Essex Farm Cemetery
There are 1,200 WW1 servicemen buried or commemorated in Essex Farm cemetery. Of these burials 103 are not identified. There are special memorials commemorating 19 casualties who are known or believed to be buried among the unidentified burials.The cemetery was used by several British divisions holding this sector from 1915 to August 1917. Men from these divisons are buried throughout the cemetery. Plot I contains the dead of the 49th (West Riding) Division from 1915. The dead of the 38th (Welsh) Division dated in the autumn of 1916 are buried in Plot III.
Origins of Essex Farm Cemetery
The burials on the site of this British military cemetery were begun by the French Army during the First Battle of Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914). The French Army was occupying this sector of the Allied Front Line north of Ypres (Ieper) until mid April 1915. The French war dead who were buried here were removed after the First World War and reburied in a French military cemetery. It is likely that they were re-interred in the French cemetery located in the northern part of the Ypres Salient named Saint-Charles-de-Potyze.
British Army Takes Over from April 1915
On 17th April 1915 the British Army extended the Front Line it was holding in the Ypres Salient, taking over a section of Front Line from the French Army to the east of Langemarck. The rear area behind the Front Lines and north of Ypres around Essex Farm, on the western bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, was also taken over by the British Army. Only a few days later the German Army launched an attack with gas and the Second Battle of Ypres began. Canadian field guns were brought to the western canal bank to assist with the defence of the sector by the British and French Armies. It was from this time that the Canadian field artillery established a small, basic dressing station near Essex Farm to tend to wounded casualties in the vicinity. British casualties who died near to the location of Essex Farm were buried in this cemetery.
Advanced Dressing Station in the Ypres-Yser Canal Bank
Initially a British medical post located here was simply a number of dugouts cut into the spoilbank of the western (left) side of the canal. Gradually over the years as the war went on into years the Advanced Dressing Station (A.D.S.) located in this position west of the canal was developed by the British Army into a number of concrete shelters. These provided better protection against enemy artillery fire or aerial bombing.
Origins of the Medical Station at Essex Farm
The original medical dugouts, which were expanded into a dressing station by 1917, are located on the left side of this spoilbank in the photograph, near the flagpole. The canal is located on the right side of the spoilbank, immediately on the right of the line of trees. During the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 a basic medical “station” for British Army casualties was first established in rough dugouts cut into the western bank of the Ypres-Yser canal at the rear of what is now Essex Farm cemetery. A battle to defend the Allied ground in the northern Ypres Salient began on 22nd April 1915, following the launch of a deadly new weapon of war by the German Army. It was a poisonous gas cloud. The battle became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. A few days before the battle started the British Army had taken over the north-eastern sector of the Ypres Salient from the French Army.
It was in the early morning of 23rdApril, a few hours after the surprise German gas cloud attack, that the 1st Canadian Field Artillery Brigade took up a position on the west bank of the Yser Canal just north of Bridge No. 4 (known as Brielen Bridge). Major John McCrae was with them. He was second-in-command of the brigade but was also a doctor by profession and thereby also the brigade surgeon. In the following days Major John McCrae tended the wounded in the dugouts cut into the spoilbank of the canal. Soldiers’ graves, mostly French at that stage of the fighting, were already in the area of the dugouts. A farm nearby to the position was named Essex Farm on British Army battlefield maps. This is believed to be the location where Major John McCrae wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields after burying a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, on 3rd May 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried in the burial plot in the vicinity of Essex Farm at that time, but his grave was subsequently lost.
As the war continued in this sector the original crude dugouts in the canal bank were extended and reinforced with concrete. They gradually developed into a series of rooms and a larger medical station was built up with huts to cope with larger numbers of wounded. The location beame established as an Advanced Dressing Station (A.D.S.). As such it was one of the places along the route of evacuation to the rear of a wounded soldier from the Ypres Salient north of Ypres.
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow…”
The location of Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station (A.D.S.) is believed to be the place in May 1915 where the Canadian Army Doctor and artillery brigade commander Major John McCrae composed his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The red poppies growing in the warm spring weather, amongst the military graves near to the makeshift medical bunker he was working in at that time, are believed to have been the inspiration for the poem. The symbol of the red poppy and the death of a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, deeply affected John McCrae during the time of his involvement in the Second Battle of Ypres.