Essex Farm and the Ypres Salient

On our battlefield tours to the Ypres Salient (Chapters from the Western Front, Ypres Remembered and Treading in Tommy’s Footsteps), we visit the site of the advanced dressing station by Essex Farm cemetery.  This site has been immortalised by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae.  The opening lines inspired the symbol of the poppy as a mark of respect to the fallen.

John McCrae

John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still singing bravely, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.



The Second Battle of Ypres

At around 5pm on 22 April, the German army launched a devastating gas attack and the Canadian troops hurriedly advanced in order to stop the German advance and counter attack.  The 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery took over the area at the area by Bridge No 4 (Brielen Bridge) on the Yser Canal.  Major John McCrae was a surgeon and his medical unit established a rather basic dressing station in the embankment there.  There was already a small cemetery nearby from the 1st Battle of Ypres and John McCrae saw this grow as, throughout the battle, he noticed a number of men burying their comrades during lulls in the fighting.  His commanding officer commented that ‘it was not uncommon in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns.’  The battle continued for over two weeks and John McCrae put down his thoughts in a letter to his mother:

The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time   while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.

Remains of the Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm

Remains of the Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm

The poem was written after the death of a young Lieutenant Alexis Helmer who was a close friend of McCrae.  In the absence of a Padre, McCrae read the funeral service.  There are different accounts of how it was written.  One report suggests that he wrote it sitting on the step of an ambulance and completed it within 20 minutes.  Another suggests that it took a little longer.  It was printed in Punch magazine in 1915 and the poppy quickly came to be seen as the symbol of remembrance for the war dead through these words in the middle of the poem:

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.

On our battlefield visit to Essex Farm, we remember John McCrae, see the site of the dressing station and pay our respects to those buried in the cemetery.