There was never a real day of rest at Etaples, but Sunday was the nearest thing. Reveille sounded at 7 a.m. rather than 5 a.m. Parades and training were restricted to five periods before noon. It was also the one day when the camp cinema was open in the afternoon. Otherwise it was business as usual. Inside the huge base, the long, ugly finger of the camp incinerator belched forth its thick black smoke, dowsing the huts and tents with an ever-pervading smell of burning flesh. For, along with the waste, it took the amputated limbs from the hospitals.
Alongside the railway line from Boulogne the bugles were still incessantly blowing the ‘Last Post’ as the dead were trundled on Union Jack-draped handcarts along to the cemetery. And at the station, with its five flower-decked platforms, the trains still hooted and steamed their way to and from the front, a hundred or more a day, even on Sundays. Those rattling their way east with human reinforcements, supplies and heavy guns passed the military cattle-trucks travelling west with their cargoes of wounded and dying.
One man who was to play a crucial role on that black day of Sunday, 9 September 1917, had planned to sleep in late, Second Lieutenant James Davies, Royal Fusiliers, had already faced a personal crisis that week and was being posted back to the front. He was an actor who bad left the stage of the London Palladium to join the army in the first week of the war in August 1914. At the battle of Loos in September 1915 he had been a corporal with a section of the 24th Division, one of 300 survivors out of 1,100 men, He had already been wounded three times, and his grateful commanders bad rewarded him with a posting to Etaples to recover. Then, on 7 September 1917, the young officer had staged his own one-man mutiny – and got away with it. It had happened when a young lieutenant had taken him to the Bull Ring to teach him how to fire a Verey pistol:
‘This stupid man, whose feet looked as if they had been flattened by walking around on the sand, staged his Verey light demonstration for me and a group of fellow officers. I do not think he had been nearer the front than Etaples, and I remember thinking at the time, This surely must be the bloody end’.
‘It was very hot, and standing around on parade with the sun beating down on my tin hat I felt very dizzy and just sat down, to the astonishment of those around me. I felt I could not go on, but before the shouting started I ran from the Bull Ring to the adjutant’s office.
‘I burst in on him, shouting, “This nonsense is not making me fit to go back to my battalion. It is making me unfit. I am not going back to the Bull Ring anymore”’
Davies then threw down a challenge.
‘Send me back to my unit or put me under arrest.’ I remember him looking up at me with some astonishment from his desk.
My outburst amounted to a refusal to obey orders and, in a way, it was a mutinous stance, but with this difference. I was stating a preference, and I suppose the system had won in a way.
There were many who felt the system had been ruthlessly designed to make men glad to leave Etaples for battle.
‘Of course, there was this other difference. The other ranks would never have been allowed to forcibly express their desires. I was. I never went back to the Bull Ring again.’
On that last day before returning to the front, Davies had washed and shaved by 11 a.m. and joined two other officers walking into Etaples town to take the single-decker tram which ran by the side of the road to Paris Plage. They had a lunchtime drink in the Hétel des Anglais, part of which was in use as a war hospital, followed by a leisurely stroll to the beach for an afternoon in the sun.
As the young veterans chatted desultorily about Davies’s good fortune in escaping Etaples, Corporal Wood of the Gordon Highlanders, not so lucky in the fate awaiting him, strolled out of the barbed-wire compound where the Scots were billeted and down towards the cinema. Since midday it seemed to have been getting hotter and hotter, and the tantalizing glimpse of the sea below did nothing to cool the atmosphere. The Gordons had had as hellish a war as any, and Corporal Wood had seen his share. He was a popular, admired NCO. The quarantine régime in Etaples was not much of a reward.
Coming up the road towards him that afternoon, however, was one of Etaples’s more welcome sights: a girl in the uniform of the WAACS, a girl he knew, from Aberdeen. Whether it was chance, a lover’s tryst or a ficeting wartime assignation, this simple boy-meets-girl incident was to put the match to the tinder. Wood stopped. The two stood talking. In the heat of the afternoon the soldier lounged, his tunic unbuttoned.
They were interrupted by a military policeman. Wood recognized him as a well-known boxing champion, Private Harry Reeve. Unlike most boxers, Reeve was renowned for throwing his weight about outside as well as inside the ring. He ordered Wood to move on. Talking to WAACs wasn’t allowed. In any case, the corporal was improperly dressed. There was a sudden flare of violence as the two men shouted. There was shoving and pushing, a punch was thrown. Private Reeve took out his revolver and shot Wood. Quickly the news filtered round the Scots regiments. It came for them as the final straw. The Etaples mutiny was on.
It was after eight o’clock before Davies said his good nights to the other officers, after dinner in the hotel in the Paris Plage, his intention being to walk back to base on his own. Darkness was beginning to shroud the poplar trees on the coast road, and in the shadows under the trees, Davies spotted a horsedrawn fiacre with an elderly driver. He changed his mind about walking, handed over five francs and started out over the cobbles on his journey into history.
About a quarter of a mile out from Etaples town centre the horse pricked up its ears. Davies’s first reaction to the noise of distant uproar was, like that of many others that night, to think that the Germans had broken through and captured the town. He dismissed the notion. But as they drew nearer to the Town Hall end of the town centre, the din had grown deafening. They turned into the square and the horse stopped in its tracks. Davies jumped down from the fiacre.
‘It was the most astonishing sight. Hundreds of troops were yelling, jeering, cheering, singing and dancing.’ Davies turned and headed for his depot via the narrow iron railway bridge which was to figure so vividly in the events to follow. As he crossed the bridge he looked down on another astounding gathering. Below him several hundred troops were running amok. Tents, huts and latrines were being set on fire. By the light of the flames, the troops who had either not attempted or who had failed to break out of camp could be seen standing to in the separate compounds of their IBDs. Armed officers had chosen this method of keeping them away from the main body of mutineers. Other senior officers were rushing about, with the rioters on the outside of the parade grounds jeering at their confusion.
Davies got to his depot’s wooden office in the centre of a cluster of bell-tents, some of which were ablaze. Troops were dancing around them, whooping it up like Red Indians on the warpath. A lieutenant-colonel dashed in behind him. The colonel gave his order to the adjutant, and the adjutant, as Davies puts it, ‘not liking me very much’, passed it on to Davies. He was to go back to the bridge in command of fifty men with fixed bayonets. And he was to stop, by force if necessary, any more rebels crashing into Etaples.
Because of the recent night air-raid on the American hospital, camp and road lighting had been restricted, but by now the lights were fully on. Searchlights had also been rushed to the scene, and as Davies marched at the head of his men their bayonets glistened and gleamed when caught in the cross-beams of light. Mutineers fell back on either side of the column, still booing, jeering and cat-calling, uncertain about their next move. When the fixed bayonets mounted the steps and took up position in two ranks across the bridge, their minds were made up.
The road into the town was being barred, so the bridge had to be taken. The rioters started moving menacingly towards the bridge with its wooden steps and iron framework. Davies had been plunged into a desperate situation without warning. Having lined up his soldiers behind him, he turned to face the foe,
many of them friends of the rifle and bayonet holders behind his back. If he ordered them to fight off the mutineers, would they do so? And if they did obey, how much common blood would be spilled? At his back was the forbidden territory of Etaples town.
He looked down about twenty feet upon the sea of angry faces beginning to press round the bottom of the stairway.
These men, his comrades in battle, had had their bravery snubbed, their patience tested beyond all endurance. Suddenly,
ridiculously, says Davies, some lines from his last London Palladium part came back to him. They were, ‘Gather round my braves, gather round. For I, Black Eagle, your chief, have something to say to you.’
‘For one wild moment I had the idea that the tension might be broken and a bond created if I addressed the mutineers on similar lines,’ he remembers ruefully.
‘Thunderous cheers and chants from below jolted him back to an acute awareness of his plight. The cheering signalled the first advance up the steps towards the rebels. They were coming at him, cautiously as yet, but determinedly and, most frightening of all, wordlessly. Even the cheers from those inciting from behind had died. In front, in almost equal numbers, were Australians, New Zealanders and Scots. The Royal Fusiliers to his rear started to cough and uneasily shuffle their feet, but Davies continued to stand his ground without flinching.
The lemon-squeezer New Zealand hats, the Wide-brimmed, side-turned-up Australian headgear, the bottle-green glengarries of the Gordon Highlanders formed the bobbing advance of a force which threatened to engulf the guardians of the bridge over Etaples railway. Somewhere to the rear of the rebels a lone piper started to play ‘Highland Laddie’, the regimental tune of the Gordons. The Jocks started to chorus their own adaptation of words to the music, softly at first, then more loudly, ‘Bonny Wullie’s gone awa, will he no come back again?’
Second Lieutenant Davies knew the Gordon’s regimental motto, ‘Strike Sure’, and he had seen them in reckless action in the past. He tried hard to detect if hand-guns were being carried by the rebels, but they were jammed so tightly together that he could not be certain. He had never raised his own pistol throughout, carefully keeping it dangling nonchalantly in his right hand, pointing down towards the top step immediately below where he stood.
