Beyond the Poet: John McCrae and the Canadian Army Medical Corps

This Sunday, January 28th, will mark the centenary of the death of the well-known Canadian poet- John McCrae. Author of the poem In Flanders Fields, McCrae’s memory is immortalized in the words he wrote during the Second Battle of Ypres. The Canadian soldier, however, was more than just a poet. When the war broke out in 1914, McCrae was appointed medical officer to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery and accompanied one of the first Canadian contingents that departed from Valcartier, Québec for England in October 1914. 

Image:  “In Flanders Fields”, J. McCrae, The Heliotype Company, Ottawa, c1919. Collections CCGW/CCGG
At the time of his enlistment, McCrae was a professor of medicine and physician at McGill University. [1] As McGill was preparing to offer a full general hospital overseas, McCrae was offered the position of Officer in Charge of Medicine. Already enlisted, McCrae made an agreement that he would return to the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) once it arrived in France. Along with Captain Francis Scrimger, the two members of the No. 3 CGH would be the first to experience the horrors of the Great War when they stepped on the battlefield at Ypres. [2] 
In February 1915, the Canadian division sailed for France and were then subsequently ordered to relieve the French at Ypres in April. On April 22nd, a light wind swept across the battlefield and the Germans released 160 tons of chlorine gas at the Second Battle of Ypres. Accompanied by a heavy artillery barrage, the Germans were able to create a 6.5 kilometre gap in the Allied line. Despite the debilitating effects of the chlorine gas and artillery barrage, the Canadians fought relentlessly and managed to hold their line until reinforcements arrived. In the trenches, McCrae tended to the wounded for seventeen days and nights. [3] On May 2nd, one of McCrae’s friends and student of his at McGill University, Lieut. Alexis Helmer, was killed by a German artillery shell. Horrified by the senseless tragedy, McCrae paused to write a few thoughts on paper which later became his most iconic poem- In Flanders Fields.
While McCrae’s In Flanders Fields is one of the most well-known literary works to emerge from the First World War, it is important to consider the conditions which inspired it. As the war progressed, the Canadian Army Medical Corps was confronted by an array of horrific casualties induced by modern warfare. Stationed near the front lines, the men and women of the CAMC often encountered situations never before experienced. As such, they embarked on a long learning process to adapt to the new conditions.
Shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae rejoined the No. 3 CGH when it reached France on June 17, 1915. According to his peers, however, he was never the same after the horrors he experienced at Ypres. [4] As the war raged on, nevertheless, McCrae continued to treat the wounded from battles in Flanders, Hill 60, Loos, the Somme, Vimy, and Passchendaele. On January 24, 1918, he was appointed Consultant in Medicine to the British Expeditionary Force, the first Canadian to take up the post. Before he could take up the post, however, he contracted pleuropneumonia, which later developed into meningitis. On January 28th, John McCrae succumbed to his illness at the young age of forty six.
[1] In Flanders Fields and John McCrae. Retrieved from
[2] Beckett, A. & Harvey, J. No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in the Great War: service and sacrifice. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 61(1), 2018, 9-10.
[3] Busch, B. C. Canada and the Great War: Western Front Association Papers. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2003. 68-9.
[4] Beckett & Harvey, No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in the Great War, 11.


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