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

Some of you will be wondering exactly why we are returning to Essex Farm Cemetery so soon after our previous visit.

Others, I suspect, will know exactly why.

You see, the first time Baldrick and I visited Essex Farm we did exactly as I narrated last post, so I cannot be accused of deliberately misleading you.  What we inexplicably failed to do, and let’s be honest, the plastic grass, on which we find ourselves once again, really should have served as a reminder, was visit the most ‘famous’ grave in the cemetery, and one of the most visited on the whole Western Front.  And if we’d walked to the end of the plastic grass and turned left, following it to near its conclusion,…

…we would have found ourselves here.  Enough of the ‘woulds’.  We are here now, and this is the grave of Riflemen Valentine Joe Strudwick,…

…at just 15 one of the youngest casualties to be found in all the CWGC cemeteries across Flanders & France.  Many still believe that he is he youngest British Great War casualty, but recent research has shown that, at 15 years and 11 months, he was not even the youngest rifleman to be killed – Rifleman Raphael Barnett was 15 years and six months old when he was killed at Ploegsteert on 19th December 1914 (he now lies in Rifle House Cemetery), Londoner Private Aubrey Hudson, killed on the Somme and remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, was just a month past his fifteenth birthday at the time, and for many years Irish-born Private John Condon, who died on 24th May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres and is buried in Poelcappelle Military Cemetery, was believed, at the age of just 14, to be the youngest British burial on the Western Front, but there is evidence to suggest that this is not the case, and that Condon was not only considerably older, but that it might not be his remains beneath the headstone bearing his name.

Valentine Joe Strudwick is also remembered on the Roll of Honour in St. Martin’s Church in Dorking, Surrey.  Rest in peace, Joe.

Looking south east across Plot I, the 49th (West Riding) Division Memorial in the background, beneath which the four South Staffordshire graves…

…that include Private Thomas Barratt V.C. (see last post for his citation), now with a gravel pathway to assist our visit.

Plot I, Row Q in the foreground – an identical photo to one I took on the previous visit.

In the summer of 1915 John McCrae was transferred from the Canadian Artillery to the Canadian Medical Services to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, a move about which he was not best pleased, “All the goddam doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.”  ‘In Flanders Fields’ was first published in Punch in December 1915 (the Spectator, offered it first, had rejected it) and became the best-known poem of the war.  McCrae’s military career progressed, and in January 1918 he accepted the post of medical consultant to the whole British Army, but sadly he died of meningitis and pneumonia before he could take up the post.  He is buried in Wimereux Communal Cemetery near Boulogne along with nearly 3000 other British casualties; the cemetery is unusual in that, similarly to part of Mill Road Cemetery on the Somme, all of the headstones are laid flat.

Incidentally, referring back to the previous post and the story behind the writing of the poem, McCrae, ever the killjoy, apparently told his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Morrison, whom we will encounter again, that he wrote the poem to pass the time while awaiting the arrival of the next batch of wounded to the dressing station.

View of the bunkers, the Ieperlee stream on the left.  The inset shows the dressing station sometime in 1917-18.

I didn’t show you the plaque affixed to the wall outside the Officer’s Mess last time,…

…so here it is in close-up, the Project J. McCrae plaque, remembering the renovation of the bunkers.  Pity they didn’t put a date on it.

And what do you think might be kept in there these days?  We shall never know, but we do know that once upon a time wounded were placed in here to await evacuation.

The bunkers, I suspect, are never devoid of tributes.

The smaller bunkers that once housed the Quartermaster’s Stores (left) and the cookhouse (right), and over the other side of the canal bank…

…we shall once again head down to the canal itself, this view looking south towards Ieper, the 49th (West Riding) Division Memorial visible through the trees on the right.  Between us and the memorial the British sappers had built a bridge crossing the canal known as Brielen Bridge No. 4 (I mentioned it in passing, although not by name, last post), its timber trestles resting on a canal barge stranded in the middle of the channel.  The writer and poet Edmund Blunden described the canal here thus; ‘The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air’, and noted, ‘The most solid bridge, Number Four, was a ferocious target.’

At no time during the war would this have been a safe place to loiter.  Following the end of the Second Battle of Ypres in late May 1915, and the formation of the salient east of Ypres, Essex Farm Cemetery was, as we have seen, used regularly until August 1917 and the early days of the Third Battle of Ypres.  Until then, the front lines due east of Essex Farm were never more than two miles away, and to the north east, the direction in which we are looking in this photo, such is the nature of a salient that they were only about a mile away.  As we head further north on our tour, towards the northern tip of the Salient, the front lines will come significantly closer together.

Industrial still life.  I wonder why I like this ugly concoction of shapes and smoke.  And what that may say about me.  But I do.  Incidentally, I have read that the very first (of an eventual forty five in total) British dummy hollow observation tree was erected somewhere along the canal here, British sappers overnight replacing one of the willow trees along the bank with an exact replica, laddered and loopholed inside, which required a dozen men to lift, and would allow the British to direct artillery fire on to the Germans undetected.

Anyway, back past the half-buried bunkers (the plan of the A.D.S. I showed you last post shows that there were six of these smaller bunkers here by 1917, two of which had been ‘smashed by sheels’ – not my spelling!), where you will notice that the information board we saw last time is no more – it looks like a new board is to be installed soon at this end of the dressing station dugouts (below)…

…and this board is most definitely a new addition since our last visit, although these red-headed CWGC boards are only temporary, and explain work that is currently being, or has recently been, undertaken at the cemetery.

The Ieperlee stream can, by the way, actually be followed, often running alongside the canal but sometimes snaking a short distance away through the surrounding countryside, for some six miles north before it eventually turns sharp right and joins the canal at Drie-Grasten.  We shall encounter it again.

So, two posts about Essex Farm Cemetery.  There couldn’t possibly be a third, could there?

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