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Etaples Military Cemetery

Mutinies

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After the failure of Nivelle's offensive on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge in April 1917, the Allies found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Underwater warfare was threatening the supply of raw materials and Russia was on the point of capitulating. In the spring of 1917 a series of mutinies broke out which would affect the Allied armies from 17 April to early June, the first starting in an area between Soissons and Aubérive. The French Army was weary. According to the historian G. Pedroncini "the mutinies were not a refusal to fight but a refusal to fight a certain way".

The Song of Craonne (Chanson de Craonne) is a frank expression of the social divide between the soldiers and the decision-makers, such as makes clear these two extracts: "On the grand boulevards it's hard to look / At all the rich and powerful living it up / For them life is good / But for us it's not the same / Instead of hiding, all these shirkers / Would do better to go up to the trenches / ... / For if you want to make war / Then pay for it with your own blood!" Only General Philippe Pétain seemed to understand the weariness of the French troops, having previously opposed the plans drawn up by Generals Mangin and Nivelle for the offensive on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge.

The spate of insubordination among the French ranks affected about seventy divisions, with 250 cases of mutiny recorded. For the most part, the soldiers were refusing to take part in new offensives rather than preparing to abandon their posts in the trenches. The rearguard was the source of the collective insubordination, not the front line. Pétain's directive No.1 of 19 May 1917 brought the mutinies to an end by complying with the wishes of the mutineers and ordering an end to the offensives. The mass insubordination involved between 25,000 and 40,000 men and resulted in 554 men being sentenced to death although only forty-nine were actually executed. These mutinies were not unique for, like the French, the British Forces also endured problems of discipline.
 
During the Great War, the British Army used the town of Étaples as a base for assembling its troops because it was at a good distance from the fighting and enjoyed efficient rail communications to Arras and Béthune. It was also a training base and, at any one time, the British had 60,000 men out on manoeuvres on Mont Levin, preparing for the front line. After transiting through the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer and a twenty-six kilometre forced march, reinforcements arrived at the Étaples camp to discover a pitiless training regime. Very few of the instructors, nicknamed "canaries" because of the yellow armbands they wore, had ever been to the front but made up for their lack of experience with sadism and cruelty. They were, according to a soldier called Notley, "the worst individuals you could imagine and made the men's lives hell".

At the end of the summer of 1917 the men in training at Étaples mutinied. On 17 September the censor station reported that Scottish and Canadian soldiers were barring the bridges with machine-guns. One Corporal Reynolds recalled that "At the foot of the hill was detention camp No.1 with its unlucky prisoners tied up by the wrists while, further down on the beach, thrashing about in the silt and the mud, hundreds, thousands of soldiers were being sworn at and roughed up". Deserters organized themselves into groups in the nearby woods. A company of deserters, calling themselves "Sanctuary", hid out in the tunnels and wells around Camiers.

According to certain historians (Allison and Fairley, The Monocled Mutineer, 1978; Lecat, Quand les laboureurs courtisaient la terre, 1995) the rebellion began on 9 September 1917 when one Corporal William Wood was arrested on place d'Étaples by the Military Police for having talked to a nurse! His act was indeed against the rules however in the scuffle subsequent to his arrest, Wood was shot dead by one of the policemen. News of his death spread quickly among the Scottish, Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the camp who then commandeered the camp's training weapons: the mutiny had begun. The mutineers managed to spread out into the town despite an attempt by the Royal Fusiliers to intercept them on pont des Trois Arches. They began actively seeking out the "canaries" and MPs in the streets and houses of Étaples. About a thousand mutineers from Le Touquet also made their way to Étaples. General Thomson, commander of the training camp, and his subordinates were thrown off a bridge into the river Canche and other acts of violence were committed in the town of Étaples. Lucien Roussel, a fifteen year old boy from Étaples, recalled that "The British troops swept into the town like true savages, stealing and destroying everything in their path. They occupied the main square for several days".

After three days of revolt, with the attack on Passchendaele imminent, British Command decided to intervene. The 19th Hussars and part of the 1st Honourable Artillery Company were sent to Étaples. On 13 September two battalions withdrawn from the Artois front joined them, soon to be followed by a company of Gurkhas of the Indian Army, and the next day they besieged the camp. The mutineers were contained and sent to the front. There is no evidence available to establish the exact number of soldiers who were subsequently executed by firing squad.

In Boulogne the British Army had to deal with a mutiny in the Labour Corps. Field Marshal Haig had twenty-three Egyptian workers executed and, later, nine Chinese labourers.

In Étaples the Corporal Jesse Short was shot on 4 October 1917. The instigator of the mutiny, a deserter called Percy Toplis, who gained the nickname "The Monocled Mutineer", was arrested on 15 October 1917 at Rang-du-Fliers before escaping to England were he was finally brought down in 1920.


Didier PARIS,
Professor of History