It is thought that doctor John McCrae (30 November 1872 – 28 January 1918) began the draft for his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” on the evening of the May 2, 1915, in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres.
John McCrae was serving as a Major and a military doctor and was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The field guns of his brigade’s batteries were in position on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, about two kilometers north of Ypres. The brigade had arrived there in the early hours of April 23, 1915.
It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. The exact details of when the first draft was written may never be known because there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time.
- One account says that he was seen writing the poem the next day, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.
- Another account says that McCrae was so upset after Helmer’s burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
- A third account by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, states that John told him he drafted the poem partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded at the first aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem’s meter.
In any event, Dr. McRae gave the world a simple, yet eloquent, tribute to a fallen comrade and the red poppy has become the universal symbol for fallen soldiers.