Author: Bev Dietrich, Curator, Guelph Museums
Publication Date: 2006
After the death of John McCrae on January 28, 1978, tributes and memorials began arriving at 211 Paisley Avenue, the home of his parents David and Janet McCrae. These newspaper and magazine clippings, letters, and tributes were pasted into a scrapbook by David McCrae. It must have been somewhat comforting to realize the impact that his son's death had on the rest of the world as he read the many tributes. John McCrae's poem, In Flanders Fields, touched people and, as a result, the torch was carried further forward than he ever imagined. In fact, this torch is still being carried today. His poem was the impetus for the establishment of the Poppy Day Campaign, numerous McCrae memorials both international and national, and of course McCrae House, a designated National Historic Site.
On November 9, 1919, American Moina Michael was attending a conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries. As she was reading a copy of the Ladies Home Journal, Miss Michael's eye alighted upon John McCrae's poem, In Flanders Fields. It was printed beside a striking picture of ghostly soldiers rising over ground covered with poppies and crosses. It was at that moment she pledged to keep the faith and always wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance.1 She immediately wrote her own reply poem, which she entitled We Shall Keep the Faith. As she completed the poem, three conference delegates appeared at her desk with a cheque for ten dollars in appreciation of her having organized their accommodation. She told them that she would use the money to buy 25 red poppies and explained why. The Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy fund was established, and Miss Michael devoted all her spare time to her campaign. By 1920, the American Legion passed a resolution to endorse the movement to have the poppy adopted as the memorial flower of The American Legion.
In France, another woman, Anne Guerin, was selling artificial poppies made by widows and orphans of the American and French Children's League - the organization she had founded in the autumn of 1919. Madame Guerin had also read In Flanders Fields, and the many reply poems inspired by McCrae's poem. They were her inspiration for developing Poppy Days to raise money for France's devastated areas and to teach children to remember.2
In 1921, Madame Guerin arrived in London and asked if the British Legion would be interested in buying her poppies. It did not take the people of Britain long to wear a small red poppy as a token of remembrance or to make their own poppies, providing employment for disabled veterans. The first Poppy Day was held on November 11, 1921, in both Britain and Canada.3
In 1925, 14 ex-service veteran organizations came together to form the Royal Canadian Legion. In Guelph, it was only fitting that the Guelph branch of the Royal Canadian Legion became known as the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch. This branch was formed in Guelph in 1933 by Leslie W. Gray. In 1934, the yearbook was called Keeping Faith, and in 1935 it became known as The Torch.
John McCrae has been memorialized in many ways and in many places. The National War Memorial in Ottawa's Confederation Square and the Memorial at Vimy Ridge are just two examples of the many memorials that reflect the symbolism found in his poem. Most recently, a gallery was named in McCrae's honour at the newly opened Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Stained glass windows were erected in his memory at McGill University, the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, the University of Toronto, and in Guelph at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute (GCVI), McCrae's high school, commemorated him with two plaques. In 1940, the City of Guelph placed a bronze plaque on the house where McCrae was born. Two schools have been named after him: John McCrae Public School in Guelph opened on Friday November 30, 1951, and John McCrae Senior Public School in Scarborough was completed in 1969. The Scarborough school is proud of its McCrae heritage, which can be seen in their badge which incorporates the torch and the words: "The Torch - Be Yours to Hold it High". Its highest award is the John McCrae Award of Excellence awarded to the most outstanding boy and girl graduates.4 The John McCrae Building at the Canadian Forces Base in Petawawa was opened on November 11, 1971, as part of the Remembrance Day ceremonies. It is a medical building with a 32-bed hospital and a dental unit.5 On October 15, 1968, almost 50 years after the end of World War I, a new stamp was issued to commemorate John McCrae and the writing of In Flanders Fields. The stamp was designed by Prof. Imrie von Mosdossy of Agincourt. The opening two lines of the poem are set against a background of a Flemish meadow covered with poppies and wooden crosses. Over 17 million of these stamps were issued.6
McCRAE MEMORIALS IN GUELPH
McCrae Avenue in Guelph was constructed in 1941, and renamed McCrae Boulevard in 1956.7 The Col. John McCrae Memorial Gardens front onto this street and are situated next door to the birthplace of John McCrae. Mr. Thomas Bedford subdivided his property and offered this parcel of land (150' x 125') to the Legion with the idea that something be created, and that the area be kept clean and tidy. The Legion immediately set up a committee to create a suitable memorial. It was felt that the memorial's three main features should be a torch, the poem, and the poppies. Ivan Glover developed plans and construction was completed by the William Parker Construction Company, of which owner, William Parker, was a former veteran. Mr. Glover was in charge of the Horticultural Department of the Ontario Reformatory and acted as chairman of the Memorial Gardens Committee.8 The dedication of the Garden took place on August 5, 1946. Today the City of Guelph's Community Services Department maintains the gardens keeping with the theme of poppies.
