One of the great things about not reading a tour itinerary properly (or having a lousy memory) is that sometimes you find yourself somewhere you had no idea that you were going to be, and if that happens to be somewhere you had always wanted to be, then so much the better.
Thus it was with Etaples Military Cemetery during my Somme trip last year with the Friends of Surrey Infantry Museum.
Of course, Etaples is not on the Somme. We are in the Pas-de-Calais here, on France’s Côte d’Opale (Opal Coast), some fifteen miles south of Boulogne. Duncan the Elder points the way…
…although, as the cemetery is a little way north of this part of the town, I suggest we get back on the coach to get there.
Etaples is an old fishing port at the mouth of the River Canche, which, during the Great War, hosted the Etaples Army Base Camp, the largest camp ever established by the British Army overseas,…
…its size evident on this 1919 map (the previous photo, and the two below, are taken from where the quay is marked). Soldiers arriving at the station, looking up at the hillside on which the camp stood, would see a vast white encampment of tents and marquees, along with a smattering of wooden buildings housing organisations such as the YMCA, the Tipperary Club, and the Lady Angela Forbes Rest Hut, the latter two ‘the best places in the Camp, for such delicacies as tea, bread and butter, eggs, custard and fruit and such like could be obtained very cheaply’. The site of the military cemetery can be seen in the top left corner.
From the camp a network of roads, railways and canals served the troops fighting on the battlefields to the east and south east, and also linked the camp to the three major ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk from where ships transported men, equipment and supplies to and from the English channel ports.
The camp, primarily a huge training base and supply depot, was also a centre for the treatment of wounded and sick men, with getting on for twenty hospitals within its grounds that could treat some 22,000 people at any one time, and a detention centre for men who had transgressed military law. As the war progressed, the camp grew, at its peak housing over 100,000 men and women.
On arrival at the cemetery…
…you can see that it’s a seriously big place, the largest British military cemetery in France. Some 10,771 British First World War casualties are buried here, nearly all of whom, for once unsurprisingly, are identified. Just 35 of the First World War burials here (there are more than a hundred Second World War casualties here too) are unknown.
The British chose the coast of Northern France as their operational base on mainland Europe for the obvious reason that it was closest to the British coast, and was served by the aforementioned three major ports, the crucial requirement for the landing of men and supplies. The first troops arrived in August 1914 and although relatively small to start with, the British presence on the Opal Coast would grow rapidly as the months passed. Between 1914 & 1916, for example, it was estimated that some 1,700,000 soldiers passed through Boulogne alone, and in the summer of 1918 over 90,000 British soldiers were stationed in the base at Calais, although Etaples remained the largest of the British bases in the area. And don’t for a minute think that the only hospitals were at Etaples; there were hospitals near all three ports, and major medical centres at Boulogne and a little further north at Wimereux, some catering solely for men whose wounds were so serious that they could not be evacuated to England.
The two rows of Plot I snake through the picture, and there are one or two interesting graves in the plot, which we shall take a look at shortly.
Beyond Plot I Row A, still in the foreground, the plots around the lone tree (above & below) are some of the earliest numbered in the cemetery. Clockwise, Plot III nearest the camera, Plot V centre and Plot IX beyond, Plot XI immediately behind the tree,…
…Plot VI centre middle distance, and a few of the headstones in Plot IV centre far right.
Fashion parade. I think not. After the war the bases on the Opal Coast began to be dismantled, but the hospitals remained. Ten months after the Armistice three hospitals and a convalescent centre remained at Etaples, and it was not until the following year, in 1920, that the last of the British bases on the Opal Coast was finally demolished.
Lutyens again. Of course.
The Stone of Remembrance…
…and the Cross of Sacrifice…
…are placed on this terraced bank,…
…looking down on the cemetery below.
There were hospitals at Etaples in the Second World War too, although, obviously, not for so long; between January 1940 and the evacuation at the end of May the cemetery was once again used for British servicemen, and today, including a number of dead brought here from French cemeteries post-war, there are 119 British Second World War graves here, of which 38 are unidentified.
The cemetery is divided into seventy two – yes, seventy two – plots,…
…which makes it a little difficult, bearing in mind the size of the place and the time constraints, to cover the whole place comprehensively, and impossible to photograph many individual graves.
