Statue marks centennial of John McCrae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’

WATCH ABOVE: A round of applause was heard as the statue was unveiled.

OTTAWA – War poet John McCrae, who helped make the poppy an enduring symbol of the sacrifices of the First World War, has received his own enduring monument.

A larger-than-life bronze statue of Lt.-Col. McCrae was unveiled next to the National Artillery Memorial on a hillside overlooking the Ottawa River, about a 15-minute walk east of Parliament Hill.

The site is apt: before he was a physician, McCrae was an artillery officer and his heart remained with the gunners, even as he tended to the wounded.

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The statue by renowned sculptor Ruth Abernethy imagines McCrae at the moment he looks up from the notebook where he has just signed his name to what would be published as “In Flanders Fields.”

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He is sitting on a broken tree branch, his cap perched on his medical bag in front of him, with a scattering of poppies at his feet.

Abernethy said she wants to renew interest in history.

“As time goes on and I find there’s less constructive discussion and less awareness of history, it becomes more meaningful to me to take on the role of being spokesperson for Canadian history,” she said in a recent interview from her studio near Wellesley, Ont.

The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery commissioned the work and spearheaded the private fundraising that financed it.

Retired general Mike Jeffery, a former commander of the army and himself an artilleryman, said it is important to remind people that McCrae was a gunner.

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Jeffery said McCrae’s role as a artilleryman has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the famous poem and his medical work.

He also said he knows of no other statue or monument to McCrae, except for a small one at a museum in Guelph, Ont., McCrae’s home town.

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Jim Selbie, a retired general who now holds the honorary post of Colonel Commandant of The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, said McCrae was a renaissance man who exemplified the concept of the citizen-soldier:

“He had two professions, both of which he had a great commitment to, that of a physician but equally that as a gunner,” Selbie said.

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In early May 1915, as the Second Battle of Ypres sputtered out, McCrae was serving as second-in-command of a Canadian artillery brigade and as brigade surgeon.

He presided at the funeral of a friend who had been blown to fragments by a shell and afterwards, he jotted down the first draft of his famous poem. He wrote of his surroundings: the waving poppies, the lines of crosses and the birdsong competing against the muttering of the artillery.

The simple, poignant lines that were first published anonymously in Punch magazine have endured for a century.

It is only one of more than two dozen poems McCrae wrote and published in various publications, but it is by far the best-remembered.

McCrae died of pneumonia on Jan. 28, 1918, and was buried in France, not far from the killing fields he immortalized.

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An identical statue will be unveiled this summer in Guelph.

Sunday also marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest battle of the Second World War.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston marked the epic naval campaign by leading a commemoration in Ottawa at the National War Memorial. Other ceremonies were held in Halifax, Esquimalt and Quebec City.

“The Battle of the Atlantic was among the most significant conflicts of the Second World War. It drew upon all of our resources of strength, ingenuity and perseverance,” Johnston said in a statement.

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