(Photograph courtesy of McCrae House).
In late 1965, the birthplace of Col. John McCrae became available for sale. This home was owned for over a decade by J. Edwin Aldom and his wife, Marie. Mr. Aldom was a general sales manager for Wagner-Leland, an electric motor manufacturing company on Crimea Street. The family moved to Oakville and put the house up for sale. It was feared that the house would be demolished and an apartment building built in its place.9 In early 1966, the Guelph Historical Society (GHS), the Royal Canadian Legion, and some local Guelph business men came together to try to save the house from demolition. Using their own mortgages as collateral, Barclay Holmes, Ernie Norris, and Floyd Robbins made a down-payment of ten percent of the cost of the home with great hopes and fingers crossed that the remaining amount would be raised. A committee was then formed that signed an offer to purchase the stone cottage for 15,900 dollars. This committee became known as the Col. John McCrae Birthplace Society of Guelph, Ontario. They launched an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise the additional funds required to purchase the house. Brochures and letters were mailed throughout Canada, the United States, and other countries to people that the trustees believed would want to donate to the fund. The Royal Bank branch in Guelph agreed to accept donations. The Legion kickstarted the campaign with a 9,500 dollar donation. The original trustees were: Lt. Col. C. L. C. Allinson, a Guelph barrister who served with John McCrae; Barclay Holmes, Secretary of the Guelph Historical Society; F. R. Robbins and E. Norris, both members of the Legion; and Alan Westcott, president of the Rotary Club. Support was also received from Alf Hales, MP (PC - Wellington South), Harry Worton, MPP (Liberal - Wellington South), and Mayor Ralph W. Smith.
Headline in The Guardian, February 7, 1966.
(Photograph courtesy of McCrae House).
Meanwhile, City Council expressed a desire to preserve the house and supported a motion to approve correspondence with the National Historic Sites Board in the hope that the federal government might preserve and then maintain the residence. It was also suggested that the creation of a museum at the McCrae home be established as a Canadian Centennial project of the veterans' organization.10
On March 7, 1966, the Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier, Governor General of Canada, endorsed the Birthplace Society's aims and objectives by giving permission to publish his personal message to help with fundraising efforts. On March 25, 1966, the Birthplace Society was incorporated under Part II of the Ontario Corporations Act and by January 1967, the Birthplace Society gained its charitable donations status from Revenue Canada and could offer tax receipts for donations.11
After much lobbying in Ottawa by MP Alf Hales, Minister without Portfolio John Turner (who was married to Geills McCrae Turner, the great-niece of John McCrae), and Birthplace Society members, the Col. John McCrae birthplace was designated as a National Historic Site by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Arthur Laing, in June 1966.12 The Department agreed to contribute 20,000 dollars towards the cost of purchase and renovations. The operation and maintenance of the home would be left to the community. At this point in time the Society had collected 11,800 dollars toward the 16,000 dollar cost of the home. Renovations were estimated at 22,000 dollars, half of which would be covered by a government grant.
