Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918

The Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium

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Ieper (Ypres) – Belgium

Nearby site: Essex Farm Cemetery, Boezinge – Lieutenant Colonel McCrae

‘In Flanders Fields’, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Headstone of Rifleman Valentine Joseph Strudwick

Headstone of Rifleman Valentine Joseph Strudwick, The Rifle Brigade, Essex Farm Cemetery. [DVA] ... Enlarge headstone: Joe Strudwick

There always seem to be poppies at Essex Farm and nowhere more so than around the grave of Private Valentine Joseph Strudwick of the Rifle Brigade (Plot I, Row U, Grave 8). In front of Strudwick’s headstone there are usually dozens of British Legion wooden crosses and poppies for his is one of the most visited graves on the Western Front in this most visited of cemeteries. Strudwick’s appeal lies in his age, just 15 when he died on 14 January 1916. Hundreds of British school parties on field trips studying the Western Front come to Strudwick’s grave, the numbers evident from the way the grass here is nearly always worn down. But they come to Essex Farm in their thousands not for poor Joe Strudwick, however sad his fate, but because it was here that the legend of the poppy as the flower of remembrance began.

In April 1915, Major (as he was then) John McCrae, 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, was stationed at a medical dressing station hereabouts. The remains of a British dressing station, in a concrete bunker built into the land side of the canal bank, lies just across the pathway beside the cemetery. However, the dressing station had not been so concreted when McCrae worked here.

The remains of the British World War I medical dressing station, Essex Farm Cemetery. [DVA]

The remains of the British World War I medical dressing station, Essex Farm Cemetery. [DVA] ... Enlarge photo: medical dressing station

McCrae was what one might call a ‘warrior medic’ for not only was he one of the most highly respected Canadian physicians of his generation but he had also served with distinction in militia units and as an officer in the South African (Boer) War. A committed ‘imperialist’, McCrae had a firm belief in the importance of the British Empire and the need to defend it in arms if need be. When he was taken away from the artillery in June 1915 to set up No 3 Canadian General Hospital, according to a colleague, CLC Allinson:

… [he] most unmilitarily told me what he thought of being transferred to the medicals and being pulled away from his beloved guns. His last words to me were ‘Allinson, all the goddam doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.

Allinson quoted in Wikipedia article on McCrae,

Essex Cemetery, Belgium, c.1920

Essex Cemetery, Belgium, c.1920. [AWM J00639] ... Enlarge photo: Essex Cemetery, 1920

On 22 April 1915 the Allied forces defending the Salient beyond the Yser canal to the north–east encountered a new and horrifying weapon – chlorine gas. The Germans released the gas, being used for the first time on the Western Front, at French and Canadian forces but it particularly affected the French, many of whom were native troops from North Africa. Faced with this new weapon, against which there was then no defence, men broke and swarmed back towards the canal and Boezinge. Marie de Milleville, who lived in the village at the time as a young child, recalled:

… the little yard in front of our house was full of coloured soldiers lying on the ground or slumping against the wall. We could do nothing for them but give them water. We had two big metal jugs that held two or three litres apiece and for hours I went back and forwards to the kitchen filling them and filling them again, one after the other, while my mother stayed outside pouring it out for the soldiers to drink … I  poured water for hours and hours … They could not tell us what happened, but we knew that it was something dreadful and that the Germans might come at any moment … All the time, although no shells were falling near us, we could hear the guns. They never stopped. I could never forget it.

de Milleville, quoted in Lyn MacDonald, 1915: The Death of Innocence, London, 1997, p.198

John McCrae and his dog

John McCrae and his dog, ‘Bonneau’, c.1914. [C-046284, Library and Archives Canada] ... Enlarge photo: John McCrae

The gas turned grass yellow, shrivelled leaves, killed birds, hens, rats and farm animals. It can be imagined what it did to the lungs and soft tissue of the human throat. At Essex Farm McCrae watched the panicked withdrawal from the front line:

As we sat on the road we began to see French stragglers – men with arms, wounded men, teams, wagons, civilians, refugees – some by the roads, some across country, all talking, shouting – the very picture of debacle … The men [the Canadians serving with McCrae] were splendid; not a word, not a shake, and it was a terrific test … So the cold moonlight night wore on – no change save that the towers of Ypres showed up against the glare of the city burning; and the shells still sailed on.

