War history: Essex Farm, where the poppies blow

Before the turmoil: poet John McCrae in 1912. Before the turmoil: poet John McCrae in 1912.

Monday, July 7, 2014
10:21 AM

Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station: witness to a horrific new form of warfare and genesis of the remembrance poppy. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at this story from the Ypres salient

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The Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station was the birthplace of one of the most famous of war poems to date. The internationally known poem In Flanders Fields was inspired by the death of a Canadian officer close to the dressing station. Many readers will be familiar with the words, as they are frequently recited in schools and at church services on or around Remembrance Day.

The poet who penned these emotive lines served as a medical officer at Essex Farm. At the time of writing, the dressing station looked very different to the concrete bunker that battlefield tourists see today. The hardened shelter was constructed later, in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917. In 1915, when the poem was written, the station was a far more temporary and vulnerable affair. It was a dugout built into the side of the canal. Casualties were brought back from the front line, often under shellfire, via an adjacent bridge known as Bridge 4.

In the spring of 1915, Essex Farm ADS was manned by Canadian medical staff; they were to witness the Second Battle of Ypres and the casualties of a new and horrific form of warfare. On April 22 the Canadians and colonial French troops would bear the brunt of the German army’s first large-scale use of chlorine gas on the Western Front. Among the doctors treating the casualties of the attack was Canadian Colonel John McCrae.

Although he was no stranger to conflict, having previously served in the artillery during the Boer War, the gas attack was nevertheless a shocking development for the colonel. Two days later he wrote home, describing what he had seen, including hundreds of “asphyxiated French soldiers” and endless streams of civilian refugees fleeing the new terror weapon.

He later wrote of a gap of 1,200 to 1,500 yards in the allied line created by the gas attack. “For 36 hours there was not an infantryman between the enemy and us. God knows why the Germans did not put in a big force to eat us up. We really expected to die.”

By April 25 the original Canadian force had been reduced by German artillery attacks, gas and sniping from 10,000 to 4,000 men capable of fighting, yet still they tenaciously held their ground.

John McCrae witnessed the stream of casualties that passed through Essex Farm but he was to be affected more personally on May 2, 1915. News reached him in the ADS that a friend and protégé, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, had been blasted to pieces by an eight-inch Howitzer shell.

There was very little left of the unfortunate lieutenant to bury and John McCrae was upset by the loss of his friend. He spoke the committal words at Helmer’s burial service. It was this experience that prompted McCrae to write these poignant words:

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 us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

The poem struck a chord with those that read it and was an almost overnight success after publication in Punch magazine in December, 1915.

Towards the end of the war in 1918 an American lady called Moira Michael wrote a poem in response, entitled We Shall Keep the Faith. She exhorted readers to wear a poppy in honour of the dead. The secretary of the French YMCA, Madame Guerin, grasped this idea; she began selling artificial poppies to raise funds for soldiers and their families.

In the UK the concept was taken on by the Earl Haig fund and adopted by the newly formed British Legion as a symbol of remembrance of the dead and the missing, and as a means of raising funds for wounded and hard-pressed soldiers after the war. The first poppy day was held on November 11, 1921.

Today the humble poppy is widely recognised as an international symbol of remembrance. The story began at Essex Farm in the battle-scarred fields of Flanders, on broken ground – which is of course where poppies grow best.

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