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.
by Lt.-Col. John McCrae
— May 3, 1915
(As published in Punch Magazine, Dec. 8, 1915)
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a soldier, physician and poet.
John McCrae was a poet and physician from Guelph, Ontario. He developed an interest in poetry at a young age and wrote throughout his life.
His earliest works were published in the mid-1890s in Canadian magazines and newspapers.
McCrae’s poetry often focused on death and the peace that followed.
At the age of 41, McCrae enrolled with the Canadian Expeditionary Force following the outbreak of the First World War.
He had the option of joining the medical corps because of his training and age but he volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer.
It was his second tour of duty in the Canadian military; he had previously fought with a volunteer force in the Second Boer War.
He considered himself a soldier first; his father was a military leader in Guelph and McCrae grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.
McCrae fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium, where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war.
They attacked French positions north of the Canadians with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915 but were unable to break through the Canadian line, which held for over two weeks.
In a letter written to his mother, McCrae described the battle as a “nightmare”:
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.
Alexis Helmer, a close friend, was killed during the battle on May 2.
McCrae performed the burial service himself, where he noticed how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres.
The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station outside Ypres.
This place has since become known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.