McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is recognized as one of the most moving war poems ever written. It remains a symbol of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915. Although he had been a doctor for years and served in the Canadian armed forces, McCrae found the conditions of Ypres almost impossible to bear. As a surgeon, Major McCrae spent 17 days treating injured men–Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans. One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station. With the absence of a chaplain, McCrae performed the funeral ceremony. The next day, while sitting on the back of an ambulance, McCrae vented his anguish by composing his historic poem.
In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches. Why poppies? According to Rob Ruggenberg in his article “The Making of ‘In Flanders Fields'”: “wild poppies flower when other plants in their direct neighborhood are dead. Their seeds can lie in the ground for years and years, but only when there are no more competing flowers or shrubs in the vicinity (for instance when someone firmly roots up the ground), these seeds will sprout…But in this poem the poppy plays one more role. The poppy is known as a symbol of sleep. The last line ‘We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields’ might point to this fact. Some kinds of poppies are used to derive opium, from which morphine is made. Morphine was often used to put a wounded soldier to sleep. Sometimes medical doctors used it in a higher dose to put the incurable wounded out of their misery.”
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
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.