Etaples: Britain’s Notorious Infantry Base Depot, 1914-1919
During the First World War, Etaples, a coastal fishing port situated on the North-East French coast, 15 miles south of Boulogne, was a base camp for the British Army, as well as a major medical facility for wounded and sick troops, including both British and Canadian hospitals. The Etaples camp also included a military cemetery, which by the end of the war contained the graves of more than 11,000 British and British Imperial soldiers.
Soldiers crossing the Channel on their way to the battlefields of the Western Front found themselves at the Etaples camp, where they would stay an average of two weeks undergoing further training and drills. The training staff who oversaw them had a bad reputation for either their training methods or their lack of genuine military experience at the Front.
The Etaples camp was also part of the route taken by men on their way back to the UK. Opportunities for leisure and recreation activities for soldiers away from the camp could be found in Etaples town. Officers, meanwhile, headed to the slightly more up-market beach resort of nearby Le Touquet, which was separated from the Etaples area by the river Canche, and accessible by a bridge. To ensure it remained ‘just for officers,’ pickets, usually members of the Military Police, were placed on the bridge to enforce its exclusiveness.
The men’s overall treatment, conditions in the camp and the poor relationship between them and members of the Military Police, was a cocktail for disaster, culminating in a number of incidents in September 1917, which have collectively become known as the Etaples Mutiny, the full story of which can be found in this book.