Nevertheless, we shall see what we can do. The cemetery plan, thanks to our friends at the CWGC, can be seen here.
So time, I think, to head down the steps…
…and visit the cemetery proper.
Looking up at the Cross of Sacrifice, Plot I in the foreground.
Of the 163 burials in Plot I Rows A & B, all but six are officers, which shows that, unlike all, I think, of the other cemeteries we have visited over the years, officers here were buried separately from other ranks. All but six died in 1915 or, by far the majority, in 1916.
One of the nurses who worked in the hospitals at Etaples, Sister Alice Violet Hallam died of illness contracted on duty in December 1916, aged 45, and is now buried in Plot I Row A.
Another burial in Plot I Row A, I include Lieutenant Geoffrey Burnaby because he was the second Burnaby we had seen during our short trip, it’s an unusual name, and as the first Burnaby had been a requested visit by one of our party, the name had stuck in my mind.
The second grave in Row B in the picture above…
…is that of one of only five civilians (two of whom are Belgian, and two members of the Young Men’s Christian Association) buried in this huge cemetery. Eliza Margaret Nisbet and her sister Amy Jane arrived in France from Glasgow in June 1916, both volunteers with the Scottish Churches’ Huts in France organisation, shortly before the opening in August of what would eventually be twenty five Scottish Churches’ Huts centres in France, staffed by some 350 volunteers. Poor Eliza would not even last the first month, dying in one of the military hospitals on 16th August, presumably from sickness. Eliza was 51 when she died, and her name appears on the Kelvinside Hillhead Parish Church War Memorial, and on the recently (2014) unveiled Roll of Honour at the Glasgow’s Necropolis; her sister Amy survived the war, serving with the Scottish Churches’ Huts until September 1919.
And because I, like you, knew nothing whatsoever about the machinations of the Scottish Churches’ Huts in France (and doubtless other, similar, organisations), the following article I discovered, written by the Rev. George Christie in August 1916 and entitled, um, The Scottish Churches’ Huts in France, will bring us all up to speed:
“The first two Huts are open and fully justifying their existence. On Sunday mornings Parade Services are held in both Huts, and it is an inspiring sight to see the great halls – 120 feet by 30 – crammed from end to end, many standing or sitting on our counters. The evening voluntary services taken by the Guild workers are also well attended, and evening prayers each night at 8 find many worshippers – Scots, English and Anzacs. Many Guildsmen and sons of the manse have made themselves known. One Guildsman had long had the ambition to serve a Guild Tent at home; now he is helping the hut in France. There are manses in Moray, Fife, Lanark and Perthshire whose sons we have welcomed. It is surprising how many Scottish boys leave home without a New Testament in their kit; we have written names in hundreds already and given them away with our God-speed – chiefly to men going up the line. It is amazing also to find how the lads revel in letter-writing. A Guildsman managed forty in a week, another nineteen in a day! This comes from the fact that we are dealing chiefly with reinforcements passing through from home and lying here for a few days only.
Of course there are hard-bitten soldiers also. Here is a Gordon who has been at Mons – himself wounded, five brothers lost in the war, and his only child killed in an English coast town in a Zeppelin raid. But well as our Huts are doing we want many things. The writer has seen only one Scotsman in three weeks! We need daily papers, weeklies, all kinds of illustrated papers and magazines, popular books, games, bagatelle boards, local papers from any and every town and country. Above all, subscriptions are urgently required. Of the £5000 asked for, fully £3000 have been received. Who will help further? So far, life has been too strenuous to allow of looking for other openings, but once the routine is thoroughly settled, we hope to make advance. The Church has set itself to a splendid endeavour, and will carry it through to the end. The Scottish touch appeals, the church note appeals; patriotism and religion together make a true Scot everywhere. This article cannot close without an expression of warm thanks to Commanding Officers and Chaplains for their sympathy and practical help in many ways.”