Suddenly the piper stopped playing, the singing ceased and the threats, the cheering and the jeering drained away. They were inches apart now: a big burly Highland trooper, full of hatred born of intense grievance, leading his excitable followers in a just cause, and an understanding English officer with his finger on the trigger. Davies remembers:
‘The Scotsman was so tall that though he was on the next to top step of the bridge, it had become an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, with me on the top step.” Then Davies had another wildly irrelevant thought. It was that they were both improperly dressed. The wild-eyed Jock did not have his uniform collar fastened at the front, and Davies should have had a sword in his hand instead of the revolver.
He broke the silence as calmly as he could. ‘I don’t know what the hell’s been going on here today, but be a good fellow and take your crowd back to the camp. It can all be sorted out tomorrow when we’ve all simmered down.’
Davies had spoken evenly but loudly enough for those jamming the stairs behind the Scot to hear. They heaved closer behind their leader, trying to jostle him past Davies with shouts of, ‘Tell him about the murder … tell him we want to get the bastard police that did it.’
The leading Scotsman braced himself backwards against the crowd pushing him from behind, held up his right hand and yelled at Davies, ‘Ye hear what they say, sir. It’s no you we’re out tae git. We’ve got naething against you, but I mist ask ye tae stand aside.’ There was a pause. Then, in an even louder voice, the Jock added, ‘And if ye don’t we’ll turn the machine-guns on ye.’
At this there was further rustle of uneasy movement among the soldiers behind Davies, while wild pandemonium broke out again among those before and below him. Above the general din he heard shouts of, ‘Get the guns.’ Davies knew there was an armoury near at hand. This highly dangerous game of poker had to end.
He turned to face his heavily outnumbered troops and ordered them to stand aside. He could see the relief flooding back into their faces. Then the fusiliers were brushed aside as the mutineers stormed past them over the bridge towards Etaples. The mutiny of Etaples was to be bloody, but it would have been bloodier still but for the brave and difficult decision by a twenty-year-old lieutenant to concede defeat. His mature example was to be followed by junior officers throughout the mutiny, to the fury of Commandant Thomson.
Davies watched the victorious mutineers surge across the bridge and down the steps at the other side, screaming and yelling in the manner he had so often seen them adopt when charging the enemy lines at the front. At the centre of the rushing, shoving, pushing phalanx was the piper, marching stolidly and imperturbably, refusing to be jostled out of tune.
Davies marched his fifty fusiliers back behind the barbed wire of their own compound where an impatient, irritated adjutant listened to explanations and decided to change tactics. At this point it was thought that not many of the rebels were armed.
So the adjutant moved to confiscate as many rifles as he could.
‘All arms they could get hold of were piled on the parade ground under guard,’ said Corporal Frank Edwards of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. ‘It fell to my lot to be detailed with the picket to hold the bridge which carried the little tramcars for Paris Plage over the River Canche. We were put in the charge of an elderly major and were formed into three groups, one at each end of the bridge, the other in the centre. I was in the second rank of the squad holding the town end of the bridge.
After about twenty minutes we heard the sound of singing, and a mob of soldiers in various stages of undress swarmed into view. They were led by a Canadian private who, with his tunic unbuttoned and his cap on the back of his head, occasionally gave vent to his feelings by shouting, ‘Down with the Red Caps, let’s release the prisoners,’ which were loudly echoed by his companions. They seemed to be attracted by our little force, and came towards us, laughing and jeering. Our commander ordered us to load, but only one man near me did so. The Canadian advanced right up to our front rank, closely followed by the mob, and the whole crowd surged forward right across the bridge. A tram-car was following closely, and the leader, together with many of his followers, boarded it. The only man to suffer being he who foolishly loaded his rifle, who had his hat thrown into the river by one of the crowd who had seen him do it’
The adjutant decided on one last attempt. Forty officers were marched through a gauntlet of boos, jeers and catcalls to man the bridge. This time there were no preliminaries, just tough, bitter hand-to-hand fighting as lieutenants and captains grappled and wrestled with privates. As the men rushed at them up the steps, heads down, the advantage was heavily with the officers.
From their superior strategic position it was relatively easy to repel the onslaught by throwing or butting the attackers back down the stairs. But some did make it to the top, where the mauling became fast, furious and ferocious. Soldiers, taught by the Canaries how to handle themselves in the event of being disarnied, were handing out to their officers the benefit of their tuition.
A call had gone out from the aptly named reinforcement camp headquarters to the officers’ club behind the Town Hall:
‘All officers to the bridge.’ Thirty more officers who had until then deemed it wise to stay away from the rioters in the square outside, ran out of a side-exit, heading for the railway. They arrived just in time to add their weight and prevent the men breaking through. And weight it was. Until then it had been – ‘an unceremonial fracas. Now it became vicious. Hitherto men had been hurled back down the steps. But their persistence had destroyed all patience. Two were hurled through the air, over the side of the bridge to the track below and, although injured, managed to crawl off the track out of the way of a trainload of troops slowly gathering speed for the Western Front. For those thus in transit it could not have been the most uplifting spectacle. Oddly enough, they cheered themselves hoarse and shouted encouragement from below before a cloud of billowing steam and smoke obscured the contest.
The men had retreated, but it was the only small victory the authorities had that night, or for another five days. And the next confrontations were to be far more ruthless and bloody. ‘The mutineers had targets they were absolutely determined to destroy: the Red Caps and Canaries of Etaples.
About 1,500 mutineers had succeeded in making it over the railway into the town, leaving a trail of havoc and devastation. When the troops roared in, the French customers in the cafés and estaminets had fled to their homes, and the restaurant owners had closed their doors only to have them smashed down by the invaders.
Those who could not crash their way into the cafés because of the crowds already jammed inside had barrels of beer and wine rolled out to them in the square, Street stall-holders whose business it was to turn out soggy potato chips on paraffin-heated braziers had disappeared along with the entire local population. Behind locked doors they listened in terror to the bedlam in the square.
A mixture of threats and pleas by equally terrified military policemen and Bull Ring instructors had resulted in some of these fugitives being given refuge by householders in streets just off the square. Inside, they huddled in little groups too scared to speak as the rebels rampaged long into the night. In the rue Saint-Pierre the door of one house was smashed down by Australians and Scots who found a military policeman and a Canary hiding under the same bed. Outside the bedroom door, an elderly French fisherman and his wife, dressed in their customary all-black Sunday-night clothes, stood weeping as the fugitives were kicked and battered and left for dead.
When the potato supply ran out back in the square, the braziers were overturned and the paraffin used to set fire to the barrels that had been drained. To these bonfires were added piles of chairs and tables taken from both inside and outside the cafés, The centre of Etaples was a wreck by the time the first officers’ patrols could get there at about 11 p.m.
Many of the soldiers had started to straggle back to camp. But the main body of the mutineers had left the town and crossed the bridge over the Canche River, heading for the woods of Le Touquet and Paris Plage. The widespread rumour in the town was that the British troops were behaving in this wanton fashion because they had suffered a heavy defeat and were in retreat from the front, pursued by victorious Germans.
Sergeant Fred Parrott, RAMC, of Steep Hill, Streatham, London, was in charge of the reception room in the hospital where Corporal Wood, the first casualty of the uprising, died on the Sunday night. He remembers the rumour which swept through the hospitals and the outskirts of the camp about the reported German breakthrough.
‘As far as my hospital was concerned it started when two breathless nurses rushed back from the town saying that there had been a lot of noise and shooting and the local French people had told them the Germans had got through. Everybody was confined to the hospital for the rest of the day and night.’
When the truth became known, he and a medical corporal armed themselves with revolvers, dug a large hole in the sand near the hospital and bid in it, waiting to ambush any mutineers who strayed their way.
‘But,’ says Parrott, ‘the dissidents did not get as far as us although we could hear a lot of shooting going on in the distance.’
The excitement of a very bloody Sunday died down towards midnight. But the respite was to be brief. The limited, laconic, official version of these five tumultuous days, signed by General Thomson in the War Diary, gives little away, though he must have seen the first troubles as the soldiers spilled out of the cinema across from his office window. But it does admit to another incident which stirred the cauldron that boiling Sunday afternoon. The New Zealanders, furious at stories that the British were blocking their leave, had also broken out. As the general’s War Diary for the day reads:
Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between Military Police and Troops about 6.30 p.m., Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot.
About noon a Corporal from 27 Infantry Battalion Division, warmed the Military Police that the New Zealanders intended raiding the Police Hut on account of a New Zealand Corporal who had been arrested by the police sometime previously. As threats by Colonials were fairly common, no notice was taken.
About 3.00 pm. the police arrested No. 25/548 Gunner A. J. Healy, New Zealand Artillery, at Three Arch Bridge, Etaples. Gunner Healy alleges he was arrested without any provocation and after having been assaulted by the Police.
The Corporal in charge released Gunner Healy.
The incident of the arrest of Gunner Healy was witnessed by other men, and some feeling was shown against the Police. A crowd began to gather by 4.00 p.m. and by 5.00 p.m. this crowd had increased, largely being augmented by men leaving the afternoon performance of the Cinema. About 5.30 pm. a New Zealander went to the Police Guard Room and demanded the release of Gunner Healy. This New Zealander was shown, by being taken into the Guard Room, that the prisoner had been released. The attitude of the crowd was very threatening, stones were thrown, and attempts made to rush the Police Hut.
