Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed and buried on May 2, 1915, a victim of the Battle of St. Julien, one of the four engagements of the Second Battle of Ypres during World War I. A chaplain was not available, and his service was conducted by his friend and former teacher Major John McCrae. McCrae was a surgeon and commanded a field hospital in the Canadian infantry.
The next day, McCrae stole a few minutes from the miseries of his work to write a poem. He had written medical textbooks and was an amateur poet. He looked up occasionally toward the little cemetery where his 22-year-old friend lay. After twenty minutes of writing, he had composed a fifteen-line poem in the rondeau style.