Left: Essex Farm Cemetery
‘In Flanders Fields’ is one of the most famous poems penned during the First World War which speaks about poppies growing among the fields and trenches of the land around Ypres, and above the skylark singing but drowned out by the noise of battle. Its author John McCrae was a Doctor at the field station at Essex Farm, a hurriedly constructed pill-box like structure of poured concrete in a wooden frame. The hospital was extremely basic but out of harms way, though the limbs amputated were done without anaesthetic. The adjacent Essex Farm Cemetery was created to bury those who had perished. This was the first place on our whistle-stop tour and an opportunity to view the war graves of a thousand men. These include a Victoria Cross recipient and a grave of a 15 year old, who enlisted considerably under age. Those who died together have their headstones arranged together. The party laid a wreath at the ‘sword of sacrifice’ cross and held a respectful minutes’ silence before proceeding with the remainder of the itinerary.
They died alongside their comrades and are buried alongside their comrades
The Ypres Salient was the objective of the tour. It was in this area that the allies held off the Germans on three sides for four continuous years, from 1914 to 1918. Ypres was surrounded by the enemy. A range of small hills virtually encircles the town and it was here that the bitterest battles took place. The losses were tremendous. The town was almost totally destroyed. Driving across the flat land of France from Calais and into Belgium it was telling to recognise that if Ypres fell to the enemy then it would only be a quick dash to the channel ports. Ypres was defended at tremendous cost.
It became the policy of the Imperial powers (i.e. the British Empire) that all those who died should be buried near to where they fell and that each man, regardless of rank, be given equal status. We know that the family of Lieutenant Gerald Pigott, of Blackmore, tried to repatriate his body to England but this was refused. The Ypres area has many cemeteries close to one another, all well kept and all with standard size headstones made of white Portland stone row upon row.
Tyne Cot Cemetery: row on row
Tyne Cot Cemetery, on the hill overlooking the town, marks the limit of the German invasion. It contains about 12000 graves, some named but many inscribed ‘known unto God’, and a wall listing just short of 35000 men who could not be identified after battle or were lost in the mud and chaos. The flat clayey land seems to hold water. Even in a dry autumn the land looks unforgiving. About 70% of the graves at Tyne Cot hold the remains of those who were recovered from the battlefield could not be identified.
Mud in field adjacent to Langemark
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the organisation founded during the War to identify and give victims a proper resting place, identifies a Private Arthur Edward Barker, a man from Blackmore, being commemorated here. So having visited the newly opened Visitors Centre and Museum I wanted to spend what little time I had trying to find him. Private Barker’s name is not recorded in the Register as having a grave, so the row and plot number could not be visited. Instead his name is listed alphabetically on the wall with others from the Essex Regiment who died, ‘missing presumed dead’, for whom (to quote the inscription upon the wall) “… war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. “Barker A E” is listed alongside the countless who were killed mainly during the third battle, otherwise known as Passchendaele. Ten of thousands of men were killed during the course of one hundred days, gaining only five miles of territory.
The Cemetery Register may be consulted, situated at the entrance
A. E. Barker
View of wall containing the names of those not identified
A Soldier of the Great War
Private Albert Edward Barker, 32975, of the 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment, died aged 38, on 10th October 1917. Locally commemorated on the War Memorial and the window at the Priory Church of St Laurence, Blackmore, we know that in 1911 this Romford born man was an off licence holder in Camberwell, South East London. His wife, Lily, three years older than him, aged 32, assisted him in the running of the business. At that time they had two children, Lilian Amy, aged 7, and Edward Leslie, aged 5, who were both at school. Staying with them on the night of the census was a visitor and monthly nurse, Emma Langstone, aged 64, from Maldon Essex. The family were all born in Romford. After Edward’s death Lily remarried and moved presumably from Blackmore back to Romford. Her surname was Quilter.
Tyne Cot is not, contrary to my expectations, a place of extreme sadness but a place of memorial. It is a reminder that, as a Quaker once told her grand-daughter, in every plot there lays a husband, son or brother.
Langemark is in sharp contrast. It is a German Military Cemetery holding a mass grave to nearly 25000 bodies. The bronze memorial blocks list nearly 17000 names, the others are unknown. Unlike the Commonwealth cemeteries, the dark stones elsewhere in Langemark lay prostrate: the fallen among the large oak trees. Even in the autumn against the cloudy sky with a carpet of fallen oak leaves it was difficult to see this as a place of beauty.
Mass grave at Langemark German Military Cemetery
Sanctuary Wood was our next destination. The area became so known because it was safer place for allied troops cut off from their own units. Here there is a museum of exhibits dug up from the surrounding fields and a recreated, if not preserved, trench line. About six feet deep shored up with corrugated iron this was where Tommy lived on the front line, until the order was given to move forward. A very thought provoking moment for us visitors.
The coach then moved towards the town of Ypres, known as “Wipers” to the troops, passing Hellfire Corner, and then through the Menin Gate Memorial. Since 1927, and apart from the Second World War, the road is closed here in the evening and, at 8.00pm, the Last Post sounded. There are 55000 names to the missing engraved on the Menin Gate. One name is Private George William Wright, 31895, 10th Battalion Essex Regiment, who died aged 28 on 31st July 1917.
George William Wright was the second son of Bramston Wright and his wife Alice. In 1911 we find the family living near Rookery, Blackmore, Ingatestone. Rookery Farm is just outside the parish boundary in High Ongar. Bramston, aged 52, was born in High Ongar and was a horseman on a farm. He had been married to Alice, aged 49, for 22 years. Alice was born in Blackmore. Their children were all born in High Ongar. His sons were Henry John, aged 22, a groom gardener; our George William Wright, then aged 20, a cowman; Herbert, 19, also a cowman. There were two younger daughters, both day general domestics: Louise Emily Alice, aged 15, and Emily Clara, aged 13. George William Wright is not named on Blackmore’s memorials. His name is remembered on the War Memorial at High Ongar.
The town of Ypres was totally destroyed during the Great War. The medieval Cloth Hall and Cathedral were rebuilt to the original plans and paid for by German reparations ordered at the Treaty of Versailles. There was just time to visit the chocolate shop and take a few photographs before beating retreat to Calais and the Euro-Tunnel.
Having researched the names of the men on the Memorials at Blackmore and Stondon Massey last year, it is moving to think that these were ordinary people in ordinary families called up to do their Duty. Local War Memorials are their epitaph and remembrance to those who perished in what we now know to be a senseless conflict. Now, having made my first trip to the Western Front, it is gratifying that these men are remembered with honour where they fell, even if they were not found. They rest in perpetuity. “We will remember them”.