Clare Gass trained as a nurse at McGill University and served as a battlefield nurse during the First World War. Her words may have encouraged LtCol McCrae to submit his now famous poem to Punch Magazine
Photo Credit: cbc

The nurse who may have saved Canada’s most famous war poem


The First World War poem, “ In Flanders Fields” became one of the most popular poems of the war, and is an iconic Canadian poem to this day.

LtCol John McCrae wrote the iconic poem following the death of a young friend and former medical student © National Archives Canada

It was written by medical officer John McCrae who had just presided over the battlefield burial of a young friend and former medical student of his.

Enlisting at age 41, McCrae had predicted it would be a terrible war, but the poem even in the face of his loss and the overall tragedy around him calls others to action. McCrae had written it in the back of an ambulance from where he could see fields of poppies..

The story goes that he initially was not impressed with his work especially after it was rejected by the Spectator newspaper.

He later worked on it at a different hospital unit in France where he handed a copy to Nova Scotia nurse Clare Gass.

She had trained at McGill University, where McCrae had also trained. They became friends in those extremely rare moments when they were not dealing with the horribly wounded. Against army rules she would keep a diary.   McCrae handed her the poem for her opinion, she copied it in her diary and told him it was “marvelous”.

Again although he wasn’t convinced, she advised him to send it to “Punch” the weekly British magazine, very popular among the troops. It was printed in Dec 1915 and became an instant hit.

French trench with a donkey and poppies; this is the only color picture known to show poppies on the battlefield. The picture was made in 1915 by an official French war photographer

Gass’ descendants today think that possibly her words of encouragement spoken on the battlefield may be the reason we have the poem today.

As for Lt Col McCrae, he contracted pneumonia in January 1918, and died within days in France.


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.

We are the dead: Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved: and now we lie In Flanders fields!


Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you, from failing hands, we throw

The torch: be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die,

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow  In Flanders fields

 Composed at the battlefront on May 3, 1915 during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium

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4 comments on “The nurse who may have saved Canada’s most famous war poem
  1. Donalda Gass says:

    Yes indeed the poem is written in my Great Aunt Clare’s war diary, the diary has been reprinted and published. It should be noted that her total family was at war. Blanchard died in WW1, than Clare, Cyril, Gerald (my Grandfather)and the youngest Al, all went overseas. They where an extraordinary family. Love and admire them all. Donna Gass

  2. Mrs. Menin says:

    IFF was composed May 3 1915 in Belgium. Gass’ diary notes it October 30 1915. (Helpful in demonstrating it was known on battlefields informally.)
    It is first published anonymously in England in PUNCH issue December 8, 1915.
    A question arises about the lead time for the poem to be included in that issue.
    Sadly the CBC last year stated that PUNCH was a troops publication..


    I am the managing editor of the Cape May County (N.J.-USA) Herald. In this week’s column “Compass Points” I wrote of my boyhood recollections of two World War I veterans in our neighborhood. One of them was in Flanders in the war, and he would tell me about the poppies. The other never fully regained his sight after being gassed by the Germans. The above adds more meaning than ever to the poem and thinking what hell those men suffered in that most terrible war.