Essex Farm Cemetery, late summer 2017.
Despite already bringing you two posts on Essex Farm Cemetery from two different visits, there were still a few things that I hadn’t covered, which is why it is an excellent, though ofttimes busy (I’m told!), site to visit, and why it necessitated a third trip, and a third post. That, and the newly acquired wide-angle lens, which proved its worth more than once.
So here we are again, and the first thing you will already have noticed about Essex Farm 2017-style is that the trees have been seriously coppiced, allowing Blomfield’s nightmare to loom over the cemetery once more.
Crossing the Ieperlee (above & below)…
…here’s how the cemetery now looks from the 49th (West Riding) Division Memorial. In July 1915 the 49th Division was the first territorial battalion to arrive in the British sector north of Ypres, taking over the lines between Boesinghe and the Ypres-Langemark road, a front of about two and a half miles, where they would remain until the end of the year. A sergeant of the West Yorkshires remembered much later, ‘If I were to pick from a variegated career the period when physical wretchedness reached its stark bottom, I should choose the last five months at Ypres in 1915. We started in exuberant health and spirits. At Christmas, those who were left crawled out, broken in body and almost heart, staggering and falling like drunken men after a march of five miles. Rain fell incessantly.’
Looking north, this shot shows you clearly the cemetery, canal bank and canal. During the Second Battle of Ypres John McCrae’s commanding officer (briefly mentioned last post), Lieutenant Colonel Edward Whipple Bancroft Morrison, to give him his full name this time, – the same Colonel Morrison* who, according to one of the McCrae stories, recovered the piece of paper on which McCrae had written ‘In Flanders Fields’ after the poet, unimpressed with his own efforts, had thrown the original draft away – maintained that shot men quite literally rolled down the western side of the bank straight into the dressing station!
*McCrae & Morrison had been friends since their Boer War days, and it was Morrison who used his influence to gain McCrae his position as Brigade Surgeon (and unofficially second in command) of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery on the outbreak of war.
This view of the southern half of the cemetery shows large gaps among the headstones of Plot II that, admittedly, were far harder to see from here before the trees were coppiced. I suspect the gaps once contained graves that were destroyed by German shelling from across the canal. Here’s the cemetery plan again, just in case you need it.
Back at the McCrae Memorial, these views (above & below) show the route from the canal that ambulances took to reach the dressing station,…
…and here we are at the far end, now looking back up the track towards the McCrae Memorial, this the view the ambulances would have had as they completed their journey from the pick-up points nearer the front lines to the east.
I mentioned last post that this is approximately the site of where Brielen Bridge No. 4 once crossed the canal, and in the months following the end of the Second Battle of Ypres on 25th May 1915, the salient that would remain round Ypres for much of the remainder of the war stabilised, as both sides dug in (as much as you can dig in in Flanders – see photo below). By early June the British had relieved the remaining French troops still holding the line south of Boesinghe, and were consolidating their new positions (it was situations like this, with British troops taking over the rudimentary French trenches, that gained the French the reputation, in British eyes, of being poor trench constructors who seemingly cared little for sanitation).
The British began constructing dugouts, machine gun emplacements and mortar positions, as well as building bridges across the canal. By the end of 1915 there were about a dozen bridges over the canal in the British sector north of Ypres, although the term ‘bridge’ was perhaps somewhat of a misnomer, some being nothing more than barrels and petrol cans tied together with wooden planks fixed on top, a highly dangerous way to cross in the dark for men weighed down with up to 70lbs of equipment*. Of all these crossings, however, the only one capable of taking the weight of a vehicle was Brielen Bridge No. 4, and each evening this part of the canal must have been a hive of military activity, men and machines crossing the bridge to and from the front lines throughout the hours of darkness.
*one of the crossings a little further north was known, with dark humour, as ‘Blighty Bridge’. Men hit by shrapnel or stray bullets whilst crossing had very little chance of ever seeing Blighty again.
Hope you get to see these.
Old information boards still remain along the canal bank (below)…
…but have now been joined by a newbie.
And back past the dressing station bunkers that I think we have covered adequately in the previous two posts, there is indeed another new information board now in position near the cookhouse. Told you there would be.
Returning to the bunker adopted by Belgian civilians after the war as a home,…
…an information board now affixed to the rear wall,…
…here’s something that, although you will spot it in the first Essex Farm post, I failed to mention at the time as, when I took those first photos, I was unaware of what it was.
How about now?
This little bridge over the Ieperlee was made by the local farmer, I would guess, or perhaps even the family who lived in the bunker, soon after the war’s end,…
…utilising sections of the same light railway track that we saw uncovered by the Diggers in the first post. And, more amazingly, it’s still here.
And just a few yards away, across the stream, if you hunt about a bit,…
…the remains of another bunker can be found, once used by the Royal Engineers as an Orderly Room.
