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.
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.
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
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.
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.
From Leyton in Metropolitan Essex to rural Woodham Walter to Bocking and from Braintree to Harlow to Saffron Walden, we highlight Essex connections and tragedy.