Born in Guelph, Ontario, John McRae began writing poetry at a very young age and had several poems and short stories published whilst training as a doctor at the University of Toronto. Following the outbreak of the First World War he enrolled with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and volunteered to join a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer: he had previously fought with a volunteer force in the Second Boer War in 1899. McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in 1915 which he described as a ‘nightmare’:
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
His close friend Alexis Helmer was killed during the battle on May 2nd and it is popularly believed that McCrae wrote his most famous poem, In Flanders Fields, the day after while sitting in the back of an ambulance. The poem was published in Punch on December 8, 1915 and rapidly became the most popular poem of its era. John McCrae contracted pneumonia in 1918 and later came down with cerebral meningitis. He died on January 28 1918 at the military hospital in Wimereux.
John McCrae’s Poems