Mutiny At Etaples Base in 1917

Discussion in 'The Western Front' started by Andy Pay, Feb 4, 2009.

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  1. Andy Pay Member

    This article appeared in "Past and Present" No.69 (Nov. 1975) and was assessed by JSTOR in 2008. It is a very long article so bear with me as I place it on the forum, but thought it might be of interest to the members.

    Mutiny at Etaples Base in 1917

    On the last day of December 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother:

    Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast encampment. It seemed neither France or England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scottish troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed - whether we should indeed - whether you would indeed - but I thought neither long or deeply, for I am a master of elision.
    But chiefly I thought of the very strange on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be 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."


    Eight months after that night in Etaples described by Owen, the base was disrupted by a week of riot. Men poured out of the vast, dreadful encampment, attacked the Military Police, displaced the officers, and flooded through the town. Their demonstrations were suppressed, but were followed, in the eighteen months threreafter by a multiplicity of riots, strikes and other conflagrations. These disturbances, though arising for a variety of reasons and rarely linking with each other, went far towards compelling reform, concession and measures of improvement; and led eventually to the dismantling of great sections of the army.
    The incidents at Etaples Base in September 1917 formed by no means the largest mutiny in the British army of that day. But it was the first, and it lived, more vividly than all the others, in the memories of those who passed through the base camps on their way towards the front. Today, drawing on the military archives and on the recollections of men present at that time, the events of that week may be carefully set out. The Etaples mutiny throws light on the inner workings of the army: on the relationship, that is, between officers and men, between the men of one unit and those drawn from another, between the officers at Etaples and those at General Headquarters (G.H.Q.); and, not least, on the policy of Sir Douglas Haig in areas which military historians have chosen to neglect.
    In tha late summer of 1917 the British Expeditionary Force, France and Flanders, was deployed along a section of the Western Front extending from the coast of Belgium to the head-waters of the Somme. In the trenches, behind the lines, gathered in the base depots, and strung out along the lines of communication, were gathered some two million officers and men. This great army, the largest that Great Britain has ever sent abroad, was manned, reinforced, armed, fed and generally supplied, along routes which started principally in England: routes passed through the English ports, across the Channel, and thence through the great bases on the northern coast of France. One such base was Etaples, a small town in the Pas de Calais, some fifteen miles south of Boulogne. Etaples Base embraced port facilities, railway yards, stores, hospitals, prisons, training areas and all the encumberances of an army at war; but consisted principally of a series of Infantry Base Depots (I.B.D.s), gathered on the rising ground to the east of the railway which runs north-south beside the town. Drafts from England for numerous infantry divisions passed through the I.B.D.'s where, according to unit, they were regrouped, put through a period of training, and sent forward to the front. Also on the depots were to be found men transferring to other theatres of the war or classed as "Temporary Base" after hospital and convalescence. Between June 1915 and September 1917 more than a million officers and men passed through Etaples on their way to the front.
  2. Andy Pay Member

    The base played an important part in the offensives of 1917. Etaples lay close to that part of the line which centred on Arras, and through the base passed tens of thousands of reinforcements for the operations of the spring and early summer. In June the main area of offensive moved northwards to Messines, and in August still further north to Ypres. As the year drew on, the hospitals and convalescent camps filled and re-filled with the wounded and the sick, while into the infantry depots were garnered for reinforcement and re-formation the survivors of battalions cut to pieces at the front.
    At Etaples Base the troops met with conditions which all remember as oppressive. Not even the most experienced or battle-weary were given respite from the war. At the "Bull Ring", as the training grounds were called, soldiers barely discharged from hospital and men who had seen much service in the trenches were put through the same training as the latest drafts from England. A course in gas warfare and two weeks in the Bull Ring was the usual programme; two weeks, that is, of march and double march across the dunes, supervised by officers and N.C.O.'s of the "blood on the bayonet" school. The march to and from the Bull Ring, and the training period itself, took up the entire day, while the conditions under which this programme had to be sustained were particularly poor. Etaples was a permament base, but one informant recalls that the men's accomodation was confined to tents, that the principal meal of the day consisted of two slices of bully beef, two biscuits and an onion. An officer remembers the training to have been "demoralising beyond measure"; one man, newly arrived at Etaples, found the Bull Ring to be "like passing hell for 2 weeks"; while a corporal encountered several men returning to the front with wounds which were far from being healed. "When I asked they ha returned in that condition they invariably replied: 'To get away from the Bull Ring'."
    The harshness of the training, the atate of the accomodation, and the difficulty of obtaining passes into town, compelled the greatest use of the facilities provided by the camp. The recreation huts, and the area close to the bridge which crossed the railway into town, were particularly crowded on Sunday afternoons, no training being undertaken after church parade. The afternoon of Sunday 9 September 1917 provided no exception. Nor was it exceptional that the military police should keep the bridge clear of troops; nor that the soldiers present should resent the actions of the police. At noon that day an N.C.O. had warned the police that men from the New Zealand Base Depot intended raiding the police hut in retribution for the arrest of one of their number on an earlier occasion. "As threats by Colonials were fairly common", no notice was taken of his words. The threat to raid the police hut was not directly carried out, but an incident took place that afternoon which was to have graver consequences than any originally envisaged. At 3 o'clock the police at the bridge arrested a gunner of the New Zealand Artillery. He had committed no offence, he was later to allege, and was also gatuitously assaulted. He was soon released. The arrest, however, had been witnessed by others on the spot, and "some feelong was shown against the police". By 4 o'clock a crowd had begun to gather, and in the next half hour or so was augmented by men leaving the camp cinema at the end of the afternoon performance. The crowd was now of threatening proportions. A New Zealander, on directly demanding the release of the arrested gunner, was taken into the guardroom and shown that, in fact, the prisoner had already been set free. The revelation came too late. The crowd had grown until it pressed forward on to the bridge, and the military police were having difficulty in keeping order. An altercation between a policeman and an Australian took on a more serious dimension. A Scotsman belonging to a draft undergoing training at the base takes up the story.

