BY DEBBIE MACRAE
The year was 1914. The man was 42, a doctor, pathologist, soldier, teacher, artist, writer and more. The gift – a chestnut gelding, schooled for fox hunting with an admirable conformation.
This is their story.
John McCrae was born in Ontario, the son of a military family, with strong spiritual values and high principles. He was passionate about animals – any animals, but especially cats, dogs and horses.
He was brilliant – and interested in the military. He was the first Guelph student to win a scholarship to the University of Toronto. He joined the cadets at 14 and his father’s Militia field battery at the age of 17. He was unfortunately plagued with asthma, and this condition forced him to take a break in his studies. During his time away, he still managed to teach Mathematics and English.
He courted a young woman who was the sister of a friend, but sadly she met his interest with disdain. He remained a bachelor the rest of his life.
He graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree and then turned his studies toward medicine. McCrae had a fondness for children, spending his third year as the resident physician outside Baltimore, at a children’s convalescent home. He mentored other students, and it is noteworthy that two of his students would become the first women doctors in Ontario.
McCrae\’s military career progressed, becoming a gunner in Guelph with the Number 2 Battery, then Quarter-Master Sergeant, Second Lieutenant and Lieutenant. He became Captain of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.
He graduated his Bachelor of Medicine degree and received the gold medal from the University of Toronto medical school. Then he interned at the John Hopkins Hospital, working with his brother, Thomas. He was awarded a Fellowship in Pathology by the McGill University in Montreal, but felt obligated to fight in the South African War of October 1899. He requested a postponement of his fellowship and left to lead D Battery, of the Canadian Field Artillery. McCrae resigned from the military in 1904 after being promoted to Captain and then Major.
In 1910, McCrae was invited by the Governor General, Lord Grey, to be the expedition physician on a canoe excursion between Lake Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay. He was an avid outdoorsman.
But now the year was 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had been assassinated in Sarajevo, and the Great War had begun. Britain declared war on Germany, and Canada was automatically at war as a member of the British Empire.
Bonfire was the name of the fine Irish Hunter, given to McCrae as a gift for his enlistment by his friend Dr. John Todd. The horse was a deep chestnut, gentle, playful, and charismatic soul. He was playful – greeting people by whisking off their hats or blowing waffle kisses. McCrae wrote to his sister, ”I wish you could meet [Bonfire], he is one of the dearest thing in horses one could find… he puts up his lips to your face and gives a kind of foolish waffle of his lower lip that is quite comical.”
Bonfire was delivered to the already established Camp Valcartier, a tent city in Quebec where soldiers were being recruited and trained for overseas duty. Although McCrae already had a horse, he was happy to choose Bonfire, after getting the opportunity to ride him.
The Surgeon in charge of the medical services for the Canadian troops, General Jones, had already decreed that as a physician, McCrae had no need for a horse. However, as the second in command of the First Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, a mount was requisite… yet McCrae would be reminded again and again, that he should “not get too fond of Bonfire.\”
But he was, and so he would remain. McCrae would send letters, ‘written by Bonfire’ home to his nieces and nephews and signed with a hoof print.
The mass assembly of man and beast commenced in October of 1914, as troops, animals and supplies were transported via the Saxonia from Canada to Europe. 632 animals were stabled in the hold and on the unlucky 13th day at sea, a massive storm assaulted them, injuring both man and horse as they were tossed about on the water. Seasickness assailed them, and the hold was vulgar with stench.
Once they arrived on British soil, incessant rain pounded them for 98 of the 123 days they were stationed there. McCrae was able to piece together a small shelter for Bonfire – only because he was a senior officer, but the majority of horses were exposed to the weather, the rain, the wind, and their health was deteriorating. All requests for shelter were denied in the wake of the war effort. Even shelter in the nearby forest was rejected. On December 2nd, a massive windstorm blew down Bonfire’s shelter. The sicker horses died on the line, and as a result, 200 of the remaining horses were granted shelter at a nearby farm.
McCrae’s love for animals reached out to the other victims of war. Miss Kitty was a black and white cat who came to visit Bonfire in his shelter. She stayed behind in England when they moved on to France.
