plural, 'our' and 'we' to evoke that the speakers are the war dead - the common soldier. It was initially called 'We Shall Not Sleep' and was very nearly not published at all. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Morrison, his commanding officer and artist of the only extant picture or drawing of the Essex Farm with its crosses row on row, retrieved it and encouraged McCrae to send it to be published. It was first rejected by the London Spectator Magazine; but, on his second try, it was accepted and published without attribution by Punch Magazine, one hundred and six years ago today, 8 December 1915. Within months, it came to symbolize the sacrifices of all who fought in the 'Great War'.

Before he died from pneumonia on 26 January 1918, McCrae had written 30 war poems relating to his experiences in the South African and Great War. By far, 'In Flanders Fields', is his most famous and best beloved. To this day, it continues to be a part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada and around the world and John McCrae has since become known as the 'poet of the poppy'. In Flanders Fields has been recited by many, studied by scholars, set to music, eluded to in countless other poems and works, spawned numerous books; and, has had memorials, graveyards and even a famous Ypres First World War Museum named after it - all in tribute to McCrae and his words that inspired so many.

Kevin A. MacDonald / André M. Levesque

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