Chapter 7

On a low rise overlooking the Channel coast of France south of Boulogne stands one of the largest of all British war cemeteries. Rolling endlessly through sparse trees, couch-grass and shrubs, the graves of 11,000 men straggle away up the road towards Boulogne. Etaples is the cruellest of cemeteries. Here lie the men who died lingeringly of gas and gangrene, without limbs or sight – the pitiful roll-call of those who lived long enough to endure the stretcher journey back through darkness and mud and shell-fire to the clearing stations, who survived the rattling cattle wagons with bunks stacked three or four high, who faced the surgeon and the operating table, but who could not hold on to life long enough to see England again. They were buried by the professional mourners from the military hospital, ten, fifteen, twenty a day, far from the battlefields on which they had made their sacrifice. And with bleak impassivity their last resting-place overlooks the most hated place in all of France in those years of war, the Bull Ring of Etaples.

‘It was a hellish dump without a single redeeming feature,’ wrote one veteran, Corporal Reynolds from Leicester.

‘I can truthfully say,’ wrote another soldier, ‘that I had moments there as unpleasant as any on the Western Front. I was ever so angry elsewhere.’ ‘It was a killer, sand everywhere, dreadful,’ recalled John ‘Musgrove from Wallsend-on-Tyne.

Etaples displayed the crucifixion of the British soldier daily in a fearful triptych: the perfunctory notes of the ‘Last Post’ sounded like an endless loop of dismal muzak on the brow of the hill; at its foot was the parade of victims lashed by their wrists in Army Field Punishment No. 1; and in the deadening sand and silt of the beach beyond, hundreds, thousands of troops were abused and mauled by instructors whose violence and sadism were to be remembered even after some of the horrors of the battlefields themselves faded from the mind. This was the British Army’s No. 1 training camp. Its régime was so sickeningly brutal that men were to plead to go up the line and face the enemy.

‘I applied to get out and go to the battlefield,’ wrote Private J. McCormick of the Seaforth Highlanders, who now lives in Saltcoats, Ayrshire. ‘I would get more peace there.’ Private Bradfield from King’s Lynn says: ‘Every man who passed through the Bull Ring so hated the staff that I wouldn’t have given them a cat’s chance if they’d come up the line. They were bastards all of them.’ Victor Silvester, whose post-war fame as a dance orchestra leader was to reach out round the world from London, first made the acquaintance of the Etaples Bull Ring as a scrawny, sandy-haired youth of 17 in June 1917. A vicar’s son, he had been only 14 years old when he ran away to war from boarding school. Strictly speaking, you were not allowed to fight or die in your country’s cause before the age of 18, but it was not until a great wave of protest came from parents back home, in 1917, that the rule was observed. Even then those under age were not sent back to England, but to Etaples to await the magical date that would take them back into battle.

Silvester, despite his age, had already reached veteran status, having been wounded on the Western Front near Arras. Three years of ceaseless carnage had made him hard and tough physically and mentally. He had seen men die in bloody and agonizing fashion. He had seen soldiers playing football with a human head blown off in battle, but he was still unprepared for Etaples.

He recalled: ‘Back at Arras I had been told by an officer that I would find it something of a rest camp where I could get fully fit again. It turned out to be a protracted exercise in calculated cruelty, especially for the large number of us still suffering from our wounds.’ On his first day breakfast was one ‘dog biscuit’, before the march to the Bull Ring assault course for a ten-hour stint without anything more to eat. On his second day a muttered objection to hour upon hour of superfluous training brought him an immediate one hour’s full pack drill, consisting of non-stop jumping up and down on the same spot, to the point where he collapsed. He had taken exception to monotonously bayoneting a straw-filled sack, on which was a painting supposed to look like the Kaiser, on the grounds that he had been practising on real, live Germans for three years – and the same could not be said for his instructor who had never seen a German, dead or alive.

After ten days of Bull Ring barbarism, Silvester was given a break, and with it came another shock. He was posted to Commandant Thomson’s office as a messenger. There an officer congratulated him on the crossed rifle sign on the lower part of his left sleeve, indicating that he was a first-class marksman who had passed a musketry range test. Silvester would be just right for occasional ‘special duty’.

