The Essex Farm Cemetery is a few miles out of the centre of Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium. The cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the man who also designed the nearby Menin Gate in Ypres. There are 1,199 burials at the cemetery though there are 1,185 graves in it including that of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick of the 8th Battalion the Rifle Brigade who died on January 14th 1916 aged 15 – one of the youngest fatalities in the British Army in World War One. Essex Farm Cemetery also includes headstones grouped together for men who are known to be buried in the cemetery but no one is sure where. The large majority of those buried at Essex Farm were named as they would have been known to the men who worked in the makeshift ‘medical centre’ there. Unlike many World War One cemeteries, there are few graves (just 102), which are marked ‘Known unto God’ or ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ – the standard way of marking the grave of someone whose name was not known.
Essex Farm was used as an advanced dressing station between April 1915 and August 1917. Being based near to the front line trenches, the station gave first aid care to the wounded before casualties were transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station. To begin with the dressing station was just a series of dugouts cut into the western side spoil-bank of the Ypres Canal that runs behind Essex Farm Cemetery. However, it eventually gained more permanent concrete shelters that remain to this day. Near to this concrete building is a memorial to Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae who wrote the poem “In Flanders Field the poppies blow” on May 3rd 1915.
McCrae was a Canadian doctor who worked at Essex Farm. He wrote the poem after the death of a colleague called Lieutenant Alex Helmer who was killed as a result of a direct hit by an artillery shell. McCrae was moved by the last words in Helmer’s diary, which read that he believed that the action in and around Essex Farm had died down slightly and that, as a result, he was looking forward to a better night’s sleep. Various stories developed that the poem was written in just 20 minutes while McCrae sat by Helmer’s grave; another was that he threw away the piece of paper on which the poem was written and that a fellow officer picked it up and persuaded him to get it published. Another story was that McCrae wrote it while sitting on the steps of an ambulance at Essex Farm. As a result of the fighting in and around Essex Farm, Helmer’s grave – marked by a rudimentary cross by his colleagues – was destroyed and there is no headstone for him in the cemetery now. His name appears on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
It was McCrae who described working at Essex Farm as “a nightmare” as the shelling was constant as it was only two miles from the front line. The cemetery at Essex Farm continued to grow as a result of those who did not survive their wounds. One of the graves is for Private T Barratt of the South Staffordshire Regt who died on July 22nd 1917 aged 22 and who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.