In the spring of 1915, John McCrae, a young Canadian surgeon, conducted a burial service for a friend, killed by German artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, in the First World War. Inspired by the friend’s death, McCrae composed a poem, which he discarded, believing it to be no good. An officer retrieved it and convinced McCrae to keep working on it. The poem was published in December of that year.
The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is an important work in the literature surrounding the First World War. Written in 1915, it did not describe the horrors and brutality of the conflict in the way authors such as Erich Maria Remarque would after the war ended. Rather, “In Flanders Fields” invokes a Romantic vision of the Great War, with its images of soaring larks and blowing poppies. These poppies have become emblematic of those who died during the war.
In the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918, a 1918 propaganda poster by Frank Nicolet Lucien features a Canadian soldier mourning the dead amid a field of the iconic poppies. One of the poster’s aims is to coerce civilians into buying war bonds. It entreats the viewer, “If ye break faith—we shall not sleep,” a reference to the last stanza of McCrae’s poem.
In the poem, the line is delivered by dead soldiers who ask that the living continue the fight so that the sacrifices of the fallen will not be in vain.
The World at War, 1914-1918 is on view through August 3.
Image: Frank Nicolet Lucien “In Flanders Fields” poster, 1918.