The man behind the poppies

On Campus
by Linda Sutherland
Photo: Courtesy of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Photo: Courtesy of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine.

Ever stop to wonder why we pin a red poppy on our coat lapel in November to commemorate Remembrance Day? How did a flower become an emblem for war and loss?

The answer lies in the words of a poem, written by John McCrae, a Canadian physician and onetime pathology lecturer at McGill, while he was serving at the battlefront in Ypres, Belgium.

On May 3, 1915, the day after he performed a burial service for a close friend, McCrae reportedly sat on the step of an ambulance wagon and composed what is widely considered to be the world’s most famous war memorial poem:

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 amidst 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.


Later that year, McCrae’s poem was published anonymously in the British magazine Punch. It went on to be translated into many languages and was used in countless fundraising campaigns for the war effort. The poem is also credited with inspiring the use of the poppy as Canada’s official flower of remembrance, a symbol that has since been adopted in Britain and many Commonwealth countries.

A hand-written version of McRae's famous poem is part of the Osler Library's collection

A hand-written version of McRae’s famous poem is part of the Osler Library’s collection

In a handwritten letter to his friend, Carlton Noyes, dated 31 May 1916, McCrae included his poem and modestly stated that it had become quite popular. Noyes kept the letter and, upon his death, it was passed on to his wife, May Noyes (née Metcalfe), who was a McGill nursing graduate. When she died in 1940, the letter was sent to McGill and deposited in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine.

John Alexander McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario. Shortly after earning a medical degree from the University of Toronto, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force as an artillery officer and set sail for South Africa to fight in the Boer War. In letters home, McCrae expressed his shock at the poor treatment that sick and injured soldiers received.

At the conclusion of the war in 1901, McCrae returned to Canada and settled in Montreal, where he became a resident pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital (he performed more than 400 autopsies there) and later an assistant pathologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital. In 1905 McCrae became a McGill lecturer in clinical medicine and pathology at McGill and an assistant physician at Royal Victoria Hospital. He also taught at the University of Vermont in Burlington. In addition to being a popular teacher, McCrae was an active contributor to medical literature. He co-wrote a textbook on pathology with McGill colleague John George Adami, and contributed to Sir William Osler’s A System of Medicine.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, McCrae enlisted with the Number 3 Canadian General Hospital regiment (also known as the McGill Unit). At the age of 42, he was older than most enlistees. “I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience,” he wrote, shortly before leaving for France.

Accompanying McCrae was his horse, Bonfire. While stationed at Ypres, McCrae wrote letters to his niece and nephew as if they were from Bonfire and signed them with the horse’s hoof print. He also befriended a dog he named Bonneau, which accompanied him on his rounds through the medical wards.

While at Ypres, McCrae witnessed the devastating impact of a German gas attack. Later, on a leave, visiting with his friend Osler in England, McCrae talked about the horror he had seen. “He says it was Hades absolutely…” wrote Osler’s wife, Grace, in a letter to her sister.

In April of 1915 McCrae earned the rank of lieutenant colonel. Two months later, he left the battlefront and transferred to Number 3 General Hospital in Boulogne, where he treated wounded soldiers from the battles of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Arras and Passchendale. In January of 1918, McCrae became the first Canadian appointed as a consultant physician to the British Armies in the Field. Unfortunately, he died before taking up this position. On January 28, McCrae, who had suffered from asthma since childhood, succumbed to pneumonia and meningitis.

In their book McGill Medicine: The Second Half Century, 1885-1936, authors Joseph Hanaway and Richard Cruess declared, “Few deaths in the war caused greater anguish in Canada than [the] unexpected loss of McCrae, who had become a household legend because of his poem ‘In Flanders Fields.’”

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, 45, was buried with full military honours. Leading the funeral procession was his horse Bonfire and – in the tradition of mounted officers – his owner’s boots were placed backwards in the stirrups.

In the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building at McGill – formerly home to the Faculty of Medicine – is a stained glass window that pays tribute to John McCrae. It shows row-upon-row of crosses amid bright red poppies and – in the upper corner – a plaque bearing an inscription: “Pathologist, Poet, Physician and Soldier, a man among men.”


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18 Responses to “The man behind the poppies”
  1. Bill Evans says:

    Even though I’ve had the poem memorized at some times, and served for some years, age brings me to believe that we should reconsider, “Take up our Quarrel with the Foe.” War is that business where young people are killed in the causes of older people until so few young remain the war cannot continue.
    My dad served 1916-18 in the 196 Western Universities Battalion in Belgium and France. His company was the Uiversity of Alberta or C Company. He was wounded, once badly by shrapnel at each of the battles known to us as Vime, Somme and Paeschendael. It is quite possible that John McCrae stitched his wounds at least once. Dad would find tiny slivers of shrapnel come to the surface until his death in 1975. His regimental number is 911506.
    You could say truly that when we say the flower of Canadian youth was exterminated in WWI, we truly mean these University Battalions.
    Think again about taking up the quarrel. So few survivors now ask it. I doubt that any of our war dead would. They have learned what we have not. Bill Evans B.Th McGill (90).

    • I was very touched by your heartfelt comments that have been informed by experience and growing wisdom. For myself, I see the “taking up the quarrel with the foe” as a call to stand up for freedom, justice, and peace for all of Earth’s people’s and creatures. My vow is to do so through peaceful means such as art, communication, conflict resolution, and education and not to do so through war and violence. I have the greatest admiration and sense of gratitude for all of those people whose consciences lead them to serve these causes and who suffered so greatly in so doing. May we honor their sacrifices and use them to inspire our daily actions and our social convictions. Thank you.

