John Alexander McCrae Life

    John Alexander McCrae Life

    John Alexander McCrae Life
    John Alexander McCrae Life

      JOHN MCCRAE was born into an industrious, enterprising family of Presbyterian Scottish immigrants in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872. John was the second of three children: brother Tom was the eldest and sister Geills the youngest. 

     Like his father, Lieutenant-Colonel David McCrae, a long-time member of the artillery militia in Ontario, young John was attracted to military history and objects, particularly guns.

     David McCrae was a veteran of the Fenian raids. The Fenians, an Irish Catholic group, many of whom were battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War, hoped to help free Ireland by attacking British colonial Canada. For five years, from 1866 to 1871, they raided along the Canadian border from New Brunswick to Manitoba. During the First World War, the elder McCrae raised his own artillery battery, the 43rd, which he planned to command on the field of battle himself; due to his advanced age (seventy-three), that ambition was denied. 

     As a teenager, John McCrae was an avid reader of the English periodical The Boy’s Own Paper, a publication filled with swashbuckling tales of British battles and empire-building exploits. The first mention of his fascination with guns was in a letter he wrote at age seven, in which he spoke of watching an artillery competition near his Guelph home: “The Wellington Battery were shooting at the big bench on the Grand River on Saturday. Captain Nicholl made the highest score in the Wellingtons.”

      David McCrae took John on a business trip to London, England, in 1886. (The family had a woollen mill in Guelph at the time.) McCrae was thirteen and was much impressed by this massive, bustling city at the heart of the British Empire, with its monuments, its history, and its evident prosperity.

      On a visit to Edinburgh Castle, McCrae admired the cannons and wrote his mother of one of them, “Saw Mons Meg. I could crawl in her mouth easily.”

      After their return to Canada, McCrae joined the Guelph Highland Cadet Corps once he turned fourteen. He was a keen cadet and applied himself to learning with discipline and dedication. He won a gold medal at age fifteen from the Ontario ministry of education for being the “best-drilled cadet” in Ontario. 
       He excelled in school, especially in the sciences. From his mother, Janet, he inherited a deep love of literature, poetry, and music. He loved to write and began composing poetry, essays, and short stories in his teens, as well as sketching landscapes. He was a prolific letter and journal writer all his life. 

      David and Janet McCrae instilled in their three children a strong code of conduct to which they adhered without question. It focused on hard work, fairness, justice, compassion, and a strong belief in service to their church, their fellow men, and their country.

      John McCrae loved animals. He had numerous pets at any given time, including a special horse and a dog who would prove to be vital to him in the Great War.

     In his later teens, McCrae developed asthma and could not live at Janefield, the family farm on the outskirts of Guelph. He went to stay with a local doctor, and his eventual medical mentor, Doctor Henry Howitt, until he won a science scholarship to the University of Toronto at age seventeen.

       John McCrae was a man of his time—a devoted citizen of Canada, but also of the British Empire. So, when the Empire went to war, McCrae did not hesitate to drop everything and sign up—twice.