When someone is asked today “Who was Lt. Col. John McCrae?”, nearly everyone will answer that he was a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War of 1914-1918 who just happened to write the most famous war poem of all time. This poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ would become a global symbol of war remembrance still in use almost a century after McCrae’s death. Yet, what is least common, is who was John McCrae the man? There are a lot of interesting little stories about the non-military side of John McCrae that a lot of people don’t know. For example, what was the one thing he did to ease the pain of a dying child in Montreal, what special thing did he do for his nieces and nephews back home in Guelph while he was at war, and who was the young woman who captured his heart? Read on and I’ll fill you in on some stories about Guelph most famous son plus I’ll show you some rarely seen pictures, courtesy of Guelph Museums, of John McCrae the man.
Most people who knew John McCrae could all agree on one thing: he was a very likeable guy. He was outgoing, chatty, loved to write long letters to friends and family when away from home, and he received both respect and appreciation from medical colleagues, patients and students alike. McCrae was also very intelligent and artistic and in 1893, at the age of 21, he won Ontario’s top award for cadet training. He had also become Guelph first citizen to win a full scholarship to the University of Toronto. In his spare time, McCrae had a very artistic side where he wrote poetry, drew landscape sketches and small portraits. The McCrae House Birthplace Museum in Guelph, Ontario has some of his sketches on display, including an enlarged landscape sketch he made while he was serving in the Boer War in South Africa between 1900 and 1901. As a volunteer at McCrae House telling John McCrae’s story, one of the comments I get a lot about him, especially by female visitors, is “How come he never got married? He was such a good looking man!” It’s true; at 6’1” and with dark hair, intelligent and artistic, he would be considered quite the catch! Though he never did end up marrying, there had been one young woman who stole his heart, then left it broken for some time to come. Part way through his studies at the University of Toronto, McCrae developed chronic asthma and bronchitis and decided to take a year off where he returned home to Guelph to recuperate with his parents. In that time, he got a job at the Ontario Agricultural College in 1894 teaching math. While he was at the OAC, McCrae met a young woman named Alice, who was the sister of one of his teaching colleagues. As time went on, they spent more and more time together. Their Sunday afternoons would have been filled with strolling along the Speed River parkways, picnics, and various family or Church gatherings. It was becoming quite evident to all those around them that something special was blooming. But the romance was sadly to be short lived. Alice became ill suddenly and passed away. We don’t know for sure what Alice died of, but a common cause of death among the reasonably young and healthy in the late nineteenth century was either complications from the flu, such as infection, or possibly tuberculosis. No matter the cause, Alice’s death left McCrae completely and utterly devastated. We know this occurred, because McCrae had written several letters to his mother after he returned to his studies in Toronto mentioning the sadness and utter despair he felt over Alice’s passing. There was to be no other woman in his life who quite measured up to what he felt for Alice. In fact, there is no further documented evidence through his surviving letters of any serious relationship after Alice. Perhaps Alice had been “the one” and with her passing, he focused all his attentions on his continued studies and eventual career as a doctor.
McCrae’s health did improve enough for him to return to the University of Toronto where he immersed himself in his studies to ease the pain of Alice’s death. His medical focus turned to pathology as he tried to understand how disease worked in the human body. It appears he had been so affected by Alice’s death that it helped to focus his medical practice towards disease identification and control. He also began writing more poetry to ease his pain and published his first poems in 1895 in the University’s campus newspaper. McCrae graduated with full honours then travelled to the United States where he worked in a couple of noted hospitals including Johns Hopkins. McCrae eventually made his way to Montreal where he became resident pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital in 1902. McCrae was considered a compassionate doctor, an inspiring teacher, and a good friend among his colleagues. He was one of the first male doctors to openly accept, and even encourage, women to become fully licensed medical doctors. Because of this, McCrae had mentored a few women students throughout his career. There is one story we have of John McCrae from 1909, while he was a physician at the Alexandria Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Montreal, describing his compassion for a dying eight year old boy.
This young boy was terminally ill and suffered severe pain as a result, which McCrae did his best with the medications available at the time to control. The boy had told him one day that he missed his family pets. The boy would actually be driven to tears when he talked about missing them. So McCrae went to a friend in Montreal who had a cat that recently had a litter of kittens. He took one of these kittens and smuggled it into the hospital under his coat every single day for the next few short weeks to let the boy play with the kitten. And, at the end of every day, McCrae would sneak the kitten back out under his coat to his apartment in downtown Montreal. Again, we know of this story because of McCrae’s letters to his mother, brother and sister describing what he did. He noted that the boy’s demeanour improved tremendously. The boy began smiling again and he noted in his medical diary that the boy’s pain seemed to have been reduced somewhat. McCrae described to his mother how the kitten would curl up on the boy’s lap and fall asleep, and this would make the boy sleep as well. McCrae had said in his medical journal that there was no better pain control than the affections of an animal. Of course, animal therapy is quite widespread among children’s hospitals today, so perhaps McCrae was on to something in 1909 long before it became an accepted science of healing.