Although only a small amount of the bunker is visible (this is the northern corner),…
…it appears to be quite a substantial construction.
Back at the cemetery entrance. Before we finally do, really, honestly, move on (there is no Essex Farm Part Four, I promise), there are a couple of parts of the cemetery that I want to revisit.
Firstly, a few more photos taken at the far, southern, end of the cemetery, purely for the reasons I mentioned previously*, and because the roses look so beautiful. Quite a number of the men buried in Plot III are men of the 38th (Welsh) Division, who held the line here in the autumn of 1916.
*because of the presence of Valentine Joe Strudwick & Thomas Barrett V.C., and the whole McCrae industry, even the presence of the memorial (the views are good from up there, at least), the men in Plot III in the southern half are in effect the forgotten men, at least of this cemetery.
So here we are in Plot III Row L once more, and the headstone nearest the camera, that of Private W. Speight of the Lincolnshire Regiment, got me thinking. You will notice that someone has left a little wooden Jewish remembrance star at the base of his headstone, but you will also notice that the Lincolnshires were one of the eleven British regiments who chose to use the Broad cross on their headstones (as did the Royal Artillery and the N.Z.E.F.), which made me wonder whether all Jewish dead from regiments who chose the Broad cross have a Jewish star instead, or whether some are buried under a headstone with a Broad cross*. Which would be the case with Private Speight if, and I have no idea, he was Jewish. If you see what I mean.
*The whole Latin/Broad cross issue is discussed in more detail elsewhere on this site.
On the same subject, the headstone of Private William Ellis, also in Row L, is interesting in that nine lines of inscription and the regimental badge have left little room for the Latin cross, which is seriously truncated compared to normal.
We actually visited these touching headstones in Plot III Row I before, in Essex Farm Cemetery Part One, if you remember, all men killed between 22nd & 27th July 1917, but we return because I later noticed that the centre headstone, one of three with two names, says, simply, ‘Son of Mr. and Mrs. S. Davies, Croydon, Surrey. Sadly Missed’, and as I’m originally a Croydon boy myself, it seemed only right and proper to revisit.
A single grave in Plot III Row C, inscribed with the words ‘Believed to be’.
Plot III Row A,…
…and another of the German burials in the cemetery in Plot II Row Z.
I mentioned these large gaps among the headstones earlier,…
…and I stick to my explanation, particularly as the CWGC website specifically mentions exactly this – that some graves were later lost to German shelling – with regard to Talana Farm Cemetery, our next stop but one, a mile up the road.
Panning right from the previous shot, looking west across Plot II.
Men of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in Plot II Row D, all killed in action on 13th March 1916.
The grave of Private Thomas Barratt V.C., South Staffordshire Regiment, everything looking spick and span now, don’t you think?
I also wanted to visit a couple of the early Canadian casualties in Plot I while we are here, but just before we do, the headstone at the far end of these four in Plot I Row L…
…is a man of the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), part of 49th Division, Private Herbert Bottomley, who, along with eight of his colleagues, died on 19th December 1915 and are buried in Plot I (one more man of the regiment who died the same day can be found in Plot II). All ten men were, most likely, victims of a new type of gas the Germans unleashed that day, about which more later.
Canadian Private Ivor Hanington Murray also lies in Plot I Row L, and although his headstone is inscribed with the dates 23rd/30th April, both the CWGC and Veterans Affairs Canada give his date of death as 23rd April, making him the earliest burial in the cemetery (you may remember, back in the first post of this tour, that I mentioned we’d visit him later. I believe I said ‘much later’, and I wasn’t lyin’.). In the early hours of 23rd April, the day following the first German gas attack, 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion were among those involved in the generally hopeless attempts to counterattack and restore order to the surrounding chaos, and although others suggest that Private Murray was a victim of the first gas attack, I think it more likely that he died, along with many others from his battalion, following the failed counterattack.
Still in Plot I Row L, Private Percy Downs is given a date of death of 3rd May. His battalion, 16th, had been in close support on 23rd April when 10th Bn. had been ordered to retake Kitchener’s Wood, the Canadians first serious attack of the war (they succeeded), and it may be that he was a casualty of another major German gas attack in the late afternoon of 2nd May. The 16th Bn., by the way, were also known as the Canadian Scottish, and went to war wearing kilts.
And finally, a brief pause once more at the grave of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick. Despite his tender age at the time of his death, he had already been gassed and, I think, shell-shocked (when two colleagues were blown to pieces close by), spending three months in hospital in Sheerness before returning to his regiment. Unimaginable experiences for a boy of fifteen.
Look, I know we’ve spent a long time here, but hopefully it’s been worthwhile, and anyway, are you in a hurry? Next, we find ourselves a few hundred yards up the road at Bard Cottage Cemetery.