Whitby High School

Battlefields Tour 22nd-25th March 2009


Flanders Field, Belgium - Tuesday 24th March

Essex Farm


Essex Farm

During the second battle of Ypres the canal bank at this point formed the British front line, with the Germans on the opposite bank. Some concrete bunkers at the bottom of the bank were used as advanced dressing stations, and it was around these that the cemetery grew. One of the doctors working in the bunkers was the Canadian, John McCrae, and it was here that he wrote his famous poem 'In Flanders Field'.

There are over 1,000 burials here including Rifleman Valentine Strudwick - one of several 15 year olds buried in Flanders. The youngest British casualty of the war was Private J Condon, a 14 year old who is buried nearby at Poelkapelle. (Although others suggest he was only 13 - see The Heritage of the Great War select 'They die young')

The Dressing Station Bunkers lie adjacent to the cemetery and the plaque to John McCrae is inside the cemetery entrance. The obelisk on the canal bank is the 49th Division Memorial.

The McCrae Memorial site

Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872-1918) - In Flanders Field

This is probably the most visited and most famous site in the Ypres Salient, Essex Farm was named after a small cottage that stood beside the Boesinge road at the entrance to the canal access track.

A commemorative plaque dedicated to Lt.-Col. McCrae was unveiled on June 7, 1999, by Mrs. Sheila Copps, Canadian Heritage Minister. The bronze plaque, set on top of a white stone base, carries the following text in French, English, Dutch and German: “Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872-1918). While serving as a military surgeon in Belgium, John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields, one of the most enduring poems of the First World War.

Born at Guelph, Ontario, he was practicing medicine in Montreal when he volunteered, in 1914, to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force which was being sent to fight in Europe. His stirring poem, written near the trenches at Ypres salient, provided a strong stimulus to the Allied war effort. McCrae died in 1918 while serving at a Canadian Army Hospital in Boulogne-sur-Mer. His words have made the poppy a lasting symbol of self-scarifice in war.

Next to the commemorative plaque, the text of In Flanders Fields is written in English.

"In Flanders Fields"

"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."

The poem was first published in Punch on 8th December 1915, and become an instant popular success, from it was taken the symbol of the poppy for the British Legion to respect remembrance of those who gave their lives in the Great War and subsequent conflicts.

But why poppies? The answer is simple: poppies only flower in rooted up soil. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, and only when someone roots up the ground, they will sprout. There was enough rooted up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact the whole front consisted of churned up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.

A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly. "His face was very tired but calm as we wrote," Allinson recalled. "He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."

When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:

"The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."

For more on this Rob Ruggenberg's website The Heritage of the Great War


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Updated April 2009 by Mike Royden
The Whitby High School, Cheshire County Council.