The fact that his special talent had been recognized gave Silvester his one moment of passing pleasure at Etaples. The next day he discovered to his horror the real significance of the interview. Between messages he was idling through a thick wad of foolscap sheets, headed Army Orders – Part 1, when the full, sinister meaning of ‘special duty’ dawned on him.

There were fifty sheets, each one relating to a particular soldier whose interests in the war had ceased with dawn execution. The papers recording the deaths of these soldiers were all marked ‘strictly private’. A typical example read: No. 743261 Brown J. W. Private, 7th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. On July 11th, 1917, Pte. Brown was granted 14 days leave from his battalion at the Front, to return home to England. After 25 days he had not returned to his unit and was duly posted as a deserter. The Military Police were notified, and, on the instructions of the Army Provost Marshal, two military policemen called at his home to find him absent.

Three days later he was interrogated and arrested and brought back to his Regiment in France where he was detained. On the 20th of August, 1917, he was tried by Court Martial, found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was duly carried out on the morning of August 28.

Under this Army Act there were twenty-five crimes for which a man might have to pay with his life. The other forty-nine soldiers had died for offences ranging from, ‘Shamefully casting away their arms in the presence of the enemy’, ‘Desertion in the face of the enemy’, ‘Behaving in a cowardly manner’ to ‘Inducing others to behave like cowards’. The records of their fate were casually hung among a pile of memos on the office notice board  After the events which were to follow at Etaples another soldier was to spot a fresh bundle of execution notices on that same board.

But before that time and before being switched to the Austrian-Italian Front, Silvester was to become an unwilling executioner at Etaples.

Just before his sudden death in 1978 he revealed his painful secret. He had been forced to take part in five shootings.

The first man I had to help to kill was a private in my own regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a fact which filled me with even greater shame. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. We marched to a quarry outside Etaples at first dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area, Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order, raised our rifles unsteadily.

Some of the men, unable to face their ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they had tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but he had remained sober through fear.

The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still live. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man’s temple.

He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word ‘mother’. He could not have been very much older than me. We were told later that in fact he had been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognized by the army in 1917.

By the time I had taken part in four more such dawn executions, I did not have to feign illness. Like the other executioners. I was screaming in my sleep and physically ill every day. I was put into a hospital and strapped down to the bed to prevent me running away. I was then sent away from Etaples and all its horrors to the Italian Front. The simple business of being twice wounded there was less injurious by far than all the mental scars that Etaples left with me for the rest of my life.

Small wonder that Etaples was to be the scene of a frantic wild uprising – an eruption that was to turn into six days of ‘open mutiny with 100,000 men immobilized in the vital week before the start of the Passchendaele offensive, with thousands of ‘them hunting down police and officers, and infantry and cavalry pulled out of the line to put them down. Etaples also had one unique ingredient to contribute to the poteen of rebellion: besides humiliation and degradation inside the base, there was defiance outside it.

In the woods around the base camp, in patches of firm ground among the coastal bogs, in chalk dugouts on the wild downland, was a small army of deserters. Travelling by night, hiding by day, living by ‘lifting’ food from farms, Percy Toplis had made his way to the coast at Etaples by early June 1917.

He was there gathered into the Sanctuary, the most elaborate and bizarre underground society in all the long subterranean civilization of the Western Front. From the sand-dunes of Berck and Paris Plage, past Le Touquet and Etaples and up through the woods towards Boulogne, there had grown up, from 1915 ‘onwards, a metropolis of the nether world, its forum in the caves and pits round Camiers, its highways the labyrinthine chalk tunnels which honeycombed the hinterland, its residences dugouts, furnished, lit, warmed to a standard that made the trenches and billets of war seem a barbarous dream.

There, tantalizingly almost within sight of England just twenty miles away across the Channel, deserters plied the trades, of the underworld until the chance came to get a boat, flee to Paris or simply meit into the compéaisant community of lonely Frenchwomen left behind by conscription and the war. Sporadically the British authorities attempted to flush them out.

