Finding John McCrae on Remembrance Day
Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
GUELPH, ONTARIO —If you want to understand one of the key differences between Canadians and our American, British or Russian friends you need look no further than McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario.
You may not know this but Colonel John McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields” — one of the world’s most famous and important poems — was born in a nondescript house at 108 Water Street in Guelph alongside the peaceful Speed River on November 30, 1872.
The house looks like any other on the street, except for the stonewall lining the front of the property and the Canadian flag flying on the south side of the building. Underneath that flag is McCrae’s famous poem, put up after the Second World War, a sculpture with the entire poem written on a bronze cast in the shape of a book.
McCrae House is No Ordinary Home
Surrounding the museum is a heritage garden, filled with perennials, annuals and herbs that were available to people in Guelph from 1850 to 1890.
“It’s a little jewel on the street,” said Val Harrison, coordinator of public programs at Guelph Museums. “It’s sort of nestled in among our neighbours. That’s part of the charm, I think. It’s a very nice example of the style of homes of that day, the architecture and the Guelph limestone that is prominent in this area. It’s a typical building that represents a time early in Guelph history.”
And McCrae House certainly is “nestled in among the neighbours.” Unless you were already aware of this or specifically on the hunt for it, you could easily miss it. In fact, if not for a college buddy of mine actually pointing it out one day, I would never have known that McCrae was even from Guelph, or that this was the same McCrae who had written a poem I had studied in school and knew almost by heart. It’s a simple and moving tribute to a great Canadian, and I can’t stop thinking how utterly Canadian this place really is.
Everyone knows how to find Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, a marvellous tribute to a brave young woman that attracts thousands of people every year. The Americans have made sure there’s no missing George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate or Abraham Lincoln’s home. I feel that if a world-renowned war poet like McCrae had been born in Russia or England his home would be a major tourist attraction surrounded by lights at the end of a red cobblestone road.
But this is Canada, and this particular site is as low key and unassuming as the life McCrae led. And from what I’ve read about the man he would probably be appalled to think that his name was being highlighted at all.
McCrae Captured the Horror Of War
Colonel John McCrae was a no-nonsense surgeon who made it a point to go out to the battlefield to help soldiers in distress. McCrae enlisted in the First Canadian Contingent soon after the beginning of World War I in 1914 and was posted as a medical officer to one of the artillery batteries fighting on the bloodsoaked fields of Ypres in April 1915. It was a battle that would instigate a new and horrific chapter in war technology, marking the first time Germany used poison gas on a large scale.
According to “The Great War“: “John McCrae, was serving as a Major and a military doctor and was second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The field guns of his brigade’s batteries were in position on the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, about two kilometres to the north of Ypres. The brigade had arrived there in the early hours of 23rd April. Some believe that McCrae began writing his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ on the evening of May 2, 1915 during the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres after his friend Alexis Helmer was killed.”
McCrae in his own words (Prescott – “In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae,” page 98 via Ministry of Veterans Affairs): “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
And it was in these conditions that he found time to write, eventually penning his most famous poem.
Water Street is an ordinary route with an extraordinary past. As soon as you walk under the simple white sign and peer over the wall into the yard you immediately feel like you’ve just stepped into a very different period in history; a period when thousands of young Canadian men and women were volunteering to go abroad and fight in unknown European villages and towns named Passchendaele, Valenciennes, Cambrai, Ypres and Vimy.
The Story Comes “Full Circle”
“Because McCrae House is a national historic site it brings in a lot of visitors from across Canada and outside the area,” said Harrison, adding that events are held throughout the year at McCrae House for people of all ages. “We have the local population that supports McCrae House because he was a local boy who wrote this important poem , and then there are people from outside Guelph who recognize McCrae and the poem. Many people have visited Flanders Fields, Belgium where McCrae wrote the poem, and then returned to Guelph to go full circle.”
The house tells the story of McCrae and his life from the 1870s. The dining room area is made of pieces that belonged to his mother and grandmother (McCrae never married). The main exhibit space takes you through his family life, coming from Scotland, through his medical career, to the writing of the poem and to his death. He died of pneumonia, with complications from meningitis, on January 28, 1918.
The bedroom of the house is made up of furnishings that were present in that era. On the walls of the house are war posters, and there are newspapers from the period. In the back of the home is an interactive space filled with an extensive educational collection, including uniforms and an actual trench periscope that soldiers would have used to look up above the trenches to see what was happening in no man’s land.