Elsewhere in Plot I,…
…the only Victoria Cross holder buried in the cemetery, Major (Captain at the time of the action) Douglas Reynolds, Royal Field Artillery, aged 33. The London Gazette recorded the following on 16th November 1914; ‘At Le Cateau, on 26th Aug., he took up two teams and limbered up two guns under heavy Artillery and Infantry fire, and though the enemy was within 100 yards, he got one gun away safely. At Pisseloup, on 9th Sept., he reconnoitred at close range, discovered a battery which was holding up the advance and silenced it. He was severely wounded 15th Sept., 1914.’ Returning to the front as a Major and Battery Commander, following the bestowment of his V.C., Reynolds was twice Mentioned in Despatches and later gassed which, I think, was the cause of his death in the Duchess of Westminster’s military hospital (actually housed in a casino) at Le Touquet, just across the River Canche from Etaples, on 23rd February 1916. Le Touquet was in effect British officers’ territory, and there were pickets stationed on the bridge crossing the Canche to ensure there was no infiltration from the other ranks in Etaples itself. In a sad coincidence Reynolds’ only son, born after his death, named after him, and a Lieutenant in the Irish Guards, would also die of his wounds at the age of 24, also on the Opal Coast, near Dunkirk, on 23rd May 1940, and is now buried in Outreau Communal Cemetery, along with about twenty other men killed between 22nd & 24th May. Outreau is a large industrial port across the River Liane to the west of Boulogne, and son is buried no more than twelve miles north of the father he never knew. Such tragedy.
Left to right: The two rows of Plot I, then Plot III, Plot IV, and the start of the two rows of Plot II (front right).
Panning right (and following photos), Plot II (foreground) and Plot IV beyond.
Etaples became well-known for other reasons during the Great War, not least the existence of the infamous Bull Ring, and the mutiny of 1917.
The intensive training for both new recruit and seasoned veteran that took place in often dreadful conditions, wind and rain sweeping in from the English Channel, on the infamous Bull Ring training grounds, the hours spent practising gas drill and trench warfare, the long marches, often double marches, across the dreaded sand dunes that surround the town, and the appalling rations (the principal meal of the day, I believe, consisted of two slices of bully beef, two biscuits, and an onion) were all bad enough. That the officers and NCOs in charge of the base training had rarely been to the front themselves created resentment, often contempt, and on occasions serious disturbance. An officer remembered the training to be ‘demoralising beyond measure’, and another newly arrived man referred to his fortnight at the Bull Ring as ‘like passing two weeks in hell’.
For many men a return to the front could not come quick enough, some with injuries far from healed, and all, if asked, ‘to get away from the Bull Ring’.
Following the two rows of Plot II, which contain the earliest burials in the cemetery, all men who died between May & August 1915, on our left, with Plot LXVIII nearest the camera on the right. In the following extract from his war diary, a Royal Welsh Fusilier gives his impression of the daily training routine at Etaples. “After dinner we fell in and marched to the ground which was known as the Bull Ring. Passing through the various I.B.D. Is and past the Hospital we got on to the main road to the training area which was some two miles away. On all sides could be seen sand: on the left it stretched away to the sea, while on the right it rose sharply into a large ridge which extended all along the route and was a continuation of the hill on which the camp stood. Arriving after about 30 minutes marching, hot and perspiring, because it was mid-day and very hot, we turned off the road and made our way to the position set out for the 38th I.B.D. about half way up the ridge and here awaited the coming of the sergeant instructors. These soon made their appearance, three of them accompanied by an officer, all wearing a wide yellow band on their sleeves to denote that they were instructors*. During the afternoon under the supervision of the sergeants and closely watched by the officer we went through rapid loading, extended order drill, and bayonet fighting and we were much relieved when we finally made our way back to the road, the instructors took their leave and we made tracks for the depot. The next day found us once again on the Bull Ring but this time in the morning from 8.15 a.m. to 12.00 or 1.00 p.m. with a break of half an hour. Bayonet fighting, bombing, and extended order, occupied the morning and we finally arrived back in camp somewhere about 2.00 p.m. In this manner the whole of the next ten days with four exceptions were passed. On two days the monotony of training was relieved by a route march.”
*Hence the soldiers referred to them as ‘canaries’.
Plots LXVIII in the foreground, stretching away to Plot LXV in the far distance. In the right background,…
…the two rows nearest the camera constitute Plot LXIX, one of two plots in the cemetery that contain only Second World War burials, with the six rows of Plot LXXII beyond them.
