Author: Debra Nash-Chambers and Linda Granfield

Publication Date: 2016

Edited: 2023



Historic Guelph David and Janet McCrae V54P20David and Janet McCrae, circa 1870.

(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums (M1968.339.1)).


This paper was presented by the authors at the Eighth Annual John Galt Kirking Service at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Guelph, on Sunday, August 2nd, 2015.


Today we pay tribute to Lt.-Col. John McCrae and commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the writing of his poem In Flanders Fields.1 John McCrae was born in Guelph on November 30th, 1872 in the stone cottage on Water Street that is now McCrae House Museum and National Historic Site. Exhausted by the rigours of three and a half years of battlefield medical service to Allied troops, he died of pneumonia and the complications of meningitis in Boulogne, France on January 28th, 1918.


John McCrae had a, "Living faith," throughout his life. He attended St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church regularly during his boyhood and youth. Biographer Dianne Graves confirms, "Sundays in the McCrae home were devoted to church and the family never missed a service. The children were taught to study the Bible and to uphold the moral and spiritual code it contained." McCrae's life story is, "[A] splendid chorus," of duty and service to others. His character and beliefs were shaped by his upbringing and heritage. John F. Prescott observes that McCrae, 


"[The] grandson of successful Scottish pioneers on both sides of his family ... inherited his father's passion for soldiering and his pride in the British Empire, his mother's intelligence and sensitivity, and their Presbyterian sense of duty to develop talents in the service of others."2


At the recent dedication of the new McCrae statue at the Civic Museum, Dr, William Winegard urged Guelphites to remember that John McCrae was a Guelph boy one of us. 


For nearly 100 years, visitors to this church have observed the McCrae pew and the McCrae window in paying their respect to John McCrae, his service to Canada, and the international acceptance of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Churchgoers and guests are reminded of the McCrae family's ties to St. Andrew's by the plaque honouring John McCrae and his family just a few rows from the pulpit.


The McCrae family tree is rooted in Scottish tradition and unwavering Presbyterian values. John McCrae's father, David, was four years old when he emigrated from Scotland to Canada with his family in 1849. His father Thomas and mother Jean Campbell McCrae were proud Presbyterians. McCrae biographer John F. Prescott notes, "[T]he Campbell family was proud of its descent from Covenanters, men and women prepared to die for their beliefs."3 Both Thomas and his son David served as elders and Superintendents of the Sunday School at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Guelph.4


Historian Leo A. Johnson applauds Thomas McCrae's business successes. He became an important entrepreneur with a sawmill, lumber business and a partnership in a woollen mill called Armstrong and McCrae and Company, renamed Guelph Woollen Mills when McCrae bought out Armstrong.5 In 1863, Thomas McCrae bought 'Janefield,' a farm on the outskirts of Guelph and became a noted breeder of horses, cattle and sheep. His son, David, inherited the mills and farm at age 33. John Prescott laments the late nineteenth-century economic downturns that forced David to sell the mills to pay off the mortgages: "[T]he family was not wealthy partly because David, seeking to regain the fortune lost on the sale of the mills, seems to have made unproductive speculations in farmland, but principally because of his prolonged association with the army."6 Prescott concludes that farming and soldiering were more attractive to David McCrae than commerce.7


John, called Jack by his family, shared his father's sense of duty to Canada and close ties to the military. In 1886, at age 14, Jack joined the Highland Cadet Corps at the Guelph Collegiate. Biographer Dianne Graves submits:


"[Y]oung McCrae was an enthusiastic cadet and became an officer in the Corps. He applied himself wholeheartedly and in 1887 was awarded a gold medal by the Ontario Ministry of Education for being the best drilled cadet in the province. The following year at the age of 16 he became a bugler in his father's militia and artillery unit."8


Jack's great faith, good humour and keen intellect were fostered by his mother. Janet Simpson McCrae was the daughter of former Presbyterian minister John Eckford. After Eckford's wife Margaret and their first-born James Christie Eckford passed away, Eckford emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1850 to become a landowner and give his daughters Janet and Annie a better life. In Canada, he was a pioneer farmer in the forest near Walkerton, Ontario. He encouraged a knowledge of the Bible, intellectual curiosity, an appreciation for arts and culture and what Prescott has called, "The Presbyterian tradition of plain living and high thinking." Dianne Graves notes that, "Janet passed this legacy on to her children, along with her cultured outlook. John had a close relationship with his mother and from the beginning she was the spiritual anchor of his life."10 

 Historic Guelph Janet MaCrae With Her Children V54P23

Janet McCrae with her children Geills (top left), John (bottom left) and Thomas (bottom right). Circa 1880.

