John Mccrae Biography

On May 2, 1915, John McCrae watched a horrific battle in Ypres Belgium. He scribbled down a poem that became the best known poem of WWI.

The name of John McCrae may seem out of place in the distinguished company of World War I poets. Such is not the case. John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario Canada, on November 30, 1872. The second son of Lieutenant David McCrae and Janet Simpson Eckford, John began leaving his mark on the world at a very young age.

As a boy, John took a keen interest in the military. At age 14, he joined the Hatfield Cadet Corps. When he turned 17, he enlisted in the Militia field battery commanded by his father.

John began writing poetry while attending Guelph Collegiate Institute. He graduated at age 16, and was the first Guelph Student to win a scholarship to the University of Toronto. After studying there for three years, John was forced to take a year off due to severe asthma. Bouts of this illness plagued him throughout his life.

During his absence from the university, John was Assistant Resident Master at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. There he taught English and Mathematics. In 1893, John returned to university. He graduated in 1894, with a Bachelor's Arts degree. He then attended the University of Toronto Medical School.

While attending university, John had sixteen poems and short stories published in various magazines including, Saturday Night. While becoming educated, John continued his military career. He became a gunner with the Number 2 Battery in Guelph in 1890; Quartermaster Sergeant in 1891; Second Lieutenant in 1893 and Lieutenant in 1896. At university, he became a member of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada of which he later became company captain.

John McCrae received a Bachelor of Medicine degree and three gold medals from the University of Toronto Medical School in 1898. He was a resident house officer at Toronto General Hospital from 1898 to 1899. He then left for Baltimore and interned at John Hopkins Hospital.

The South African War started in 1899. John McCrae felt it his duty to serve in South Africa. He requested a postponement of his fellowship in pathology that he had been awarded by McGill University in Montreal Quebec, which he was granted. John was commissioned to lead an artillery battery from Guelph. This Guelph contingent became part of D Battery, Canadian Field Artillery.

John and his company sailed to South Africa in December 1899. They spent one year there. John was still convinced of the need to fight for his country but was shocked by the crude equipment and unprofessional treatment of the sick, injured and dying men. After being promoted to Captain and then Major, John resigned from the 1st Brigade of Artillery in 1904. He was not associated with the military again until 1914.

John returned to Montreal in 1901, to continue his studies in pathology. He was resident pathologist and Governor's Good Fellow in pathology. These duties demanded he perform dual duties of doing research work in the Medical Facility Laboratory at McGill and performing autopsies at Montreal General Hospital.

In 1902, John was appointed resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital. In 1904, he became an associate in medicine at Royal Victoria Hospital and was assistant pathologist there. Later that same year, he went to England where he studied and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

In 1905, John set up his own practice. He worked and lectured at several hospitals. The same year, he was appointed pathologist to Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital. In 1908, he was appointed physician to Alexander Hospital for Infectious Diseases.

Canada declared war on Germany August 14, 1914. John rushed to sign up. He was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of Canadian Forces Artillery. He held the rank of Major and second-in-command.

In 1915, John was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium. This area is traditionally known as Flanders. Some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place during the Second Battle of Ypres.

On April 22, 1915 the Germans used deadly chlorine gas against the Allies. Despite this, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly. They held the lines for another sixteen days.

In the trenches, John McCrae tended hundreds of soldiers and was surrounded by dead and dying men. A shell burst killed his close friend, Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, Ontario. He was buried in a small cemetery outside John's dressing station. In the absence of the chaplain, John performed the service. A rough, wooden cross marked Helmer's grave.

Hundreds of crosses marked graves in the field. Already poppies were beginning to bloom between them. The next morning, May 22, while under heavy fire, John wrote In Flanders Fields, as dawn crept over the eastern sky. There are conflicting stories as to whether he was in a trench or sitting on an ambulance. It mattered little. John's poem would give voice to his fallen comrades who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for future generations. It was the last poem he ever wrote.

Shortly thereafter, John was transferred to Number 3 Canadian General Hospital in France. Here, he tended the wounded from the Battle of Somme, Vimy Ridge, the Third Battle of Ypres, Arras and Pasachendaele.

By mid-winter, the damp climate had affected John's health. He was ordered to a warmer location - to no avail. The night he arrived, he took to his bed. John died at 1:30 am on January 28 if complications from pneumonia and meningitis. He was buried in Wimereux Cemetery, north of Boulogne, with full military honors. His horse, Bonfire led the procession with John's riding boots reversed in the stirrups.

Before he died, John had the satisfaction of knowing his poem had been a success. It was the voice of every man who died during the First World War. Because of the poem's popularity, the poppy was adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead in Britian, France, the United States, Canada as well as other Commonwealth countries. What a fitting remembrance to John McCrae, a great soldier, doctor and poet. May his work forever be remembered.

© High Speed Ventures 2011