Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Notorious Étaples Camp

Contributed by Martin Middlebrook

Vast Accommodations for the Troops

The most important base for the British Army was at Étaples, using Boulogne as its port for personnel. Calais was used mainly for stores, ammunition, etc. Étaples was the BEF's main infantry base, with sections for every regiment with battalions at the front. In theory, the base held a ten percent reserve for every frontline battalion, but these figures fluctuated significantly depending on the levels of casualties at the front and the supply of fresh troops from England. Troops held at the base were "toughened up" while waiting dispatch to the front. Étaples serviced the Regular and New Army battalions at the front and included 16 hospitals.

Étaples  Cemetery Today

The abundance of military infrastructure in Étaples gave the town a capacity of around 100,000 troops in World War I and made the area a serious target for German aerial bombing raids, from which the town suffered heavily. The combination of withstanding these attacks and giving over their homes to the war effort led to Étaples being awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1920. The base was reopened in World War II but was taken by German forces in 1940. Today the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in France holding 11,500 burials is all that remains of the military presence.

Training in the Bull Ring and a Cartoon Probably from a Trench Newspaper

Étaples is most remembered today, however, for a September 1917 mutiny.  Wilfred Owen described the camp as the "bull ring" because of the brutality of the instructors — many of whom had not served at the front — and the generally harsh conditions that reigned there. Tensions between the camp authorities and the soldiers boiled over in a series of events in 1916, after which there was an execution of a repeat offender, a soldier from New Zealand. The arrest of another New Zealand soldier on 9 September 1917 triggered a larger  and progressively more organized series of acts of disobedience. These included unauthorized leaving of the base by groups, drunkenness, assaults on military policemen — resulting in the the police firing into crowds and killing at least one soldier, sporadic demonstrations around the camp, and attacking an officer. The bad conduct was finally suppressed, after which dozens charged with military offenses and one man executed by firing squad.


  1. All accounts of Etaples describe as a hell hole. The treatment of men returning from leave particularly led to hard feelings as they considered many of the instructors cowards for not having served at the front. Heavy handedness of the camp authorities led to many instances of men courtmartiled and desertion by men trying to get back to their battalions.

  2. "a Cartoon Probably from a Trench Newspaper" Not hardly! it is from a British Comic from the 80's called Charlie"s War!

  3. my uncle was sent to Etaples in march 1918 and was missing presumed dead on 27th march 1918. Is it possible he is buried there.

  4. A really interesting article. Thanks very much for helping us with our research!

  5. My grandmother’s first husband, George Searle, was killed at Etaples 4/1/1918. He was with the Northumberland Fusiliers (Pioneers). How would he have been killled at Etaples? A German bombing raid?

  6. .y partner was reading the origins of the Spanish Flu, and she came across a reference to Etaples, while I have read a lot about WW1, was unaware of Etaples as a Army Base, and of such importance.
    Thank you for an informative article, will read further.

  7. My great great uncle was part of the NZ 27th Regiment and was marched to Etaples 26th September 1917 and I wonder what he would have found there at that time.

  8. My Grandfather, George Nilsson, arrived in Etaples on 2 October 1916, a machine gunner in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was sent to the trenches in the front lines where 8 months later he was shot in the hip and sent to a field hospital in Numereux. He spent 3 and a half years there and survived

  9. My grandfather was attached to the NZ base in Etaples 6/06/1916
    and by 14/06/1916 he was in hospital with influenza and was returned 12 days later. 21/09/1916 he was wounded (stomach wound) and was transferred by hospital ship to New End Hospital, Hampstead. He was returned to Etaples 23/09/1917 where he stayed as far as I can tell until the end of the war - apart from another 10 days in possibly a field hospital for a stomach flu. They certainly just patched them up and threw them back.

  10. I am looking over my husband Grandfather war files and see that he was posted at Etaples 22 7 17 his name William Gibson, Wellington Infantry Regiment, Private, his records show he was always going absent without leave while at Etaples. He was discharged due to illness with chronic Bronchitis. He was a Sapper/Miner Annette Gibson

  11. Years ago on British tv, on a BBC programme called Nationwide, a veteran of WW1 described the rebellion against the authorities in the camp. Only he said they killed some officers and trainers. He claimed they put some of them into a railway carriage and levered the carriage into a canal where they drowned. The reporter was shocked into silence. Since then I’ve never read anything like that.