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

Friday, February 2, 2024

Étretat—Seaside Resort and Military Hospital Center

Étretat Today

Étretat is a beautiful seaside French village on the northern edge of Normandy that is believed to have been first settled by the Vikings. Famous for the brilliant white cliffs that bracket the small inlet where it sits, Étretat saw service in  World War I as a hospital center for the British and American Armies, and for the French Army in the Second. Most significantly, in the Great War the community served as the site of British No.1 General Hospital from December 1914 until December 1918. Later, one of the first U.S. medical units to reach France in 1917, Base Hospital No. 2, staffed by New York's Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University, was stationed at Étretat. In the Second World War, French medical units were stationed in the area until the surrender to German forces.

By Claude Monet

Long mainly a  fishing village, pre-WWI Étretat became a magnet for the creative set. Eugène Delacroix, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse painted the pebble beach and cliffs, drawing numerous fellow artists to the area.  Author Guy de Maupassant spent most of his childhood in Étretat and later set some of his stories there. Composer Jacques Offenbach escaped Paris at his “Villa d'Orphée.” As word and images of Étretat's beauty spread, a tourism trade started growing. Hotels and  a rail extension to the shore were added to support the new industry. It was this tourism infrastructure that made Étretat an attractive site for a military hospital.

One of the Hotels Used for Hospital Wards

Ambulances Passing through the Town Center

Temporary YMCA Hut

It's probably inaccurate to say there was a hospital "located at Étretat" during the First World War. It's more like  the town became a hospital. Facilities were placed in the resort's various hotels, public buildings, and temporary structures. For such an important asset, there's surprisingly little in the way of documentation on how this was planned and executed. I've found, however, secondary sources referencing at least two major hotels that served as the wards for British officers and enlisted men,  a third hotel used as a hospital by the Yanks when they arrived, a huge bathing complex, housing for the doctors, nurses, and support staff, messes and club houses, an ambulance depot, and so forth. There's little in the way of statistics for either the patients or the staffing and support manpower, though. Prewar and in the present day, Étretat's permanent population historically hovers between 1,200 and 1,600. That number, of course, swells during tourism season, and probably did to a much greater level during World War I with all the military personnel assigned there or passing through. In any case, Étretat was a crowded, bustling place in wartime. Nothing like the quaint vacationing site it was before or after the wars of the 20th century.

The war service of the village is well remembered today locally.  A commemorative plaque is mounted in Place Maréchal Foch. Further inland in the Étretat churchyard are two Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, built after the Great War. They hold 546 Commonwealth burials from the First World War, four from the Second World War, and 13 German graves.

Sources: Bulletin of the Western Front Association, August 1914; Edith Elizabeth Appleton O.B.E. R.R.C. — A Nurse at the Front, The Wartime Memories Project, Scarletfinders, and various tourism sites


  1. This post relates to me because when I was at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and waiting for the elevator, I noticed the plaques recognizing the fallen doctors and nurses who went to the front. When I visit the hospital, I always search for it. I was surprised at how many doctors and nurses died in WW1 that came from that hospital. Etretat is a story of transformation from a quiet town to a wartime hospital where it now has a history from both world wars and is still a beautiful place to visit. It will be definitely a place I want to visit.

  2. A plaque and a bench commemorate the hospital: