Arguably Canada's most famous son, John McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery at Ypres. The field guns of his brigade's batteries were in position on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal where his close friend and ex student, Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed. As the chaplain was away McCrae presided over the burial. It is is widely recognised that his burial inspired the poem, "In Flanders Fields", which he wrote on May 3, 1915. McCrae later discarded the poem, but it was saved by a fellow officer and sent in to Punch magazine, which published it later that year.
The Flanders poppy which was integral to the theme of the poem, grew in profusion in the blasted earth of the battlefields and in the cemeteries of Flanders.
In June 1915 he was ordered to leave his artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France. McCrae is reported to have strongly protested about leaving his beloved guns with him reportedly saying to his commanding officer "all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war, what we need is more and more fighting men."
"In Flanders Fields" swiftly became one of the most popular poems of the war, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated. It was also extensively printed in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war, alongside a 'reply' by R. W. Lillard, ("//Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught//").
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
On January 28, 1918, when still in charge of the hospital at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia with "extensive pneumococcus meningitis" complications. He was buried the following day in Wimereux Cemetery and his flag-draped coffin was carried on a gun carriage preceded by his horse: "Bonfire", with his boots reversed in the stirrups. His gravestone is placed flat in the cemetery as are all the others because of the unstable sandy soil.