On our right Plot LXXI, in the north east corner of the cemetery, with the single row of Plot LXX, in the background,…
…which contains most of the final burials made in the cemetery between September & November 1919. However I can only find eight names, which tallies with the Graves Registration Report (see below), of men buried in the row, along with three special memorials to men who died in 1918 and are buried somewhere in the cemetery, exact location unknown. A young R.F.A. driver, killed in a German air raid in July 1918, also lies in the row, but it does make one wonder about the identities of the other nine men buried there, and, if they are indeed all unidentified, begs the question why?
Looking south east, Plot II in the foreground,…
…and Plot XVI beyond.
Past the final rows of Plot XVI, beyond the tree the huge Plot XXII, possibly the largest in the cemetery,…
…and panning further right, Plot XXV now ahead of us (see also photo below), the final headstones of Plot II in the foreground.
On our right, Plots LXV (foreground) to LXVIII (background right), the same section of the cemetery that we viewed from the far end some photos back.
Along the northern cemetery boundary, two small plots, on the left Plot XXXVII, and on the right Plot XXXVIII.
68 South Africans are buried in the cemetery; these nine men of the South African Labour Corps, all men who died between January & July 1917, lie in Plot XXXVIII,…
…and in Plot XXXVII, nine men of the British West Indies Regiment, all casualties from 1918. A Canadian private is buried in the back row, and a single Hindu, a driver with the Indian Royal Artillery who died in July 1919, in the foreground.
To the left of the British West Indies Regiment plot there are nine more Indian headstones (of only seventeen Indians in total buried in the cemetery), three at the end of each row in the photo above, which comprise Plot XXXVI. Beyond, Plots XXXV & XXXIV, in the north western corner of the cemetery, consist of exclusively German graves.
We now begin to follow the western cemetery boundary south, Plot XXXIII now in the foreground, the German graves in Plots XXXV & XXXIV now visible beneath the trees in the background.
It seems a curious thing that the Germans spent little effort for much of the war in disrupting the British bases on the Opal Coast. Nearly 50% of all British supplies to the Western Front throughout the entire war came through the three ports of Boulogne, Calais & Dunkirk, yet apart from the occasional bomb dropped from aeroplane or Zeppelin, it wasn’t until 1918 that they began to regularly target the railway network and munitions depots with aerial bombardment, at which time the town* itself also suffered heavy damage, as did at least one of the hospitals.
*Post-war, Etaples was awarded the Croix de Guerre for its stoicism in the face of the air raids, and for overcoming the difficulties of accommodating tens of thousands of men for four long years.
In May 1918, it seems. the hospitals within the base were targeted by German aeroplanes, who not only bombed but machine gunned them. During one raid, one hospital ward received a direct hit and was literally blown to pieces, another six wards were virtually destroyed, and three others severely damaged.
A sister, four orderlies and eleven patients were killed, and two doctors, a number of other sisters, and many more orderlies and patients wounded.
With Plot XXXIII still in the foreground, this view looks south; if you follow the row nearest the camera, the four headstones after the first gap are the end of Plot XXXII, and the large plot past the second gap is Plot XXXI, another of the biggest plots in the cemetery.
Past Plot XXXI, we now find ourselves in Plot XXX. You will notice a number of Australian and Canadian graves in this picture, and although the majority, nearly 9000, of the men buried here are British, more than a thousand Canadians also lie here, along with nearly 500 Australians.
Looking roughly south from Plot XXVIII in the foreground, towards the five rows of Plot XLV immediately ahead, and the five rows of Plot XLVIII to the right…
…and beyond, in Plots LII & LVI, more of the 658 German burials to be found here. All but six of the German graves are identified, most, possibly all, wounded or sick prisoners-of-war. To the left of the front row of Plot XLV in the foreground is one of only 260 New Zealanders buried here.
Panning left from the previous shot. As we saw in Plot I, all the burials in Plot XXVIII in the foreground appear to be officers. Immediately across the gap,…
…Plot XLV is again, from what I can see, an officers plot.
