In conversation with Linda Granfield: what a historian still hopes to discover about John McCrae

A field of poppies

Historian and author Linda Granfield

Award-winning historian Linda Granfield has written several books and articles about John McCrae, including In Flanders Fields: the Story of the Poem by John McCrae and Remembering John McCrae: Soldier-Doctor-Poet. In this interview, she talks about what first piqued her interest in McCrae, and what she still hopes to learn about the man.

When did you first become interested in researching and writing about John McCrae?

LG: In 1994, I realized that students I was meeting at school author visits didn’t always know the difference between “veteran” and “veterinarian.” I began thinking about how remembrance and a realization of what Canada’s veterans have done could be better discussed in schools–that led me to thinking about “In Flanders Fields,” recited yet not understood by children. And I realized that while I knew the poem myself, I knew nothing about Flanders, or the person who wrote the poem. That led me to Guelph! And those trips to Guelph resulted in my books In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae (1995, and a new edition for the 100th anniversary of the poem this year) and Remembering John McCrae: Soldier-Doctor-Poet (2009).

What is it about John McCrae that you find so compelling?

LG: I find that McCrae’s story is a wonderful example of the youth whose drive to excel in many fields results in something quite extraordinary that has a great impact upon those he never met. His lack of humility, his sheer joy at the vast success of “In Flanders Fields” during the two years between the poem’s publication (December 1915) and his death (January 1918), is refreshing. Given the longevity of his most-famous poem, and the emotions it continues to bring forth, John McCrae’s satisfaction is justified.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your John McCrae research?

I have enjoyed getting to know John McCrae as much as one can know someone who has passed into history. I don’t believe in writing as a “fan” or over-enthusiastic “follower” of a person: rather, I like maintaining an emotional distance and learning and then sharing what can be found about the real-life character. Exploding myths about history has been something I’ve found rewarding during all my historical writing, whether about cowboys (saloons didn’t have those silly half-doors and glass windows) or McCrae (he wasn’t engaged to anyone.)

Are there things that we still don’t know about John McCrae and his life?

LG: I would still like to be able to identify the person John McCrae referred to as “my wife” in 1910 letters; to find more about various friends of McCrae’s like Carleton Noyes of Cambridge, Massachusetts; to locate photographs of Alexis Helmer’s family (and that of his fiancée), and most of all, to locate a sound recording of John McCrae reciting “In Flanders Fields.”

The last noted wish will be difficult to fulfill now, for the sophisticated technology we have today would make it very easy for someone to ‘fake’ such a grand discovery. We can hear 10 seconds of Florence Nightingale’s voice, and even Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s voice, thanks to old recordings. I find it hard to believe that no one ever approached John McCrae during 1916 and 1917 to ask him to record the poem in order to increase the donations to the war coffers. If asked, McCrae most certainly would have made the recording. The question remains–in whose attic is the recording buried. Ah, we may never know—but I’d truly like to!

Find out more at Linda Granfield’s website:

Posted by Dawn Owen on May 5, 2015