Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed and buried on May 2, 1915, a victim of the Battle of St. Julien, one of the four engagements of the Second Battle of Ypres during World War I. A chaplain was not available, and his service was conducted by his friend and former teacher Major John McCrae. McCrae was a surgeon and commanded a field hospital in the Canadian infantry.
The next day, McCrae stole a few minutes from the miseries of his work to write a poem. He had written medical textbooks and was an amateur poet. He looked up occasionally toward the little cemetery where his 22-year-old friend lay. After twenty minutes of writing, he had composed a fifteen-line poem in the rondeau style.
He showed the poem to a soldier who had paused in his delivery of the mail. The man told McCrae he liked the poem. McCrae himself wasn’t so sure. He tore it out of his notebook and threw it down. A fellow officer saw this and retrieved the scrap of paper. He sent it to The Spectator magazine in London, which rejected the poem. A second submission, to Punch, was successful and the poem was published anonymously that December. The magazine’s annual index listed John McCrae as the author.
McCrae never saw the end of the war. Pneumonia was as lethal a killer as bullets and shells and poison gas, and Lt. Col. John McCrae died of it on January 28, 1918, while commanding a hospital in France.
Before his death, however, he learned that his forgotten poem had been published and had achieved great acclaim. In his native Canada, the poem helped to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Victory Loan Bonds. The poppies that are so prominent in the poem became the symbol of remembrance of the fighting men of the Great War.
The poem is, of course, In Flanders Fields. The link is to an image of the original publication in Punch; it’s near the bottom on the inside of the left-hand page.
Many writers would be livid if something they had thrown away later showed up in print thanks to a helpful friend. McCrae was said to have been amused by the circumstances and his poem’s popularity, which retains much of its luster ninety-five years after it was written.
Occasionally, a writer is not the best judge of his own work.