The Anderson Family on the front porch of McCrae House, circa 1895.
(Photograph courtesy of McCrae House).
Architect Peter stokes was hired to supervise the restoration of the house. Two rooms were restored as historic room displays, while the rest of the first floor was transformed into museum display space. The outside of the house was restored to its 1820s appearance, based on a photograph of the Anderson family who purchased the house from Janet and David McCrae in 1873. There was one exception: the original roof of the 'summer kitchen' or woodshed was almost a flat extension of the cottage roofline, and Stokes redesigned this annex as a gable roofed extension in board and batten.13 The official opening was held on August 26, 1968, with the Right Honourable Roland Michener, Governor General of Canada cutting the ribbon and placing a wreath at Memorial Gardens.
John McCrae First Day Cover, November 30, 1972.
(Photograph courtesy of McCrae House).
In 1972, a great deal of publicity was generated as the 100th anniversary of the birth of John McCrae was celebrated. It was a year long party that concluded with a large ball at the Armoury. The City of Guelph, declared Guelph the Poppy City for the year. Curling bonspiels, church/remembrance services, parades, military, and band demonstrations were held. There were two vice-regal visits: the Honourable William Ross Macdonald, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, visited on June 25; and the Right Honourable Roland Michener, Governor General of Canada, visited on November 30. Premier William Davis proclaimed 'McCrae Day' across Ontario on June 11, 1972.14
The Society sent another appeal to raise funds for the operation of the Birthplace Museum, as well as soliciting support for world peace with hopes that world leaders would proclaim 1972 as 'Poppy Year.' Many letters were sent to dignitaries across Canada, the United States, and the world. Both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sent greetings. Pope Paul VI also sent his blessing.
An Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque commemorating the life of John McCrae was unveiled by Premier William Davis in Wimereux Cemetery in France, the resting place of John McCrae. This plaque is now administered by the Ontario Heritage Foundation.
To mark the conclusion of Poppy Year, Guelph City Council gave the Birthplace Society a special grant of 4,000 dollars to pay off the balance of the mortgage. The debt burned away in the hands of Ernie Norris and crumpled into ashes on a Royal City plate held by Miss Mildred Tovell with Floyd Robbins and Ross Maltby standing by in case fire-fighting services were required.15
In 1979, McCrae House was designated by the City of Guelph as a building of historic and architectural value under the Ontario Heritage Act. In 1983, the Birthplace Society was no longer able to financially and physically maintain the site and the Guelph Civic Museum and Colonel John McCrae Museum amalgamated to form Guelph Museums. A professional staff member was hired to look after the house and develop programs and exhibitions.
On November 29, 2004, an official plaque dedication ceremony was held by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The historic plaque was unveiled by family members Geills McCrae Turner and Don Campbell, great-niece, and nephew, and they were assisted by former prime minister John Turner, MP Brenda Chamberlain and Mayor Kate Quarrie. The plaque reads:
"This limestone cottage was the birthplace of John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields, the famous poem written in May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. Built in 1858, the house is a typical mid nineteenth-century Ontario cottage with its trellised verandah and cedar shingle roof. The exterior has been carefully restored to its appearance in the 1870s when it was the McCrae family home.
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada have designated more than 900 national historic sites, 600 national historic persons, and over 350 national historic events. John McCrae himself was designated as a national historic person in 1946, however the plaque was not erected until 1968. This plaque is mounted on the outside of McCrae House and reads, "Canadian poet, physician and soldier. McCrae was born in this house November 30, 1872. He died at Wimereux, France, January 28, 1918. While Medical Officer to the 1st Artillery Brigade he wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields in a dugout near Ypres in April 1915."
Opening of McCrae House August 26, 1968, with MP John Turner at the microphone and facing right, Governor General Roland Michener, Mrs. Michener and Mayor Paul Mercer.
(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums).