But they were men of infinite resources. One of the British secret policemen employed to try and undermine the Sanctuary recalled that among the men he caught were veterans of two of even three years in the tunnels: ‘Sometimes they were armed with revolvers, but the weapons mostly favoured and carried were sand-bags, or ‘thuds’ as they were termed. These simple but effective weapons were improvised from the white linen ration bags – their creation being simplicity itself. Just sufficient sand was placed in the bag, which was screwed and tied up tightly. Rifle barrels, quartered and fled down conveniently for the pocket, knives, daggers, pieces of solid rubber tyres, ash entrenching-tool handles with an iron end, short sticks, knuckle-dusters, pieces of chain – many and varied were the crude weapons found on these men.

Not only did the deserters rob civilians, but mixing with the huge general mass of troops in the vast base headquarters would take an opportunity of running crown-and-anchor boards, shooting dice, three-card manipulation and any other manoeuvre whereby they might acquire money. If not in these ways, then they would rob army hostels, canteens and officers’ messes. It was impossible to stop and question every man on the roads around and in Etaples. There were colonials masquerading as English and English dressed as colonials and a large proportion of men dressed as officers in stolen uniforms.

Gambling in those times was nothing. The Military Police were powerless. In fact the Military Police applied Nelson’s tactic of the blind eye to the telescope. It was regarded as a safety valve, and so long as there was no trouble or rioting the troops could do as they liked. I have seen many times the ‘Top of the Hill’, as it was termed, reminiscent of Epsom Downs on Derby Day, only with no conglomeration of male and female fashion, but simply of khaki and hospital blue. Tommies with Cockney, Midland, Northern, Scottish, Irish and Colonial accents all shouting the odds like bookmakers on the racecourse.

You might hear such invitations as, ‘What about a flutter at the old mud hook,’ being crown and anchor. If you didn’t like the status of this military bookmaker, there would be another on his left shouting out such encouragement as, ‘Come on, me lucky lads. You win ‘em and I’ll pay,’ or, ‘The old firm, the old firm.’ Some enterprising Tommies went so far as to get boards painted advertising their stands. To see a Tommy with an old black or grey silk top-hat or bowler, or even with a bookmaker’s satchel was quite a common sight. There were crude notices painted on gutta-percha ground-sheets, ‘No limit. Five francs to five million. Jock of Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard. Old Digger of the Aussies. Old Darkie of the Diehards, the Sky’s My Limit’ It was in and among such an atmosphere that the absentee ‘would move, safe in the assurance of the old saying, ‘There’s safety in numbers.’ Among hundreds of thousands of soldiers, all odds were against his detection, provided he used caution.

The place was made for that prince of masquerade, Percy Toplis. Dressed, according to mood, as a captain, a sergeant-major, ‘or even in moments of convenient diffidence as a corporal, Toplis set about turning the confusion of Etaples base headquarters into a comfortable living. Only later was he to help to turn it into an insurrection.

The Etaples base that he entered for the second time in that third year of the war, 1917, was, however, already moving towards an explosion. Brigadier-General Thomson’s olympian vision of his task as base commander had remained unruffied during a year in which his staff had refined Etaples into a unique short course in brutality and persecution.

One PT sergeant was so maltreating the soldiers in the Bull Ring that I had a dust-up with him and laid a complaint,’ recolects Company Sergeant-Major John Gray of the Gordon HighIanders, ‘but I was just rapidly posted away to the front.’ The new draft, arriving at Boulogne from Folkestone, fell  instantly into the clutches of the infamous ‘Canaries’ – the per’manent instructors at the camp. They wore yellow armbands, and took less than a fortnight to earn the undying hatred of almost every man among the million or more who passed through their hands.

‘They were the worst type of man imaginable,’ comments Private Notley of Norwich. ‘It was rumoured that some of them came from the glass-house at Aldershot. They made men’s lives a misery  The Canaries took over the new soldiers on the twenty-mile route-march from Boulogne. This had been General Thomson’s, idea back in April, to start toughening the troops up straight ‘away. ‘A rest camp has been established at Neufchatel for a midday rest, his diary generously records. His soldiers remember it as a hut where they got half a slice of bread and the use of a cold tap. And the shouting started immediately the march was under way. Any man with a blister on his foot or any sign of flagging from the double-quick infantry pace was harried, sworn at, threatened.