    "The Red Cap tried to move him (The Australian) away without any result so he brought force into it and that started something that others joined in till the Red Cap must have lost his head and started using his gun. He wounded one or two but hit our post corporal (an innocent minding his won business and passing by) in the head, he I believe died later; I knew him and a grand and good living chap he was".
  3. Andy Pay Member

    The crowd was naturally enraged.

    "By this time hundreds had gathered and the Red Caps were having a tough time at their little huts on the Railway embankment being stoned by those who never missed an opportunity to get at them with a free hand to really enjoy it. The mob was angry and the Assistant Provo Marshall soon turned on his horse when the stones started in his direction".

    Nearly four thousand men were present, but not all of them wished to take the matter further. One man remembers his group following its sergeant away from the demonstration, while thousands of soldiers had not yet left the different I.B.D.'s.

    "I was in our camp when someone said there was some shooting at the bridge which was close to our camp........Our camp commander a staff officer of (I think) the KOYLI or DLI appealed very strongly to the men from his camp to report back and like true Scots we did. I think the absentees was no more than seven."

    Numbers of the men in the depots, however, on learning of the shooting and the rush into Etaples, crossed over into the town. And this despite the calling up of an officer and fifty men from the New Zealand Base Depot, of a further two hundred
    reinforcements, and an assortment of officers from every I.B.D. By 7.30pm a thousand men had gathered in the town. Still in pursuit of the police, they tried to break into a cafe which two military policemen had taken refuge. According to the base commandant, Brigadier General A. Graham Thompson the crowds hostility was directed against the police, and his officers went more or less unscathed. The Camp Adjutant remembers a more dramatic sequence of events.

    "Word of the incident went round to all the depots and that night.......the men poured into the town and refused to obey orders.
    One of the Staff Captains at the office of the officer i/c Reinforcements, a very brave man, stood on the parapet of the bridge, with a drop of about 40 feet below him, and started to harangue the men but they disregarded him.
    Before this, he attempted to stop the men crossing the bridge by lining up a lot of officers from the camp about six deep, but the men swept them aside. They swarmed into the town, raided the office of the base commandant, pulled him out of his chair and carried him on their shoulders through the town".

    Nor were the officers merely disregarded.

    "Some of the officers attached to the office of the Officer i/c Reinforcements, myself among them, had to make our way down a path on the railway embankment in order to get to our billet in the town. We had a few stones thrown at us. Luckily we managed to get a lift on a passing engine".

    By 10 o'clock all the men were back in camp.
    On the following day, Monday 10 September 1917, the troops returned to training, drafts continued to move to and from Etaples, and the authorities took steps to counter further demonstrations. In the morning Lieutenant General Asser, General Officer Commanding, Lines of Communication, and Major Dugdale, Assistant Provost Marshall, reached Etaples and conferred with the officers involved. A field officer was put in charge of Etaples town and all guards and pickets there; and a hundred men were sent from the Le Touquet Lewis Gun School to Paris Plage, a townadjacent to Etaples and just along the coast, in case trouble spread. The forces of concilliation were similarly increased, by ordering all officers to be presnt in their depots between 5.30 and 10pm. A board of inquiry began to collect evidence as to what happened on the Sunday.
    These steps were not successful, and the crowds that gathered late Monday afternoon and evening proved hardly less determined than they had been the previous day. At 4 o'clock groups of men broke through the pickets on the bridge and held meetings in the town.
    According to one report, a committee was elected, of perhaps six men chaired by a corporal of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Some soldiers tried to stop traffic through the town, while others headed down the river road for the detention camp/ They were spotted at 6.30pm, addressed by the base commander, and then led back to camp. A little later, a hundred men tried to enter the field punishment enclosure. They were dispersed after being addressed in turn by the commandant. At 9pm a further hundred men gathered at the railway station; they too heeded an officer's appeals. A thousand men had assembled at the railway bridge, but "were evidently from their temper not out to make further trouble".
  4. Andy Pay Member

