A Tour of Boesinghe Part One – Essex Farm Cemetery (Part One)

The commune of Boesinghe, or Boezinge, as it is currently called, was the scene of continuous fighting for much of the Great War, evidence of which exists in the eight cemeteries and numerous memorials that can be found in the surrounding area.  All of which we shall visit on this tour.

So here’s the plan.  Essex Farm Cemetery is just under a mile and a half north of the very centre of Ypres (Ieper).  From here the road continues north, following the western bank of the Yser Canal* past the small town of Boezinge itself to the hamlet of Lizerne, about four miles away and near the northernmost point of this tour, before crossing the canal on its way to Diksmuide, where we ended our Tour of the Belgian Sector a couple of years ago. We shall follow the road, with various detours (of course), to the point where it crosses the canal, after which we shall begin heading south again, this time roughly down the eastern side of the canal (Boezinge commune lies on both sides of the canal), where, eventually, our tour will end, about a mile away from where it started.  And in some twenty posts time.  Be warned.

*now actually the Ieper-Ijzer Canal, but, as with Boesinghe, I shall be using the Great War names throughout this tour.  Unless I don’t.

Essex Farm Cemetery is, along with Tyne Cot, the most visited cemetery in the Salient, indeed I believe it comes second only to the Menin Gate on the list of Belgian Great War tourist attractions,…

…and one of the reasons is inscribed on this Albertina Marker near the cemetery entrance, the only one of the two dozen to be found across Flanders that is inscribed with a poppy; this is where Major (at the time) John McCrae, 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, wrote his iconic poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

McCrae, a Canadian doctor and veteran of the Boer War, was working here in 1915 when, on 22nd April, the Germans launched the first gas attack of the Great War on the Canadian & French lines.  As McCrae described, ‘For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us had our clothes off, nor our boots even…in all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased…and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.’  It didn’t, of course, but when, on 2nd May, a close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, was killed by a shell as he exited a dugout, and McCrae found himself conducting the burial service amidst the poppies growing around the graves already there, he was inspired to pen his famous poem.  Or so the story goes.  Lieutenant Helmer’s burial place is today unknown.

Anyway, on entering the cemetery, the first thing we find…

… is plastic grass, or at least a section of plastic grass, which in itself shows the level of footfall this cemetery experiences.  This shot shows Plot I Row A on the left, and Rows P and, further back, beneath the trees to the right, Row Q,…

…the start of which is now in the right foreground here, the Stone of Remembrance in the right background, and the memorial to the men of the 49th (West Riding) Division Memorial, who buried many of their dead in this plot in 1915, on the canal bank in the background.  The cemetery plan, courtesy of the CWGC, can be seen here.

Now at the far end of Plot I Row Q (left), the cemetery entrance beyond, and Plot I Rows P & A on the right.  Early in November 1914, a week or so before the official end of the First Battle of Ypres, French troops took over responsibility for the whole Ypres Salient, as far south as Wytschaete, and it would be several months before the British returned. In early 1915, however, they were back, and by April had set up a dressing station here at Essex Farm, the first burials being made in this field to the south of the farm in early May (a single Canadian private had been buried in the field on 23rd April, and we shall visit him later.  Much later, actually), Canadian casualties of the fighting following the first German gas attack.  The cemetery was used to bury an average of a dozen men per month until the end of 1915, by which time a further 93 men had been buried here, no less than 64 of whom were men of the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own).

View of Plot I (nearest rows & beyond), Row Q still on the far left, the first rows of Plot II in the right background,…

…and panning right across Plot II, Row L in the foreground,…

…leading to the Stone of Remembrance in the background.  The cemetery was used regularly throughout 1916 and for the first eight months of 1917 before it was closed, although three men of the Welsh Regiment were buried here on 24th October 1917.

There are now approximately 1,200 burials here, about 100 of whom are unidentified.

Stone of Remembrance, West Riding Memorial, and woodpigeon.

View of the northern half of the cemetery from near the Stone of Remembrance, Plot II Row F on the far left.

Many of these graves in Plot II Row E (left) and Rows D & C belong to men of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Durham Light Infantry, men killed in February & March 1916.

Behind us, along the cemetery’s eastern boundary, special memorials remember nine men ‘known’ or ‘believed to be buried in this cemetery’.  One wonders whether there were originally ten headstones here, one at some point removed, perhaps when the soldiers’ body was identified elsewhere in the cemetery.

Plot II Row L in the foreground, Plot I beyond.

On the right of the Stone, ten more special memorials line the eastern boundary, the eight men of the Bedfordshire Regiment in the centre all known to be buried among the unidentified burials here, bookended by two men who are both believed to be buried here.

Casualties from late spring 1916 in Plot II, mainly men from the East Kents, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry & Durham Light Infantry.

Walking the length of Plot II Row Z,…

…it’s interesting to note the scattered nature of the burials in many parts of the cemetery, and in particular here; the rows to the left of Row Z are lettered in the following rather curious order; Rows Y X J W S (close-up below).  The second row of special memorials we visited earlier can be seen in the background.

