1 May 2018 Susannah

John McCrae & In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields, John McCrae

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

The name John McCrae might not immediately ring any bells with you, but I bet you know his poem. Everyone knows his poem! In Flanders Fields is one of the most famous poems of WWI, and is remembered by all who buy poppies to commemorate the war.

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.


Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

John McCrae (1872 – 1918) was born in Guelph, Canada into a Scottish family. He became a pathologist, wrote a medical text book and had a distinguished reputation in Canadian hospitals. He served in the Boer War in South Africa, and when WWI broke out, he was above conscription age and did not have to serve. However, McCrae felt it was important for him to do so, especially as he was not married and had no children. He became medical officer for a Canadian field artillery brigade and tended the wounded after the Battle of Ypres (today there is a permanent ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ at Ypres). When a close friend was killed at the front, McCrae sat down on 3rd May, 1915 and wrote his famous poem. He didn’t think his poem especially brilliant, but it was published anonymously in December that year. McCrae did write other poems, but none as good as In Flanders Fields. His poem was translated into other languages, used in fund-raising campaigns, and widely reprinted – McCrae was rather bemused by the fame it brought him. But he did not have long to enjoy it. He died of pneumonia in January, 1918, aged 45. He was buried in Wimereux cemetery – his beloved horse Bonfire led the funeral procession there, with McCrae’s empty boots reversed in the stirrups.

Poppies have been associated with battle since the time of Napoleon, but in WWI the damage done to grounds by the lime content of munitions meant that poppies were some of the few plants that could flourish on soil churned up by fighting. The speaker of the poem is one of the dead. The birds still singing in the sky give him a sense there could yet be hope, if those living will take the torch and bravely continue the fight. Then the dead will be able to rest peacefully, knowing that their sacrifice has not been in vain.

It is a lyric poem in the form of a French rondeau. The style is almost chant-like, with the stress on ‘i’ sounds (sky, fly, high, die) and ‘o’ sounds (blow, row, below, ago, throw, grow), and the repetition of the phrase “in Flanders fields”. McCrae contrasts the peaceful cemetery, with flowers, birds and crosses, with the horror of the war – guns and young men in their graves, no longer able to see the dawn, or fall in love. The torch is an image of duty, something McCrae, with his Scottish heritage, took very seriously. He skilfully uses enjambment (where the sense of the sentence runs over into the next line) to depict the movement of the torch from the hands of the dead to the hands of the living.

LM Montgomery Rilla of Ingleside

LM Montgomery Rilla of Ingleside

Did you know that the poem inspired another great Canadian writer, L.M. Montgomery? In her brilliant war novel Rilla of Ingleside, the last novel in the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne’s son Walter writes a poem at the front. He dies soon after writing it, but his poem The Piper becomes famous around Canada. This is Montgomery’s tribute to her fellow countryman John McCrae and his famous poem.

Enjoy listening to a moving reading of the poem by Leonard Cohen, recorded in 2015 on the 100th anniversary of its publication:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.


  Susannah Fullerton: WWI and Books
  Veterans Affairs Canada: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

   Susannah Fullerton: A Reader’s Guide to L.M. Montgomery & Anne of Green Gables
   In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.


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Featured image credit- Inscription of In Flanders Fields in a bronze “book” at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario. By Lx 121 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8455795
Body image credit- Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae – Image from In Flanders fields, and other poems, by Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, M.D., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11076374
Body image credit- Bookcover image from https://www.goodreads.com/

Comments (6)

  1. Judith Oliver

    Thank you so much for including this rendition of Flanders Fields. Such a beautiful voice and such heartfelt words.
    Judith Oliver (Esme’s daughter) 🙂

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Doesn’t he read it superbly. Pleases give my love to your dear parents.

  2. Susan king

    Thank you Susannah for Leonard Cohen’s recital of the poem.
    So moving,it brought me to tears.
    During my permaculture community garden walks I have come across many book libraries on streets where garden books and seed packets are shared.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t the Leonard Cohen reading wonderful!
      I didn’t know that little libraries were also being used for seeds and garden books. All good ways of sharing the pleasure around.

  3. Judy Heath

    Another book that features this poem is”Listen for the Singing” by Jean Little (Harper Trophy). “From Anna” tells of a German family migrating to Canada before the second world war and the youngest Anna finding she is clumsy because of bad eyesight… the sequel, “Listen for the singing” tells of the impact of the war on the family and the wise school principal. A very good read.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have never heard of that one, Judy, but will look for it. Many thanks for the recommendation.

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