The whole approach from Boulogne was depressing,’ recalls Private Notley, ‘with hospitals and cemeteries lining the whole route. When we got to Etaples, it was new kit and rifles and more abuse until we got to our quarters.’ The vast array of candidates for the front line was corralled behind barbed wire into a series of infantry base depots (IBDs).

These stretched on either side of a road for a mile or more up a hill behind the town of Etaples itself. Etaples, a little fishing port on the River Canche, with its classic French main square with cafés and bars, was out of bounds to the Bull Ring troops. The only means of access – bridges across the railway and the river – were held day and night by a rota of petty Horatios ordered to deflect all-comers from the perilous delights of a glass of wine at an estaminet or an evening at the town cinema.

Only officers and instructors were allowed across to the two brothels, or to sample the wares of La Comtesse, Etaples’ most flamboyant whore, who drove ostentatiously round the main square of an evening in an open carriage and pair. Yet even this restricted jollification caused General Thomson endless worry.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1917, while the base camp seethed beneath him, the commandant seemed to concentrate his thoughts mainly on the much-needed VD hospital for officers, to judge from his diary entries: oie  ae  [February:] Work on venereal hospital for officers has not  yet been started.

[March:] Officers’ venereal hospital not started but site is pegged out.

[April: ] Building for officers’ venereal hospital in progress.

[May:] Work nearing completion.

(June – triumphantly : ] Officers’ venereal hospital opened on the 2ist.

In the cauldron that was to produce the most serious threats 10 discipline in the entire war, no other subject got more of the ommandant’s attention than the venereal welfare of his officers.

He made certain that other ranks were not exposed to the risk of infection by the simple expedient of keeping them locked up.

But the actual bacillus which was to inflame Etaples and wreck ‘Thomson’s career was being cultured, to his apparent unconcern, four miles away from the Etaples hospitals in the infamous Bull Ring. Each new arrival met it on his first morning.

Reveille at 5 a.m. Herded out of the bell-tents where they slept crammed up to twenty-two in one tent. Given breakfast and the day’s rations of one slice of bread. Then formed up with full kit ‘and rifle for the four-mile march to the beach. The Scots sometimes marched to the pipes; the New Zealanders had their own band. But none could avoid the day’s opening cacophony in the corridor of insult known as the ‘Canary Run’. The instructors were lined up five or six feet apart on either side of the road.

Through the gauntlet of ranting, swearing Canaries, the troops passed at the quick march. Any man whose rifle was not at the correct slope, whose puttee was loose or unsymmetrical, who had any mark on a uniform, would be swamped in a torrent of oaths. The physical trials of the Bull Ring were ruthless to the point of inhumanity, but for many soldiers it was the daily concentrated gauntlet of degradation in the ‘Canary Run’ which lives with them most.

‘Even now, in my eightieth year,’ writes Private Notley, ‘T remember the abuse heaped on the rank and file there and wonder what comradeship means.’ The Bull Ring itself was merely a set of staked-out patches in the sand-bills. It was tailor-made to compound the torments of the instructors. In the heat of the summer, high collars had to stay tightly buttoned, sleeves immaculately rolled down. The soft sand dragged at the ankles. Wet, it stained the khaki of the uniforms to the fury of the Canaries. Dry, it penetrated collar and cuff to rasp the flesh red against the coarse serge. The sand ‘exacerbated everything. The soldiers dug at the soft sand. Inevitably, immediately, it trickled back and scored their efforts.

The instructors raged. The sand muffled all sound and made it impossible to keep step. The instructors savaged the defaulters.

In the frightening dark of the gas chamber where the crude gasmasks were tested, there was sand to drag the feet so that escape scemeéd as remote as in a nightmare.

Private David Paton of Dundee remembers this as the worst, of all the trials of the Bull Ring. ‘You thought you would collapse and choke for ever in that deep sand. If you took too long the Canaries were there to swear and send you througn again.

Always the instructors held the whip-hand.

