Handwritten copy of ‘In Flanders Fields’ remains in Montreal archives

MONTREAL — There is nothing poetic about war, but there is a long tradition of writing about the futility of war and the loss of life.

In Flanders Fields is perhaps the best-known poem and one that Canadians across the country recall when they pay tribute to the fallen each year on Remembrance Day.

John McCrae, a doctor from Guelph, Ont., wrote it 100 years ago while he was serving in Belgium during the First World War.

Today, there are only three handwritten copies of In Flanders Fields penned by McCrae himself. One of them is part of a collection in the archives of McGill University’s medical library, in Montreal. It’s been there since 1921, three years after McCrae died.

It’s taken out from time to time, for the odd exhibit, or to be loaned to international museums.

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McCrae was 42 years old when he wrote his famous poem. He was working in a field hospital close to the front lines during the second battle of Ypres.

It was the dawn of industrialized warfare. New technologies were raining down death on a scale the world had never seen before.

“You’re seeing heavy artillery, machine guns and gas attacks,” says military historian David O’Keefe. “These types of weapons leave hideous marks — not only on your body, but on your soul and on your mind.”

It was in the middle of that misery that McCrae lost a friend, a man named Alexis Helmer, on May 2. Helmer was hit with a mortar and blown to pieces.

McCrae was part of a team that picked up the body parts in burlap bags.

It was on May 3, after Helmer’s funeral, that McCrae put pen to paper and wrote In Flanders Fields.

“This is a man paying homage to his friend, not thinking about the impact that this would have,” says O’Keefe.

“As a work of Canadian literature, I can’t think of anything that’s had more of an impact on the world than this particular poem.”

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The copy in the McGill archives was sent by McCrae to a friend in Montreal just a few months after it was published in Punch magazine on Dec. 8, 1915.

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McCrae gave Canada, and the world, the poppy as a symbol of sacrifice.

But he also gave soldiers an occasion to reflect. Master Cpl. Eric Washburn says each time he hears it recited, he spends that time remembering the friends he lost in Afghanistan.

“Brian Collier, Martin Goudreault and Sgt. Jimmy MacNeil,” said Washburn, a member of the Canadians Grenadier Guards. “Those are the faces that come to mind.”

All three of those soldiers died within weeks of each other in 2010 and all were killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs): Goudreault was 35 when he was killed by an IED on June 6, 2010; MacNeil, 28, was killed just 15 days later; Collier died at the age of 24 on July 20.

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“They’re talking through that poem and I feel like I hear them in that poem,” Washburn said.

Seeing the poem in person, he was left with a feeling he didn’t expect — the desire to say “thank you” to John McCrae.

When Washburn saw an original handwritten copy of the poem in person, at the McGill archives, he was left with a feeling he didn’t expect — the desire to say “thank you” to John McCrae.

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