M997.3.1x | In Flanders' Fields

In Flanders' Fields
About 1916, 20th century
15.5 x 14 cm
This artefact belongs to : © Guelph Museums
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Keys to History

Alexis Helmer, a close friend of John McCrae, was killed by a direct hit from a German shell while standing near his dugout by the Yser Canal in the Ypres Salient area. Soon afterwards some of the men gathered the pieces of his body into sandbags and arranged them on an army blanket into a human shape. Under cover of night, in the absence of an army chaplain, McCrae performed Helmer's committal service, reciting as much of the 'Order of Burial of the Dead' as he could recall.

It is generally supposed that Helmer's death inspired McCrae to write his famous poem "In Flanders Fields" on May 3, 1915.

  • What

    John McCrae wrote out several versions of his poem to send to family and friends. As a result it is difficult to determine which of the surviving copies is the "original" poem.

  • Where

    Shaken by the loss of a close friend, McCrae looked out across the makeshift cemetery in Flanders where wild red poppies grew between many rows of simple wooden crosses, and was inspired to write this poem.

  • When

    The poem was published in December 1915, the year it was written. It struck a chord, and within months was known across the English-speaking world.

  • Who

    McCrae's poem was first published in England's Punch magazine. The magazine's editor, with McCrae's permission, changed "grow" to "blow" in the first line in order to avoid repetition