It was no coincidence that the New Zealanders were in the forefront of the trouble. For some days the newspapers reaching the camp had been carrying stories that the British government was resisting plans to give up to six months’ leave to New Zealanders who had served in France for three years. A fortnight before, on 28 August, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Derby, had startled his fellow members in the War Cabinet by circulating among them a telegram received from New ZeaJand. Coming from the Governor-General of New Zealand, the Earl of Liverpool, it read:
An arrangement has been agreed to by my Government whereby after 3 years service members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force may return on leave to Dominion; numbers to be limited to 250 per month and leave to be reckoned as 6 months from departure from the front until return which would allow 2 months in New Zealand. Detailed arrangements are being made direct with General Officer Commanding New Zealand Expeditionary Force and my Government trust that Imperial authorities will raise no objection to these arrangements.
This last sentence virtually defied the Cabinet not to acquiesce, a challenge immediately taken up by the War Secretary, who rushed to find an ally in the person of the Adjutant-General, Lieutenant-General Sir G. F. N. Nacready. This hastily arranged consultation enabled Lord Derby to write on 7 September, two days before the mutiny:
I circulate to the War Cabinet for their consideration a notice by the Adjutant-General on the foregoing telegram which, in his view, indicates a very dangerous line of policy.
His observations are:
If leave on this scale is to be given to the New Zealanders, irrespective of the military situation at the front, the same measure must be meted out to all troops, Dominion or British, and the result will be that the forces at the front will be completely depleted. If the privilege is confined to Dominion troops a spirit of strong antagonism which will, in my opinion, result in bloodshed, will spring up between the British and Dominion troops, between whom already, on account of the difference of pay, and the absence of the death penalty in the Australian Contingent, the feeling is not too friendly.
The first inkling of this news had reached France in the first week of September. Another element had thus been added to the flammable mixture swirling around Etaples as the great Passchendaele battle began.
In the months leading up to September there had been an increase in the number of occasions when Canaries and military policemen had been found mysteriously shot or bayoneted to death. Cause of death in these isolated but nevertheless numerous incidents had always been officially listed as ‘accidental’.
By September, too, many men had already been to the front once and were enduring Etaples for the second and, in some cases, the third time, having just recovered from wounds. News of Bolsheviks in Russia and mutiny in France, and deserters from the chalk pits mixing freely with the soldiers, also helped to stoke the fire. The fact that the uprising did not happen earlier was, however, only because of the transit-camp nature of Etaples. Men rarely had to put up with it for periods longer than seven to ten days before having to face what they regarded as the lesser hell, the front line. Opportunities to get together, to conspire, were few.
From the moment of the assault on the police hut, Commandant Thomson’s account parts company with that of every other witness. Predictably, it tries to minimize the troubles. Even so, it must have made horrendous reading at Field Marshal Haig’s headquarters as his staff struggled to get enough reinforcements through to feed the Passchendaele offensive. Back at Folkestone, urgently needed troops were marooned waiting for the Etaples mutiny to be resolved. There was no chance of them being shipped across and into the maelstrom of a base in the grip of rebellion. Before jump-off day, ten days later, not only would reinforcements have almost come to a halt, but Haig would be bleeding the line of assault troops to put down the mutiny at his base.
Brigadier Thomson’s diary for the first night of the mutiny continues:
Shots were fired from a revolver, two or three, by No. 204122 Pte H. Reeve, Camp Police. Pte. Reeve states he had no revolver, but that a man (Australian or New Zealander) in the crowd had one which he, Pte. Reeve, snatched and fired over the heads of the crowd. The revolver was snatched from Pte, Reeve.
One man, No. 240120 Corporal W. B. Wood, 4th Gordons, om the outskirts of the crowd, was hit in the head and died after admission to No, 24 General Hospital, at 8.5 p.m. the same day. A French woman standing in the Rue de Heguet was also hit by a bullet, The crowd at this time, shortly after 6.00 pam. in the vicinity of Three Arch Bridge and the Police Hut was 3,000-4,000 strong.
Captain V. C. Guinness, Camp Adjutant, saw the crowd at 6.15 p.m. and was then told of the shooting by the Police. He at once reported to Colonel Nason, 0.C. Reinforcements, who immediately ordered a picquet of one officer, 50 other ranks from New Zealand depot. This picquet at once turned out with rifles and bayonets, but no ammunition. Colonel Nason went to the Police Hut and seeing the serious state of affairs, ordered two further pioquets, each of 100 other ranks with officers from No. 19 and No. 25 IBDs. A further picquet of I officer, 15 other ranks was also detailed from No. 18 IBD.
At the Officers’ Club, Colonel Nason ordered all officers to immediately rejoin their Depots, and each depot was ordered to send three officers to No. 2 Bridge to persuade the crowd to return.
Feeling in the crowd was only against the Police and Officers were treated respectfully. The officers gradually got the men back to camp and by 9.45-10.00 p.m. all was quiet.
During the fracas at Three Arch Bridge, and directly the shots had been fired, the demeanour of the crowd was so threatening towards the Police, that the Police disappeared.
A crowd of about 1,000 gathered in Etaples town, and about 7.30 p.m. tried to break into the Sévigné Café where two policemen were hiding. Several officers held back the crowd and the town was clear by 9.00 p.m.
Lieutenant Davies does not feel that the treatment accorded to him and other officers on the railway bridge that night was of the most ‘respectful’ nature, He recalls that the last salute he got was when he stepped down from the carriage which brought him back from Paris Plage. Certainly Etaples was anything but quiet by 9 p.m. And the camp was in uproar all night.
The veterans are united in disagreeing with Thomson’s account of the shooting of William Wood by Harry Reeve, a pre-war welterweight boxing champion, later sentenced by court martial to one year’s hard labour for manslaughter. All of them swear that the real reason for the deliberate shooting of Wood was that Reeve caught him speaking to the WAAC.
Thomas McNab (86), Royal Flying Corps, of 352 Main Street, Glasgow, witnessed the last part of that drama outside the cinema: ‘This military policeman was being dragged along the ‘ground by two soldiers. A crowd of soldiers followed on taking it in turns to hit him and kick him. I saw an Aussie belting the captured policeman with a long stick. The policeman was howling out in agony.’
Indeed memories are vivid, and, after sixty years, remarkably unanimous about that night and the extraordinary days that followed. And the men who remember were not riff-raff oF draft-dodgers, but often among the bravest who had seen action since the earliest days of the war.
Frank Reynolds (82), of 5 Stoughton Drive, Evington, Leicester, ran a chemist’s business until he retired at the age of 72, He was a founder member of the Old Comrades Association before it became the British Legion, of which he is a vice-president. In September 1917 he was a corporal in the 2nd Suffolk Regiment and already held the Military Medal for bravery at the Somme in 1916, where he received wounds which subsequently resulted in the loss of an eye.
In that first explosion of anger, Reynolds helped to launch an attack on General Thomson’s own office, because, he says:
‘The Commandant was regarded as the lowest form of human existence, a craven coward, and it was generally known he was a heavy drinker without a thought for the suffering in his own self-made concentration camp. It was common knowledge in the camp that the Commandant was seldom sober.’
A group of a hundred mutineers had crashed into the midst of an officers’ meeting and summarily ordered them to their feet, ‘We were armed, but we did not require to use our weapons, The officers meekly obeyed. We bundled them outside and locked them up in the guardroom next door. We then piled brushwood and trestles round the wooden hut.’
It was a succinct ultimatum – half an hour to give an undertaking to improve the soldiers’ lot or be burned alive. It took less than ten minutes for an officer to call out a surrender to the terms stated. As Reynolds puts it, ‘Like the cowards they were, they quickly capitulated.’
But their ordeal was not yet over. The mutineers then loaded Commandant Thomson and a dozen officers into two trucks and set off with them down the road to the bridge over the River Canche. The little convoy covered the half-mile from the commandant’s office at a slow pace so as to give the cheering men lining the route a good view of what was going on. On the bridge the two lorries stopped. There was a moment of silence, then the trucks tipped up and slid the top echelon of the British Army’s No, 1 Base over the parapet and into the river – another incident unrecorded in the official diary. By the time Thomson and his senior officers hit the water and were swimming for their lives, the banks of the River Canche were crowded with hundreds of men, yelling and hooting derisively.
From that moment the mutiny spread like wildfire. Sapper David Paton, No. 49479, Royal Engineers, from Dundee, was caught up willy-nilly in the advances by the mutineers into Etaples:
You were pushed out whether you wanted to or not. Thousands and thousands of us crashed down on the bridges over the railway. You had to go with the crowd. If you had tried to turn round you would have been trampled to death.
‘At the bottom of the hill, on the south side of the railway, there were rows of soldiers with fixed bayonets, but if they had tried to stop the mobs getting into Etaples, they would have been crushed to death as well, so they just downed their weapons and went with us, There was no other way they could have gone. There was nothing else they could have done, I can remember the noise now as we went roaring down the hill. The shouting was deafening.
‘Hundreds went off to Paris Plage, and it was two or three days before they came back. I heard that a lot never came back.’
