It’s November 11, 2014, and the Big Guy and I are attending a Remembrance Day service. In itself this is not unusual, but we’re in a location unusual for us: Auckland, New Zealand.
The service – familiar overall – has two surprises. The first is the crowd’s confident singing of the New Zealand national anthem in both English and Maori. The second is the recitation of In Flanders Fields, a poem I think of as strictly Canadian. It seems – again – that I think wrong.
The poem and poppy are prominent Remembrance Day symbols throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly in Canada, where “In Flanders Fields” is one of the nation’s best-known literary works. The poem also has wide exposure in the United States, where it is associated with Memorial Day.
Notwithstanding his Scottish Presbyterian upbringing, John McCrae seems to have had at least a touch of whimsy in his make-up. Stationed overseas during WWI, he sent letters to his nieces and nephews signed with his horse’s name and hoof print. After the Battle of Ypres, his friends noted the loss of his infectious smile and optimistic nature.
The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds ….. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.
– Letter to his mother after the Battle of Ypres
A pathologist by medical training, McCrae also tutored students while he was in medical school himself – two of whom went on to become among the first women doctors in Ontario.
Apparently McCrae wasn’t satisfied with In Flanders Fields, but he lived long enough to know that it had become a success.
Before he died, John McCrae had the satisfaction of knowing that his poem had been a success. Soon after its publication, it became the most popular poem on the First World War. It was translated into many languages and used on billboards advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds in Canada in 1917. Designed to raise $150,000,000, the campaign raised $400,000,000. – Veterans Affairs site
Given that he himself was disillusioned with the war, I wonder whether he would have appreciated this use of his writing.
In 2015, a century after McCrae wrote his most famous poem, two identical statues were unveiled: one in Guelph, his hometown, and one in Ottawa, close to several other war memorials. The Big Guy and I attended that event as well.