Not despair, more terrible than terror: why British soldiers mutinied in 1917
Etaples was a notorious British army base camp for soldiers on their way to the front, whether raw recruits from England or battle-weary veterans.
Before the war, Étaples, 15 miles (24 km) south of Boulogne-sur-Mer, was a coastal fishing port with a fleet of trawlers. It also attracted artists from around the world.
After 1914, the town became one of a series of British Army bases that stretched along the Channel coast of France. Étaples did not impress British women who volunteered to work in YMCA huts at the base. In the words of Lady Olave Baden-Powell, "Étaples was a dirty, loathsome, smelly little town". On the other side of the river was the smart beach resort known officially as Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, and unofficially as either Le Touquet or Paris-Plage. Le Touquet was in effect officers' territory, and pickets were stationed on the bridge over the Canche to enforce the separation.
Étaples was a particularly notorious base camp for those on their way to the front. The officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in charge of the training, the "canaries", also had a reputation of not having served at the front, which inevitably created a certain amount of tension and contempt. Under atrocious conditions, both raw recruits and battle-weary veterans were subjected to intensive training in gas warfare and bayonet drill, and long sessions of marching at the double across the dunes. After two weeks, many of the wounded would rather return to the front with unhealed wounds than remain at Étaples.
Poet/soldier Wilfred Owen, resting at Étaples on his way to the line, described the context of the mutiny: "I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England; nor can it be seen in any battle but only in Etaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look and without expression, like a dead rabbit's."
Siegfried Sassoon's poem "Base Details" expressed the contempt of infantry veterans for the officers and NCOs who staffed Étaples:
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You'd see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. 'Poor young chap,'
I'd say—'I used to know his father well;
Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap.'
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I'd toddle safely home and die—in bed.
On 28 August 1916, a member of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), Private Alexander Little (10th Battalion; no. 3254), verbally abused a British NCO after water was cut off while he was having a shower. As he was being taken to the punishment compound, Little resisted and was assisted and released by other members of the AIF and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). Four of these men were later identified, court-martialled, convicted of mutiny and sentenced to death, including Little. Three had their sentence commuted. While the military regulations of the AIF prevented the imposition of capital punishment on its personnel, that was not the case for the NZEF. Private Jack Braithwaite, an Australian serving with the NZEF, in the 2nd Battalion of the Otago Regiment, was considered to be a repeat offender — his sentence was confirmed by General Douglas Haig and he was shot by a firing squad on 29 October.
It appears that relations between personnel and authorities at the camp continued to deteriorate. They came to a head on Sunday 9 September 1917, after the arrest of Gunner A. J. Healy, a New Zealander belonging to No. 27 Infantry Base Depot. He and others bypassed the police pickets patrolling the bridges that gave access to Le Touquet, which was out of bounds to enlisted men. His son recalled:
It was the practice for those who wished to visit the township to walk across the estuary or river mouth at low tide, do their thing and return accordingly. However in my father's case the tide came in, in the interval and to avoid being charged as a deserter, he returned across the bridge and was apprehended as a deserter by the "Red Caps" and placed in an adjoining cell or lock up. When news of this action reached the NZ garrison, the troops left in a mass and proceeded to the lock up.
A large crowd of angry men gathered near the "Pont des Trois Arches", heading towards town. They did not disperse, even when told the gunner had been released. It was clear that the protest over the arrest was only the tip of an iceberg and the atmosphere was tense. The arrival of military police only made matters worse and scuffles broke out. Suddenly the sound of shooting was heard. Private H. Reeve, a military policeman, had fired into the crowd, killing Corporal W. B. Wood of the 4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, and injuring a French woman standing in the Rue de Huguet, Étaples. Thereafter, the police simply fled.
News of the shooting spread quickly. By 7:30 pm over a thousand angry men were pursuing the military police, who fled in the direction of the town.
The following morning measures were taken to prevent further outbreaks and police pickets were stationed on the bridges leading into the town. Nevertheless, by 4 pm men had broken through the pickets and were holding meetings in the town, followed by sporadic demonstrations around the camp.
On Tuesday, fearing further outbreaks, the Base Commandant requested reinforcements. Meanwhile, the demonstrations gathered momentum.
On Wednesday 12 September, in spite of orders confining them to camp, over a thousand men broke out and marched through the town. Later that day, reinforcements of 400 officers and men of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) arrived, armed with wooden staves. The HAC detachment was composed mainly of officers and was a unit on which complete reliance could be placed. The HAC were supported by a section from the Machine Gun Corps. The threat worked: only 300 men broke camp and were arrested at Étaples. The incident was now over and the reinforcements were dispersed.
Many men were charged with various military offences and Corporal Jesse Robert Short (his life now celebrated and remembered in a song by the English Anarchic punk folk band 'the Levellers' on album Static on the airwaves) of the Northumberland Fusiliers was condemned to death for attempted mutiny. He was found guilty of encouraging his men to put down their weapons and attack an officer, Captain E. F. Wilkinson of the West Yorkshire Regiment. Three other soldiers received 10 years' penal servitude. The sentences passed on the remainder involved 10 soldiers being jailed for up to a year's imprisonment with hard labour, 33 were sentenced to between seven and ninety days field punishment and others were fined or reduced in rank. Short was executed by firing squad on 4 October 1917 at Boulogne. He is buried in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.
The Levellers: Mutiny