McCrae, quoted by John Prescott in lecture to Guelph Historical Society, Guelph Historical Newsletter, November 2003,

The German gas attack opened the Second Battle of Ypres which dragged on until 25 May 1915. Canadian and other Allied forces fought to prevent a German breakthrough to the town, with terrible losses – 59,000 British and 10,000 French troops. The result was that the British were forced to considerably pull back the perimeter of the Salient to within a kilometre or so of the town, the end of the left flank meeting the canal at Boezinge village about two kilometres north of Essex Farm.

For the Canadians of the 1st Canadian Division this battle – one of the worst actions they would ever have to fight in this war – was their baptism of fire on the Western Front. Of the more than 18,000 men in the division, 5,975 became casualties. Of these, 3,508 occurred on one day – April 24 1915 – when the infantry faced large–scale gas and conventional attacks. The line wobbled and fell back but the enemy did not break through.

Of the Canadian casualties more than 1,000 were killed or died of their wounds. The headstones with the earliest dates of death on them in Essex Farm are of men of the 1st Canadian Division: five infantrymen and one artilleryman who died between 23 April and 3 May 1915. In Plot 1, Row S, Grave 5, is Sergeant John Steel of the Canadian Infantry, Manitoba Regiment, a 27–year–old Scotsman, who died on 2 May 1915.

On that same day, 22–year–old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, stepped from his dug–out and was killed instantly by the explosion of a German shell. What was left of Helmer was gathered into sandbags and buried that evening, possibly in Essex Farm although most accounts are not specific about Helmer’s burial place.

John McCrae, who had been working ceaselessly at the Canadian brigade’s dressing station since the start of the battle, read the burial service for Helmer. The young lieutenant had been a friend and ex–student of McCrae’s and in memory of Helmer, McCrae now penned some of the best–known lines of poetry from the war:

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 those who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Memorial, Essex Farm Cemetery

Memorial at Essex Farm Cemetery remembering the composition there in May 1915 of ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae. [DVA] ... Enlarge photo: memorial, Essex Farm

There are a number of conflicting accounts of the circumstances under which McCrae wrote the poem. One version has the Canadian doctor sitting on an ambulance step contemplating Helmer’s newly dug grave and the local poppies blowing in the wind nearby. Another account talks of McCrea’s grief which caused him to dash off the verses in twenty minutes in order to calm himself down. And McCrae apparently told his commanding officer, Lieutenant–Colonel Morrison, that he composed the piece to pass the time while awaiting the arrival of new batches of wounded at the dressing station.

However McCrae actually composed the poem, it was eventually published in the London Punch on 8 December 1915. From there its popularity quickly grew and the last verse in particular, with its rather more aggressive mood, was used in war fund campaigns, especially in the United States when that country entered the war in 1917. After the war the poppy was taken up as the flower of remembrance and used widely on commemorative occasions such as Armistice Day, now Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the end of the fighting on the Western Front on 11 November 1918.

Signing the visitors book, Essex Farm Cemetery

Signing the visitors book at the ‘In Flander’s Field’ Memorial at the British World War I medical dressing station beside Essex Farm Cemetery. [DVA] ... Enlarge photo: visitors book, Essex Farm

Today, the paper poppies produced by the British Legion, and that organisation’s equivalents in the countries of the old British Commonwealth, are everywhere in evidence on graves in war cemeteries. Visitors often have no known family connection to a World War I soldier, but poppies can be a powerful way for them to relate to the countless headstones and the stories of those who lie beneath them.

Sadly, few other cemeteries receive the number of visitors who come to Essex Farm in search of the man who wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’, and the distant headstones at the end of the cemetery receive nothing like the attention given to those within easy reach of the cemetery gate.

Poppies on headstones, Essex Farm  Cemetery

Poppies on headstones, Essex Farm Cemetery. [DVA] ... Enlarge photo