John McCrae did not live to see the end of the war. He died on 28 February 1918 and is buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery with its views across the undulating French countryside and the English Channel. Some fifteen years after his funeral, Sister Margaret Woods - one of the nurses who attended it - wrote about his death to a friend in Canada. In her words '... the nurses lamented that he became unconscious so quickly they could not tell him how much they cared. To the funeral all came, because we loved him so.' This remarkable man inspired respect, loyalty and love, not only in his friends but also in the staff who worked under him and the patients he cared for. At the memorial service held in John McCrae's memory at McGill University, Montreal, where he had lectured in Medicine and Pathology before the First World War, his friend Professor John McNaughton described him as '… much more than a doctor, find he was all the better a doctor because he was a great deal more'.
John McCrae was widely regarded as the most-talented physician of his generation in Canada. Born into a Canadian-Scottish Presbyterian family, he had showed academic promise early in his life and was the first student from his college in Guelph, Ontario, to win a scholarship to the University of Toronto. After completing an Arts degree, he went on to graduate brilliantly in medicine and to carve out a career that was to establish him as one of North America's top physicians. For relaxation he sketched, read avidly, wrote prose and poetry, played bridge, travelled abroad, enjoyed the Canadian outdoors and belonged to various societies, learned and otherwise. His good looks, engaging personality, wit and considerable gift as a raconteur made him popular in Montreal society and his wide circle of friends and acquaintances included writers, artists, intellectuals and diplomats. As that fateful August of 1914 approached, John was busy editing a medical textbook in the sunshine of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although the international situation looked grave, he decided to proceed with his plans to take a holiday in Europe. War broke out as his ship was crossing the Atlantic and it was diverted to Portland. John wrote home, 'All is excitement; the ship runs without lights. Surely the German Kaiser has his head in the noose at last; it will be a terrible war, and the finish of one or the other.' He had served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Boer War and now, as then, he was ready to set aside his medical career to answer a call to arms that he could not ignore.
His attempt to enlist in London met with rejection on age grounds (he was 42). Undaunted, he sent a cable to Ottawa where he knew that Edward Morrison, his old friend from the Boer War days, was Director of Artillery, Permanent Force. The offer of his services either as 'combatant or Medical if they need me' was met with the provisional offer of an appointment as Brigade Surgeon to the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery and second in command under Morrison. With his Boer War and militia experience, John McCrae had no illusions about the war that lay ahead and returned to Canada to settle his affairs. He sailed with First Contingent that left Canada on 3 October 1914 and arrived at Plymouth later that month. After a wet and miserable winter spent training on Salisbury Plain. Major John McCrae and his Brigade moved to France in the late winter of 1915. They were attached to the Royal Field Artillery as part of Haig's First Army. John accompanied his unit into action at Neuve Chapelle and combined his medical duties with the work of directing the guns. Throughout the war, he would never wear the Red Cross armband of a non-combatant, but always insisted on wearing his combatant uniform. His eminence as a physician and his experience as a soldier were to make him a first-class medical officer. He was strict with his men. He delivered strongly-worded lectures on the importance of sanitation in the combat of infection told them in no uncertain terms what he would do to them if he found any of them had lice.
At 3.30am on 23 April 1915, hours after the first gas attack, John McCrae's Brigade moved up to the position that they were to for the next seventeen days and which John later described as '…seventeen days of Hades.' The War Diary of 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery for 22 and 23 April 1915 records that the Brigade went into action at a point on the Yser Canal two miles north of Ypres to support a counter attack by the Canadian Infantry aimed at recovering ground lost by the French. After the Canadian infantry were moved to St Jean, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery continued to support the French troops who took over. It was not until 25 April that they were able to snatch their first proper sleep for four nights. When not taking his turn at the guns, John was coping with the constant stream of casualties needing his attention. The strain of the battle was severe. John's unit was positioned where the line had broken - a fact that he mentioned more than once in his diary. He later sent his diary of the battle to his mother. In it, he spared her the gruesome details but his fondness for animals led him to describe how he sheltered dogs that were terrorised by the bombardment. His spirits were lifted by the sight of spring flowers, the scent of blossom and the sound of birdsong discernible above the tumult of the battle.
On 2 May, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a young officer in the Brigade, was killed by a hit from a shell. He had been the Mess Secretary and was a graduate of McGill University and the Royal Military College, Kingston. John McCrae felt wretched at this and so many other similar losses. There being no padre available at the time, he ordered Helmer's remains to be made ready for burial and said the Commital Service as best he could from memory. When Company Sergeant Major Cyril Allinson brought the mail next morning, he described how he found his senior officer seated on the back steps of an ambulance as he worked on his poem, 'In Flanders Fields'. Over the next few days the battle was to intensify before 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery was finally withdrawn from the line to Steenwerck on 9 May.
