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

“In Flanders Fields” is one of the most popular and most quoted poems from World War One. It was composed by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician. He enrolled with the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. Because of his age and his medical background, he could have enrolled in the medical corps but instead he chose to join a fighting unit.  He was inspired to write the poem after presiding over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Both men fought in the Second Battle of Ypres. Only one of them would live to tell…

The Second battle of Ypres was fought between April 22 and May 25 in 1915, in the Flanders region of Belgium. It is noteworthy since this is where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. Despite this horrific onslaught, the Canadian lines held for over two weeks, and the Germans were unable to break through.

Describing the scene as a “nightmare,’ McCrae wrote to his mother: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

McCrae’s close friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed during the battle on May 2. The next day, as he presided over the funeral, McCrae noted how quickly the poppies grew around the graves of the fallen at Ypres. He composed the poem that day, May 3, 1915, while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station outside Ypres. This location is today known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.