(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums (M1968.340.1)).


One can well imagine how the McCraes' faith was tested and how much stronger the bond between Janet and her children grew when in 1874 a third son, David, was born, and died as an infant. Janet and the family had a less anxious time when baby Geills was born four years later. Dianne Graves reflects:


"[T]hough much involved with the new baby, Janet McCrae set aside time to introduce her older children to the delights of reading poetry and music. She played the piano and encouraged them to sing with her, John developed a keen ear for music and also enjoyed his mother's favourite stories and poems."11


Unfortunately, Jack's keen ear for music served as a liability on Sundays in Canada and abroad as he found many hymns to be lacking good tunes and quality lyrics. After one Sunday service he mused it was too bad that the sermon was just 44 minutes long to leave time for the hymns.12


Historic Guelph CPostcard V54P24

Postcard, circa 1900.

(Photograph courtesy of The Granfield Collection).


Keen to please his mother, Jack was able to recite the Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterian Church before he could read. Elder brother Thomas and baby Geills also benefited from the, "Firm foundation," in religious instruction fostered by Janet. A letter from John Eckford Gow dated November 29th, 1880, provides a startling insight into Janet's success with Geills. Jack, only eight years old himself recalled that at age two, "Geills can say all 'Goodness and mercy' [better known to us as 23rd Psalm] and she can sing about Miss Mousie sat on froggies knee..."13 Geills would have been heard to sing:


"A frog went a-courtin' he did ride, m-hm, m-hm

A frog went a-courtin' he did ride,

Sword and pistol by his side, m-hm, m-hm

He said, 'Miss Mouse will you marry me?' m-hm, m-hm

He said, 'Miss Mouse will you marry me?'

Underneath the old oak tree, m-hm, m-hm."14


And so, the song continues for another few minutes.


At age 16, John McCrae left Guelph to attend the university of Toronto and seek his destiny. Prescott believes that,


"The strong faith of his Presbyterian ancestors is a clue to his character, and the way he made faith his own is a reflection of his own qualities and achievements... and he sought the best in soldiering, medicine, poetry and his friendships. His Presbyterian upbringing gave him a strong sense of duty while soldiering provided the adventure otherwise missing in the serious high-minded pattern of his life."15

 Historic Guelph Sir HEnry Irving V54P25

Sir Henry Irving as Thomas Becket.

(Photograph courtesy of The Granfield Collection).


Historic Guelph Stephen Leacock V54P25Stephen Leacock, 1914.

(Photograph courtesy of the McCord Museum, II-202914).

Much has been written about McCrae's years in Toronto: his undergraduate studies at Knox college; the flush of first love for a friend's sister who tragically died while still in her teens; Tom and Jack's sports injuries, Varsity Glee Club escapades in Hamilton (There's yet another 'splendid choir'), and hikes in High Park, Toronto while hatted in a Homburg.
During these years of youthful exploration and adventure the world-famous actor Sir Henry Irving arrived in Toronto to play the lead in Tennyson's play, Becket. Jack and his friends, students without the spare change to purchase tickets, were in luck: McCrae noticed an advertisement in the newspaper calling for young men to volunteer to play knights and monks on stage. Jack made the cut and appeared as a stage 'super.' Whether as a knight or a monk we do not know; however, the mind delights at the thought of the young Presbyterian McCrae dressed in a monk's robe and grinning at his good luck to be on stage with Sir Henry Irving, in a play about a Roman Catholic saint!


Historic Guelph Silver Cup V54P26

John McCrae's silver christening cup.

(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums (M1968.281.1)).


