Essex Farm was the location of an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) during the Great War, and now is the site of a CWGC Cemetery, as well as the remains of several bunkers some of which were used by the ADS. The site is located just north of Ypres, and can be reached by taking the N369 from Ypres, north towards Boezinge. The road passes under the main N38 trunk road just after leaving the outskirts of Ypres, and the Cemetery is located on the right hand side of the road just after this as you head north.
Essex Farm Cemetery location
The Cemetery is located to the south of where Essex Farm itself was located, and was used as an advanced dressing station from April 1915 until August 1917.
Essex Farm Cemetery in the 1930s. Photo: NELS.
The unplanned layout of the graves here reveals the nature of the cemetery. There are 1,199 burials, only 102 of which are unidentified, again reflecting the location of the cemetery near a dressing station, where casualties returned from action and hence identification was the norm. There are also 19 special memorials to men believed to be, or known to be, buried here.
Essex Farm Cemetery today. Photo courtesy of Aurel Sercu.
Just behind the cemetery is a memorial to the 49th West Riding Division. Men from this Division served here in 1915, and several are buried in Essex Farm Cemetery, in Plot 1.
In todays pleasant landscape, it is easy to forget that the Ypres Salient was scarred by battle. But the relics from the conflict lie just below the surface almost everywhere. The Diggers excavated here in October 2001 and uncovered a narrow gauge railway, which would have been used to transport supplies. The monument to the 49th Division can be seen in the background; a juxtaposition of the battlefield itself and the memorial to those who died here.
Uncovered narrow gauge railway tracks at Essex Farm . Photo courtesy of The Diggers.
Essex Farm Cemetery itself is probably one of the most visited sites in the salient, and this is principally because of it's association with John McCrae.
John McCrae was a Canadian, born in Ontario in 1871, who qualified in medicine at Toronto in 1898. He enlisted when the Boer War broke out in 1899, and served with the Artillery during that war. From 1901 until 1914, he practiced as a doctor in Canada and in England. On the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted within the first few weeks, was sent overseas in September 1914, again with the Canadian Field Artillery. Whilst stationed at Essex Farm, in May 1915 he was moved to write the famous poem "In Flanders Fields". This was after one of his friends, Alexis Helmer, was killed and buried. Seeing the poppies blow around the graves led to the best known image of this poem. "In Flanders Fields" was published for the first time in Punch in December that year, and has since come to encapsulate the sacrifice of those who fought. Helmer's grave cannot be found in the Cemetery; it was lost later on in the War, and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate.
In Flanders Fields, as it appeared in Punch, December 1915. Punch copy courtesy of the late Peter Flack.
This simple and short poem is extremely moving, and when you visit Flanders and see the poppies blowing, you cannot fail to be touched by the words of the poem. Even in 1918, shortly after his death, his obituary in The Times recorded that "the volume of his work was small, but his verse has obtained a lasting place in modern anthologies." The poppy has of course since become one of the major symbols of Remembrance for many countries, used by the British Legion among many others.
Next to the cemetery is an Albertina marker with the date May the 3rd 1915, commemorating the writing of the poem.
John McCrae continued to serve his country, but in January 1918 became ill with pneumonia, and died on January the 28th 1918. He was buried at Wimereux cemetery near Boulogne. Further information on John McCrae's life can be found on the Veteran Affairs Canada website here.
Dressing Station and Bunkers
Just to the north of the Cemetery are some of the concrete structures used by the Advanced Dressing Station during the War. For a long time after the War these structures were flooded and inaccessible; but around 15 years ago they were purchased by the town of Ypres, and then restored to allow access and entry.
However, when McCrae served here in 1915, these concrete structures would not have been in place. At that earlier stage of the War, timber construction was most probably used, although this site was the same one where McCrae would have worked. Nonetheless, these bunkers give some impression of the conditions in which the doctors and medical staff during the First World War had to operate. An information board located outside describes the uses of each of the chambers, and their small dimensions must have made conditions here difficult, even without artillery bombardments. For much of the War, the front lines were less than two miles away. One can only imagine doctors operating in the small chamber shown below, with shells bursting not so far away.
North of the ADS bunkers the tops of two dugouts can be seen. Another information board suggests that there were at least six originally, and that they were used as offices, by cooks and as the Quarter Masters stores. Others were located opposite, but no trace of these remain.
From these bunkers, it is possible to walk up the slope and through the gate which can be seen in the photograph above. A track then leads north alongside the canal to more remains of bunkers. The first, pictured below left, has another information board located by it which explains that after the Armistice, due to lack of housing, bunkers such as these were used as temporary accommodation, and were often occupied well into the 1920s. In Before Endeavours Fade, Rose Coombes describes a British blockhouse in Festubert which was still occupied into the 1970s. The right-hand picture below shows the construction of this Essex Farm bunker in close-up; iron bars within thick concrete lend massive strength.
After I first set up this page, Aurel Sercu contacted me and kindly provided the photographs below, which shows local people living in the same bunker seen in the left-hand picture above, after the War.
Essex Farm bunker used as living accommodation. Photos provided by Aurel Sercu.
A little further north still is another massive bunker, more similar to the ones used by the Advanced Dressing Station. Only the top of this can be seen as it juts out from the embankment next to the canal. It is clear that this location, in the lee of the canal embankment, would have afforded some protection from enemy artillery. This structure was used by the Royal Engineers as an Orderly Room, as at the top an inscription in the concrete can still be seen.
This conglomeration of bunkers may well represent the largest number still visible and located together in the Salient. There are several other sections of concrete nearby, so the original number was higher still.
The late Peter Flack