The Legacy of
Colonel John McCrae
Summer, 1915. World War I. English and French armies had dug in their heels against the bulldozer onslaught of the German army as it ploughed its way across the plains of Flanders. After a day of ferocious fighting following the second battle of Ypres, the sun rose on a relatively quiet battlefield.
Col. John McCrae cautiously poked his head above the security of his trench to be met with the horrifying sight of row upon row of makeshift crosses littering the plains before him: ghostly reminders of the grim aftermath of the earlier battle marking the graves of the fallen.
McCrae, a Canadian veteran of the Second Boer War and professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, was struck with admiration at the courage of the dead and overwhelmed by awe at their selflessness as he caught sight of the tiny, red poppies dancing lazily in the gentle breeze among the grave markers of his fallen comrades. Inspired by the sight, and by the memories of the previous days of vicious fighting, McCrae grabbed a pad of paper and pen and quickly began to write down the words that had suddenly appeared in his mind. In minutes, his creation was complete:
McCrae's fellow commanders read the poem and encouraged him to publish it. He submitted his simple poem to Britain's famous Punch magazine, which readily published it in a rarely-used bold type. The effects of the poem washed across Britain like a giant wave. All of Britain was moved and encouraged by the words, and the poem quickly spread throughout the allied nations.
The poppy became a symbol of 'Life' and 'Resurrection': the red petals were the colour of the blood that stained the battlefield; the yellow/black centre represented the mud and desolation; the green of the stem became representative of the forests and fields where generations of men have died to make their land free; the stem itself symbolized the courage of the fallen soldiers. Life and freedom, all in this tiny, overlooked flower.
In 1918, a seriously-wounded Col. John McCrae was carried by stretcher to a rear base hospital on the coast of France and placed in a room where he might look out the window toward the Dover cliffs across the channel. He died three nights later.
McCrae's final words, according to his doctor, were: "Tell them this, if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep."
Colonel John McCrae was buried in the cemetery of Wimereux.