Despite the passage of time, Canadian Lt.-Col. John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" — often recited around Remembrance Day or when a soldier dies in the line of duty — has managed to remain relevant to every conflict since the First World War.
"There's a timelessness about what McCrae recorded at the battlefield with a personal experience of loss," said Sean Fraser, director of heritage programs at the Ontario Heritage Trust.
"It really grabs you when you hear it because it's the dead speaking out to the living and putting the challenge to them."
McCrae, who was born and raised in Guelph, Ont., was a military doctor who served on the battlefields of Western Europe during the First World War. He was inspired to write his famous poem in May 1915, after the combat death of a close friend, Lieut. Alexis Helmer.
The simple, clear emotions contained in his text could apply to anyone suffering a loss, said Fraser.
"The honour to serve, the loss of those who serve on our behalf and our part of the bargain to remember them and to remember that sacrifice — I think this really encapsulates that, probably better than any other poem that I'm aware of," he said.
Despite the significance of the text, Fraser noted that a number of people who've read the poem may not be aware McCrae is a Canadian from Ontario.
Part of the efforts to address that gap in understanding is a plaque unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust on Thursday in Guelph.
Soldiers from the 11th Field Artillery Regiment — McCrae's own regiment — stood at attention as three cadets read the poem aloud in a solemn ceremony at the Guelph Armoury.
"The poem resonates with every Canadian and every soldier," said the regiment's commanding officer, Lt.-Col. M.B. Armstrong. "As a kid, I certainly knew the poem, I learned it in school and having been a soldier for 38 years... It's always had significant meaning for myself personally and for, I would say, every Canadian."
McCrae's poem was first published anonymously in Punch magazine, a British weekly, and immediately became incredibly popular, not just among those in the military but also with civilians back home.
When it eventually came to light that McCrae was the one who had penned the text, he found himself at the centre of attention, with many soldiers requesting handwritten copies of the poem.
One of those copies is now on display at the Canadian War Museum in an exhibit focusing on the fighting in Flanders.
"John McCrae is really an emblematic figure in Canadian history," said museum historian Melanie Morin-Pelletier. "He wrote the poem to help himself recover from this very difficult event...it helped him deal with the pain. I think that's a reason why it appeals so much to the families of the soldiers right away and it is still true today."
While the poem was about honouring the war dead, Morin-Pelletier noted that it was also an appeal for men to see where their duty lay, and to take up the places of the wounded and the dead.
McCrae did not, however, live to see just how much an impact his poem had, particularly on the eventual use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. He died of pneumonia and meningitis in a small town in France in January 1918.
The opening lines of his poem —"In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row" — have immortalized the image of the small red and black flowers growing amid the destruction of the war's bloody battlefields.
"There's an unbreakable link between the poem and the poppy," said Dianne Graves, author of "A Crown of Life:The World of John McCrae." "Every year when we think of the poppy, up comes the poem again."
An American woman reading McCrae's poem in the last year of the war was inspired to wear the red flower as a sign of remembrance and respect for those who had died in the conflict. Moina Michael then convinced the American Legion to recognize the poppy as the official symbol of remembrance in 1920. Simultaneously, a woman in France, also motivated by McCrae's poem and Michael's efforts, became an advocate of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and sold cloth copies of the flower to raise money for war-torn areas in Europe.
McCrae was able to get a sense of his poem's significance before his death — and was taken aback.
"He was quite surprised, I think. (Poetry) was something he enjoyed writing in his spare moments," Graves explained. "But (he was) glad that it would be a means that would help with raising money for war bonds and all kinds of things."
Graves says McCrae should not be forgotten.
"And his contribution — that one poem — has made it possible for us to have remembrance the way that we do it these days, to be able to raise funds, to honour those who have given up their lives...it's a tribute really to him and he truly is a Canadian icon."
— With a file from Paola Loriggio.
"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.
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