They Did Their Duty
They Did Their Duty is a book with three themes. Firstly it tells the story of Essex Farm and Calvaire (Essex) two First World War cemeteries in Belgium that will forever bear the Essex name. Secondly we give an overview of the Essex Regiment in the First World War. In the third part we look at the home front through the eyes of the local press, criss-crossing the county, to see what readers were given by way of news. It has to be remembered during the war there was no radio, no television and of no course no social media. Even telephones were a rarity. They Did Their Duty 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 period 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 the Great War no part of the United Kingdom escaped the grim death toll. In some cases the menfolk of complete communities were slaughtered. 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 just to the south of the medieval Yser Canal. 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. The farm as such was created on poorly drained agricultural land that was untitled on Belgian maps prior to the First World War. 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.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, the French Army occupied farmland adjacent to the canal. There was a crossing point here that gave access to the front line. During early 1915 responsibility for the area around the bridge was transferred to the British Army and under overall British command the Canadian field artillery established a small, basic dressing station on the eastern side of the canal to tend to wounded casualties. The dressing station grew in size, (see above left) becoming a more sophisticated advanced dressing station or ADS. No matter how severe the fighting and despite the continual bombardment the ADS remained throughout the war, in a series of heavily sandbagged and concrete reinforced bunkers. Here casualties evacuated from the fighting would be examined, and if deemed appropriate, operated on.
As the war continued and the casualties mounted, the dressing station became home to a cemetery in its own right as many of the wounded brought to the ADS didn’t survive despite the best efforts of the medical staff. A clue to the naming of Essex Farm may be connected with one of the first interments recorded at the cemetery, that of Private Arthur Lawrence Badkin, of the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment. Private Badkin, aged 27, from Leyton was killed in action on 9th June 1915. Additionally laid to rest at Essex Farm are twenty eight members of the 11th Battalion, the Essex Regiment, the first being on 20th April 1916, that of Private ‘14115’ William Wood of Flax Green, Terling.
Ten miles to the south east of Ypres, is Calvaire (Essex) Military Cemetery. It is located just within Belgium at Ploegsteert, close to the French town of Armentières. The 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment arrived in the area during October 1914 and established their battalion headquarters, Essex House in a farm outbuilding. Within the grounds of Essex House, a cemetery was soon established. The first interment recorded was that of private ‘1182’, George Robinson of the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment). His age is not recorded. In all 218 burials are recorded at Calvaire (Essex) of which 84 were from 2nd Essex.
The Essex Regiments
The term Essex Regiment can be misleading in that it implies all the officers and men hail from Essex. This perhaps may have been true when the regiments were first formed with 75% of the men coming from Essex. However even this was not always the case. For example at the outbreak of war the newly formed 11th Battalion of Essex Regiment attracted recruits from as far away as Chicago, Canada and Bermuda. As the war progressed the make up of the regiments changed significantly. By the time the war ended it was estimated that only 25% of the men in Essex battalions were actually from Essex. The ever growing casualty list led to a continual amalgamation of companies that had suffered significant casualties. The surviving fit men of a disbanded company were transferred to other units who had the greatest shortage. The introduction of conscription in 1916 also made it exceedingly difficult to ensure replacement recruits came from the battalion’s home county. A glance at the county ‘Rolls of Honour’ will show that as the war continued as many as 50% of Essex recruits served with non-Essex units.
Eleven battalions of the Essex Regiment served overseas during the First World War. Over 8,000 members of the Essex Regiment were killed in action or died of wounds and disease during the conflict. The numbers of casualties was much higher though than the deaths indicate, something like three of four wounded to each one who died. Considering the average size of a battalion was just over 1000 men of all ranks, by any measure the casualty rate was enormous.
The declaration of war in August 1914 brought with it a massive mobilisation. Huge display advertisements were put in the press and recruitment posters were put up all over the county. Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, appealed to the men of Essex to join up. Three new Essex battalions were formed during August and September 1914 alone being the 9th, 10th and 11th. A further battalion, the 13th, was formed early in 1915. Men who had signed up made their way to Warley barracks for induction and within a year the soldiers were in action on the killing fields of France and Belgium and taking horrendous casualties.
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. The Essex Yeomanry record in their war diaries of the battalion being tasked to dig combat trenches by the Yser canal next to Brielen bridge, at Essex Farm just before the first battle began. 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 First World War front stretched for over 600 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 metres of no-man’s land. For just over four years movement on the front line was limited to about 8 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. In the winter months conditions on the ground were terrible. Whether combat was taking place or not there was always a constant stream of dead, wounded and sick coming back.
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. Later that day McCrae composed the poem sitting on the back of an ambulance parked close to the ADS. In Flanders Field was later published in the magazine Punch in December 1915.
In our review of the local press we see that in the early days of the war, press reporting was very optimistic about an early victory. As the war dragged on through, despite the growing list of casualties and shortages the mood changed gradually to one of grim determination to see the war through to a successful conclusion no matter what the cost. In 1914 as a general rule the local papers were laid out differently to those of today. The first few pages were taken up with advertisements and official notices of one kind or other. The ‘news’ as such didn’t appear until pages four five. So it is perhaps odd to note that when war was declared on 4th August 1914, the Southend County Standard in its edition of 8th August, didn’t make mention of this until page five.
War reporting was patchy. The papers could only print the official statements released by the War Office which were few and heavily censored. However they did their best to supplement the scarcity of ‘fact’ with accounts from unofficial visitors to front line and by publishing on a regular basis soldier’s letters sent home.
Yet although the war was raging just one hundred miles away on the other side of the channel, on the home front, there was still plenty of crime, disaster and misadventure to fill the newspaper columns. Additionally to give the review an authentic feel we have reproduced a selection of the newspaper advertisements of the day.
THEY DID THEIR DUTY
ESSEX FARM (Never Forgotten)Illustrated with maps and photographs
ISBN 9780955229596 £9.99 © Essex Hundred Publication