Socialist Worker

Mutiny at the heart of empire—how soldiers rebelled at Etaples

Ripples of revolution spread across Europe and beyond in the wake of the February revolt in Russia in 1917—and, Chris Fuller explains, the British Army was no exception

Issue No. 2571

Etaples in north east France—the core of Britain’s metropolis of war

Etaples in north east France—the core of Britain’s metropolis of war (Pic: National Library NZ on The Commons)


Many historians paint the British Army in the First World War as characterised by bravery and duty as soldiers went loyally over the top to their slaughter.

Tory historian Niall Ferguson, for example, claims, “Mutinies were few and far between.”

In fact revolts occurred in British ranks from the beginning of the war. Troops refused to fall in for parade in the autumn of 1914 in protest at poor accommodation.

An unseen class struggle was conducted at the front as soldiers simply refused to kill in an ongoing “live and let live” policy.

The Christmas truce was a mutiny on a mass scale that in some areas lasted for weeks.

In 1917 every front saw huge unrest come to a head. The February Revolution in Russia inspired 50,000 Russian troops to march away from the war to defend the uprising.

Early in 1917 50,000 Italian troops mutinied and in March South African conscripted labourers struck at the port of Dieppe in Belgium.

The same month saw half the French army refuse to fight after yet another pointless assault a revolt accompanied by embryonic soldiers’ councils.

The British army became a tinder box.

In the 19th century most recruits had been garnered from the countryside, but this source was not enough to meet the demands of world war.

After 1914 five million industrial workers joined up.

They brought with them the class antagonism they had been schooled in by the four years of the “Great Unrest” immediately beforehand.

In summer 1917 the British and their allies established a metropolis of war extending from the coast of Belgium to the headwaters of the River Somme. Some two million men, women, soldiers and labourers were gathered in a vast array of tents, huts, hospitals and prisons.

Brutality

It was an army drawn from the four corners of the British empire—and a microcosm of its brutality.

In training grounds known as “bullrings” new recruits received as little as nine days’ instruction before being thrust to the front.

Etaples in north east France was the core of this metropolis. The troops were subjected to a fierce regime by officers of the blood and bayonet school.

War poet Wilfred Owen described it as a “kind of paddock where beasts are kept a few days before the shambles.”

Mutiny and rebellion in the shadow of a world war
Mutiny and rebellion in the shadow of a world war
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Soldiers old, new and injured were marched and double marched across the dunes.

Their main meal was two slices of tinned beef, two biscuits and an onion. Denied the pleasures of Etaples town—known as “eat apples”—one soldier described the experience as “like passing through hell”.

Military police who had rarely been to the front meted out discipline and “there was always someone tied to a gun wheel”.

On 5 September 1,300 Egyptian labourers went on strike and broke out of their compound at the port of Boulogne.

They had been subjected to mass bombardments and were angry at threats to their rights to home leave.

Field Marshal Haig sent in troops with orders to shoot and 23 workers were killed.

Five days later more Egyptian workers struck at Calais with four of their number being mowed down in retribution.

Contagion was in the air and it was this that gave the events at Etaples their significance.

On 9 September a New Zealander in Etaples base camp was arrested for overstaying his leave.

Tempers flared and 2,000 recruits surrounded the police hut where they thought their comrade was being held.

More troops then gathered to cross a bridge to Etaples town, a confrontation ensued, a policeman fired his gun and a corporal Wood was killed.

Discipline ceased to exist. Reinforcements would not get into their teams and a great mob of about 10,000 broke out then and in subsequent evenings and marched into Paris Plage. The place seemed as if there was a big strike on

Private Edwards

These events sparked five more days of collective refusal to obey orders. General Thompson, the camp’s commander, kept a diary of the events which understate, for his own sake, the extent of the mutiny. He recalls events on the first day.

“The attitude of the crowd was very threatening, stones were thrown, and attempts were made to rush the police hut,” he wrote.

Thompson goes on to describe groups of mutineers as large as 4,000-strong.

On one occasion “the demeanour of the crowd was so threatening towards the police, that the police disappeared”.

Significantly he recalls that “bodies of men broke through the picquets (police lines) into the town and held noisy ‘meetings’”.

The reference to “meetings” is tantalising with echoes of union organisation that workers would have experienced at home. There are reliable accounts of a deep political mood.

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How does revolt end war?
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Private Edwards recalled mutineers shouting, “Down with the Red Caps” (the military police) and, “Let’s release the prisoners” in a show of solidarity with the oppressed.

Furthermore the numbers involved were probably much larger than Thompson states.

General Asser went to Etaples to quell the revolt. He recalled, “Discipline ceased to exist. Reinforcements would not get into their teams and a great mob of about 10,000 broke out then and in subsequent evenings and marched into Paris Plage.

“The place seemed as if there was a big strike on, crowds loafing about and so on.”

This suggests that, beyond the 10,000 who broke out of camp, many more of its 100,000 residents were engaged in strikes.

The sheer numbers involved gave the mutineers confidence. Major OC Guinness recalled how a crowd “raided the office of the base commander, pulled him out of his chair and carried him on their shoulders through the town”.

On 14 September, the last day of the mutiny, Haig recalled in his diary that at lunch he drank, “several glasses of wine, port and old brandy.” He also planned revenge.

Fifty four men were court-martialled, three were jailed for mutiny and one, Corporal Jesse Short, was executed by firing squad.

However, the revolt had rattled the British ruling class. General Thompson lost his job, the notorious “bull ring” at Etaples was closed and training shifted to the front line.

Significantly in October soldiers in Flanders received a pay rise to £2.50 a week, albeit at a time when war ministers in the cabinet were on £100 per week and dinner for two in the Ritz cost £3.

Threaten

The working class Tommies continued to threaten and strike fear into their rulers.

In the same week of the Etaples mutiny the cabinet received reports of dissent at camps in Shoreham, Sussex.

General Asser would never forget that the new British Army consisted of what he described as “the scum of the earth from the slums of Glasgow”.

The events at Etaples 1917 came to popular consciousness with the televised drama “The Monocled Mutineer”, aired in 1986 to an audience of ten million.

The four-part series, written by Alan Bleasdale and starring Paul McGann, was viciously attacked by the right wing press and accusations of made up history were rife.

Bleasdale’s “Monocled Mutineer” is in fact a masterpiece. It portrayed historical events using a fictionalised account of the life of a real person, Percy Toplis, who is shown as one of the mutiny’s leaders.

The BBC’s Managing Director of Television defended the drama saying that it told “The greater truth about World War One”.

Episode one shows Tommies being engulfed by British mustard gas when the wind blew the wrong way.

Advancing troops are snared on German barbed wire that artillery pounding could not destroy

All these things happened in reality.

The drama gives a graphic, disturbing and far from purely fictional, account of a shell shocked officer being executed by firing squad.

This was all part of the brutal discipline of the army. Bleasdale’s work was based on a book of the same name by John Fairley and William Allison.

This journalistic read has been attacked by some historians for not including references that can be checked.

This absence is annoying but consider the cover-up by the establishment. In 1978 the government admitted that the board of enquiry papers had been destroyed.

Other papers relating to the mutiny will not be released until a century after the event.


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