Lucien Roussel was a boy of fifteen, helping out in his mother’s shop in Etaples town square when the wave of Scots, Australians and English hit them.
‘The British troops stormed into the town like real savages, grabbing or destroying everything in their path. They took over the square for days on end. It was black with troops.
‘There were bloody incidents at the station, shooting, beatings up, vehicles set on fire. The rebels took prisoner one of the officers responsible for the camp, locked him up in a slatted wooden cage and paraded him around Etaples on the back of an open lorry, ‘T saw a patrol with a number of officers set upon by the mutineers on the Canche bridge. All of them were thrown into the water. Just at that moment a military police lorry arrived on the bridge. The driver, seeing what was happening, tried to reverse, but he was trapped by rebels coming up from behind.
‘The two men in the front of the lorry and the four in the back all got the same treatment – into the river. Then the lorry was set on fire.’
An Etaples photographer, Achille Caron, also remembers moments of terror at the station: ‘I saw a cavalry officer going at full gallop down the rue de Rosamel with a mob of soldiers in full pursuit.’
The town of Etaples was hopelessly out of control, but in the camp some officers acted to try and stop the situation collapsing, completely. They were helped by the construction of the camp. Each infantry base depot was wired in as a self-contained unit on either side of the road. There were usually only one or two gates.
The East Yorkshires were one of several battalions where the officers acted firmly and fast. Senior NCOs were armed and put con the gates. All the men were routed out of their tents and the canteen hut and stood to. The officers did not feel confident enough to risk using their men against the rioters.
‘So they kept us on the move,’ says Private Jack Musgrove of Dinsdale Avenue, Kings Road Estate, Wallsend-on-Tyne. ‘Invented any sorts of jobs for us, so we didn’t sit around and conspire, But no one was allowed out of the IBD except the canteen men like myself to get food. That went on for five days.’
Some officers were more venturesome, Two marched up to Corporal Reynold’s group and started to read out the sonorous terms of the Riot Act and the Army Act, ending each sentence with the invocation, ‘The Penalty for this is Death.’
‘We just shouted them down,’ says Reynolds. ‘Their copies of the Acts were just snatched from them and burned.’
As Sunday night drew on the only real sign of authority came from an officer of the Durham Light Infantry. In parade ground style he turned out fifty of his troops with fixed bayonets and marched them to the main road through the camp. It was the start of a strange three-day gavotte, Private Musgrove, on canteen detail for the East Yorkshires, saw it with astonishment:
‘It was like the grand old Duke of York. The Durhams would stand at the bottom of the hill, with their backs to the railway, all of them with fixed bayonets, with an officer out in front, his sword drawn. At the top, which was less than a quarter of a mile away, the Scots gathered in a large group and slowly marched down the hill. The Durhams started up the hill towards them, and then the Scots would break into a trot whereupon the Durhams withdrew to the bottom, The Scots would then take a little rush at them, daring the officer to shout, ‘Fire.’ Of course, had the officer done this there would have been a slaughter on the hill, and things were bad enough everywhere else without a that. Then there would be a short lapse with both sides standing there staring at each other before the officer shouted ‘Charge.’ The Scots then started back up the hill to regroup, the Durhams Would retreat and the same performance would begin all over again,
‘The Durhams were scared to go too far because the Scots were also armed with rifles, but they did not have bayonets. It was an endless cat-and-mouse game that was still going on two days later when I went out for more food.’
The rebel Scots had no real quarrel with the Durhams. It was the Military Police who were to feel the full weight of the troops’ hatred in the first twenty-four hours. The military police compound at the bottom of the hill was the first target of the Scots and the Australians after news of Corporal Wood’s death spread. The police personnel never stood a chance, Most of them broke out and fled towards the railway station and the town.
‘The police huts were shattered,’ says Jack Musgrove. ‘The windows and doors were smashed and off their hinges. Several hhuts were burning. There was nothing left’
Several Red Caps were thrown out of first-floor windows. Another group was trapped on the railway bridge and thrown over on to the lines. As dusk fell, a grim manhunt developed among the sidings and cattle-trucks around Etaples station. Two policemen were cornered by a group of Australians who hammered their heads to pulp against the troop trucks waiting at the station. As one frightened French train driver tried to pull out of the station, an Aussie climbed on to the tender and threatened to beat his head in with a lump of coal.
Private W. E. Beane, who now lives at 2 Low Road, Lessingham, Norwich, was with the Royal West Surreys, and was shut in a camp opposite the Scots:
‘We were just ordered to stand by. Shooting went on all night, a lot of it. The Scots went right into the base headquarters looking for military policemen.’
Out in the sand-dunes, Aussies were hunting down the Red Caps and Canaries with Lewis machine-guns, according to Private Joseph Perks of 24c Hebrides Drive, Mill o’ Mains, Dundee.
Private Bill Ellett of 23 Valentine Parker Court, Greenhoe Place, Swaffham, Norfolk, had just arrived wounded in hospital at Etaples that night:
‘I was only half-conscious. It was the middle of the night. Suddenly the orderlies came along and put our kit on us. We were put on stretchers and hurried out and down to the railway. ‘They just stacked us there in the dark for hours. We thought the Germans had broken through. I remember the shooting and the noise, and then eventually we were put into hospital trucks and taken off to Trouville.’
Yet, according to the commandant’s diary, all had been quiet from 10 p.m.
The dawn of Monday was to do little to help Commandant Thomson’s Nelsonian view of events. Much of the camp had been abandoned by many of his officers. There was not a military policeman to be seen. But the instructors up at their own camp in the Bull Ring, three miles away, were as yet unscathed.
Those officers who had maintained control of the troops in their own IBD compounds, now attempted to keep the situation as normal as possible. They marched them out for the usual training in the Bull Ring.
Private Phil Chester of the Northumberland Fusiliers, living at 2 Crane Close, Cranwell Village, Sleaford, Lincolnshire, after retiring from thirty years of working at the near-by RAF College, was there:
‘The moment you got to the Bull Ring the routine was you fell out and sat on the sand until the instructors came. This particular morning when they told us to get up, nobody moved. We just kept sitting. It was truly an amazing sight to look around and see thousands and thousands of men just sitting there silently. I don’t know how it happened, really. I don’t remember anything being said about it beforehand.
‘There were sergeant-majors, corporals and instructors by the hundreds, all shouting to us to get to our feet. Not a man moved. You could see that the NCOs were flummoxed. There was nothing they could do. No particular group had activated us. It was just as if each man had reached the same decision at the same moment. For two hours they tried every threat and every piece of persuasion they could think of. But nothing happened, nobody stirred. We just went on ignoring them, even laughing at them sometimes.
In the end they got us up by promising us we could go back to camp, have a day’s rest. By that time the sit-down had lasted two hours.’
Back at the camp, the sit-down troops were given a meal, and when they had finished eating they heard, for the first time ever at Etaples, this question, ‘Any complaints?’ Phil Chester and his mates were so astonished that they celebrated by bursting through the railway-bridge pickets into Etaples for a cup of after-lunch coffee.
General Thomson’s diary contains no reference to this mass defiance three miles up the road. He had troubles enough nearer home.
Troops created disturbance in evening.
Owing to police being unable to cope with situation, Major J. Henderson, O.C, No, 25 IBD was ordered to take charge of town of Etaples and to command any guards and picquets. General Officer Commanding Lines of Communication, Asser, visited Etaples in the morning and issued instructions.
Orders were given that all officers were to be present in their Depots from 5.30 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. A Board of Enquiry sat to collect evidence as to the occurrences on 9th September. At 4.00 p.m. bodies of men broke through the picquets into the town and held noisy ‘meetings’. During the afternoon and evening several motor cars were interfered with.
A picquet of 2 officers, 100 other ranks from the Lewis Gun School, Le Touquet, was sent to Paris Plage. There was no disturbance nor was any damage done there.
At 6.30 p.m. a mob of 200-300 proceeding along the River road towards Detention Camp were met and addressed by the Base Commandant, and were led by him, assisted by Major White, Major Dugdale, Assistant Provost Marshal, and Captain Strachan APM back to camp. On No. 1 Bridge a crowd of 1,000 were collected. They were also addressed by the Commandant, and began to disperse, and were evidently from their temper not out to make further trouble.
About 8.00 p.m. another small party of about 100 attempted to get at the Field Punishment Enclosure (where they thought police were hidden). This party was spoken to by the Commandant and dispersed quietly.
At 9.00 p.m. Major Cruickshank, saw a crowd of 100 opposite Town Station. They thought there were police in the station and tried to enter. They were almost immediately persuaded to return to camp.
The demeanour of all crowds towards officers was perfectly good.
Thomson had cause enough to know that the last sentence, at least, was the reverse of the truth. For he had personally encountered a new spirit of organization and leadership, and the first whiff of politics which was turning the Etaples affair from a mass outburst of anger into a determined mutiny.