On the way to France, Bonfire injured his leg; believed to be the result of a kick by another horse. John rode him to the billet in France in an effort to try and work out the injury, but that meant maneuvering around the corpses of dead war horses, a task that challenged both McCrae and Bonfire\’s sensibilities.
As Bonfire learned to trust, McCrae, equally, sought the support of Bonfire’s stability and companionship. They were on the frontlines, where the constant battering of the troops, and the calls to treat the wounded, were wearing on his composure. Returning from the front, McCrae would seek the solace of Bonfire’s shelter where he could regroup before retiring.
At the Battle of Ypres, McCrae was exposed to the sting of poison gas – and his asthmatic lungs battled the effects of the gas and the elements. He was told to move north of Ypres and “dig in”, and he did literally just that – by digging a trench eight foot by eight foot so he could treat casualties – both men and animals, even contrary to orders. Mules and horses suffered terrible anguish. He said, “There is nothing I hated more than that horse scream.”
On one occasion a big grey dog with beautiful brown eyes, came running in panic. “He ran to me and pressed his head hard against my leg. So I got him a safe place and he sticks by us. We call him Fleabag – for he looks like it.” There is no further record of Fleabag.
At virtually the same time, Bonfire was in a pen with another horse at a nearby farm when the farm took a direct hit. That horse was killed and Bonfire bolted in fear. He was not found until several days later, but McCrae rejoiced in their reunion when he was recovered.
Shortly thereafter, after much controversy, the new McGill field hospital was established to care for the sick and wounded who were fighting in France and Belgium. McCrae was to be the new Doctor in Charge of Medicine for the Canadian Army Medical Corp under General Jones. Jones continued to warn him not to get too fond of Bonfire, and at one point an attempt was made to take Bonfire away from him. Sir Sam Hughes, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defense, intervened, and McCrae and Bonfire were transferred to the Jesuit school near Boulogne where more comfortable arrangements awaited.
They soon became friends with a French spaniel named Bonneau, and another dog whose leg had been shattered in battle. His name was Windy, and he was not fond of people who were not in uniform. They remained a regiment of four, until Windy succumbed to being poisoned, likely due to his unpopularity.
It would be only a short time later that McCrae, too, would succumb to the ravages of the harsh conditions he lived and worked in. For respite and his health, he would take long rides on Bonfire through the countryside.
Now believed to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress, McCrae could not justify staying in officers’ quarters when his soldiers were relegated to tent cities or worse in the trenches. The long working hours, his asthma, the gas exposure and subsequent bouts of bronchitis had taken their toll, and he became very ill with pneumonia and meningitis. Still, McCrae would soon learn that he had been appointed as the consulting physician to the First British Army – the first time a Canadian had been so honoured.
Five days later, John died. He was buried with full military honours, just north of Boulogne. Bonfire led his funeral procession on a beautiful spring day, his bridle laced in white ribbons, saddled, with McCrae’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups.
John’s death was widely grieved; as a friend, a mentor, a doctor and an intellect. But we will forever remember him as the man who penned a poem for Lt. Alexis Helmer, the friend that he lost, In Flanders Fields.
Before he died, John knew that his poem had been well-received. After its publication, it became the most popular poem about the First World War. It was used to advertise the sale of Victory Bonds in Canada in 1917 with a target of $150,000,000. It raised $400,000,000.
Due in part to the references to the poppy in the first and last stanzas, the poppy was adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead.
Bonfire was to have been returned home to the Todd family in Quebec after the war – but, he never arrived. After McCrae’s funeral, Bonfire disappeared quietly – and it is conjectured that McCrae’s friends wanted to honour their friend by secretly retiring Bonfire to the pastures of France – away from the world of war and suffering.
The casualties of World War I were estimated to be about 40 million; men, women and children consumed by the ravages of war. Over 8 million horses died. Bonfire was a survivor.
Special acknowledgment to the Guelph Collection at McCrae House for the photos, Veterans Affairs Canada, references from Canada’s Great War Album, Minister of Supply and Services Canada, and special thanks to Author Susan Raby-Dunne, for references in her book Bonfire: The Chestnut Gentleman.
Read our book review of Bonfire, The Chestnut Gentleman