Too Short a Time on this Earth: Dr. John McCrea and McCrae House

We’ve returned for a second visit to McCrae House in Guelph. It’s here, four years ago, where we began our quest to visit all of Ontario’s National Historic Sites. Having seen over 200 Sites to this point, McCrae House remains one of the treasures of our historical journey.

A compact limestone cottage in the heart of old Guelph, McCrae House was the childhood home of Dr. John McCrae, surgeon, soldier and the author of undoubtedly the world’s best-known war poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Over 1000 artifacts are displayed in the home’s compact four rooms, from the earliest years of McCrae’s life, through to his school days at Guelph Collegiate Institute, on to the University of Toronto, to medical school and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and France during World War 1.

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Of particular interest to visitors are the earliest of McCrea’s writings and sketches. He began to seriously write poetry while in high school. Poetry sustained him too when he was forced to take a leave of absence from his studies at the University of Toronto, due to ill health.

During McCrea’s year-long recuperation he wrote 16 poems and a number of prose pieces. Their sensitivity and astuteness foreshadow his most famous work “In Flanders Field,” written in 1915.

The centrepiece of the museum, well-protected behind glass is a copy of “In Flanders Fields” in McCrae’s own handwriting. Only six copies are known to exist.

The circumstances behind the writing of the poem are tragic. History tells that McCrae wrote the poem in 1915 after the death of a close friend in battle.  Sitting in the back of a Canadian Army ambulance on the way to bury the soldier, the vehicle passed by the rows of white crosses marking the graves of dead soldiers. Wild poppies grew between the interminable rows. McCrae was inspired to write:

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.

But stories vary as to the circumstances behind the anonymous publication of “In Flanders Field” in the British Magazine Punch.  Some lore speculates that family members encouraged McCrae himself to send in the poem to the magazine.

Another more fanciful tales sees a dissatisfied McCrae crumpling up the poem, and leaving it as refuse in the back of the ambulance. Another soldier finding McCrae’s discarded poem where it was left, reads it and is so moved by the words that he sends it anonymously to Punch.

Only when the poem is published, does McCrae become aware of its journey to London, England.

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Moving through the Museum, John McCrae’s military medals now take centre stage. Only within the past 20 years have the medals returned “home.”

After McCrae’s death in the New Year of 1918, his personal artifacts were returned to his parents. After their death, the medals were entrusted to his sister, Geills living in Winnipeg. She stored them in a safety deposit box, informing no other family members of their existence.

After Geills’ death, the medals languished for years in a safety deposit. When the bank moved locations in 1990, employees opened a number of long-closed safety deposit boxes. Inside one were found military medals of unknown origin and ownership.

Uncertain of the value of the discovery, the bank manager kept them for some time before turning them over to an auction house. An astute auction official realized the origin of the medals and the wheels began to turn.

Fearful that the medals may be lost to a wealthy collector, members of the McCrae family contacted the media which exploded with the news of the find.

In 1997, Toronto businessman Arthur Lee purchased John McCrae’s medals for $500,000. They were promptly turned over to the safekeeping of McCrae House for display.

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Poet, artist, skilled surgeon, dedicated friend and beloved family member, John McCrae’s short life was also distinguished by his compassion for children and animals. During his medical internship at a Montreal Children’s Hospital he cared for the most seriously ill of patients. One day a young boy, tears welling in his eyes confided how much he much he missed his pets.

Brought to tears himself, the good doctor was determined to help. He “borrowed” a kitten from a friend whose cat had recently given birth to a litter and each day smuggled it into the boy’s room. When Dr. McCrae left for home for the day, the kitten would leave under his coat!

In his medical diary, McCrae noted how the boy’s outlook had improved, concluding that “there was no better pain control than the affections of an animal.”

So it was no surprise to family and friends that when McCrae left for the battlefields of Europe in 1914, a horse named Bonfire travelled with him. Tending to a never-ending stream of wounded soldiers, McCrae would recharge his emotional batteries composing letters to his nieces and nephews back in Canada in the voice of Bonfire. “Bonfire’s” letters back home were routinely signed with a hoof print.

It seems that like his master, Bonfire had a sense of humour. In an impish mood, the horse would knock off soldier’s caps and snatch officer’s “swagger” sticks, carrying them off to before giving them up.

As the war continued, McCrae retreated more into the company of Bonfire and Bonneau, a spaniel he adopted while in Belgium. He continued to write poetry including his last poem, “The Anxious Dead.”

Over 1917, John McCrae’s health deteriorated. He died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918.

Appropriately, a tour of McCrae House ends with photos of his funeral procession. The faithful Bonfire, rider-less and led by the halter, his master’s boots backwards in the stirrups leads the funeral procession. Lt. Colonel John McCrae was buried in France with full military honours.

Stories vary about the fate of Bonfire after McCrae’s death. One report sees the horse returning to the farm where he was raised in Quebec. Other stories see him being retired to a farm in northern France.

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Slated for demolition in 1966, John McCrae’s birth home was saved from demolition by a group of concerned Guelph citizens who mortgaged their own homes to purchase the 1857 cottage.

They formed the Lt. Col. McCrae Birthplace Society, restored the home, and opened it as a museum. In 1966, McCrae House was designated a National Historical Site.