The mutineers who had not returned to base on the Sunday night had instinctively made their way to link up with the permanent deserters who flourished in the woods around Paris Plage, most of them under the patronage and guidance of Percy Toplis, whom they now nicknamed ‘The General’. Mr William Stephens, of Elsynge Road, Wandsworth, London, a Ministry cof Social Security official, school governor and Battersea Trades Council vice-president before his retirement over ten years ago, ‘was at Paris Plage when the mutineers and the deserters joined forces on the Monday morning. As a private in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, he was an orderly in one of the hospitals at Paris Plage. He remembers seeing Toplis’s name on wanted posters in the area:
‘If he was a villain then he was not the only one around Etaples. Maybe he too was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalized and treated like a dog. We had all got tired of being treated with less consideration than that given to the horses.’
It was a strange council of war which convened under the Gripping wet poplar trees on the morning of Monday, 10 September. The fine weather of the previous day had given way to a steady drizzle, but to warriors accustomed to fighting through mud and blood, these were not uncomfortable conditions. What they were suffering from that morning, as they squatted on the wet grass to discuss their next move, was a common hangover.
The clear-headed Toplis, fresh from an overnight stay in the Hotel des Anglais where he had posed as an officer just back from the line on leave, had to do most of the thinking for them. The delight of the deserters was boundless when they heard that the Military Police were no more. They were eager to show their gratitude, and, assured that the coast had been quite literally cleared, they offered to return to Etaples with the mutineers to take part in day two of the mutiny, under Toplis’s leadership.
This weird, mixed bag of disaffection and desertion started marching on Etaples in the late afternoon. They were about 1,000 strong, and they swung along the coast road, back to the scene of Sunday’s triumph. Free at last from the fear of arrest, Toplis boldly led his column of deserters from the front. Before they got to the River Canche bridge they merged and then split up into four separate groups, each numbering over two hundred and each group containing some of the deserters. They hoped that in this manner they would be able simultaneously to cause maximum harassment at different points.
Toplis felt he had a clear duty. He headed his mob straight for the detention compound and released the prisoners, about fifty of them. The Toplis troops met with only token resistance from prison guards, who put up a show at struggling, but made no attempts to use their guns.
Madame Andrée Dissous of Etaples was one of several Frenchwomen who used to sell cigarettes and confectionery to the troops from two-wheeled stalls which were pushed along the road to the Bull Ring. During the half-hour midday break, orange chocolates were very popular with the soldiers. Madame Dissous remembers Toplis’s bold stroke well:
‘I saw the 200 or so men just march up to the compound gates, issue some threats, and the next thing the prisoners, with their shaven heads, came tumbling through the gates.’
Sergeant-Major Gray of the Gordon Highlanders saw it too:
‘The Provost Marshal was thrown down the railway embankment on the way.’
By now Thomson was desperate. He took to the back seat of his long, open staff car on a tour of the areas of the camp that he had never seen before, stopping off wherever mobs of mutineers were gathered to deliver speeches that started off in a blustering manner, but finished in conciliatory fashion when he saw that threats were not going to work.
By 6.30 on the Monday evening, when Thomson ran into the Toplis mob on the river road, the much-shaken, confused general thought that they were on their way to raid the detention camp when in fact they had already been there. He was attempting to close the door of an empty stable. His car had to stop because Toplis and his men were blocking its route. Thomson stood up in the back only to have his opening sentence drowned in a storm of abuse. He got as far as, ‘How dare you call yourselves soldiers, British soldiers …’ when the mob closed in on his vehicle and started to rock it violently. He was forced to sit down again.
‘Toplis had dressed for his part. That is to say, this was one of the few occasions when he was actually attired in a private’s uniform and not that of an officer. He held up his hand, signalling for silence from his followers. ‘What a sight it was to see the commanding officer there with tears in his eyes besging of us to let this trouble subside,’ recalls a Lancashire fusilier, George Souter of Ardwick, ‘and appealing for us to keep up the tradition of the British Army.’
The sight of the ashen-faced general, sitting now in the back seat, encouraged Toplis to climb on the running-board and dictate the terms for ending the mutiny. It was for Toplis, of course, an entirely academic exercise since he had no intention of enduring the Etaples base in any shape or form. He was simply revelling in the revolution. The revolt would end, he told Thomson, only when the town of Etaples was thrown open to the troops, when the Bull Ring had been closed, the Military Police removed and food and general conditions improved. Thomson turned to make his chauffeur drive on, but he was forced to hear out the private’s demands.
He made no reply at that moment, but in the end he would be forced to concede every condition Toplis had laid down. It had been a short, sharp speech and, after he had delivered it, Toplis stepped down from the car and ordered his men to clear the way for it to continue.
He next selected a deputation of five, himself included, to call on the soldiers’ champion, Horatio Bottomley, who by chance had arrived to stay at Etaples’s Hotel des Voyageurs while writing a series for his paper John Bull. There Toplis repeated the demands to Bottomley, plus an additional one that army pay should be increased. (That too would come to pass)
While Toplis was laying down his cease-fire terms to Thomson, the New Zealanders, men and officers, turned their attention to a smaller prison compound that he and his followers had overlooked.
Weber Todman, now 92, of 49 Dublin Street, Wanganui, New Zealand, was a Lewis machine-gunner with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.
He tells the story:
Thomson could have settled the issue earlier in the day on terms that were less demanding than those made by Toplis.
We had held a meeting, at which Toplis was not present, in canteen in the morning where it was decided to ask the Commandant to withdraw all the Military Police immediately. We in the Rifle Brigade, with the agreement of our officers, offered to act in place of the police. An officer took this offer to Thomson but, at that stage, he stupidly, stubbornly turned it down.
Part of the small prison compound was used as a barracks for some of the Military Police, and right alongside the wooden building was the main ammunition dump. We decided to do a two-in-one job – burn the bastards out and blow up the dump at the same time.
When he saw what was happening, a senior English officer threatened to charge us with a platoon of fixed bayonets. We told him that if he did that we would use our rifles and the mutiny would become a civil war. The police had barricaded themselves in, but when they saw us advancing on them with cans of kerosene they bolted.
‘There were hundreds of us on the scene now, and a right menacing mob we must have looked. Many of us had masked our faces with handkerchiefs to avoid being identified and punished later. The English officer who had made the threat to fight us off could only stand by and watch as we threw the fuel over the police barracks.
I was among those who helped to get the building alight. Some soldiers brought up a supply of grenades ready to chuck into the ammunition dump, which was already being threatened by the fierce flames fanning out all along its edge from the blazing barracks. At that point a dispatch rider roared down the hill with a message from the Commandant’s office. He would reconsider our request to act in place of the police if we preserved the ammunition dump intact.
A lot of the mutineers wanted to carry out our original plan in full, and actually had the grenades in their hands ready to throw when two of our officers got them to change their minds on the sensible grounds that we stood the risk of blowing ourselves up with the dump. Even then it was agreed that a decision on whether a safer, alternative means of destruction should be employed would depend on the toss of a coin. Looking back on it now that was a truly amazing decision to have made, We all stood round in a huge circle and watched the coin come down heads up. If it had been tails the dump would ave been no more. The English officer, I think he was a captain, jumped on the dispatch rider’s motor-cycle, heading for the Commandant’s office with the news that we had responded to his plea by sheer chance.
Todman is convinced that the strong line taken by the New Zealanders gave Thomson his greatest scare and strengthened Toplis’s hand in his subsequent confrontation with Thomson. He looks back with mixed feelings on the chance decision to preserve the ammunition. He was to use some of it in the murderous battle of Passchendaele from which he was stretchered out with a wound so serious that he went back on the first hospital ship to New Zealand.
The toss of a coin helped to prolong the agony of Passchendaele for his comrades.
By Monday evening, with all training stopped, no police, the mutineers in control of the camp and reinforcements piling up at Folkestone but unable to move, the army had to face the fact that the situation was out of control. Worse for Haig was the nightmare that this sedition might be imported to the front line. ‘The decision was taken that troops – and reliable troops – would have to be pulled out of the forward areas and sent to quell the mutiny.
As the urgent messages went to and fro between Etaples and Haigh’s headquarters on the Monday night, violence was once again spilling into the streets of the town. Pierre Durigaieux, later to become the town doctor at Etaples, lived in a house behind the town hall, next to the British officers’ club. Events, he says, had taken an even more ugly turn:
‘Soldiers were attacking women all over the town. I saw them and some of the women were not so young – trying to climb over high garden walls to get away from the men. But one girl, a fisherman’s daughter, did not get away. She was raped by one soldier on the pavement near my house while other soldiers looked on. The attack took place near her home, and her father rushed out with a harpoon and plunged it into the soldier’s back.
‘Eventually an officer on horseback came into the square to address the mobs. He backed his horse on to the Town Hall steps and started talking to them from there, but he was wasting his time. Those mutineers who were not drunk did not bother to listen to him. The more he shouted the more they screamed. One drunken man staggered into the side of the officer’s horse, and the officer leaned down to hear what the drunk was saying. As he did so, the soldier pulled out a knife with a curved blade and slit the officer’s throat open from ear to ear. When he fell from the horse there was terrible pandemonium and Iran away to avoid being crushed.
‘Throughout the night there were lorries rattling through the town with machine-guns mounted on the back, hunting for officers and police.’
‘Some mutineers, deprived of the company of women for months, sometimes years, at a time, and denied the use of brothels, seized the opportunity the rebellion offered. Members of the WAACS were subjected to multiple rape, as were some nurses, before loyalist guards could be found to form a cordon around the women’s quarters.
