"In Flanders Fields" at 100

'In Flanders fields' is probably the best-known poem about the First World War. Flandersnews interviewed the author of the book with the same name, Herwig Verleyen, to gain insight into the poem and to look at it in further detail. "People in Flanders had forgotten about the poem, until I published my book about John McCrae and his poem."

Herwig Verleyen's book was released in 1992 and became a real success. Sales figures ballooned and it has nearly a dozen Dutch editions nowadays. It was also translated into various other languages, including English, and also boasts a very first printing in Esperanto.

In the book, Herwig Verleyen tells about McCrae's life, and describes the circumstances in which the poem was written on 3 May 1915. He also analyses the poem and tries to explain why it became such a hit afterwards.

"Sitting on the back steps of an ambulance"

Born in November 1872 in Ontario, John McCrae was in his early 40ies when he ended up just behind the frontline during the Second Battle of Ieper in the spring of 1915. He worked for the Canadian Army Medical Corps as a first-aid doctor in a so-called 'advanced dressing station' near Boezinge, and was as such constantly confronted with the horror of dead or heavily injured soldiers that were brought in.

It was amidst these war atrocities that he wrote down 'In Flanders Fields' on a piece of paper of his dispatching book. It is said that he wrote it when sitting on the steps on the back of the war ambulance on the spot.

The poem almost didn't make it

McCrae was apparently not convinced to have it published. "There are two versions about what happened next," writes Herwig Verleyen. "One source claims he crumpled it up and threw it away, after which a certain captain Scrimger picked it up, read it and convinced him to have it published. Another source says that it was general-major Morrison who stimulated him. This being said, it was McCrae himself who took the final decision."

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failings hand we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

A sharp contrast

The poem can be divided into 3 parts. In the first one, McCrae depicts the scene, setting a big contrast between the cruelties of everyday life in war (crosses, guns) and the good things of everyday life that sparked hope for better times among the soldiers (the poppies, the singing larks).

The writer takes the place of the soldiers, using the word "our". This is confirmed in part 2, where he looks back nostalgically to older times, when the soldier that is speaking was still alive. The "we-form" is used to highlight solidarity with those that are fighting at the front, or that have perished.

Dramatic appeal

The final part relates directly to the battle on Flanders Fields. It's a clear invitation for others to come and join the fight. It is said that McCrae had the feeling the Germans would eventually prevail, so it can be seen as a dramatic appeal: 'Please come and take over from us, because we can't handle it by ourselves. If you don't, we shall not rest'.

This 3rd part in particular has sparked debate. Was it an appeal for more warfare? No, argues Herwig Verleyen, peace was clearly McCrae's ultimate goal, but to achieve that, the battle had to be finished.

Publication in Punch was the start of a success story

The success can be explained by several factors, says Verleyen. The strength of the poem comes from the contrast that is being set in the first part, while many soldiers (and families of soldiers at the front or of those that already perished) could very much recognise themselves in the second. The fact that it became a real propaganda instrument, is mainly due to the final part, where the dramatic appeal is launched.

After the poem had been publised in the war magazine 'Punch' in December 1915, it soon became a source of energy and inspiration to continue the fight, Verleyen points out. It was also picked by schools, which made it popular among children as well. Poppies would soon become the symbol to honour those that fell during the war.

"There was no stopping me: I had to write that book"

While it was well-known during the war and in the decades after, it lost momentum later on in Flanders. That was a shame, Herwig Verleyen tells us. "As a child, I had always been fascinated by poppies as we had many blossoming fields nearby. When I found out about the poem, I started collecting everything that was related to it in any way."

"There was no stopping me: I had to write a book about it. I think I can say that I brought the poem - and John McCrae - back to life in Flanders." With the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the poem is more alive than ever. It has also given its name to Ieper's Great War museum in West Flanders.