John McCrae had survived the Second Battle of Ypres and written the poem that was to make him famous. His value to the medical service was such that his expertise was now required elsewhere. He word of his promotion and posting to a new Canadian hospital to be located in the Boulogne base area. McGill University, with its fine tradition in the teaching of medicine, had offered to provide a fully-equipped hospital of more than a thousand beds, making it the first University in the British Empire to do so. The unit would be known as No.3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) and John McCrae was to be the Officer in Charge of Medicine under the Commanding Officer, Colonel Herbert Birkett.
Initially located at Dannes-Camiers, the hospital was housed in tents sent to the War Office from India. Before its opening on 8 August 1915, the staff rehearsed the arrival of the first convoy of wounded. In that convoy was a Private MacMutchkin who remembered that '... I arrived eventually at No. 3 Canadian General Hospital and will never forget my reception, as I was helped out of the ambulance, the Colonel took my hand, then three lieutenant-colonels took my pulse, four majors hurried to take my temperature, and some blighter took my watch'. On the medical side, John McCrae and his team of physicians were dealing with a wide range of illnesses and conditions including rheumatic fever, pneumonia, scarlet fever, trench foot, enteric diseases such as paratyphoid and the effects of gas. Referring to nervous cases, John remarked that 'many patients arriving from the front are completely bankrupt as to their nervous systems.' He understood what this meant for during the autumn of 1915, he himself was still suffering aftereffects from Second Ypres. Severe gales and flooding wrought havoc with the hospital tents and it became evident that more substantial accommodation was needed. A new site was chosen on the northern edge of Boulogne. It was a former Jesuit College that had been damaged by fire before the war and subsequently used as an Indian Stationary Hospital. Necessary alterations were carried out and everyone prepared for the move. Shortly before this took place, Punch magazine published John MaCrae's poem 'In Flanders Fields' anonymously in its edition of 8 December 1915. It was a great success but John McCrae refused to let his new-found fame interfere with his work and his dedication to duty.
The expertise of the doctors from McGill University meant that No- 3 Canadian General Hospital came to be held in high regard. It was very active in pathological work and in continually researching new ways of treating the many conditions it was handling; its surgeons were of a very high calibre; it was innovative and was a leader among the base hospitals in training nurses to administer anaesthetics. The hard work and dedication took their toll and John McCrae, like others, was becoming increasingly worn down by the war. He remained devoted to his patients and kindly to his staff but his old sparkle had gone. He now preferred to spend off-duty time reading or going for long, solitary rides in the Vallee de Denacre on his horse Bonfire. A number of his other medical colleagues returned to Canada once their tour of duty was ended. As one of the hospital's most senior officers, John McCrae's single-minded commitment to his work and to the war meant that not only did he remain, but of his own choice he took very little leave.
The autumn of 1917 was spent dealing with the great numbers of casualties from the battle of Passchendaele and, in addition, work continued at No. 3 to find ways of improving the treatment of septic wounds. German air-raids over the area of the base hospitals compounded the problems and it was a particularly depressing time. The long and seemingly endless struggle was affecting everybody. When Colonel Birkett relinquished command, Lt-Col John Elder, Officer in Charge of Surgery, was appointed to succeed him. John McCrae was disappointed not to be appointed to the position, although he was not in the best of health. A sufferer from asthma, he had been plagued since that summer by what he called 'the old enemy'. Finally, in January 1918, his efforts were recognised and rewarded. The confirmation of his appointment as Consulting Physician to the First British Army with the temporary rank of Colonel, made him the first Canadian to be thus honoured. By the time the news reached him, John was ill in bed with what he had diagnosed as pneumonia. He was moved to No. 14 British Hospital for Officers under the care of Sir Bertrand Dawson, physician to King George V. His condition appeared to improve but he was worried about himself and said he knew it was the end. Two days later, evidence of meningitis was detected and he did not have the strength left to fight it. He lapsed into a coma and at 1.30 am on 28 January 1918, John McCrae died.
The news of his sudden death came as a great shock to his colleagues, to the base hospitals and to the soldiers at the front line. As word spread, there was grief in Canada and throughout the Empire that this man, a hero to his generation through his poem, had gone so unexpectedly. The funeral, held on 30 January 1918 at Wimereux was the largest ever seen at the Boulogne base. Special permission was granted for the nurses from No. 3 Canadian General Hospital to attend. Their floral tribute - one of many - was a pillow of violets. John McCrae's American medical colleague, Dr Harvey Gushing of the Harvard Unit, spoke for many when he commented, 'Was ever a man more loved and respected than he?' A soldier at heart, John McCrae knew that war must of necessity involve the taking of life. As a doctor, he was dedicated to saving it. It was a conflict that cannot have been easy to reconcile. Few could aspire to his standards and achievements, and it has been written of him that '... men of McCrae's quality are seldom met or made'. This exceptional man remains with us through the poppy, and the eightieth anniversary of his poem affords us yet another opportunity to remember him and his example.