War history: In Flanders Fields... the spot that gave us the famous red poppy

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow...

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow... - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, explains the significance of a long-abandoned concrete dugout at Essex Farm Dressing Station in the Ypres Salient.

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow...

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow... - Credit: Archant

One of the most visited places in the Ypres Salient is a relatively small Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery and nearby concrete bunker. Both are far from unique in the vicinity of Ypres. There are over 150 Commonwealth war cemeteries, and a similar number of long-abandoned concrete structures – built by both sides – litters the fields and villages around the prosperous Belgian town.

The place is still known by the name it was originally christened by British troops and then officially designated on British Army maps. It is known as Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, a very small enclave of First World War history that sits just outside Ypres, alongside the Leperlee canal.

The concrete dugout is all that remains of the dressing station sited next to a canal crossing point known as Bridge Number 4. The medical facility was just a few thousand metres behind British lines and, because of its proximity to the frontline, served thousands of casualties as they were treated and moved by ambulance as quickly as possible along the nearby road to safety and further medical treatment in the areas beyond the salient.

There were, of course, many such medical outposts, but this one has a particular claim to fame. It was here that Canadian poet John McCrae was moved to write his poem In Flanders Fields. The spot is marked with a memorial close to what was the ambulance park where, saddened at the loss of a young Canadian officer, he is thought to have penned his now famous lines. In Flanders Fields is recited around the globe on Remembrance Day. It is quite something to know that you have stood on the spot where it originated. The poem also inspired the adoption of the Flanders’ poppy as the enduring symbol of remembrance for Britain and the Commonwealth.

Not all soldiers who were recovered from the battlefield by stretcher-bearers and brought to Essex Farm survived. The cemetery here contains 1,088 war graves whose headstones each bear witness to an individual story, giving an idea of how the canal crossing and the dressing station were a microcosm of the fighting around Ypres.

A visit to this small corner of the battlefield reveals tales of underage soldiers killed in battle, a Victoria Cross winner who with great coolness covered the withdrawal of his comrades across no man’s land and numerous sad testaments to soldiers who are “Known unto God”.

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Essex Farm is a poignant place to visit. A vital crossing point for most of the war, it remains so today, as it allows visitors to cross over from the 21st Century into a place where they can get a feel for the First World War and the men who fought over the surrounding fields.

We will be visiting this historic place during our Immortal Salient Day Excursion travelling to Ypres on April 30.