The First World War (Aug 1914 to Nov 1918) is notable, in a literary context, for its considerable body of fine poetry. It is probable that the combination of the curriculum adopted by many schools which gave emphasis to English, Greek and Latin literature and the largely static nature of the war created the ability and opportunity to write. Certainly, the nature of warfare gave plenty of scope for content.
One of the best known poems, ‘In Flanders Fields’, was written by a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, in 1915. It expresses his belief in the sanctity of duty. Written from the point of view of one of the dead, it encourages others to persevere in the struggle.
This image is from the plaque at Essex Farm Cemetery near where John McCrae was serving.
To add to the poem’s mystique, there is some discussion about how it came to be written and over the first line’s ending. There appear to be three accounts of its origin.
However, there is no doubt that its first incarnation followed the death and burial of a friend of McCrae’s, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer on May 2nd. Helmer was an artillery officer in 1st Brigade’s Field Artillery, 2nd Battery. He left his dug-out on Sunday 2nd May and was hit by a German 8in shell. Such body parts as could be recovered were placed in a sand-bag and set aside for burial. The Chaplain had been called away and so the regimental second-in-command, McCrae, was asked to carry out the burial. He recited passages from the service for the burial of the dead, as best he could remember them and afterwards sat down to write this poem.
An account by a Sergeant Major in the regiment holds that McCrae wrote the poem sitting on the rearstep of an ambulance looking at Helmer’s grave. Having written it, he passed it to the Sergeant Major to read. He was so impressed he committed it immediately to memory but that McCrae was not satisfied. Others claim that McCrae threw the paper away and that it was recovered and returned to him and that he was then persuaded to publish it. Yet another account holds that he wrote it in 20 minutes as he was recovering his composure, after the burial. Whatever the truth, McCrae continued to work on the poem for months before he considered it ready for publication. The Spectator declined to publish it, but in December that year it was published anonymously in Punch.
Ever since it was published, there has been a debate over the last word of the first line. Both ‘blow’ and ‘grow’ have been used and it is ‘blow’ that seems to have won out. However, there is a strong argument that the context and image of the graves McCrae was looking at, favour ‘grow’. Many soldiers had noted that, where bodies were buried, poppies sprung up. Both the bodies and the bombardment contributed to a high lime content in the soil favouring the poppy; little else would grow. It is felt, however, that this creates a difficulty with the matching word in the penultimate line, where ‘grow’ is used.
I think that this is unimportant. McCrae chose to use the form of a ‘rondeau’ which had evolved by the 1500s into a 15 line form using a ‘rentrement’ at the beginning, the end of the second stanza and the end of the poem Thus we get a form aabba aabR aabbaR. The R in this poem is ‘In Flanders fields’ and it was considered the skill of the form to make the ‘rentrement’ as poignant as possible. ‘In Flanders fields’ achieves this, as is witnessed by its use as a short-hand for all that happened in the Salient around Ypres. It is the name of the Museum in Ypres’ Cloth Hall. As a result, I think that McCrae intended ‘grow’ at the end of line 1, because it made sense with the images he was looking at and that the use of grow in line 14 fits with the aabba form of the first and final stanza. However, as a maverick thought, ‘blow’ would make sense at the end of line 14 and remove the conflict, if there really is one.
Helmer’s grave, marked only with a wooden cross, was subsequently lost and he is commemorated on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the nearly 55,000 who died in the Salient before August 1917 and have no known grave.
Not long after writing this poem, McCrae was promoted and moved to Boulogne and served with the Medical Corps at Canadian General Hospital No. 3. At the beginning of 1918, McCrae was promoted again to Colonel but he was worn out. The same day he was promoted he caught pneumonia and subsequently cerebral meningitis. He died on 28th January 1918 and was buried with full military honours at Wimereux. The following year, a book of his poems, including ‘In Flanders Fields’, was published. ‘In Flanders Fields’ has become perhaps the best known memorial poem among English speaking Canadians and is a staple of Remembrance Day celebrations.
Interestingly, inspired by McCrae’s exhortation to hold the torch, an American professor, Moina Michael, in 1918 resolved to wear a poppy the year round. She campaigned to get it chosen as the American Legion’s emblem. A French lady who attended a Legion meeting was herself inspired to sell poppies to commemorate the dead. In 1921, she sent poppy sellers over to London where the idea caught the attention of Field Marshall Earl Haig, a co-founder of The British Legion. He supported and encouraged the sale of poppies, which quickly spread throughout the Empire. In addition, Moina Michael wrote a poem, ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ which I reproduce here to honour her. Without her vision and tireless campaigning we would probably not have the poppy to wear for Remembrance.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.