    On Tuesday 11th September the base commandant resolved to seek reinforcements from outside. He urged the Chief Provost Marshall of the Armies who, together with Colonel Wroughton of the Adjutant General's staff, had arrived that day, to put the matter direct to General Headquarters - "troops from outside were urgently required". The Provost Marshall promised to do this, but before G,H,Q, could even be informed, Brigadier-General Thomson and his staff sought to hasten reinforcement. They tried to get in touch with 9th Cavalry Brigade direct. "It was felt that Cavalry could be usefully employed"; but the unassuming language used by the Etaples authorities in setting down their feelings spoke of a sense of calm belied both by their unreasonable assumption that cavalry would be forthcoming from so insignificant a unit without first clearing it with G.H.Q., and by a series of impetuous mistakes. The telephone call to 9th Cvalry Brigade was put through in error to Cavalry Corps H.Q. Without breaking off the call or even speaking to the corps commander himself, the request was bluntly made: could two squadrons of the 15th Hussars, presently at Frencq, be held in readiness to move? To this request, no answer could be given. Within half an hour, however, a staff captain from Etaples had driven off to Frencq to inform the regiment what its duties would involve.
    At 2.30pm Cavalry Corps H.Q. rang back. They would not move without sanction from above. Etaples, accordingly, telephoned H.Q. Lines of Communication, which in turn contacted G.H.Q. itself. About 4pm an answer was received. G.H.Q. would not authorize the intervention of the cavalry. It would, however, send seven or eight hundred men of the Honourable Artillery Company (H.A.C.), the first battalion of which was stationed at Montruil.
    That afternoon there were further demonstrations. Just as G.H.Q. was making its reply, men were again breaking through the pickets. A crowd of soldiers passed through the picket on the bridge, and marched through the town, broke the picket on the bridge across the River Canche, and struck northwards towrads Paris Plage. None of the pickets made determined efforts to prevent the march. The officer who had saved the railway station the night before, meeting the demonstrators near Paris Plage, persuaded them to return to camp with him. There they dispersed. Not all the men returned to camp that night, five arrests being made in Etaples town itself.
  5. Andy Pay Member

    Wednesday 12th September saw an enlargement of these demonstrations. Tuesday's march to Paris Plage had not involved more than three hundred men. On Wednesday, in the attempt to stop the demonstrations, all troops were confined to camp except for training. At 3pm, however, a thousand men broke bounds, marched through the town and thence to Paris Plage. They then returned to camp. The pickets failed to stop them, and the Honourable Artillery Company had not yet reached Etaples. Some cars were interferred with, but no important incidents took place.
    That day, Lieutenant-General Asser made a further visit to Etaples. He gave final sanction to the bringing up of the H.A.C., but the continuing failure to contain the demonstrations perhaps raised doubts in his and other minds as to whether that unit could make a sufficient show of force. G.H.Q. was also reconsidering this question and now agreed that cavalry should at least be held in readiness. A wire was received at Etaples, just as the thousand demonstrators were passing through the town, to the effect that the 15th Hussars, plus one section, Machine Gun Squadron, were in readiness to move. Later in the day, word came through of further preparations. The 19th Hussars and four machine guns could also move at an hours notice. Etaples asked that these units should be kept at the ready.
    On Wednesday evening the H.A.C. arrived: a detachment of four hundred officers and men. They at once took up their posts but, the day's demonstrations being over, had no duties to fulfil.
    Next morning all was thoroughly prepared. The Honourable Artillery Company was in position, the Hussars and the machine guns were still in readiness to move. Etaples was confident that before the day was out it would have re-established full military control. It had informed the French authorities that order would be "immediately" restored; now it was taking steps to carry out its promise. All ammunition was collected from the soldiers in the I.B.D.'s, and, a roll call being taken, it was found that only twenty-three men were missing. It was the turn, however, of G.H.Q. to show unreasonable concern. Just after 11am on Thursday morning it wired that two infantry battalions, both from the 7th Division, were on their way; at 12.45pm it sent the further information that not just a regiment of cavalry, but an entire brigade, was now held at the ready. Etaples wired back: the brigade was not required.
    In the event, the H.A.C. did the job unaided. Only two hundred men broke camp on Thursday evening, and they did so mainly by choosing more circuitous routes than that offered by the Three Arch Bridge. Indeed, in trying unsuccessfully to force the H.A.C.'s picket on the bridge, "two of the ringleaders were injured by entrenching tool handles". The majority of the men were back in camp by 9pm.
    On Friday 14th September the pickets provided by the H.A.C. were dispensed with, and policing returned to a more conventional basis. The original body of police, however, was not restored. Fresh personnell, to fill the ranks of the camp police, the foot police and the mounted police, had been drafted in, and was now in sufficient strength to handle all normal calls upon it. The H.A.C. was removed from the forefront of affairs, one company being held in the town with the remainder in reserve. Of the two infantry battalions sent by G.H.Q., the first - the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers - had arrived about midnight, the second - the 22nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment - had not until 4.30 Friday morning. One company of the Fusiliers was sent that afternoon to guard the detention camp, while the remainder of the battalion stood to. The 22nd Manchesters were kept in a camp nearby. The cavalry units held at the ready received the following advice:

    "It is considered now that Cavalry wil not be required at all unless situation materially alters. Adequate number of Infantry now available and ringleaders are being arrested. Trouble expected to subside rapidly."
  6. Andy Pay Member

    This was shortly before midday. On Friday afternoon, between fifty and sixty men again broke out of camp but were arrested in Etaples. The authorities were now certain that the disturbances were over. On Saturday 15th September the town of Etaples was thrown open to the soldiers in the I.B.D.'s. The 22nd Manchesters bathed in the sea, played football and watched a concert. They remained in the area until 17th September. That day the Royal Welch Fusiliers also left, as did next day the detachment from the H.A.C.
    At this point, narrative account of these incidents must cease. There is no further reference to the mutiny in the archives now open to the public, and reliabe eye-witness accounts have not appeared in print. After so great a lapse in time further and well informed witnesses are unlikely to come forward, while, given public policy in these matters, it will not be known what court martials were actually convened, let alone the substance of their findings until the year 2017. Even then, given the limitations of court proceedings as a guide to disaffection in the army, little may emerge to illuminate the soldiers' motives or their organizing skills. The diaries kept by the staff at Etaples Base and at the headquarters of other units which chanced to be involved, while fully comprehensive and permitting the description of the disaffection on a day-by-day, and even hour-by-hour basis, leave us with an imperfect picture of conditions at the base and the temper of the troops. We can, however, list some factors which, in the opinion of those present at the time, played an important part in the outbreak of the incidents described.
    The adjutant, Major Guiness, writing fifty years after the event, remembers as the "chief cause of discontent" the fact that men who had already done much service at the front had to undergo "the same strenuous training as the drafts of recruits arriving from home". Equally, the usual regimental links between officers and men had been disrupted by the arrangements at the base.

    "It should be realised that each Infantry Base Depot was commanded by an elderly retired officer who had an adjutant to help him. The remaining officers, like the men, were either reinforcements from home, or had been sent down the line on account of ill-health, and therefore did not know them".

    These officers lacked the authority to contain their men after the shooting at the bridge. On one point all the witnesses agree: the fracas at the bridge, culminating in the death of Corporal Wood, provided a powerful focus for resentment of the police. We have already noted Wood's standing in his regiment and the effect which his injury had upon the crowd. The base commandant's diary, in effect, attributes responsibility for the entire week of trouble to the military police, while the officers of the H.A.C., arriving in Etaples on the Wednesday, learnt that "riots hads broken out....owing to the unpopular edicts and actions of a certain Provost Marshall" - the Provost Marshall, of course, being the officer responsible for the military police. The police in any army are usually disliked, but a particular hatred surrounded the contingent at Etaples. They had not served at the front, it seems, but had been brought in from Aldershot; and it was the disciolinary standard of the glasshouse that they had been trying to impose. Private Reeve, the man responsible for the death of Corporal Wood, was an ex-boer, and was remembered as something of a bully.
    If conditions at the base camp, the loose hold of the officers, and the unpopularity of the military police are spoken of from many sides, less is known about the attempt to give some wider purpose to the demonstrations. The base commandant explaind the activities of the troops in terms of their desire to seek out, and deal retribution to, the military police; hence the march on the detention camp, the field punishment enclosure and the railway tation, in all of which the police might have taken refuge. Another witness remembers a different purpose directing the actions of the men. The plight of military prisoners was well known to the soldiers at Etaples. Inadequately maintained and fed, and confined in cells situated in the lowest, dampest part of the dunes, men being punished for serious offences but who had been spared the penalty of death lived out their periods of sentence.
  7. Andy Pay Member