Internationally, McCrae has tributes around the world. During World War I, a large part of the civil cemetery at Wimereux, France, was placed at the disposal of the British Army for the burial of their dead from the various military hospitals in the area. It was here that John McCrae found his last resting place. Each year on November 11, a delegation of veterans and civil dignitaries, accompanied by a brass band, parade to the cemetery to hold a service of remembrance. In front of McCrae's grave, In Flanders Fields is read aloud in French and in English. Two minutes of silence follow, after which the Last Post is played. Near the entrance to the cemetery there is a stone bench with a screen wall into which two plaques have been set, each bearing a fragment of McCrae's poem.16
Premier William Davis is unveiling the John McCrae Ontario Heritage Foundation Plaque at Wimereux Cemetery, France, 1972.
(Photograph courtesy of McCrae House).
On the Isle of Skye in Scotland, a memorial to John McCrae can be found at the Eileen Donon Castle, the McCrae family castle. The Clan McCrae Roll of Honour (1914-1918), honouring all the McCrae's who died in World War I, can also be found outside the castle.
The Flanders Fields American Military Cemetery and Memorial is located in Waregem, Belgium. This is the smallest of all American war cemeteries on the mainland continent of Europe. It is the only burial place in Belgium for American soldiers killed during World War I, and for many Americans it has a special significance because of the link through its name with John McCrae's poem. On May 20, 1927, a mere nine days after his historic flight across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh flew over the cemetery in the 'Spirit of St. Louis,' scattering poppies on the crowds assembled below for the Memorial Day service, a ceremony which is still held to this day.17
Ieper (Ypres), Belgium has many tributes to McCrae. A new museum has opened, and it is called the 'In Flanders Fields Museum' after the first line of the poem, St. George's Memorial Church in Ieper was consecrated in 1929 to the memory of the officers and men of Great Britain and her Empire who died during World War I. In 1966, a copper memorial plaque bearing a tribute to McCrae and the Canadian Medical Corps was unveiled inside the church.18
On November 15, 1985, on the Diksmuide Road at Essex Farm, the Governor of the province of West Flanders unveiled a white stone tablet bearing the name of John McCrae and the title of his poem. This was one of 25 similar stones erected by the provincial administration to commemorate significant persons and events from World War I. The stone is located just on the outskirts of Essex Farm Cemetery, where McCrae penned his poem.19
The plaque designating McCrae House as a National Historic Site. The dedication was held November 29, 2004.
(Photography by Ted Carter. Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums).
In 1995, in honour of the 80th anniversary of the writing of the poem, the field dressing station where McCrae wrote the poem was restored through the initiative of two local high schools. The re-opening of the newly renovated bunker was part of week-long festivities, which included the opening of an exhibit on the life of John McCrae and World War I, the launch of a commemorative stamp, and an international symposium on John McCrae. The Government of Belgium has since designated the field dressing station as a national historic site and on June 7, 1999, the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board designated it as a Canadian National Historic Site in Belgium.
Today, McCrae House is still going strong and will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2008. Numerous programs and special events keep the site active and visitors from all over the world visit McCrae House to learn more about the man who penned the famous poem in 1915. The Museum guest book has signatures from Korea, Hong Kong, Scotland, New Zealand, Italy, The Netherlands, England, United States, Spain, Ireland, Australia, and other parts of Canada, The reactions are numerous: "A lovely memorial to a great Carradiatt" , "Magnificent Museum", "Excellent exhibits. We will remember", "Lest We Forget, An important reminder, very informative", "Thank you for reminding us of why and how our freedom came about", "Now I can see what my history teacher goes on about." The more people to whom this story is told, the more it will be remembered. McCrae House continues to hold the torch in remembrance of John McCrae and those who died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Peacekeeping efforts today. Lest We Forget.
Essex Farm Field Dressing Station after restoration, 1997. Today it's a national historic site in both Belgium and Canada.
(Photography by John Hurst. Photograph courtesy of McCrae House).
This essay was originally presented as in lecture to the Guelph Historical Society in December 2005.
