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.
The Rest of the Story
McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" remains to this day one of the most
memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible
battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915. Here is the story of the
making of that poem:
Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the South
African War, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams,
and the blood here, and Major John McCrae had seen and heard
enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.
As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae,
who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the
University of Toronto, had spent seventeen days treating injured men
-- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in the Ypres salient.
It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae
later wrote of it:
"I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of
that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the
first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there,
we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former
student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell
burst on 2 May 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day
in the little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae
had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.
The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the
dressing station beside the Canal de l'Yser, just a few hundred yards
north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem.
The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical
texts besides dabbling in poetry.
In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that
sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty
minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a
A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year
old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae.
The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while
the sergeant-major stood there quietly. "His face was very tired but calm
as he wrote," Allinson recalled. "He looked around from time to time,
his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."
When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson
and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson
was moved by what he read:
"The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us
both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually
were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred
to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just
an exact description of the scene."
In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae
tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to
newspapers in England. The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but
Punch published it on 8 December 1915.
Credit: From Arlington National Cemetery's