All the gen: In Flanders Fields

Written in the trenches of World War One, the poem is thought of as one of the most important in history.

Like too many men who turned their attention to writing poetry in the trenches of World War One as a distraction from the many horrors around them, the author of what is widely considered to be the most important poem of the Great War died before the conflict ended.

Truer still, he died without understanding the significance his words, written in the aftermath of the second battle of Ypres, would have on history.

Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917 by Australian War Memorial
Picture: Australian War Memorial.

In Flanders Fields was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, an army physician from Canada, on May 3 1915.

He was prompted to write the poem while looking upon the destruction of war in the wake of the loss of a friend, the field funeral for whom he had just performed.

Legend has it that McCrae was unhappy at the versus he had come up with, screwing his paper in a ball and lobbing it away. Thanks to comrades, his words were recovered and he was encouraged to continue on with his poetic efforts. 

Dealing with themes of death and the space between the chaos of war and the peace that follows, the New York Times described In Flanders Fields as "the poem of the army."

"It is the poem of all those who understand the meaning of the great conflict and of the sacrifice made by those who gave themselves for the right. It is the voice of the dear dead calling on us who live to see their sacrifice shall not have been made in vain." New York Times, December 18, 1921.

Over the top. Somme, World War One. Picture: PA.

The poem was first published seven months after its authoring by London-based magazine Punch, in December 1915, following a rejection by The Spectator.

On January 13, 1918, McCrae was promoted to the acting rank of Colonel and appointed as the Consulting Physician to the British Armies in France.  

Later that day, he contracted pneumonia and soon after was diagnosed with Cerebral Meningitis. Colonel McCrae died two weeks later and was buried with full military honours in Wimereux, France.

Following its publication, the poem was used on recruitment posters.

Today, it finds a place in almost all Remembrance Sunday services in McCrae's native Canada. It is a familiar staple to Armistice events in Britain. In Belgium, the In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres takes its name directly from the poem.

The Poem

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


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.


Take up our quarrel with the foe;

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high,

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders' Fields.

Cover picture: aspects of the poem In Flanders Fields were used in propaganda, such as this Canadian war bonds poster. Public Domain.