    Their release might only be a gesture but it would, it seems, have been viewed with general satisfaction. Even so,the pursuit of the police, or the release of prisoners, could scarcely account for the continuing daily demonstrations; and their orderliness presents something of a puzzle. Riots, more or less destructive, were fairly common in the army,, particualrly in the closing period of the war, and strikes - refusals of duty in support of specific objects - became very popular. But the incidents at Etaples Base fall into neither category. It is the combination of the sudden riot on the Sunday afternoon, followed by demonstations every afternoon and evening, which provides the most unusual aspect of the affair; and yet, apart from occasional references to "noisy meetings" and the like, nothing is known of the kind of organisation which was certainly thrown up, or of the deliberations of those who took part.
    Perhaps the presence of both Scottish and Anzac soldiers gave the mutiny a cohesiveness which a riot could not have otherwise obtained. The part played by Anzac soldiers on the opening Sunday at Etaples forms but one instance of the difficulties which arose between the British army, with its "traditions of duty and long suffering" and its fixed gulf between officers and men, on the one hand, and a band of adventurers, all volunteers who had travelled across the world, on the other. Anzac troops were contemptuous of the narrow discipline to which British troops subscribed, and were led by officers who had invariably first shown their qualities as privates in the ranks. Social distinctions between officers and men, so characteristic of the British army, were therefore less pronounced: Australian born soldiers could not, for instance, be induced to serve as officers' servants, while the British system of superior messing arrangements for officers, universal even in the trenches, was not found in Anzac front-line units. Inevitably, Anzac soldiers were in constant trouble with the British authorities responsible for discipline and order. In the Egyptian theatre, they intimidated the local inhabitants, the military police, and other Allied soldiers; eventually General Allenby sent them home stripped of all recommendation for decoration or reward. In France they were the bane of authority from the Adjutant General to the most junior members of the miltary police; they provided the highest rates of desertion, insubordiantion and venereal disease.
    If the insubordination of the Anzacs played an important part on the first day of the mutiny, it was the Scottish troops, present in far greater numbers, who gave the mutiny its force. Discipline in the Scottish regiments was as fierce and narrow as it was easy going among the Anzacs, and social differences were also marked. Nonetheless, Scotsman and Anzacs got on well together, and one historian has emhasized "the quite remarkable friendship which ripened between the soldiers of the two nations" in the First World War. At Etaples, this close relationship built a degree of trust and understanding which helped to convert the sudden riot of four thousand men into a series of daily demonstrations; it supplied, among the shifting and temporary population of a base camp, the loyalties which, on the lower decks at Spithead and the Nore, had taken months and years to build.
  8. Andy Pay Member

    The importance of the link between Anzac and Scottish troops becomes evident when we consider the conduct of men drawn from a community which had reason to mistrust and fear the Scots - the Catholic Irish. While Scottish troops were thronging through Etaples, men of the 16th (Irish) Division refused active part in what was taking place. "All they did was to raid the canteen and sit outside and get drunk and encourage the others." That this attitude could have easily turned to outright opposition is illustrated by the following incident which occurred during disturbances at Calais Base in 1918:

    "The 51st (Highland) Division came out of the line for a rest.....They went out of Camp and into the town of Calais and had a rough time with the Military Police. We heard that the Jocks had thrown some Red Caps into the sea at Calais.
    This affair lasted some days when one evening about three hundred reserve men at the Base were ordered to fall in with arms and ammunition at the entrance to the Camp and told by a Major on the Camp Staff that they might have to open fire on these men if they did not return to Camp peacefully. The men on Parade were Southern Irishmen and some of them said why not remember Bachelor's Walk, meaning the time that the Kings Own Scottish Borderers fired on a Dublin Crowd".

    The attitiude of the Irish troops at Etaples Base was probably connected with the deteriorating condition of the 16th Division and its eventual disintegration, the consequence of the rise of nationalism in Ireland; but it also forms part of a continuing and mutual hostility between the Irish and the Scots.
    It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the wider problems of morale, or to link the Etaples incidents with other outbreaks during the last months of the war. To do full justice to these topics involves much more than a discussion of "war weariness", a restatement of the unending lists of casualties and deaths; it takes us deep into the history of the different units which formed the B.E.F., their recruitment, social basis, military standing, war experience and so on. But we can accept that by September 1917 morale had in fact diminished, that the spirit of the old army had not survived three years of war intact. The questions then arise: What measures did the authorities then take to curb further and dangerous unrest?? Waht policy did G.H.Q. adopt towards indiscipline in the light of the disruptions at Etaples?? Before answering these questions it will be helpful to digress: to describe, very briefly, the quite different measures taken to deal with other mutinies in the B.E.F. contemporaneouswith the outbreak at Etaples. These mutinies, involving men of the Labour Corps, began in September 1917 and continued for some months. The official attitude towards them, and the steps taken to contain them, are worth mentioning, for they throw much light on the situation at Etaples and the policies which G.H.Q. eveolved.
  9. Andy Pay Member