Fraternity life, the publication of Jack's poems, like The Shadow of the Cross, in the university magazine, and continued studies for a medical degree, were balanced by McCrae's regular church attendance in the city. As his close friend Stephen Leacock commented in 1921:


"... I should say that the governing idea in [Jack McCrae's] mind was a sense of duty; for all his merry stories, he regarded the world, after the fashion of his [Scottish] ancestors, as a stern place, an abode of trial and preparation for something real beyond... For McCrae was deeply religious: not in the up-to-date sense of being intensely interested in explaining away all disagreeable forms of belief; but in the older sense of childlike reverence and implicit obedience to the Written Word."16


Within the university's ivy-clad walls, John McCrae grew in a faith that was first symbolically evident at his christening. The silver cup used that day now on display at McCrae House in Guelph, is engraved with sprigs of ivy, the symbol of, "Frail humanity's need for divine support," of immortality with its evergreen properties, of survival and determination.


John McCrae's medical career took him out of Toronto, out of Maryland where he worked with Sir William Osler, and into Montreal. Ahead of him were years of private practice, work in hospital clinics, and teaching medical students at McGill University. But first, there was the call to duty during the Second South African War, the Boer War.


There is a passage in Sir Andrew Macphail's biographical sketch of McCrae that captures Jack's oneness with the immensity of nature and faith. McCrae and other Canadian troops being deployed in 1900 to South Africa are on board the Laurentian as it crosses the Atlantic. McCrae describes the haunting scene:


"...Then to the forward deck: the sky half covered with scudding clouds, the stars bright in the intervals, the wind whistling a regular blow that tries one's ears, the constant swish as she settles down to a sea; and, looking aft, the funnel with a wreath of smoke trailing away off into the darkness on the starboard quarter... There was a voluntary service at six; two ships; lanterns and the men all around, the background of sky and sea, and the strains of 'Nearer My God To Thee' rising up in splendid chorus. It was a very effective scene..."17


Historic Guelph John McCrae V54P27John McCrae, 1901.

(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums (M1993.3.1)).


Later in 1900, McCrae shared more information about worship in South Africa:


"At nine took the Presbyterian parade to the lines, the first Presbyterian service since we left Canada. We had the right, the Gordons and the Royal Scots next. The music was excellent, led by the brass band of the Royal Scots, which played extremely well. All the singing was from the psalms and paraphrases: 'Old Hundred' and 'Duke Street' among them. It was very pleasant to hear the old reliables once more. 'McCrae's Covenanters' some of the officers called us; but I should not like to set our conduct up against the standard of those austere men."18


John McCrae nearly drowned in South Africa when his horse stumbled and he was thrown into a stream, the horse atop him. That fact gives one pause: imagine... no ln Flanders Fields had the soldier-poet not been saved that day.


At the end of the Boer War, McCrae returned to his very full life in Montreal. He regularly attended St. Paul's Presbyterian Church on Rue St. Monique; neither the church building nor the street itself have survived. The congregation became the Church of St. Andrew's and St. Paul's on Sherbrooke Street in 1918.


Historic Guelph V54P28The governor-general's duty on the porch of Norway House. John McCrae is seated at the left.

(Photograph courtesy of Hudson's Bay Company Archives (HBCA 1987/363-G-130/128)).


In the fall of 1910, McCrae accompanied the Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey, as the attending physician on a fact-finding trip that looped through Manitoba, Hudson Bay, and points east. Special note was made of the prayers and hymns of the First Nations people, presumably Christians, who worked with the entourage. In September, the group moored off Prince Edward Island. There, John McCrae found himself in a dory with Lucy Maud Montgomery, the two being rowed out to Earl Grey's steamer for a special dinner, "In the pouring rain," as Montgomery wrote in her journal. What a conversation there must have been at that Vice Regal meal!19


While Montgomery did not take or make special note of Dr. McCrae at the table, she did write about another guest, McCrae's friend John MacNaughton, a Classics professor at McGill: "His conversation was brilliant but somewhat too continuous." She also noted that, "The pudding in particular was a vile concoction."20 One wonders what McCrae, the keen observer and entertaining storyteller made of this material at later dinner discussions. It is not known if John McCrae ever read Anne of Green Gables or drank raspberry cordial.


In the summer of 1914, McCrae was again sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and during the voyage he learned that war had been declared. He soon returned to Canada, crated his belongings and put them in storage in Montreal, and did not come back to Guelph to visit his parents. He wrote to his sister Geills, "I was really afraid to go home for... it would only be harrowing for mater, and I think she agrees. We can hope for happier times."21


Much has been recorded about John McCrae's service in the army during the First World War. He himself said, "I have never refused any work that was given me to do."22 And from the beginning of the war until his death in January 1918, lamentably before he saw the end of the war his letters referred to his work, his faith, and his attendance at services. 