‘They were just a lot of bullies,’ said Private Joe Perks of Dundee. ‘Front-line dodgers, I would call them. If you answered them back you were for the high jump. The training was much worse than normal training. Say you were doing skirmishing.

If it wasn’t to their satisfaction they made you do it over and over again. I’ve seen people getting it maybe six times a day, the same thing over and over again until the best-disciplined men lost their rag and lashed out. Then it would be seven days’ field punishment. They had a fence at the Bull Ring, and often there would be rows of men tied to it no matter what the weather. It happened to me once. They marched you out and tied you by the wrists. You just stood there. You couldn’t ease yourself. Nothing. It was like the Foreign Legion. It did cause hatred, but usually the discipline overruled that.’ At twelve o’clock there was a halt. The one slice of bread could be eaten. For a moment, a glimmer of humanity was allowed on to the beach in the form of Lady Angela Forbes’s charity tea canteen, which would later attract the wrath of Haig himself. The ration was half a pint of tea per man.

‘It was an odd’sort of tea, you know, dishwater. But it was better than the army supplied, which was nothing. They came down with it on a trolley and you marched up and got your tankard.’ Then it was back for the afternoon session. The Bull Ring was laid out for more than a mile on either side of the Boulogne Road and furnished with specimens of every catastrophe likely to confront the soldier. He was shown down what was laughingly known as Fleet Street, with twenty-nine different types of wire and trenching device. There was a three-day-event-style course, with drop-jump, post and rails, something known as the confidence planks, and a vaulting bar. It was right beside the road, and seemed principally reserved for exhausting minor defaulters. There was a complete model battlefield with every sophistication of dugout and trench. But this also seems to have had little attention from the instructors. What they liked principally was bayonet fighting.

There were bayonet sacks in the drill area, bayonet sacks in the trench lay-out, bayonet sacks in the attack area. Hour after hour the men in full kit were made to charge with full pack and fixed bayonets, through barbed wire and into water, leaping trenches, climbing walls, downhill and uphill, running, stumbling, scrambling up again while, as one victim wrote, the Canaries chirped: ‘Get a move on, blast you. Put some guts into it. Forget you’re white men. Stick it in. Don’t tickle him.

‘What’s the good of shoving it there? You’ve got to take his life not his voice. Like to have a rest, wouldn’t you?’ The same soldier remembers: ‘At Btaples we were treated in a manner which made us ashamed to be soldiers. It made us bitter. But, considering ourselves old campaigners, we resented still more the treatment accorded to drafts fresh from England, boys whose physical condition was not up to it: the sectional rushes, the belly-flopping, the ‘On the ‘ands downing’, the marching, the manual drill, the saluting at every few steps. What a bad war it was at Etaples.’ ‘After the one slice of bread and tea the training would often go on until four or five in the afternoon. And so did the persecution. As the Gordon Highlander, David Stuart of Clydebank, ‘was coming out of the Bull Ring one day ‘just about all in’: ‘I said to my mate, thank God that day’s over. Anything for an excase with the Canaries. They called the two of us out of the parade and gave us another hour on the assault course.’ No one remembers that the Bull Ring produced anything except resentment. But the gun-and-bomb ranges had a fatuity ‘which was especially ironic for the front-line veterans.

‘Old hands considered it a joke to spend time playing with strange gear like the trench catapult and the West spring gun (grenades always fell off the silly arm),’ is Charles Richards of Auckland’s memory.

And Joe Perks says: ‘They had a special line in jam-tin bombs. You filled the jam tin with stones, put your gun cotton inside with a fuse and lit it with your cigarette. It did about as much damage as a pea-shooter.’ Sporadically there were grisly incidents: a hand blown off when a nervous youth failed to throw his grenade over the target wire and it bounded back. Corporal Reynolds heard of more than one instructor ‘accidently’ bayoneted on the ranges. One legendary tale recounted how a young boy blew the brains out of a Canary at point-blank range. He was supposed to be firing blanks during the practice course, and the most vicious instructor was standing in front, laying into him about his shaky ‘aim. The youth slipped 2 live round into the rifle and squeezed the trigger.

The march back to camp was the final trial.