On 5th September 1917, just up the coast at Boulogne, two companies of the Labour Corps, made up of Chinese & Egyptian workers, went on strike. The following day, whilst attempting to break out of the camp, twenty three unarmed labourers were shot and killed by the troops guarding the camp, and a similar number wounded. Despite this, just a few days later another Labour Corps company also went on strike, and again the British authorities responded with force, this time killing four and wounding fifteen.
At about the same time, the demoralising conditions at the base at Etaples, combined with the resentment and antipathy between the men passing through the camp and the canaries and Military Police who controlled every movement within it and the town, were also bringing things to breaking point. On the afternoon of 9th September, following the arrest of a gunner in the New Zealand Artillery, a large group of men, mainly Scots, Australians & New Zealanders, gathered to protest at the arrest, and refused to disperse, even when shown that the gunner had already been released.
Clearly the arrest had been the tipping point after months of resentment, and as the Military Police arrived, scuffles broke out, followed by shots. A corporal of the Gordon Highlanders was hit in the head and later died in hospital, and a French woman bystander was also hit. At which point the police fled into the town, pursued by up to a thousand angry soldiers, and the mutiny had begun.
Mutineers spread through the town, despite an attempt by the Royal Fusiliers to stop them, seeking out the canaries and Military Police in the streets and alleys. Another thousand men, hearing of the uprising, made their way from Le Touquet to Etaples, joining the men who had already, as a local boy recalled, “swept into the town like true savages, stealing and destroying everything in their path”. Brigadier General A. G. Thomson, C.M.G. & three times Mentioned in Despatches prior to his appointment as Etaples Base Commandant in 1916, and his staff were powerless to prevent the destruction. A group of mutineers burst into Thomson’s headquarters, loading both Commandant and staff into two open-backed trucks which then drove the half mile to the bridge over the River Canche, past hundreds of cheering men lining the route, before depositing the unfortunate officers in the filthy river, to the derisive cheers of the hundreds of men already lining the quayside.
The men returned to camp late that night, and by the following morning Thomson had taken measures to contain any continuation of the uprising, military police pickets stationed at all entrances to the town and on the bridges over the river. Nonetheless, by late afternoon, men had broken through the pickets and more demonstrations were taking place throughout the town.
On the 11th, the shaken Thomson called for reinforcements as the mutiny escalated, and on the 12th, as another thousand men broke camp and marched once more through the town, some 400 reinforcements of the Honourable Artillery Company arrived, along with a squadron of the 15th Hussars and the more menacing presence of a section of the Machine Gun Corps. And this time, the show of strength worked. Only 300 men broke camp the following day, all were arrested in the town, and calm was finally restored to the base at Etaples.
Following the mutiny, many men were charged with various offences although only one, Corporal Jesse Robert Short of the Northumberland Fusiliers, was condemned to death and subsequently executed by firing squad on 4th October 1917. Three men received sentences of ten years’ penal servitude, others a years’ imprisonment with hard labour, and several dozen to various lengths of field punishment, reduction to the ranks, or fines. How accurate these figures are is disputed, not least because it was 1978 before the British Government finally acknowledged that there had indeed been a mutiny at Etaples.
Despite the casualties and later imprisonments at both Boulogne and Etaples in September 1917, there were further disputes and mutinies over the following months. On a number of occasions shots were fired and men died; just a month after the Etaples mutiny four Labour Corps men were killed and fourteen wounded in a dispute, and in December 1917 British soldiers opened fire on striking Labour Corps men near Calais, killing another four and wounding nine. Nonetheless, strikes and demonstrations continued throughout 1918, reaching their peak during the winter of 1918. The war was over, and men simply wanted to go home. On the night of 9th December 1918, for example, men of the Royal Artillery at the base at Le Havre rioted, burning down several depots, and causing far more damage and destruction than anything seen at Etaples the previous year.
A footnote to the Etaples story (although if ever proved conclusively true, it would hardly be considered a footnote) is that a number of scientists and researchers have suggested that an antecedent to the 1918 flu virus (the base was hit by a peculiar unnamed respiratory infection during the winter of 1915) or possibly the virus itself, may have had its roots in the Etaples camp.
And that, folks, is all. Not too shabby for a brief visit, if I say so myself.