The division between Plot II and Plot III, part of Plot III Row A in the foreground.  The three headstones behind are in Plot II Row Z, with the ten special memorials along the eastern boundary again in the background (above & below).

Plot III, at the southern end of the cemetery, is far less visited than the northern end, for reasons that will eventually become clear.  Plot III Row F is on the left in this shot, with one of a handful of German graves in the cemetery in Row G on the right.

Another of the German graves in Plot III, this one of an unknown soldier.  Two rows behind, in the centre, a third German headstone marks two graves, those of an identified NCO and an unidentified officer.  I imagine the German burials are all wounded men who were taken prisoner by the British, and who subsequently died.

Men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, Royal Field Artillery, Royal Sussex Regiment, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders & the Machine Gun Corps, all killed between 22nd & 27th July 1917 and buried in Plot III Row I.  Note that three of the headstones are inscribed with two names.

Plot III Row K, foreground (above & below)…

…and now Plot III Row L, the southernmost row in the cemetery, in the foreground,…

…as we look down the length of the cemetery back towards the entrance.  We shall return to the cemetery later, but now it is time to pay our respects at the memorial,…

…this view taken from the little bridge crossing the Ieperlee stream that flows along the cemetery’s eastern boundary, and which leads to the steps at the base of the memorial.

Made of Belgian granite, the memorial remembers the men of the 49th (West Riding) Division who died during the Great War.

There was considerable debate and, I suspect, argument between Sir Reginald Blomfield, the cemetery designer, and Brierly & Rutherford, the architects commissioned to design the memorial.

Blomfield, understandably in my humble, considered that the proposed site of the memorial would dominate his cemetery, and was privately appalled at the memorial’s rather functional design.

I have read that eventually a compromise was reached and the memorial now stands on the canal bank, reached from the cemetery by the little bridge we have just crossed

From Blomfield’s point of view, if that was a compromise I would like to know where the original site for the memorial was to be…

…because it is hardly the most eye-catching design, and it does rather dominate the cemetery, although the trees that now grow along the eastern boundary do help to soften its dominance somewhat.  If you ever see any photos of the cemetery even fifty years ago you will clearly understand Blomfield’s unhappiness, and if the current policy (?) of tree removal in so many cemeteries is anything to go by, who knows what the future holds?*

*having written these lines a while back, and having returned to Essex Farm since, a later post might reveal all.

Anyway, all these shenanigans meant that the cemetery was not completed until 1925.

The panels on either side of the memorial, as you will have gathered,…

…list the battles in which the Division participated.

Panoramic view of the cemetery from the memorial.

Essex Farm is well-known, and well-visited, for other reasons, not least the Advanced Dressing Station bunkers pictured above.  The cobbled track past the memorial on the right of the photo leads the short distance to the canal (the trees in the background grow along its bank) where a bridge allowed wounded to be brought back from the front lines to the east.  Before we explore the bunkers,…

…a brief look at the memorial.  This is the John McCrae Memorial, unveiled in 2005, the cemetery register housed in the small coffer to the left.

These renovated bunkers once housed the Advanced Dressing Station that operated here,…

…and although this postcard of Boesinghe says, ‘Shelters of the first lines’, the presence of the Ieperlee on the left, and the canal bank beyond the bunkers, gives away the location.

I suggest we take a look inside.

This first bunker served as the Officer’s Mess.

In brief terms, the point of an Advanced Dressing Station was threefold; to administer pain relief, staunch blood loss, and to assess each patient and ready them for the next part of their journey to the Casualty Clearing Stations away to the west.  Broken limbs would be splinted, but surgery would usually have to wait until later.

As such, and particularly during major battles, these places were a mass of bloody humanity, doctors making life or death decisions about the men under their care.  The simple fact of the matter was that men whom the doctors considered were too badly wounded to survive the journey west would be given pain relief and made comfortable, but in reality would be left to die, while the doctors concentrated on men whom they had determined did have a chance of making it.

So while we take a look inside each chamber, you might consider how many men died in these small enclosed spaces, how many men’s last view on this earth these timbers supporting the dugout roof,…

…if they could see them through the gloom.

Once upon a time this next dugout, used for stretcher cases, must have been a horrible place of pain and suffering.

But think too, how many men were saved, by the same brave doctors and their staff, working tirelessly in these primitive conditions,…

…how many men were patched up enough to withstand the journey to the hospitals to the west, and ultimate survival (which for many, let’s not forget, would mean a return to the war at a later date).

Never forget.

Between the larger dugouts, smaller ones, this one once a latrine,…

…it’s inside walls scrawled with ancient graffiti.

Does that really say 1917 & 1930?  As in ‘I was here in 1917 and I’m back in 1930’.  I think it probably does.

What is it about men’s latrines and graffiti?

Next, the Dressing Room,…

…the only chamber with potentially two rooms – I would imagine a curtain or similar once hid the farthest cubicle from view.

