Sunday 3 May 2015

Essex Farm

The peaceful cemetery of Essex Farm - Mother's Day, 2009
There are more than 137 cemeteries in the area around Ypres, from the massive Tyne Cot Cemetery that holds the remains of 12,000 soldiers, to the Seaforth Cemetery Cheddar Villa, where 148 are buried; and in all of these cemeteries more than 40,000 of those buried are unidentified. Langemarck Cemetery, a German cemetery located just outside of the town by the same name, contains the remains of 44,000 German soldiers. And on most days, with the exception of Tyne Cot, the cemeteries around Ypres are deserted.

While largely a secondary front and relatively quiet after the stalemate of 2nd Ypres, the Ypres Salient continued to take its toll throughout the war accounting for more than 500,000 British casualties. It was also around Ypres where gas was first used in war, where flame-throwers were introduced, and where the use of mines was perfected, in the 1917 attack on Messines Ridge.

Despite their experiences at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, Mount Sorrel, and Passchendaele, Canadians were in the Salient for less than six months of the war, but during this time they suffered 25% of the total casualties that they sustained throughout the war.

The bunkers that formed the dressing station
where John McCrae worked for part of the war. 
Of the cemeteries in Flanders, Essex Farm is one that constitutes a tourist attraction; not because of the cemetery itself, although it is the resting place of one of the youngest soldiers to have died in the War, fifteen year old Valentine Strudwick, but because it is adjacent to the Advanced Dressing Station where John McCrae wrote ‘In Flander’s Fields”.

Unlike many cemeteries of the First World War, because of its location next to the dressing station a higher proportion of those buried there have been identified; there are 1200 men buried at Essex Farm of which only 102 are unidentified.

For much of the first year of the war, until 2nd Ypres, Essex Farm was 8 kilometres behind the front line so it was an ideal location to locate an Advanced Dressing Station.  Bridges were built across the canal to ferry reinforcements and supplies to the front, and numerous dugouts were built into its embankments for use by the resting troops. But its route to and from the front also brought constant bombardment.  

The very pock-marked field above the dressing station at
Essex Farm.
Ninety years later the pockmarked field that sits on top of the bunkers and leads down to the canal, is the domain of a few goats and cows who can easily navigate the grassed craters.  This narrow strip of land, guarded at one end by the memorial to the 49th (West Riding) Division, that spent much of their war in the Salient, bears witness to the savagery of the artillery:

"The water was low and dirty, in places covered with the green scum that denoted stagnation. Artillery fire had put the bridges out of action, leaving them as twisted iron-work and derelict. Trestled wooden bridges had replaced them, revealing the resourcefulness of the Royal Engineers. The motionless stagnant water was occasionally disturbed by an exploding shell which churned up the mud at the bottom, as the decomposed body of a soldier or a horse would make its protest at being disturbed from its resting place. 
Boezinge Canal near Essex Farm, 1917

The bank, no longer the towpath of peace-loving barges, was a dirty, shell marked way trodden by hundreds of soldiers making their journeys to and from the trenches. In front of the canal was desolate flat country dividing the “supports” from the semi-trenched, sand bagged positions that represented the front line." Reflections on the Battlefield, Robert J. Ryder

Sandbag bunkers around Essex Farm
In April 1915, McCrae’s dressing station was built of sand bags, wood and iron; it was much later, with the continuous shelling of the canal and in preparation for the lead-up to the offensive of July 1917, that cement bunkers were built.

"I attend the gun lines; any casualty is reported by telephone, and I go to it. The wounded and sick stay where they are till dark, when the field ambulances go over certain grounds and collect. A good deal of suffering is entailed by the delay till night, but it is useless for vehicles to go on the roads within 1500 yards of the trenches. They are willing enough to go. Most of the trench injuries are of the head, and therefore there is a high proportion of killed in the daily warfare as opposed to an attack. Our Canadian plots fill up rapidly.” John McCrae, March 30th, 1915.
Remains of a bunker at Essex Farm

One of these casualties was Roy Rydberg, a fair haired 24 year old native of Nebraska. Roy’s father, who had emigrated to the United States from Sweden, in 1881, moved the family from Nebraska to Glenview, Alberta after the death of his wife. Roy was working as a farmer when he signed up with the Calgary Highlanders, the 10th Battalion, in September 1914. He had survived the German attacks of the 22nd/23rd of April, and his battalion’s attack on Kitchener Wood that night with the Canadian Scottish, but he was killed on May 3rd; like so many others in his battalion that General Currie had said were “simply blown out of their trenches by artillery fire”
Essex Farm bunker - housing for local
residents after the war.
Roy Rydberg, killed on day the Canadians left
the line, on May 3rd, 1915

Roy’s younger brother Ray was serving with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police during the war and therefore wasn’t allowed to enlist, but he joined in the Cavalry draft that the force sent over in the fading months of the war. But he contracted pneumonia during his summer training and was sent home without having the chance to avenge his brother’s death.

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