    On 5 September 1917, a few days before the outbreak at Etaples, two companies of labour troops, stationed at Boulogne, struck work, dissatisfied with the terms of their employment. The following day, they again refused to work, and tried to break out of camp. Themselves quite unarmed, they were immediately shot down. Twenty three were killed and twenty four wounded. That afternoon they "went back to work without further trouble". Four days later the Commandant, Calais Base, learnt that the men of No. 74 Labour Company also refused to work. He conferred with his superior and when, next day, 11th September, this company again declined, the authorities were ready. Four men were killed, fifteen wounded, and twenty five more given prison sentences within the day. One month later a "disturbance" took place in a labour company stationed in the First Army area; five men were killed and fourteen wounded. Similarly, strikes organized elsewhere by men of the Labour Corps "overcome": the causlties are not recorded. In December 1917 a guard detachment opened fire on the men of No. 21 Labour Company, stationed at Fontinettes, near Calais; four were killed, nine wounded, when the rest went back to work. Despite such rebuffs, strikes among labour companies continued to occur.
    These troops, of whom well over 100,000 were to be found in France, were under military discipline and formed, as much as did the drafts who demonstrated at Etaples, an integral part of the B.E.F. One characteristic alone distinguished them from the soldiers at Etaples: the colour of their skins. The companies concerned contained only natives, recruited in China, Egypt and elsewhere. The records of the strikes are incomplete, and the instances here set out may well form only a portion of the slaughter which actually took place. Still, whatever may be thought about these shootings, they throw much light on official response to the demonstrations at Etaples. Immediately one thing is clear. At Etaples, the bringing up of a battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company and its arming, not with rifles, but with staves, reveals a degree of restraint on the part of the authorities which did not flow from principle alone. Practical considerations must have played the major part. Records of a discussion of this matter at G.H.Q. or in Etaples are either unavailable or do not exist; but if the army had no scruples about shooting down intransigents, the situation at Etaples nonetheless presented a dilemma. The nature of this dilemma was touched on in a letter which the officer commanding, Chines Labour Corps, wrote to his superior at G.H.Q. He described the existing mode of suppressing strikes and demonstrations. "Disturbances among Chinese can, of course, be quelled by drastic measures, i.e. shooting those who are temporarily out of hand", the officer confessed, "but if this procedure be solely relied on" further unrest among Chinese labour troops in France might well ensue. The policy, in brief, would always be effective, but might have repercussions in other parts of France. These considerations must have weighed in respect of the situation at Etaples. To fire on soldiers there might have spread disturbance throughout the back areas of France and affected even units in the trenches; yet to take no steps towards the restoration of control threatened military authority. Just how difficult a path G.H.Q. had to tread is shown by the variety of units which it brought up, or held in readiness, for intervention at the base. Its choice of units, culminating in the part allotted to the H.A.C., sheds light on the dilemma.
  10. Andy Pay Member

    For three days, it will be recalled, the Etaples base commandant had no troops available to him on who he could rely. On the first day, his police were driven off, and every attempt to use infantrymen from one or other of the less affected I.B.D.'s, to use New Zealanders against a primarily Scottish crowd, and so on, was thwarted by the unwillingness of the troops concerned to stop the demonstrations. He asked, therefore fro cavalry to be sent. This request, together with G.H.Q.'s response, may be readily understood. On the one hand, the commander could not feel confident that front-line infantry brought in from other places would necessarily prove unsympathetic to the men. Cavalry units had always regarded themselves as something of an elite; and if brought up, together with their horses, might form a useful force in quashing demonstrations. On the other hand, the use of cavalry represented something of a risk. Cavalry would be of little use in forming pickets on the bridge and railway embankment; it would be most effectivein a dramatic clearing of the streets. Yet, if it undertook that duty, the troopers would necessarily need arms, if only batons, when the shock and violence of the action, the provocation offered by men on horses, and the certainty of casualties, might well excite the anger of hundreds who, far from being ill-organied and unarmed protesters - against whom, in civil questions, cavalry or mounted policemen traditionally were used - were men whose skill and firearms had already seen the disappearance of the German cavalry from the battlefield, from the history even, or European war.
    By Thursday, the fifth day of the mutiny, those objections had all been overcome. The greatest danger confronting the authorities now lay in permitting the demonstrations to continue, in allowing discipline to be wilfully defied. Accordingly G.H.Q. sent into Etaples, or held in readiness for operations there, foru different units: a brigade of cavalry; the 1st Battalion, Royal Welcg Fusiliers; the 22nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment; and a detachment from the 1st Battalion, Honourable Artillery Company. The 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, was a regular battalion of an illustriousregiment, and one whose reputation was quite the equal of any unit whose drafts had joined the demonstrations at Etaples. On their loyalty, of all the regiments of foot, the army could surely place a maximum of trust. Robert Graves, who had served with this battalion, maintained to Bertram Russell that the Fusiliers would fire on striking munition workers if called upon to do so; and there seemed a chance, during their days of service at Etaples, that they might have to shoot down fellow soldiers. The reputation of the 22nd Manchesters was less widespread. A service battalion, it had been created in the first months of the war. Nonetheless, overcoming its humble origins, and drawing its soldiers from an area which Graves has classed as second only to the north Midlands in providing men of a reliable type, it was in 1917 serving together with the 1st R.W.F. in 7th Division - "one of the recognized top notch divisions" of the B.E.F. The division had been withdrawn in August 1917 into G.H.Q. Reserve and had spent a month in billets. In September, no more reliable an infantry force could accordingly have been found.
    In the event, the authorities relied neither on the Fusiliers nor on the Manchesters. The Manchesters remained in camp throughout those days; and the generals in Etaples chose not to place in the Fusiliers the kind of confidence which Captain Graves had so easily displayed in conversation - the battalion was not used directly to confront the demonstrating troops. A detachment from the H.A.C. which, stationed at Montreuil, carried out guard duties for advanced G.H.Q. and acted as a training unit for officer cadets was used instead. Eight weeks later, when the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg was stormed by bolshevik workers and soldiers, the last vestige of a reliable and loyal force which the Provisional Government could place against them was a unit of officer cadets. At Etaples, the H.A.C. was the one unit on which complete reliance could be placed. Drawn from every section of society save from the working class, the cadets were certain to stand firm. The attempt by soldiers drawn from Scottish working class to reason their way through a picket of the H.A.C. had not the slightest prospect of success.
  11. Andy Pay Member

