Etaples was one of the main base camps along the coast of Northern France, being a port, a lot of men, thousands of them would have disembarked here. Many more would have embarked. It was known as “The Bullring”, as were most of the base camps, but this one was the king. The name may come from the amount of “Bullshit” that dogged those men sent back from the front for some R&R, only to be confronted by bayonet training and square bashing by a bunch of NCOs and officers who arguably largely sat at the back and watched. Field punishment number one being order of the day for infractions. There was eventually a mutiny here, officers were attacked, fatalities occurred on both sides of what was at least partly a class divide.
The base as far as I can work out stretched back beyond the trees and on the other side of the road up onto the heath and dunes. It was huge, My Grandfather was also here at one point according to my mother, I can’t find any record of this anywhere. What strikes me as particularly sad about this place is that most of these men made it so close to home, so near the coast and the thin silver and grey strip of water that separates Britain from the continent. They are still here perched on the valley side overlooking the estuary and away to the the sea, a stretch of water that has seen the Romans and later the Vikings use the water and pull up boats, the shelter of the marshes has housed many nations and armies and the nearby town the signing of treaties between kings and the everyday life of the rope-makers and fishermen trundled on. Behind the site and to the west, gun emplacements from the 1940s hide in the walls of the valley part of the Atlantikwall. The cemetery features some early victims of the German advance in 1940; a few hundred men laying alongside the thousands of those from the previous generation. At it’s peak the camp is said to have housed 100,000.
One of the reasons we were here was to search for William John Austin. He was the Great Grandfather of a friend, this chap on CWGC. Gunner Austin MM of St Michael’s Square, Thorn Lane, Norwich. He was also remembered on a wooden board in St Michael at Thorn before it was burnt through by incendiaries during the Second world war. He grew up in King Street quite near the centre of the city. His MM, the Military Medal and his Pip, Squeak and Wilfred went the way of so many in those bleak inter war years, swapped for beer tokens in the local. I’m intrigued by him, MM and Bar is no mean feat. There is as far as I’m aware no surviving photo of him. No visual reminder of the man who was for a time Austin, William J, Corps Regiment No Rank, 3rd Cavalry Division Regiment Royal Garrison Artillery 15226, Gunner.
When you have 11,000 plus graves in the biggest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Europe, you start with the book. We found him there, then you consult the map in the alcove, then weave your way through the ghosts. He died on the 2nd of April 1918. He was 37.
His unit on CWGC was the 17th Battery and this is in connection with the German Spring Offensive, this from the war diary:
‘On the morning of 21st March the 2nd Div were in Vth Corps reserve but the artillery were still in the line. The divisional history shows the Brigade on S side of Beaucamp village, west of Villers Plouch, about a mile behind the front line of 47th division .. they will have been heavily shelled as the German Offensive kicked off with bombardment at 4.40am.. “the 16th and 17th batteries near Beaucamp were neutralised during the beginning of the attack by gas .. both batteries fired for four and a half hours in gas masks, the 16th suffering several casualties ..’
Etaples Military Cemetery, Pas De Calais, Northern France. 11478 identified casualties. 658 German, 78 unidentified overall.
World War One cemeteries website is well worth a visit for more details on the site particularly with reference to the VADs.
Feature image at top: Etaples Cemetery – John Lavery (1919)