Overcast

Overcast

max temp: 17°C

min temp: 9°C

ESTD 1874 Search

War history: Essex Farm, where the poppies blow

10:21 07 July 2014

Before the turmoil: poet John McCrae in 1912.

Before the turmoil: poet John McCrae in 1912.

Archant

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

shares

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.

shares
James Cleverly

Braintree’s new MP James Cleverly is not new to politics. He has been stalking the corridors of London’s City Hall for years. The House of Commons, however, is quite a different matter.

The countdown to the Suffolk Show is on

Heavy showers could hit this year’s Suffolk Show on Thursday but visitors should have a fine and dry day tomorrow.

(l-r) Suffolk Show fashionistas Tory, Jenny, Abi, Kate, Nicola and Janet demonstrate their show attire will stand up to the most blustery conditions!

If you were trying to persuade someone to go to the show for the first time, what would be your top three recommendations?

Members of Hadleigh Local Dementia Action Alliance

Up to £5,000 is being offered to groups in Suffolk who want to make their communities dementia-friendly.

Michael Warner (left) and John Rendle (right) with an Ipswich School photo showing pupils who left in 1965.  They are trying to trace other pupils who left 50 years ago to join them at a reunion lunch this June.

A call has been made for pupils who left a private school 50 years ago to join their former peers at a celebratory lunch.

On site at Trinity Park

It may have been a relaxing bank holiday for some, but for the stall holders taking part in the Suffolk Show it was business as usual.

Enjoying the spring sunshine in Christchurch Park, Ipswich

Ipswich’s Christchurch Park has been championed a “major asset” for the town after it was awarded a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor.

Ipswich man admits involvement in selling medicines over the internet

A man from Ipswich has admitted an offence relating to the selling of counterfeit medications over the internet.

Last year's Colour Dash in aid of EACH

There is less than one week left for people to get involved in the East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices’ annual colour dash.

Dozens of magnificent scale models were on show at The Old Radio Site in Ipswich ,including boats, ships, aircraft, cars and trains. 
Alex and James Ladell.

Dozens of magnificent models attracted big crowds to a former Suffolk wireless radio base over the weekend.

Most read

Most commented

Topic pages