Fifteen rebels made their way to Paris Plage in a stolen lorry, having captured two young WAAGS en route. The attempts of the girls to scream for help were stifled when the underwear, of which they had been stripped, was stuffed into their mouths. The lorry halted for two hours in the woodlands of Le Touquet where the girls were carried out, forced to the ground and systematically ravaged by men behaving like sexually starved animals.
The girls were left half-naked by the roadside when the mutineers resumed their ride into Paris Plage, yelling that they would be back for more after they had had a drink. But, before that threat could be carried out, a bunch of rebels on foot caught up with the two women who were again forced to submit to a similar ordeal. Bruised, battered and beaten, as well as repeatedly raped, they were rescued early the following morning by Pte Harry Redgrave of the Kings Liverpool Rifles Regiment, who spotted them staggering back to Etaples. When they saw him approach, at the wheel of a hospital supply wagon, they scrambled into a ditch where they cowered in fear of yet another attack.
Redgrave said: ‘They were whimpering like half-demented children, alternating between sobbing for mercy and offering me intercourse if only I would please not beat them again. They were like crazed beings who kept crying continuously, mostly for their mothers. It was a terrible experience to see and bear, and although I sympathized with the cause of the mutineers in general, that awful business turned me completely against them’
‘The attacks on women were deplored by the great mass of the mutineers, some of whom even formed their own night guard patrols to protect the female staff in the hospitals and the occupants of the WAAC barracks.
But not all the attacks on women had sex as their motive Madeleine Williams, Leylands Road, Burgess Hill, Sussex, whose mother owned an Etaples café recalls: ‘I remember all the soldiers pouring into the town. Two Australians and two New Zealanders tried to strangle my mother to get money off her. But she fought back and they disappeared when a Frenchman arrived to help her.’
Madame Dissous says:
‘A senior officer – we thought it was their commander, but we might have been mistaken – was forced by the rebels to get on his horse and come to the square. Other officers were obliged to walk behind him, and when they all got to the square the officer on the horse made a speech in which he promised better conditions for the men. But I know that before this happened some officers were killed at the bridge in the town.’
On the morning of Tuesday the 11th, the British Army was having to face up to the disaster which threatened it. Brigadier General Horwood, Chief Provost Marshal of the Armies, was sent post-haste to Etaples. By now Thomson felt that the only way out was to bring in outside troops. Horwood had already been told he could have 700 crack troops from the Ist Honourable Artillery Company. But for Thomson that was not enough. He wanted the Cavalry. Horwood agreed. But the Cavalry were not so keen to come and polish the sabres, which had rusted in their scabbards throughout the war, on the necks of their comrades-in-arms. There ensued a classic sequence of army diversionary tactics, recorded in Thomson’s diary:
At 1.30 pm. 9th Cavalry Brigade were rung, but owing to a mistake by telephone operator, call was put through to Cavalry Corps. 2 squadrons, 15th Hussars from Freneq were asked to be held in readiness to move. No answer could be given by Cavalry Corps Headquarters as the Corps Comanders was out.
At 2.00 p.m. Staff Captain Wells motored over to Frencq and told the OC 15th Hussars what duties would be required from them in the event of authority being given for their use.
At 2.30 pam. Cavalry Corps rang up. They required GHQ authority for the use of Cavalry. Line of Communications communicated with GHQ and about 4.00 p.m. a message, telephone, was received to say GHQ would NOT authorise use of Cavalry.
By now a despairing note is entering Thomson’s record of events:
About 4.00 p.m. men again broke through the picquets on the bridge, went through Etaples, broke through the picquet on the River Canche bridge, and went towards Paris Plage. ‘None of the picquets made any determined effort to prevent these men.
And the Cavalry were still not on their way. Thomson made some half-hearted attempts to appease the mutineers.
‘We were told that all parades had been suspended,’ recalls Private Joe Perks. ‘We were even more amazed when we were told that we could draw more than our shilling a day. We were told we could draw as many francs as we liked – within reason.’
Wednesday, 12 September, was to be crisis day for Thomson, Toplis and the British Army. Three days of determined rebellion had made it impossible to dismiss the uprising as a mere explosion of anger, or the effects of drink, or the New Zealanders giving vent to frustration – all explanations which Thomson had come up with. It was impossible for Haig to countenance an impasse across his main route for reinforcements to the front. The battle for Passchendaele was due to start in eight days. There had to be a showdown.
Inside the camp all authority had by now been abdicated. Confused attempts had been made to ship the unaffected troops out to the front by train, but now, as Joe Perks and David Paton remember, the Scots just loafed about. There were no signs of officers or senior NCOs, no attempts to impose any duties – simply extra pay and extra food.
Commandant Thomson had an uncomfortable morning. The French Chef de Gendarmerie for the whole northern district arrived. There was a noisy Gallic scene ending only when Thomson assured him that the British police chief, Captain Strachan, had been fired and that loyal troops were on the way. The gendarme chief and his military colleague, Colonel Vallée, departed with assurances that the riotous assaults on French civilians would stop.
Thomson was in turn assured by the local French authority that no public record of the affair would be retained. But, if the French did keep faith with Thomson by issuing an edict to this effect, then it was an order ignored by the museum keeper at Etaples because in the archives there is a one-sentence entry. It reads: ‘A serious mutiny began in the English Camp’
The present museum keeper, Fernand Holuigue, was 13 at the time, He says: ‘I well remember mobs of rioting soldiers in the streets. One of them had impaled a cat on a long lance and be was waving it in the air.’
Meanwhile Toplis and the rebel Scots leaders were not having it all their own way. Toplis’s demands of the Monday afternoon had still not been conceded. Sooner rather than later the authorities would bring in the machine-guns. Even if they gave way, there was no possible warranty against the sanctions of the firing squad.
‘The first fury of the mutiny had lapsed. There were anxious, unending meetings all over the camp – even talk of soviets. Some were for quitting while they were ahead. One Cameron Highlander, Ivan Lyon, now of Old Greenock Road, Bishopton, Renfrewshire, stood on a table at a meeting in a camp canteen, pleading with his fellow Scots to stop the revolt. He argued, wrongly as it transpired, that nothing would be achieved, But the men were not to be swayed. Lyon went out and buried the 150 rounds of ammunition he had in his possession in the sands on the beach.
At three o’clock Thomson, in despair, saw a thousand men brush contemptuously past the pickets and march off to the pleasures of Paris Plage. He decided to make a last personal attempt to turn the tide. Once again he called round his open staff car and drove slowly up towards the mutiny headquarters in the Scots IBD. A meeting was still in progress, but the news of Thomson’s arrival ended it abruptly.
‘All the Scots crowded round,’ says Jack Musgrove. ‘In fact they were going to pull him out of the car. They wanted guarantees before they would settle the rebellion. They bad to keep all the police away, close the Bull Ring, open up the town of Etaples. The general just stood there And suddenly it was all granted. Just like that.’
Faced with the bitterness and determination of the mutineers, ‘Thomson collapsed. Toplis and his followers had won.
Written Orders were posted round the camp saying that Etaples would be open until 10.00 p.m. All troops would henceforth go straight through to the front without any training at the Bull Ring. The police would not return.
Ironically, Thomson got back to his office to find the message he had hoped for waiting for him – but too late. The 19th Cavalry Hussars were ready to move with machine-guns at an hour’s notice. And the 1st Honourable Artillery Company, with 360 men under Lieutenant-Colonel Cooper, would be arriving at 630 pm.
William Breffet of Victoria, British Columbia, who remembers Toplis being at Etaples, witnessed the arrival of the HAC. He says, ‘As I recollect the scene the soldiers sent back from the Front to restore order refused to fire on the mutineers, but they did agree to take over guard duty from those who bad volunteered to protect the women.’
Royal Scots Private Fred Emery of Gallowtree Common, Reading, Berkshire, also remembers the female units being put under guard by the HAC.
That night, Colonel Cooper took over all the security duties at Etaples from Thomson’s staff. He acted with decision. First Thomson’s concessions were confirmed, Then, hemmed in by his column of troopers, carrying loaded rifles with fixed bayonets, Cooper set out on a horseback patrol of the entire base. Wherever more than fifty mutineers were gathered, he stopped and again read out the Riot Act and the Army Act.
When he withdrew for the night to a compound on the other side of Etaples, Cooper was not reassured by what he had seen. There was no attempt to corral the troops that night. But on Thursday morning the High Command finally determined on a show of strength. The 2nd Army was ordered to send two tough battalions, the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 22nd Manchesters.
Private W. Harrop, who now lives at 102 Houghton Lane, ‘Swinton, Manchester, was with the Manchesters:
‘We had moved from Bullicourt in the Hindenberg Line in August and arrived in the Ypres area prepared to go into action. Then we were suddenly moved to the nearest railhead in secret and entrained for Etaples. None of us knew where we were going until we arrived there. We were then informed why we were there. As we marched along the road to a site prepared for us it must have created a great impression to see a ‘full battalion arriving direct from the front, because all was quiet for the three days we had there on stand to orders.’
At last, on Thursday night, Thomson was able to record a minor victory.