  2. Margaret Dale says:

    What a beautiful article. I have shared it widely.

  3. Marilyn Cooperman says:

    Dear McGill,

    I wonder what Dr. McCrae would say to Normand Rinfret, as Rinfret so easily relinquishes his role as a potential leader to unite the hospitals against this government’s odious Bill that would take away the rights and liberties that Dr. McCrae fought and died for…to paraphrase a famous saying: “… and then they came for me…” For shame.

    • Daniel William McCabe says:

      Mr. Rinfret did issue a statement about the proposed charter in which he made it clear that the MUHC “intends to use it to its fullest” the exemption options that are available to it should the charter become law. Here is more from his statement:

      “As an academic health institution, our priority is to provide the population we serve with exceptional care. We believe this is best done by recruiting a diverse and dedicated group of health-care professionals, support staff, scientists, (medical) residents, students and volunteers, who are measured by their competencies and quality of their work.”

  4. Vera Frenkel says:

    Thank you for this article. I didn’t know the details of McCrae’s life and work, nor his relation to McGill. Soldier-poets are rare enough, but especially so when combined with a deeply empathetic contribution as physician and teacher. And it’s lovely to see the poem in McCrae’s handwriting.

    Another remarkable McGill professor comes to mind: John Peters Humphrey, principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Born in 1905, he was some thirty years younger than McCrae, and only 9 years old when McCrae enlisted in 1914, but it’s tempting to imagine what these men might have said to each other had they crossed paths.

  5. Mina Kudish Tepper says:

    What an amazing man…

  6. AS a 23 year vet ( I was in the dental version of ROTP) I met many who had been in war. I served in Cyprus and saw many war areas. I lost 6 or 7 friends in military related accidents. To me the poppy is a reminder of them. I was disgusted at the white poppy campaign as it implies that the red poppy is a glorification of war. Ask a vet if he/she glorifies war. Good article thanks

    • Suzanne Gagnier says:

      Doesn’t the red poppy serve as a reminder of the suffering and death of soldiers at war? As such it is not a statement on war itself. The white poppy, on the other hand, calls for peace instead of war, a sentiment most veterans espouse and not meant to be offensive nor belittle the significance of the red poppy. Just yesterday, in an interview with Joe Clark on CBC, he noted that we now live in a world where conflicts will not be solved by war but by international negotiations. Yet our current government is focusing its energies on warfare and neglecting foreign affairs. More so than ever, we need to stand for peace to prevail, while still honoring the soldiers who fight. It’s not meant to be offensive.

  7. Aurelia Best says:

    Beautiful poem..I learned this poem as a child growing up in Barbados, at the time never realizing that I would become a McGill graduate.

  8. I notice that your printed poem says: …”In Flanders fields the poppies blow”
    yet the copy of McRae’s letter says:”…..the poppies grow” . Clearly that is a letter “g”.
    Why is it that you have chosen to use “blow”?
    I know there has been controversy about the grow/blow choice. but this letter appears to confirm “grow”, does it not?

    • Daniel William McCabe says:

      I’ll confess, I didn’t know about this controversy until Ms. Hellen pointed it out. In another hand-written version of the poem by Dr. McCrae, the word “blow” is clearly used. I’m certainly intrigued by this variation. I’d love to know more.

  9. Anne Flemming Gookin says:

    I remember selling those red poppies on Armistice Day in front of the statue of the Unknown Soldier at the Colchester County Academy.when I was a teenager. how proud I was to do this. (usually on a cold damp Nova Scotia day) I am even prouder now to know that John McCrae taught at McGill where I graduated from in 1948. This poem brings back proud memories.

  10. Riccardo De Filippo says:

    There are many military cemeteries in the European area mentioned, quietly reminding us of the altruism of individuals who enlisted (from all sides) and the incompetence of the leaders (from all sides) who could not avoid conflict.
    One of my grandfathers fought WWI and WWII, and survived.
    My step-grandfather fought WWII and did not survive, so I never met him.
    They were on opposite sides.

  11. irene palnick says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article. As a child I remember selling poppies in downtown Montreal for many years.To this day I still look for and buy poppies on what we called Armistice Day. I graduated from McGill B.Com 1955 and am proud to be associated with this wonderful man

  12. R Warren says:

    If you could hear … the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues -
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    Wilfred Owen

    Another excellent poem – describing the victims of a WW1 gas attack. In 1918, Owen was killed at age 25 by machine gun fire while leading an infantry company in Flanders.

  13. Ihor AM Galarnyk,MDCM '82 says:

    In Flanders Fields,
    Beautiful imagery of torches thrown to us to be held high , in the sky as larks,bravely singing,fly;
    Take up our quarrel with the foe/ the foe being negative behaviors. John McCrae encourages a step from the ambulance wagon, his physician perspective, to continue the spirit of positive.
    In Flanders Fields

    Thanks John

  14. Robert McCleave, M.Eng. '94 says:

    In 1917, my great aunt was a nurse in the No. 3 Canadian hospital. She wrote a letter home to her aunt in New Brunswick and included the poem, introducing it with the lines, “I am including a bit of poetry by Col. McRae (sic). He is in charge of medicine here. He has written several very good things.” The original letter is in the McGill Archives. It also appears in Charlotte Gray’s book “Canada, a Portrait in Letters”.