Newspaper article The Canadian Press

John McCrae's Wartime Poem 'In Flanders Fields' Still Stirs Sentiments Today

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

John McCrae's Wartime Poem 'In Flanders Fields' Still Stirs Sentiments Today

Article excerpt

McCrae's words still stir sentiments today

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It was published nearly 100 years ago, but its words still ring true today.

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. …

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