Some 200 men broke out of camp this evening, but were most of them back in camp by 10 pm. Two of the ringleaders were injured by entrenching tool handles whilst trying, unsuccessfully, to force the picquet of the 1st HAC at Three Arch Bridge. All ammunition was today collected and sent to Ordnance, and is only issued in future daily as required for reinforcements proceeding up the line.
On Friday, the 14th, Thomson wrote:
Police were re-instated, but with an entirely fresh body of police, and took over in place of guards and picquets previously detailed. The situation is well in hand …
One company of the HAC were held in readiness in the town with the remainder in reserve. One company, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, mounted a guard over the Detention Compound. The remainder of the two Infantry Battalions were held in readiness to act as required. Fifty to sixty men broke out of camp but were arrested in Etaples.
One hundred foot police and fifty camp police of the Etaples Police left today for other stations. This completed the transfer of the original Etaples police.
Friday night was a joyous night for the mutineers. The hated police had been sent packing. Saturday morning brought rapture. Thomson capitulated further. The town of Etaples was thrown open without reservation – a fact the general grudgingly recorded in a sentence sandwiched between records of heavy gun replacements for the front.
By Saturday afternoon and evening, the rioting in the streets had given way to singing and dancing. The victorious rebels stood shoulder to shoulder, as they had done throughout, in Etaples square and sang ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.
The two main brothels, fetchingly named Le Jardin d’Eden and 290, whose customers until then had been exclusively officers, reduced their prices for the new clients. La Comtesse, dressed all in black, put on a show of private enterprise by driving into the middle of the throng in her horse-drawn landau, cracking a long whip as she announced where she could be contacted.
The estaminets had recovered quickly from the pounding received the previous Sunday and throughout the week. They threw open their doors, or what was left of their doors, like the town itself, to the ecstatic but now orderly, well-conducted hordes.
On 20 September, the battle for Passchendaele began, claiming the lives of many of the erstwhile mutineers. On: 22 October, after a decent interval, Brigadier-General Andrew Thomson was sacked. But, in between, the army determined that there would be a reckoning with the ringleaders of the rebellion.
Aubrey Aaransan, of the Border Regiment was a witness of the grim aftermath. Now 82 and a retired jeweller of 6 Penrhyn Drive, Heywood Road, Prestwich, near Manchester, he had taken part in the mutiny.
Any heavy object we could get our hands on, gun carriages included, was thrown across the railway line to stop trains going to the front. And for good measure some of us ripped up sections of the track. We were in the act of doing this when Commandant Thomson arrived in his car and pleaded with us to stop. We laughed in his face and carried on.
It was one hell of a riot that went on for nights and days. Some nights drunken soldiers broke into the WAAC billets and chased the girls through the streets. Later the word came down from Toplis, ‘Stop chasing the girls, get the Military Police instead.’ His order was obeyed. I remember six military policemen, shot during the riots, being buried in one grave just outside Etaples. Mutineers flocked to the graveside to sing bawdy, comical songs. They roared down a padre’s attempts to put up a prayer for the dead policemen.
In the end we got what he wanted, the end of the Bull Ring, freedom of the town and so on.
But Aaransan was to bear witness to the price paid. Two weeks after the mutiny ended he inberited the same messenger job that Victor Silvester had held in the CO’s office. On the same notice board that had horrified Silvester, Aaransan had time to scan the roll of dishonour. ‘By that time some of the ringleaders of the mutiny – I guess about ten -had already been shot.’
Another man who saw the start of the days of reckoning was Lieutenant Charles Miller of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, who became first a businessman and then a politician in India after the war. In 1938 he sent from India an account of the mutiny to his two daughters in London in the form of a letter which finished: ‘That is the story of the Etaples mutiny, and from beginning to end my sympathy was with the rebels, some of whom I believe were shot after court martial. The man who wanted shooting was the Commandant. What, however, did intrigue me about the mutiny was the way it was hushed up. I have never seen a whisper of it in any book about the war.’
Miller’s letter revealed how on three nights running he was in command of a picket of fifty men intended to stop the mutineers storming one of the bridges into the town. Evidently they did not try very hard because the mutineers got through each time. According to Miller the first military policeman to die was pulled out of a house in Etaples by a mob who then killed him with their bare hands in the street.
In his letter he described Etaples as:
‘A vast prison camp, with Tommy Atkins, the man who was offering his life for his country, starring the part of prisoner, with back-breaking work, no relaxation, disgraceful food and miserable quarters. A quarter of a million British troops were subjected to constant nagging, petty irritation combined with rotten rations and wretched organization. The Camp Commandant was quite devoid of merit, but with considerable family influence.’
Miller’s daughter, Mrs Jane Bradby, of Walthamstow, London, says that a feature of her father’s letter which strikes her most is the degree of anger he felt with authority even twenty years after the event. Miller’s 1938 communication – he died in 1970, aged 82 – confirms that courts martial were set up within days of the cease-fire and that he refused to take any part in them.
I was told I must remain at Etaples as a witness. In the last two fights on the bridge some prisoners had been taken, and it was thought I might be able to identify them. I suggested it would be better for me to have a look at the men under lock and key as it would be useless to detain me if I was unable to identify anyone. Amongst others I inspected a little man with, a lump on his head about the size of a turkey’s egg caused by a blow with my pick handle, as both he and I knew, but I gave him a surreptitious wink as I passed and before the prisoners had been dismissed, I informed the officer in charge that I could not identify any of them.
One of the suspects over whom Miller ran his unseeing eyes was James McMahon, an Army Service Corps ptivate, 1 Eaton Street, Prescot, Merseyside, who remembers being spreadeagled against a wall and repeatedly interrogated by officers following his arrest at the Three Arch Bridge.
He said: ‘Ihad joined a group of mutineers who had hemmed some Canaries and Military Police into a corner. We systematically beat them up with our rifle butts but, thanks to sympathetic young officers like Lieutenant Miller, I was not positively identified.’
McMahon and Toplis were to become friends and comrades in the years ahead.
In the middle of the mutiny, Haig had made what seemed an extraordinarily stupid and spiteful decision which threatened for six months to blow a huge hole in the hush-up he carefully created. Without explanation, he had issued an order that the forces’ sweetheart at Etaples, Lady Angela Forbes, was to be sent back to England. Not until one of his junior commanders, General Fowke, was subsequently confronted by the redoubtable and indefatigable Lady Angela, demanding with pencil and notebook in hand an official reason for her deportation, did the Commander-in-Chief lamely let it be known that he considered she ‘was not a good influence with the troops’.
‘At 41, Angela Forbes, who had been a high-society beauty of her day, was a leading member of the British aristocracy who had abandoned whirlwind life of rich gaiety for one of great personal sacrifice and service behind the British lines. She had nursed war-wounded in Paris hospitals at the start of the war, and later founded an organization known as British Soldiers’ Buffets at Boulogne and Etaples, months before the Expeditionary Force or YMCA canteens put in an appearance at either of these places.
Before the arrival of General Thomson as commandant, she had succeeded, in the face of much official resistance, in establishing her big tea-and-bun hut in the middle of the camp. Until her arrival the Bull Ring trainees had struggled on without a midday break or a meal. Angela had worn down the opposition to the point where she personally served the troops with cups of tea half-way through their long and terrible Bull Ring day.
Grateful troops used to send her letters of thanks from the front line, and when the news broke of her fight to stick to her self-appointed post, she received many messages of encouragement.
The high-born Angela had been a strong supporter of Sir John French, and when he was replaced by Haig she had become an open critic of the new commander-in-chief. She was highly regarded and much loved by some officers and all the soldiers, but was looked upon askance by the Montreuil GHQ. She was far too avant garde, much too outspoken and too ‘well connected’. She was also a cigarette-smoking divorcée who entertained officers to dances in her Le Touquet villa. Her servants were actually intercepted in the streets by representatives of GHQ and questioned about the identity of her guests.
Haig’s edict had not been the first attempt to oust her. She had resisted an earlier effort by the War Office to amalgamate her private-enterprise canteens with those of the YMCA, whereupon an official of the association, prompted by jealousy at the popularity of her huts, reported her as having been seen smoking in public in a Boulogne hotel. There were further complaints, that she had been heard swearing and that she rejected all forms of uniform in preference for gaily coloured jumpers and skirts. Clearly, Angela was no angel except in the eyes of the common soldier she tirelessly served!
One of the people who spied on her was Assistant Provost Marshal Strachan, who was directly responsible for the Etaples Military Police. It was her contention that the cruel conduct of the military policemen was but a reflection of the crudity of their chief, who, when he was not reporting on her activities, ‘was continually paring his nails with a penknife in her presence! She complained about Strachan to General Plumer.
Among Angela’s officer friends was General Asser, with whom she had spent a merry evening drinking in the New Year of 1917 in the deserted dining-room of the Meurice Hétel in Boulogne; and Asser was one of the High Command sent to Etaples to try to control the mutiny nine months later. To the great delight of his drinking companion, Asser selected Strachan as one of the first to be sacked. GHQ tried to reinstate the assistant provost marshal, but Asser was adamant: Strachan was out for good.