Historic Guelph V54P29The casket of the Unknown Warrior prior to entombment in Westminster Abbey, 1920.

(Photograph courtesy of The Granfield Collection).


On Easter Sunday 1915, just a few weeks before he composed In Flanders Fields, McCrae wrote from France, "We had a church parade this morning, the first since we arrived in France. Truly if the dead rise not, we are of all men the most miserable."23 And on the funeral service of a friend, he remarked, "For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God - what a summary of the whole thing that is!"24 Andrew Macphail commented that, "On many occasions [McCrae] officiated in the absence of the chaplains who in those days would have as many as six services a day."25


It was the absence of a chaplain at Essex Farm in Belgium on May 2nd, 1915, that led to the burial service of Lt. Alexis Hannum Helmer being conducted by his friend John McCrae. The next morning, McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields. And after that, the soldier-doctor-poet carried on for nearly three years, enduring the incredible physical and emotional demands of war, all the while sending twice-weekly letters home to his 'Pa and Ma' in Guelph. About two weeks after John McCrae's death and burial in France, a Memorial Service was held in the Royal Victoria College at McGill University. Prof. John MacNaughton (the same loquacious MacNaughton Lucy Maud Montgomery complained about) said of his friend and colleague:


"[John McCrae] never lost the simple faith of his childhood. He was so sure about the main things, the vast things, the indispensable things, of which all formulated faiths are but a more or less stammering expression, that he was content with embodiment in which his ancestors had laboured those great realities to bear as beneficent and propulsive forces upon their own and their children's minds and consciences. His instinctive faith sufficed him."26

 Historic Guelph Curlers V54P30St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Guelph, Ontario, 2015.

(Photograph courtesy of Linda Granfeld).


At age thirteen, while in London, England with his father on a business trip, Jack McCrae wrote to his sister Geills, "...I was at Westminster Abbey today. It is where the Kings and Queens are buried, with 'the big people.' I do not mean people over six feet..."27


What would McCrae have thought had he survived the First World War and re-visited Westminster Abbey to see the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, buried with, "The big people," in 1920?


The ivy on the christening cup, the poetry, the military and community service, the lifetime of faith and determination - they are all reflections of the living faith of the McCraes of Guelph. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me." Many times, John McCrae sat in thoughtful worship in this very building [St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church]. That fact surely gives us cause for reflection. He is with us every time we raise our voices in another 'splendid chorus' of In Flanders Fields.


"I have never refused any work that was given me to do," McCrae said.

Lest We Forget.



  1. Dianne Graves, A Crown of Life, The World of John McCrae (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio Inc., 2012), p. 15.
  2. John F. Prescott. "John McCrae", Dictionary of Canadian Biography, online, Vol. XIV (1910-1920), 
  3. John F. Prescott, In Flanders Fields, The Story of John McCrae (Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 2003), p. 9.
  4. Ibid, p. 9-10.
  5. Leo A. Johnson. History of Guelph, 1827-1927 (Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 1977), p. 211.
  6. Prescott, p. 10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Graves, p. 18.
  9. Prescott, p. 10.
  10. Graves, p. 15.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Sir Andrew Macphail, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems by Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, M. D., with An Essay in Character (Toronto: William Briggs, 1919), p. 117.
  13. Letter from Jack McCrae to his cousin John Eckford dated November 29th, 1880, McCrae Collection, Hugh Guthrie Archives, Guelph Civic Museum, Guelph, ON.
  14. Traditional.
  15. Prescott, p. 134.
  16. Stephen Leacock, "Colonel McCrae's Vision of the Poppies," The London Times, November 11, 1921. n. p.
  17. Mcphail, p. 97.
  18. Ibid, p. 102.
  19. Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Volume II (1910-1921), Mary Rubio & Elizabeth Waterston, eds., (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 86.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Graves, p. 165.
  22. Macphail, p. 125.
  23. Ibid, p. 117.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid, p. 139.
  27. Letter of May 18th, 1886, Guelph Civic Museum Collection.