Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Boezinge, Essex Farm Cemetery
Men sitting half naked – The Yser Canal
To the right of the N369 heading north from Ypres towards the village of Boezinge is the Yser Canal. Immediately after a bridge over the main N38 is a war cemetery lying between the road and the banks of the canal. This is Essex Farm Cemetery. To the left of the cemetery a pathway leads to the canal bank which was a well–known feature of this part of the Ypres Salient. In 1915 this was a rest area from the front line which was on the Pilkem ridge about two kilometres away. In the rest area little dugouts proliferated in the sides of the canal spoil bank:
Being human our houses are appropriately named … ‘Streatham Hill’, ‘The Abode of Love’, ‘Leicester Lounge’, ‘Submarine Villa’ … Most of the villas possess only one room so arranged that each of its inmates are in possession of two feet by six feet of floor space. This rectangle fulfils at once many functions, it is bedroom, dining room, drawing room, library … For bathroom there is a share of a basin perhaps … It is more or less shell–proof (usually less) … On a fine evening however, before it becomes dark, the soldiers come out and swarm about the canal bank. They wash themselves, they shave. You can see men sitting half naked, their bodies pink and fat … picking vermin from their shirts. They make tea, they clean their rifles, they clean their little houses and they merely rest.
Major J M Halley, Royal Engineers, quoted in Major and Mrs Holt, Ypres Salient, Battlefield Guide, Barnsley, 1997, p.145
During the fighting in the Salient the canal was a busy place spanned by many small makeshift bridges made from barrels or wood. Nightly ration parties, carrying parties and working parties made there way across the canal and out into the Salient to support those in the front line with food, ammunition and other essentials. At no time was the area free of enemy shelling – ‘then you will hear the rush and crump of a high explosive shell, feel the frame of your dugout tremble to its foundations’.
The canal bank today has been turned into a pleasant, tree–lined walk with a park to the left and places for picnics. A track through the park leads to the remains of old concrete blockhouses which were used for many years after the war as housing by the returning inhabitants of Ypres. Towering over the canal bank back in the direction of Ypres is the 49th (West Yorkshire) Division Memorial dedicated in 1924. The panels on the memorial indicate the infantry battalions, artillery and other supporting arms of the division which served in many locations along the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 but spent a considerable amount time in the Ypres Salient.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010