‘Whatever the weather, a man or boy was expected to be as alert and smart as if the day had just started,’ recalls Private Wood of Manchester. ‘Again the Canaries were there, lined up, ranting away.’ Sixty years on, his bitterness is unalloyed.

That Etaples base camp held more bloody scroungers both in officers, sergeants and men than any camp in England or France. They dodged the trenches while there were young men of eighteen years dying, being gassed, wounded, taken prisoner.’ ‘There is no doubt that this feeling was at the heart of the eruption which was to follow in September 1917. The conscripts who came reluctantly to fill the holes in Kitchener’s slaughtered volunteer army were full of resentment. But the mutiny could never have raged as widely and venomously as it did without the deep feeling among those who had seen Arras, Messines, the Somme that they were being humiliated and exploited by people clinging tightly to cushy lives away from the carnage of the front: military police, admin. men, instructors, the whole despised gang of ‘base wallahs’.

In retrospect, the notorious base camp had its bizarre, almost comic aspects. There was the messenger-dog barracks for the motley canine regiment drafted in to train for the front line, and there was the pigeon barracks. There was the WAAC quarters, guarded even more closely than the prisoner-of-war cages, and the Under-Age battalion. Here boys, often veterans of the battlefields who had been discovered or betrayed as lying about their ages, were collected and fattened up until either they reached the age of nineteen or their chest measurements matched up to War Office requirements for the fighting man.

More immediate entertainment was in short supply. There was a wood of beech trees alongside the camp with a notice in English: ‘These woods have been given for the recreation of the troops by M. de Roquigny’. Lady Angela Forbes organized a bath-house and a beer-hut, but at eight o’clock it closed to all but officers. She also owned a donkey which roamed the camp and provided, at least for Private Perks and his friends, a doleful rodeo. There was the Salvation Army hut. There was the Expeditionary Force canteen but, as Charles Richards says, there was little comfort there.

‘As the Aussies and Canadians got four shillings a day and Tommy Atkins only one, the canteen was invariably bought out especially as the Aussie mess-tin could hold four pints.’ Bathing in the sea was forbidden – a small but infuriating restriction to be added to the list of the mutineers’ grievances.

There was a small cinema. But spare time mainly meant sitting Found the long trestle tables near the mess tent, cleaning equipment and writing letters home.

One common distraction, however, is common to all armies away from the fighting line: the charms of the fairer sex. There were the two little brothels which were causing such heartache to Brigadier-General Thomson, not to mention La Comtesse.

‘And for any man who could beat the system, there was an estaminet on the rue des Hautes Communes,’ says Corporal Reynolds. It was run by Madame Walle and her three daughters, Alice, Madeline and Lycette with no hanky-panky. Supplies were very scarce, chiefly egg and chips, but they did their best at fair prices. Alice kept order, aided by a back-handed chop to the throat which would have been no discredit to Steve Vidor.’ The hundreds of nurses serving the hospitals at Le Touquet, Paris Plage and Camiers were equally if more genteelly unavailable. Nurse Dorothy Barefoot, who came from Ottawa with the No. 1 Canadian General Hospital to Etaples, spent such little time off as she had from the mutilation in the wards at the little cafés of Paris Plage.

‘The most popular spot was a little place called Le Chat Bieu tucked away amid the smart shops. There was a nice little hotel in Etaples calied Les Voyageurs where we sometimes had dinner. Good food and the walls covered with paintings from artists who had paid for a meal that way before the war. We went on bicycle rides through the countryside. There were occasional parties and dances in the recreation hall, but Dame Maude McCarthy, our chief, considered such things unsuitable’.

It was only later when the American girls arrived enthusiastic for some relaxation after the heart-breaking duties in the wards that the ban was lifted. Even on the wrong side of the railway tracks, in the great base camp itself, there were some carefree possibilities, but only if you knew the ropes. Private Parrott of Leeds arrived at Etaples with the 3rd London Regiment with the benefit of a brother, Sergeant Fred, long established on the base hospital staff.