John McCrae, in his position as Brigade-Surgeon, 1st Canadian Field Artillery, would have worked somewhere around here in the spring of 1915, although these bunkers may not have existed during his months spent here, and certainly were not concreted until 1916, long after he had left.

Another small chamber, once a kitchen, the rather curiously shaped sloping walls dictated by the shape of the bunkers on either side.

Inside.  These dugouts were heavily restored at some point in the last thirty years – late 1980s photos show that they were heavily overgrown and the concrete slabs forming their roofs were in a seriously unstable condition – far too dangerous for visitors to enter at the time.

Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Fortunately for us, this wonderful plan of the dressing station at some point in 1917 or 1918 not only confirms the use the different chambers were put to, but also shows the construction of the bunkers (top right).

Just past the A.D.S., the remains of two half-buried bunkers, the one on the right, as you can see from the plan, serving as the cookhouse, the one on the left housing the Quartermaster’s Store.

Following the Ieperlee stream a hundred yards further north, for those who can be bothered to wander that far,…

…we encounter the remains of another bunker.

The information board includes a photograph (top left) of a bunker being used by a Belgian family as their post-war dwelling place…

…and this is the very same bunker today,…

…although it was buried much deeper into the canal bank a hundred years ago.

Today, even the back wall is exposed to the elements,…

…part of its Elephant Iron roof now lying abandoned on the floor.

Our first ‘Now you see him’…

…’Now you don’t’ moment this tour.  It won’t be the last.

Returning up the canal bank (actually one of Vauban’s military fortifications, dating back to the seventeenth century) towards the memorial, where a few years back the Diggers excavated a trench railway running up this very section of bank (inset – I hope you don’t mind me using the photo chaps!).

As Baldrick heads back towards the memorial,…

…I descended the bank to the left down to the canal, a natural barrier that the Germans found near-impossible to cross throughout the war, and impossible, on the occasions they did further north, to hold.

During the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 the 1st Canadian Artillery Brigade sited their guns along the canal bank somewhere round here, firing across the canal at the attacking Germans.

Back on top of the bank…

…we return to the dressing station, the two half-buried bunkers we saw earlier in the foreground.

The information board in the right foreground…

…looks like this.  But not for much longer.  Patience.

Back at the John McCrae Memorial, Baldrick signs the cemetery register.  There was once a bridge near the far end of the of the cobbled track that allowed ambulances to cross the canal and bring their wounded right to the doorstep of the A.D.S.

Beside the pathway up to the memorial…

…one of these,…

…and another one of these,…

…before we return, briefly, to the cemetery.

And here we are back in Plot I, our objective this time the four headstones facing away from us between the trees in the middle left background.

Three privates and a Second Lieutenant of the South Staffordshire Regiment are buried here, all killed in late July 1917,…

…and one of the three privates, twenty two year old Thomas Barratt,…

…is the recipient of a Victoria Cross.  His citation reads, ‘For most conspicuous bravery when as Scout to a patrol he worked his way towards the enemy line with the greatest gallantry and determination, in spite of continuous fire from hostile snipers at close range. These snipers he stalked and killed. Later his patrol was similarly held up, and again he disposed of the snipers. When during the subsequent withdrawal of the patrol it was observed that a party of the enemy were endeavouring to outflank them, Pte. Barratt at once volunteered to cover the retirement, and this he succeeded in accomplishing. His accurate shooting caused many casualties to the enemy, and prevented their advance. Throughout the enterprise he was under heavy machine gun and rifle fire, and his splendid example of coolness and daring was beyond all praise. After safely regaining our lines, this very gallant soldier was killed by a shell.’

Looking west towards the road, Plot I Row N in the foreground,…

…and south from the same spot, the two headstones of Plot I Row V on the left.

Before we head back to the cemetery entrance, this view shows the north eastern corner of the cemetery, the dressing station dugouts and McCrae Memorial in the background.  Many of the headstones in this part of Plot I bear the emblem of the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), one of which, at the time of this visit, had been removed for renovation in Plot I Row F (see also below).  One wonders whether the unknown Canadian in the foreground was a victim of the first German gas attack?  Maybe.

The ‘In Perpetuity’ inscriptions are to be found inscribed on the base of the Cross, which, most unusually, has been included as part of the design of the cemetery entrance,…

…Blomfield, I think, siting it as far away from the 49th Division Memorial as possible!

Which brings us, it would seem, to the end of our visit to Essex Farm Cemetery.  I don’t think we’ve missed anything, have we?

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with those who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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2 Responses to A Tour of Boesinghe Part One – Essex Farm Cemetery (Part One)

  1. Marg Draycott says:

    Great report, visited here earlier in the year, you’ve explained the area and the layout of the dressing station clearly and I understand the context now. Something you don’t always pick up on when on a tour as there is so much to take in

    • Magicfingers says:

      That’s mighty kind of you. Having only ever been on one coach tour, I shall take your word for that (I spent most of the time scurrying off – with permission, Sir – to find the little gems I was after), but I can quite imagine. As you may have noticed through my clues (and, having been there, you will know anyway), we ain’t finished with the place yet. But keep it to yourself…

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