The thirtieth of this month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Canadian physician and war poet John McCrae. The eleventh of this month marks another Armistice or Remembrance Day, the 104th anniversary of the end of World War I, when paper poppies—those symbols of wartime sacrifice made famous by McCrae’s 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields”—once again sprout from lapels across the Commonwealth and beyond. As sesquicentennials go, McCrae’s is likely to pass relatively unnoticed, certainly compared with what we will see two years hence on the same day, when the 150th of Winston Churchill’s appearance in this world rolls around. The lesser stands beside the greater, however, to remind us of why we in the Anglosphere, a people of ever-shorter collective memory, remember Remembrance Day.
Like Churchill, the Canadian McCrae was a “last Victorian” who outlived his age, an avowed imperialist down to his toes. McCrae was a devout Christian too, as Churchill was not, which these days one would expect to cast an even darker shadow over the former’s reputation. McCrae died still in the thick of it, in 1918 at age forty-five, while Churchill survived another forty years of history’s slings and arrows. McCrae’s less dramatic story was shorter and simpler.
McCrae was the second son of second-generation immigrants who relocated in the 1850s from Lowland Scotland to the Upper Canada town of Guelph. Prospering in the timber and wool businesses, the McCrae clan had a strong soldiering streak going back to service with the Hanoverian kings, which John made good on first in the Second Boer War at the century’s end and then in the Great War. Like his older brother Thomas, he first achieved professional distinction in medicine, completing medical school at the University of Toronto in 1898. Afterwards, he studied pathology and infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, then the leading medical school in North America. In Canada, he taught at McGill and hospitals in Montreal, and in 1904 he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in London.
McCrae’s soldiering lived in the age of imperialism, being an expression of incipient Canadian nationalism meant both to protect Canada from absorption by the United States and to push back against continued colonial subordination by Britain. He believed in ever-closer union of the British Empire in political, economic, and military spheres, with Canada playing a key role. Empire in McCrae’s thinking did not mean a scramble for wealth and territory and the subordination of non-white races, as many now facilely misunderstand it. Rather it meant the opportunity for Christian service in far places and the expansion of freedom and justice to lands under the empire’s protection. It was fundamentally a spiritual, not a material, idea, in line both with McCrae’s Scots Presbyterianism—his conviction of divine calling to use his talents in God’s service and for the betterment of others—and with the prevailing Darwinian and Victorian zeitgeist of beneficent evolutionary progress in nature and society.
McCrae thrilled to military duty as a medic. He started in his teens and twenties in the Guelph militia as a boy bugler and then a gunner, and in university as a captain in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. Parade-ground soldiering turned real at century’s end in the Second Boer War with service in the Guelph Contingent of the Royal Canadian Artillery in South Africa, where he saw frontline action and got enough exposure to the Royal Army Medical Corps to judge it a model of “absolute neglect and rotten administration.” He also observed, in the panoply of imperial forces on display in South Africa, the empire’s magnificent reach and, yes, the civilizing promise it still held.
The pattern repeated with the outbreak of European war in 1914, where McCrae served as a medical officer with the rank of major in the First Canadian Field Artillery. He saw action and treated the wounded in frontline bunkers in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. It was there that his close friend from his militia days, Alexis Helmer, was killed in action. His funeral inspired McCrae to write “In Flanders Fields,” the poem that brought his name to the world. The balance of the war found McCrae behind the lines in medical service (about which he had ambivalent feelings), eventually as commander of the Third Canadian General Hospital McGill, in Boulogne-sur-Mer. In April 1917 he treated casualties from the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where it was said that Canada became a nation. He did not survive the war, succumbing to pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918. On the next day, he was buried nearby in Wimereux with full honors—a flag-draped coffin, a gun carriage, and boots reversed in the stirrups of his favorite steed, “Bonfire.”
Through it all, McCrae wrote poems for the uncomplicated reason that doing so brought him relaxation. He was good, perhaps great, at it, and his output should be judged apart from the disillusioned post-war efforts of Sassoon, Blunden, and the other “war” (actually anti-war) poets. He had hoped to see “In Flanders Fields” published in The Spectator, which turned it down, and it appeared instead in Punch on December 8, 1915. Almost immediately, as we might say today, it went viral: for both the remainder of the war and its aftermath, the British Empire employed the image of the poppy to sustain the memory of the millions lost and as a symbol of the sacrifice and sadness—though not futility—of the conflict. McCrae’s ambition to publish in The Spectator was fulfilled two years later with “The Anxious Dead,” written to mark the Allies’ successful Messines–Ypres advance of that year. It dittoed the sentiment of the earlier poem and technically equaled it, though its dominant imagery of flashing gun muzzles could not match fields of poppies row on row:
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
that we have sworn and will not turn aside,
that we will onward till we win or fall,
that we will keep the faith for which they died.
Here in America we call November 11, the date of the 1918 armistice that McCrae did not live to see, Veterans Day. I have always felt that the way America celebrates this holiday dilutes the date’s meaning. We still hold some parades, it is true, and a few vets, bless them, pass out poppies outside grocery stores and big-box stores, but takers will be few. Meanwhile, our great neighbor to the north and McCrae’s native land views a sea of poppies on the day. In London, poppies adorn the Cenotaph in Whitehall and not just on Remembrance Day, as we can all recall from the Queen’s funeral procession past it in September. Some years ago, I attended Remembrance Day services in McCrae’s hometown of Guelph, Ontario, now a progressive university town where McCrae’s Victorian brand of imperialism would more likely be canceled than celebrated. Yet mark the day they still do, at the McCrae birthplace, at the civic arena, and at the city’s own cenotaph: “Commemorating Guelph’s Glorious Dead of All Wars.” Dignitaries lay wreathes, the Navy League forms a living cross, and all sing hymns (“O Valiant Hearts”; “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”) and two national anthems, which McCrae would certainly have approved of (“O Canada” and “God Save the Queen,” as it then was). A trumpeter plays Last Post, a piper sounds the Lament, and a firing party of the Wellington Rifles bark a salute. Then, two minutes’ silence. Poppies (what else?) frame the program, and the second stanza of McCrae’s famous poem captions it:
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.
Some would say that all this is anachronistic. We have grown up and learned our lessons, they argue. Europe now has its union. We all have the world community—the United Nations and those blue-helmeted peacekeepers (likely as not Canadians). I am not so sure. John McCrae may seem antique, but he is not out of date. It is best to take him straight. He had no message to sell, no stern admonition for the future. Life and death to him were both light and dark, wartimes and peacetimes both a natural part of the struggle that ended only with death.
Here’s to his memory, this Remembrance Day. To John McCrae: soldier, pathologist, and poet lying now in Flanders Fields, duty done.