John McCrae enrolled with the Canadian Expeditionary Force following the outbreak of the First World War. McCrae fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium where the German Army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off,, nor our boots even, excepts occasionally. Gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. Behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety the line should give way.
Alexis Helmer, a close friend, was killed during the battle on May2, 1915. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance. This location is known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.