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.