    Though news of the Etaples incidents never reached the press, and Sir Douglas Haig felt able, a fortnight later, to deny that "any discontent exists in our ranks", it was scarcely possible for his staff to assume that the trouble had blown over, to take no steps to guard against further discontent. Native labour troops continued to be subdued by shootings, but "this procedure" was too drastic to apply unreservedly elsewhere. Two weaknesses in administration had thus to be repaired. The first concerned the operation of Etaples Base Camp. The commandant, and the commanding officer and adjutant of the Royal Scots Base Depot, were all replaced. The system of training at the Bull Ring was more or less abandoned, reinforcements passing through Etaples now going straight up to the front to complete their training there. Reform was probably made elsewhere, for it was the belief of thousands ........that if the Etaples mutiny changed the whole phase of routine and "Bull" from Base to Front Line. The second weakness concerned the army's machinery for dealing with unrest. It is evident from the confusion surrounding day-to-dat decisions at Etaples that neither G.H.Q. nor at the base had proper preparations been made to deal with outbreaks of this kind. At first, the base staff had handled the affair themselves, trying on their own initiative to call up reinforcements; but G.H.Q. was more andmore drawn in. In addition to communication by telephone and telegraph, at least four officers from G.H.Q. came down to Etaples during the week of demonstartion. The career of one of these might be used to illustrate the improvements wrought thereafter in the machinery of administration, but that of J.B. Wroughton, of the Adjutant General's branch, G.H.Q., is of more than passing interest. The activities of this officer in the period 1918-19 llustrate the dexterity with which the Adjutant General's staff handled the later outbreaks.
    During 1918 Wroughton's was the guiding hand in dealing with a strike among German prisoners of war; with sporadic but continuing disturbances among front line troops passing through Calais Base in the summer; with stoppage of work at Le Havre Base; and with a strike at the Tank Corps workshops when "practically the whole of the workshops establishment" was put under arrest. His judgement was doubtless called upon at the time of the Armistice, in November 1918, when the authorities, anticipating difficulties during the demobilization process, detailed three divisions for duty at the ports and demobilization camps and circulated confidential warnings of the type: "Agititators and discontented men are not to be allowed to address assemblies of troops....." Wroughton's handling of the great strike at Calais Base in January 1919, however, formed the high point in his career. The suppression of this, the largest mutiny which beset the B.E.F. in France, demonstrates how flexible G.H.Q. could be in the pursuit of its ends.
    On Monday 27 January 1919, G.H.Q. was informed that thousands of British soldiers at Calais Base, staffing the huge ordnance depots and stores, had refused all duties; and that the strike was spreading to other units at the base. By stopping work on military supplies, and by halting rail, road and sea communications from this great base, their actions threatened to paralyse a large section of the army. The strike was one of sympathy, and concerned the arrest, while delivering a "seditious" speech to an assembly of soldiers, of Private John Pantling, Royal Army Ordnance Corps. This was Pantling's second arrest within a period of days, and his fellow soldiers felt that he was being victimized for the part he had played in an organization which the troops had set up at the base; "it was not so", an officer complained, "as it was an independent action by Private Pantling".
  12. Andy Pay Member

    In any case, the men refused duties, declined even discussion with their officers, until Pantling had been freed. Brigadier-General J.B. Wroughton took charge of the affair. He gave orders, by telephone, that Pantling be released, and then himself went down to Calais. Reaching the base on Tuseday, he found that "all work was stopped and the town picketed by strikers". Whereas that morning thousands had been striking, Pantling's return to camp at noon broke up their solidarity. The ordnancene decided to continue their until other grievances had been settled, but that afternoon railway troops returned to work, and the men of the Royal Army Service Corps began drifting back as well. their return isolated the striking ordnance men. Against this intransigence, two tactics were now used. The first, obviously, was to continue with the methods of persuasion, and a senior officer arranged to meet the men next day. A second tactic, less gentle than the first, was also put into effect. Shortly before 11am on Tuseday morning the staff of Fifth Army, B.E.F., had received orders to send one infantry brigade to Calais forthwith, for special duty. The brigade was to move as many officers as possible, up to two hundred boxes of small arms ammunition, and each company was to carry with it three machine guns. Its duties? "To assist in quelling riots in that town". 105th Infantry Brigade, 35th Division, approached Calais at 8pm that day.
    In the event, 105th Brigade could not be used against Pantling's friends. On Tuesday afternoon, five thousand infantrymen, due to return to their units at the front but detrained in Calais when the railways stopped running themselves decided on a strike and asked to be demobilized at once. The addition of these front line soldiers greatly complicated the authorities position. The suppression of such a force was beyond the provinceof Wroughton's experience and rank, and could not be entrusted to a solitary brigade. A full general, with reinforcements hastily brought up, now took resposibility for subduing the infantry on strike, while Wroughton, deprived of military support, had to deal as best he could with the striking ordnance men. On Thursday 30th January the mutiny of the five thousand men was suppressed, while Wroughton parleyed with the ordnance men. After winning a number of concessions, these men agreed to end their strike. The events of that day provide a scene without parallel in the history of the army: the spectacle of two sets of mutineers, each several thousand strong, gathered in the same town, the one talking freely with the generals, the other surrounded and put down. In all, these disturbances, which at their height had seemed quite overwhelming, were skilfully suppressed: suppressed that is, without repercussion damaging to the government at home or helpful to the revolutionary movement in Great Britain as a whole.
  13. Andy Pay Member

