‘Essex Farm, Never Forgotten’ tells the story of Essex Farm and Calvaire (Essex) two First World War cemeteries in Belgium that will forever bear the Essex name. ‘Essex Farm’ is not a comprehensive history of the First World War or a detailed account of the Essex Regiment. However we do try and give concise background to the momentous events of the time and to the best of our ability hope our facts and summaries are accurate.
World War One, or the Great War, was the war described as the war to end all wars. It began on 28th July 1914, when Austria declared war on Serbia, and lasted until 11th November 1918, when an armistice with Germany was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne, France. At 11am on 11th November 1918 — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — a ceasefire came into effect, the guns fell silent and the killing stopped.
In four years the total number of deaths was estimated at eight and a half million which included over 900,000 from the British Empire, with a further two million wounded and 150,000 taken prisoner or listed as missing. During this war no part of the United Kingdom escaped the grim death toll. The war impacted on all parts of Essex and Essex itself has left its own permanent reminders in Belgium.
Just to the north of Ypres or Iepere (in Dutch) in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium is Essex Farm. It is a First World War cemetery alongside the medieval Yser Canal. The area around Ypres (or the Ypres) salient, as it became known, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and worst carnage during the war and where poison gas was first used. Today Ypres has a population of approximately 40,000, about the same size as Rayleigh, or about half the size of Brentwood.
Essex Farm was so named after the Essex Regiment. By Ypres standards Essex Farm is a relatively small cemetery with 1,204 burials recorded and yet it is just one of one hundred and sixty First World War cemeteries in the area. In contrast the nearby Tyne Cot Memorial bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. There are more British soldiers buried at Essex Farm than have died in service during the Falklands, Iraq and Afghan wars combined.
The declaration of war in August 1914 brought with it a massive mobilisation. Three new Essex battalions were formed during August and September 1914 and the 13th Battalion (the Hammers) was formed early in 1915.
During the second battle of Ypres of April and May 1915 both the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment (the Pompadours), an existing fighting battalion that could trace its roots back 300 years, and the newly re-formed Essex Yeomanry (a cavalry regiment) were heavily engaged and suffered multiple casualties. In October the same year the 11th Battalion of the Essex Regiment arrived in Ypres and by the middle of 1915, it seems the name Essex Farm was regularly in use.
The Western Front stretched for over 500 miles from the Belgian coast through France to the Swiss border. Two vast armies were dug in trenches and bunkers and faced each other across 300 yards of no-man's land. For just over four years movement on the front line was limited to about eight miles on either side. There was constant shelling and sniping. Each army engaged in continuous skirmishes and probing raids. There were the 'big pushes' that resulted in thousands and thousands of casualties.
Essex Farm is the setting for the Memorial to John McCrae, the author of the poem ‘In Flanders Field’, one of the best known in the world. McCrae was a surgeon in the First Brigade of Canadian Field Artillery. He was posted to Essex Farm where he treated the injured during the second battle of Ypres. The poem was written following the burial of a friend.