‘He gave me a good time, including a very welcome bath, a complete change of uniform, civilian food and wine, and last, but by no means least, a nice young WAAC whose philosophy was “Live for today, for tomorrow we may die”, which approximated to my own ideas. The next day we were marshalled into the cattle-trucks again to God knows where.’

Some nice young WAACs undoubtedly risked punishment by providing a warm Godspeed to the men leaving for the front, though the history of this aspect of their war service does not find its proper place of honour in the official memoirs. Nor does the fateful relationship between a WAAC and a Gordon Highlander which was to catapult the Etaples camp into rebellion. But while it was a love story which started the Etaples mutiny, it was the presence of the Australians which made such a thing seem possible to the British Tommy. The Aussies were indeed an eye-opener for the British troops. For three years the British had not only gone unquestioning to the slaughter at the front, but had endured the harshest régime of Victorian discipline whenever they came out of the line. Field punishment awaited any man who jibbed at a superior’s orders, the firing squad any man who deserted, showed cowardice or even nodded off to sleep on duty. The class system imposed a succession of increasingly callow public-school officers on even the most battle hardened troops.

By 1917, the British were fertile ground for the talk of peace at the Stockholm Conference of the Socialist International, and even for the propaganda of revolution which seeped out of Russia, More immediately and vividly, the Aussies reminded Tommy daily that the system was neither immutable nor essential. Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres had taught them that the ‘Aussies fought as bravely as any man in battle. But, despite Haig’s urgings, there was no death penalty in the Australian Army. The Aussie officer often came from the ranks of the fighting troops. And when the Aussie soldier went back for a rest, he stood no nonsense about military protocol. It was the Aussies who dominated the pontoon schools and the gambling at Etaples. And they felt protective towards the Scots whom they saw as innocents trapped under the harsh discipline of the English. Toplis had seen them cut down a field punishment victim earlier in 1917. By August, Private Jellie from Auckland witnessed them cut down every prisoner at the military police compound. They would never salute an officer at Etaples, or stand for any interference from the Red Caps. In July there was a fist fight when two Aussies tried to cross the bridge to go into Etaples town. Within minutes, half of Queensland joined in the brawl, until a military policeman drew his revolver and wounded one.

To the Scots in particular it was a seminar in liberation. Private Joe Perks enlisted after he had been fired from a Dundee jute factory for whistling while he worked, and was amazed to meet men who defied exploitation of any kind:

‘They were the greatest gamblers in the world. I’ve seen the sergeant of the Military Police come along, and they’d just say, “Go on, buzz off. Don’t bother us.” They’d go because they couldn’t do anything with them. The men were there to fight, and when there was no fighting they wanted their pleasures. That’s the way it went. The Australians were the greatest blokes Lever met. I remember when I came out of hospital at Etaples after trench fever and I went to get my hair cut. The barber holds out his hand: “That will be half a franc.” There was this big Australian sitting there, and he says: “You want half a franc. The bloke doesn’t have half a franc. He doesn’t have a Woodbine. He’s just down the line. He’s been up there fighting, with you lounging and scrounging about back here. No, no,” he says, “if you don’t behave yourself I’ll give you a good hiding.” John, this Australian was called. He took me down to the canteen and bought me a few cakes and fags and gave me his post office box number. He was a sheep-shearer. “Fancy him wanting half a franc top and him getting paid for it as well,” he says. “No, I’m not having anything like that.”‘

When the mutiny came to Etaples, the combination of the Scots and the Australians, the special grievances of the New Zealanders, the oratory of Percy Toplis, the common hatred of the Red Caps and Canaries, the burgeoning populism, purveyed by papers like John Bull, were together to prove a deadly  mix. For six days Brigadier-General Thomson and his staff would stand helplessly by and watch the old order collapse and threaten the fighting ability of the British Army, just as their ally on the Eastern Front, Russia, was about to be levered out of the war for good by revolution.

As an officer in the Manchester Regiment, the poet Wilfred ‘Owen had written a letter to his mother in which he described Etaples:

I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead.

I thought of the very strange look on all 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.

On 9 September 1917, the beasts would break out of the paddock. A complete breakdown in Anglo-American communications was to add to an already formidable list of reasons for the havoc they would wreak.