    It may be useful, by way of conclusion, to describe the limitations of the source material offered by the military archives in assessing the policy of G.H.Q. towards indiscipline during the years 1917 to 1919. Practically nothing is to be found in the diaries of the Adjutant General, while the published materials,, whether from private or from governmental sources, prove very misleading. In assessing how, at Etaples, a particular balance was struck between conciliation and repression, and how, in the ensuing months, precautions were taken to prevent disturbance breaking out again, we have to resort to the records of the units actually involved, augmented wherever possible by the recollections of men now some sixty years older than they were when these events took place. Where the records of the units concerned are inadequate or bad, we remain ignorant not only of official policy, but also of details of the discontent itself.The records of Le Havre Base, B.E.F., are by no means as comprehensive as those kept at Etaples or Calais; they give, accordingly, no accoint of incidents there on the night of 9-10 December 1918, when men of the Royal Artillery burnt down several depots in a riot which, in its destructiveness, outweighed anything which Etaples Base had seen. Again, some units excluded from their records mention of any disaffection. The diaries, for instance, of the 13th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment, passing that winter in North Russia, record only the uneventful discharge of ordinary duties; they tell nothing of the firm hand with which senior officers dealt with an attempt to organize a strike - nothing that is, of the two sergeants sentenced to death, of White Russian machine guns brought up to cow the disaffected.
    Whatever the incidents now forgotten or concealed, a careful inspection of the military records does offer a number or rewards. It not only illuminates, at local level, the problems which the authorities faced in suppression disaffection, it also refutes some misconceptions which have arisen in this field. The infliction of the death penalty on deserters, mutineers and cowards is a subjectwhich has attracted a variety of writings; but, given official secrecy over names, charges and court martial proceedings, hearsay and recollection have had more or less free rein. Only overall statistics have ever been released salient among which is the fact that 335 men were executed for serious military offences abroad during the years 1914-19. This figure, with its inference that the law's due process was invariably observed, has reconciled some of the workings of military justice, while others, rash enough to suggest that a larger figurewas probably involved, have been compelled by threat of legal action to recant.
  14. Andy Pay Member

    The death of No. 240120 Corporal William Wood, 4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, on 9 Sptember 1917, of wounds received that afternoon at the hands of the military police; the death of a Canadian soldier on 16 December 1917, caught in the firing as men serving with the Labour Corps were shot; the death of scores, even hundreds (we do not know the number) of labour troops shot during strikes or attempted breakings out of camp; the death only a few days after his release from jail, of No. S/8428 Private John Pantling (from influenza, whose fatal consequences, thousands of his fellow soldiers thought, were directly linked with his physical condition after periods in custody): the fate of these men, and of an unknown number of others, demonstrates the misleading nature of the figures released. These men died without the benefit of trial and find no place, therefore, in any return which the War Office has chosen to supply.
    Their deaths place in perspective the rumour which spread in late 1917, to the effect that the "ringleaders" of the Etaples mutiny were shot. These men may have escaped this fate, but only if the military authorities had feared that news of their death, circulating through the army, might have had further and unfortunate effect. Official policy in such matters was flexible indeed. Men responsible for organizing disaffection on a far larger scale the following winter, in both France and the Middle East, escaped without punishment at all, so threatening were the number and temper of the troops who backed them up. Equally, unfortunates who ran away from the trenches, if only for a day, were often shot. And official flexibility extended to questions of publishing, or concealing, the news of the executions. When it was felt that publicity would support good discipline, the circumstances of executions were published throughout the B.E.F. In those cases, on the other hand, where an adverse reaction might have been expected, G.H.Q. resorted to denial.

    "No armed force has ever been used in France to compel the Chinese labourers to do their work or to remain in any locality"

    explained a memorandum drawn up the Director of Labour, G.H.Q., in September 1917 for Haig to sign and release to the British Press after criticisms had been voiced about the ill treatment of these men.

    Andy
  15. liverpool annie New Member

    Thought it maybe a good idea to lock this thread ... so it can be used for reference - but by all means start a new thread if you wish to discuss particular elements of the content !

    Annie :)
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