Sitting on the train from Kortrijk, the flat Belgian countryside rolls by much like any other. But the small military cemeteries, easily spotted with their white, uniform headstones, are what quickly jolts you into reality that this is the place where upon countless numbers of people were killed, injured, or forced to flee during the five years of battles here upon the Ypres’ Salient. When you see images of trench warfare, soldiers bogged down in the mud in a featureless landscape, of alien-looking gas masks which quickly became standard as the Germans launched the first poison gas attacks here, you might well be thinking of the battles fought here in the area around Ypres.
Why was Ieper so important? After all, it sits in the middle of farmland that has very low rising ridges (salient), so at first glance it seems confusing as to why the Germans and the Allies dug in their heels here (literally – the front lines moved very little during the war). Well, Ieper had easy access to the coastal cities where the Germans were building and launching their U-boats, which sank so many supply ships during the war. Control of the area was important but I think symbolized the futility of trench warfare in actually achieving objectives.
When the first battles were fought here, many citizens remained in town. But a year later any who were left were forcibly removed. Just a kilometre from the Menin Gate in town (a massive memorial) runs the Iper canal. It’s on the other side of the canal where the front lines were. There were various pontoon bridges across the canal where men and supplies could cross,a nd at bridge 4 was an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Soldiers who were lightly wounded were treated closer to the battle sites, the more seriously injured were brought here. This area was named Essex Farm by the British soldiers. Since men who were seriously wounded were brought here, it’s no surprise that a cemetery was needed to bury those who succumbed to their wounds. The graves here are not as uniform as in other military cemeteries, as this was a working cemetery that was used for years. So the graves are not evenly spaced, nor do they all face the same direction. Some Germans are buried here, just as some Commonwealth soldiers are buried in German cemeteries. One of the soldiers who is buried here is Valentine Strudwick, so named because he was born on February 14th. He enlisted at 14, fought in the first battle of Ypres, was injured but came back for the second battle, where he was killed exactly a month before his 16th birthday. His grave was covered in crosses, possibly because they had a ceremony honouring him only a few weeks before. Or maybe his grave is always like that, being so young when he died.
There are many soldiers known to be buried here, although their exact location is not known. One of those soldiers was a good friend of John McCrae, a Canadian doctor working in the ADS bunkers next to the cemeteries. McCrae was shaken by his friend (Alexis Helmer)’s death, and in his grief wrote the now iconic poem, “In Flanders Fields”. But this poem was almost lost to memory as he crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. Luckily, a sergeant picked it up and the poem was sent to several publications in London. It was published and soon became a symbol of the war. The poem’s simple verse made it easy for the working class to understand, unlike some of the more formal poets of the era. McCrae was transferred to Boulogne in France, where he later died of pneumonia and meningitis in 1918. Moira Michael answered McCraes call to action by writing a poem in response, but more importantly, she is the one who started wearing a red poppy in remembrance, and the poppy campaign was further promoted by a Madame Guérin as a way to honour the fallen and raise money for war veterans. It’s because of them that we wear red poppies on Remembrance Day every year.
Monuments: Standard commonwealth graves, although you can also visit the ADS bunkers here.
Grounds: Flat and easy to walk around. Some of the grass is reinforced for wheelchair users.
Visitors: A few were here, including the group I was part of.
Cemetery: Essex Farm Cemetery
Notable Internments: Every soldier who died here
Location: A couple km from Menin Gate in Ieper
Hours: open 24h