- Dianne Graves, A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae, (St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Ltd., 1997), p. 266.
- Ibid, p. 267.
- Ibid, p. 269.
- Toerisme H. Familie, Exhibition Catalogue John McCrae, (Ieper, Belgium, 1995), p. 41.
- Ibid, p. 42.
- Toerisme H. Familie, p. 42.
- Ross Irwin, Guelph Origin of Street Names 1827-2003, (Guelph, Ontario: Guelph Historical Society, 1998), p. 45.
- H. O. Howitt, "John McCrae Boulevard: The Col. John McCrae Memorial Garden," The Torch, Yearbook of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch 257, Vol. X (1943): p. 21.
- "Officially Launch Campaign to Save Col. McCrae House," The Guardian, February 7, 1966, p. 1.
- "Former McCrae Home May Become a Museum," The Guelph Daily Mercury, December 10, 1965, p. 13.
- Col. John McCrae Society, "Campaign Brochure" (Guelph, 1967), p. 4.
- "McCrae Home Designated as National Historic Site," The Guelph Daily Mercury, June 22, 1966, p. 17.
- Peter John Stokes, "Interpretation of Two Old Photographs of House on Water Street," Toronto, July 22, 1968, p. 3.
- "McCrae Day Proclaimed For Ontario," The Guelph Daily Mercury, May 3, 1972, p. 13.
- "Paid Up McCrae Home Mortgage Turned to Ashes," The Guelph Daily Mercury, December 19, 1972, p. 1.
- Toerisme H. Familie, p. 42.
- Ibid, p. 43.
- Ibid, p. 44.
- Ibid, p. 44.
Col. John McCrae Birthplace Society. "Campaign Brochure." Guelph: 1967.
Col. John McCrae Memorial Branch. Keeping Faith, Yearbook of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch 257, Vol. 1, 1934.
Col. John McCrae Memorial Branch. The Torch, Yearbook of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch 257, Vol. II, 1935.
Col. John McCrae Memorial Branch. The Torch, Yearbook of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch 257, Vol. XII, 1945.
Graves, Dianne. A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae. St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Lmd., 1997.
Howitt, Henry Orton. "John McCrae Boulevard: The Col. John McCrae Memorial Garden." The Torch, Yearbook of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch 257, Vol. X, 1943.
Irwin, Ross. Guelph Origin of Street Names 1827-2003. Guelph, Ontario, Guelph Historical Society, 1998.
Prescott, John F. ln Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae. Erin, Ontario, Boston Mills Press, 1985.
Toerisme H. Familie. Exhibition Catalogue John McCrae. Iper, Belgium: 1995.
Stokes, Peter John. Architectural Report. Toronto: April 20, 1966.
Stokes, Peter John. Preservation of the Col. John McCrae Birthplace Water Street, Part II, Guelph Ontario. Toronto: 1967.
Westcott, A. B. Col. John McCrae Birthplace Society. Guelph: Leaman Printing Ltd., 1972.
"Former McCrae Home May Become Museum," The Guelph Daily Mercury, December 10, 1965.
"Society takes over McCrae's birthplace," The Globe and Mail, January 2, 1966.
"Col. McCrae Museum Approved by Council," The Guelph Daily Mercury, January 4, 1966.
"Officially Launch Campaign to Save Col. McCrae House," The Guardian, February 7, 1966.
"McCrae Home Designated as National Historic Site," The Guelph Daily Mercury, June 22, 1966.
"Fund Moving Slowly Toward Its Objective," The Guelph Daily Mercury, July 22, 1966.
"Royal City Awaiting Visit of the Governor-General," The Guelph Daily Mercury, August 24, 1968.
"McCrae Day Proclaimed For Ontario," The Guelph Daily Mercury, May 3, 1972.
"Queen Joins McCrae Day Tribute," The Guelph Daily Mercury, June 10, 1972.
"Paid-Up McCrae Home Mortgage Turned to Ashes," The Guelph Daily Mercury, December 19, 1972.