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

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Étaples: Britain’s Notorious Infantry Base Depot, 1914-1919

by Stephen Wynn
Pen & Sword Military, 2020
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Étaples, a village on the northeastern coast of France, hosted a large British Army complex during the war. The base depot included several military hospitals and a large reception and training center designed for new troops bound for duty in France. Convalescent soldiers also stayed there prior to their reassignment. The camp and its cadre, particularly the military police, were known for brutality and excessively tight discipline. Men also complained of inadequate food and quarters. Many combat veterans resented being treated like new recruits by men (trainers and military police) who had seen no combat themselves. All this served to engender discontent at the base. Author Stephen Wynn, a retired British police officer who has written several works on Great War history, wrote this book to bring to light issues surrounding military indiscipline in the British Army at Étaples.

A Vast Military Encampment

It is difficult to properly characterize this book. It is not, as the title implies, a history of the base depot during the war years. Nor is it an in-depth examination of the September 1917 mutiny there by Australian, New Zealand, and British troops. It is, rather, a brief look at that mutiny and other events and people associated with it. After a review of some other acts of mutiny among Allied troops during the war, the author covers in brief the actual mutiny among British Commonwealth soldiers there in September 1917.

Wynn claims the main cause of the trouble was the common soldiers’ discontent with the war and a growing class-consciousness among the enlisted men. This, coupled with the abuse and mismanagement evident at the base, produced an atmosphere rife with tension that needed only a spark to ignite. Around 300 men were eventually arrested for their part in the mutiny; many of them were officially tried and received a variety of sentences including several days of field punishment, years at hard labor, and reduction in rank. One man was sentenced to death and shot on 4 October 1917.

In the ensuing chapters, the disjointed nature of the book is evident. Topics include a Communist Member of Parliament and erstwhile soldier, British regiments used or considered for use in putting down the mutiny, a review of Étaples as reported in the press, air raids on Étaples, a brief account of Étaples nurse Vera Brittain, and a discussion of some men who may or may not have been at Étaples. Wynn also includes a chapter covering the British Army’s abuse of civilian workers in both the Chinese and the Egyptian labor corps. While the events Wynn describes are terrible and worthy of more study, neither of these corps was closely connected with Étaples.

For the trouble at Étaples, the author blames the camp cadre and British senior officers. In his chapter entitled “Étaples Enquiry,” Wynn gives full vent to his feelings about Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig:

Personally, I don’t believe Haig was really that concerned about the welfare of his men at Étaples, or anywhere else for that matter, because to him, men were there to be used for his own egotistical ideas. If one man, ten men, or even one hundred men were killed, all he really thought about was where their replacements were coming from and how quickly they could get to where they were needed [p. 56].

Bayonet Training in the Infamous "Bull Ring"

Wynn follows this with a brief critique of Haig’s actions on the first day of the Somme. Such facile criticisms of Haig and his generalship are open to debate, and they detract from Wynn’s argument by couching it in emotional terms. There were real problems at Étaples; Wynn’s approach, however, doesn’t clearly show the reasons for any systemic mismanagement, malfeasance, or abuse there.

The main strength of his book lies in Wynn’s pointing out the general discontent and disgust of some Commonwealth soldiers at this stage of the war. Indeed, trouble between Australians and British soldiers continued well into 1918. It is important to remember that many men were tired of the war; not all men served well and honorably. There were troublemakers and miscreants among the camp cadre as well as among the mutineers.

The book is not a scholarly account of Étaples and what happened there; in places it seems disjointed and reads like a catalog of Wynn’s research. Wynn includes no end notes, and his list of sources runs to 14 Internet sites. Twenty-nine photographs and one period map enhance the text. Although Wynn is to be commended for this brief, accessible account, a more thorough scholarly approach would be helpful in understanding Étaples and how it fit into Britain’s war effort. This book will appeal to those who want only an introduction to the topic.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. Wynn is not a serious or reliable historian. I get the impression that he has an anti-establishment axe to grind; there are plenty of reasons to criticise the establishment but these need to be researched and balanced. I have reviewed one of his books "Fighter Aces of the Great War", on Amazon and in at least one other publication, and I gave it one star. Several passages appear to be lifted from Wikipedia. The book is disorganised and most of the references are from the internet, and he shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the subject. Having said that, the publishers "Pen and Sword" must share the blame: their quality has gone downhill recently; their editors do not appear to actually edit and have little knowledge of the subject, and they publish poor-quality work in an apparent attempt to prioritise quantity over quality.

  2. "more thorough scholarly approach would be helpful in understanding Étaples and how it fit into Britain’s war effort." Thanks for making this clear, Pete, and for giving some clear indications of the books failings. Also appreciate your comment, Adrian.

  3. Great review and warning. Learned alot in your summary. Thanks!

  4. The worst book I've ever bought in my life. Absolutely dreadful.