As John McCrae didn’t have his own children, he doted on his nieces and nephews. He would send them little gifts from the far off places he travelled to and would send numerous post cards with short messages of greetings. One interesting collection McCrae House has is a series of letters he wrote to them from Europe during the Great War. But he didn’t sign all of them from Uncle John, but rather he signed the name of his horse, Bonfire or his dog, Bonneau. And in addition to this, he drew a hoof print and a dog’s paw at the bottom of his letters to represent their signatures. His mother had written to tell him that his teasing got the kids so wound up that they couldn’t wait for the next letter from Bonfire and Bonneau! And McCrae didn’t disappoint. The letters from Bonneau and Bonfire kept coming regularly. But in January 1918, the letters suddenly stopped coming. The kids waited and waited for another letter to arrive. Tragically, there would be no more correspondences from Bonfire, Bonneau, or Uncle John. Lt. Col. John McCrae died on January 28, 1918 after a month long illness at the age of 45 relating to meningitis and the flu. It was a tragic end to such a young, promising, and well loved life.
McCrae was buried with full military honours at Wimereux, France. In the picture above you can see McCrae’s casket on the gun carriage draped with the Union Flag. The fact that there are a lot of people in attendance is significant. By the Great War standards, this was an extremely well attended funeral. Most people didn’t have time to leave their posts to bury a colleague. But for McCrae, doctors, nurses, military officers came out in full force and even though it is hard to tell in this picture, those in attendance are several rows deep. Even the Commander in Chief of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, General Sir Arthur Currie, attended McCrae’s funeral and considered him a close colleague and friend. Currie is the tall figure standing to attention, looking at the casket, just to the left of the horse in the picture. The horse is Bonfire, McCrae’s beloved companion. The boots are reversed in the stirrups as a infantry symbol that the horse’s rider has passed away.
We have McCrae’s family to thank today that we know so much about the man. With the fame and recognition he received in his lifetime for writing ‘In Flanders Fields’, the family knew the importance of keeping his memory alive. Letters to and from his family throughout his life were saved along with postcards, rare photos, business cards, a pathology text book he wrote, a gold watch he received from the City of Guelph for his participation in the Boer War, and countless other items. Perhaps one of the most cherished items McCrae House has is a handwritten copy of ‘In Flanders Fields’ by McCrae. This is only one of six known copies to exist in the world and McCrae House has one of them. But the story of how his medals came to the Museum is one of the most interesting twists-of-fate stories.
After McCrae’s death, his medals were sent to his parents in Guelph. Upon their death John’s sister, Geills, took possession of them. She was living in Winnipeg at the time and decided to keep them secure in a safe deposit box with her lawyer. Well, unfortunately, she forgot to tell her family where they were and when she died, the medals were considered lost forever. Sixty-five years later, in the 1990s, the same lawyer’s office decided to move to a new location and had to clear out some old stuff. That included old unclaimed safe deposit boxes. One of the managers of this firm found the medals and took them home for his son to play with. Eventually the son tired of the medals and they were sold to a small town antique dealer. The dealer could see McCrae’s name engraved on the back and figured he may have had something of value. He took them to a larger antique dealer who put them up for auction. The Guelph Museums was notified and they embarked on a whirlwind fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed to get the medals back to Guelph and put on display for the public to enjoy and admire. Meanwhile a Toronto businessman, Arthur Lee, had heard about the medals and decided he would buy them to donate to the Guelph Museums. It is a funny story now, as both parties had no idea about each other’s existence in the bidding for the medals that day. Lee ended up outbidding the Guelph Museums and got the medals. He paid over $500,000 for the medals and promptly donated them to the Guelph Museums in 1997, where they are currently on display.
These are a just a few of the interesting tidbits about John McCrae the man and thanks to the Guelph Museums and McCrae House, these stories are told to thousands of visitors who come to John McCrae’s Guelph, Ontario birthplace every year from all over the world. And now you too, know a little bit more about the man behind the famous poem and why he was so special to so many people.