Yet even Asser was powerless to intervene when Haig viciously retaliated by selecting Asser as his personal messenger to Angela with the notice to quit the country. In support of Haig in this move was Adjutant-General Macready, another of Angela’s enemies.
In the immediate aftermath of the start of the mutiny on 9 September, at least 10,000 soldiers were rushed away from Etaples and up the line in an effort to stop the rebellion spreading. And the supreme irony of Angela’s situation was that, at the very moment she was told to go, she was catering for both the needs of men and authority as never before. Her canteen at Etaples station was the only one serving tea and sandwiches to the 10,000 who were being hurriedly sent on their way. And when General Asser’s car drew into the siding, she was standing exhausted behind the counter with her helpers.
The tall, commanding, and still beautiful head tea lady saw that her friend the general was looking unnaturally grave, She recalled the moment:
‘He told me, ‘I have just come from the AG’s office with a message for you.’
‘I jokingly retorted, “To order me out of France?”
“Exactly,” was his reply as I burst out laughing. Then I saw he was really serious and I was dumbfounded. What on earth had happened? I had broken no rules or regulations. I had not the smallest sin on my conscience to give me any clue to his extraordinary message.
When I asked him why he only shook his head and told me he had less idea than had.’
Indeed, Angela had played no part in the mutiny. All she had done was to rush out when the shooting started near her hut. She had then found herself being swept downhill to the station in the midst of the incensed mob pursuing the military policemen. The only accusation that could have been levelled against her was that for the first thirty-six hours of the mutiny she had kept her refreshment hut open, and had then been given a safe conduct escort of Australians through the camp and the town of Etaples. Still accompanied by her Australian bodyguard, she had driven her car at a snail’s pace to her Le Touquet villa past thousands of mutineers, all madly cheering for ‘Angelina’, as she was known.
Angela fought back bitterly against Haig with all the power at her command, and that power was enormous. She was a daughter of Lord Rosslyn, Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland, and a goddaughter of Baroness Burdett Coutts and Lady Bradford. Heading the list of frequent royal guests at the family’s two homes in England and their estate in Scotland was the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIL. In Angela’s childhood, Queen Victoria had also been a guest of the family. The remainder of the visitors’ book read like Debrett’s Peerage.
Flimsy though Haig’s case against Angela was, there had been some low cunning behind his action. Haig’s desperation was as great as that of General Thomson, who was strenuously seeking to make strong drink the scapegoat for the mutiny. Haig’s thinking was that, if news of the mutiny was going to break, then the most likely source of leakage would be the highly influential Angela with all her friends in high places. He sought therefore to pin the blame in advance on her unsettling influence among the soldiers. And, in the same bold stroke, to settle an old score born of personal enmity.
The commander-in-chief knew from his spies at Etaples that Angela was fond of repeating in public a politician’s description of him as ‘all chin and no head’. He knew that she openly referred to him as an obstinate and stupid man who ought to be replaced by a French commander. And while Haig spied on Angela, she kept a close watch on him, noting among his other activities the time that he spent playing golf at Paris Plage. And she, in turn, was well aware that the cavalry frequently played polo on the fields adjoining the golf course. Moreover, Angela was an enthusiastic repository for the many rumours of wild drinking parties and scandalous bedroom scenes in the villas of Le Touquet and Paris Plage after the tennis and golf matches in which officers of High Command competed.
Lady Angela was an exceedingly romantic figure whose voluntary war service was exemplary. In contrast to the high jinks and goings-on in the homes of some of her lady friends in society, Angela’s claim was that the only time she had ‘gone off the beaten track’ was when she and her two young daughters had dined with an officer friend in his billet on his birthday, but even that innocent excursion had been reported back to Haig.
Since Haig had no real case against her, he would, if necessary, simply make one up. Even when he started raking into her past, all that he could come up with was that she had written risqué books, one of which, Broken Commandment, had been banned by pre-war libraries because it was regarded as highly improper’. It was scarcely enough ammunition to start a fusillade against a formidable opponent, one of whose regular villa guests was the new, young Prince of Wales.
But what troubled Haig even more than the repeated sojourns of His Royal Highness with Lady Angela was the secret news imparted to him by Strachan that one of her guests, a few weeks before the mutiny, had been a regular army battalion commander, Toby Long, son of Walter Long, the most respected voice in the Cabinet and consultant to Lloyd George, Haig’s arch-enemy. Disturbed by the lack of officers at the front, young Long had decided personally to investigate widespread complaints that Etaples was not just over-crowded with military police, but was also massively over-staffed by high-ranking officers, who ought to have been up the line. Haig was greatly worried that Angela and Toby Long had been intriguing against him and would between them arrange for a bad report to be sent back to Downing Street.
Happily for Haig, his concern was unnecessary and he had worried unduly. If Toby Long had intended to make a bad report, then it died with him at the front, in the week of the mutiny when the officers were still conspicuous by their absence in the firing line.
Angela’s first blast of retaliation against Haig’s order that she should quit France immediately went via the War Office in London in a personal letter to Lord Derby whom she had known all her life. She also wrote to another friend, Lord Wemyss. He wrote back to her that he had called on Lord Derby, who had at first made ‘some rather veiled accusations against her’, but had later withdrawn them. Angela immediately set out from Etaples to London to demand an interview with Lord Derby, but he sent a message refusing to see her until her case had been investigated.
She was dismayed. As she recorded later, she had never thought of this particular acquaintance of her family as a man overburdened with brains, but until then she had thought that ne was essentially just. Despite Haig’s order to get out of France, and to stay out, she returned to Etaples, and from there to Haig’s office at Montreuil, six miles away, where she deliberately parked her car in the space permanently reserved for Haig’s own staff car.
Instead of being allowed an audience with Haig, she was ushered into the far from august presence of one of his subordinates, the flaccid-faced Fowke, who squirmed his embarrassed way through an interview in the course of which she further disconcerted the hapless general by writing down his answers to her cross-examination. Among the more grotesque reasons advanced for Haig’s dismissal order were:
‘A clergyman heard you say damn’
‘You washed your hair in the canteen.’
‘The comic interview ended with Angela observing that it was not her habit to swear in front of padres, and, yes, she had washed her hair, but out of sight in the canteen kitchen.
As Angela had determinedly, doggedly remained a voluntary civilian worker throughout the war, Haig technically had n0 jurisdiction over her other than to order her removal from the war zone as an undesirable presence. And it was this knowledge that spurred her on in her search for justice. She followed up her meeting with Fowke with a letter to Haig demanding sane, relevant reasons for his order. But the commander-in-chief ignored this communication. He also ignored the fact that the Forbes canteens at Etaples station and the Etaples base continued to function as before, and that Angela went on journeying, to and from France without regard for the order, which he did not try to enforce.
It was slowly beginning to dawn on the commander-in-chief that he had bitten off a great deal more than he could possibly chew, and that the best course open to him was a return to the one of masterly inactivity that he knew so well. But that was not enough for Angela. She wanted to have the order officially rescinded and her good name cleared. She dragged the case through a reluctant House of Commons into the House of Lords, with selected friends in both Chambers seeking further information about Haig’s action. Consoling letters poured in on her from all over Britain and France, and eventually the carefully worded evasive replies culminated in an apologia being delivered in the Lords by Lord Derby, the text and con’tent of which had been dictated by Angela and her friends, Lord Wemyss and Lord Ribblesdale.
Part of the deal was that the Lords Wemyss and Ribblesdale would scrap their prepared speeches attacking the War Office and GHQ, and that they would make no attack on either in the Press. Instead they eulogized the good works of Lady Angela.
Another fear which haunted Haig had been ill-founded. Angela’s attempts to get a full hearing of the story of the mutiny and its causes had failed. The cover-up had continued. When she next returned to Etaples, awaiting her was a GHQ pass ensuring her freedom of movement all over France.
By then it was February 1918, and Angela felt weary and soured. She tore up the pass and set out to work on behalf of the French soldiers. The British soldiers suffered with their sweetheart. As a result of her enforced and repeated absence in London fighting her case, the Etaples canteens had to close down.
To his charge of a pre-war publishing ‘impropriety’, Haig had raked up and falsely laid at Angela’s door the blame for the eccentric behaviour of one of her society friends who, early in 1915, had taken his pack of hounds up to the front with a view to setting off in pursuit of the enemy. When it was politely pointed out to him that this would serve no useful purpose, he had promptly switched to chasing foxes in the countryside behind the battle areas.
Haig however had another crisis behind the lines, which seems to have unhinged him even more than the encounter with Lady Angela.
He was telephoned at his Montreuil HQ with the news that he had dreaded most. Rebellion had not been contained. It had spread back up the coast road to Boulogne where the Number 74 Labour Company, comprising unwilling Chinese and Egyptian personnel, inspired by news of events at Etaples, stopped unloading supply boats at the port, downed tools and went on the rampage.
Enraged, Haig ordered swift, harsh reprisals which resulted in a total of twenty-seven unarmed strikers being shot dead, thirty-nine wounded, and twenty-five imprisoned. The colour of their skins seems to have determined the fate of the Boulogne rebels who were considered to be unworthy of the luxury of courts martial.
Corporal Harry Rodgers from Birmingham was one of many British soldiers at Boulogne ordered, in the words of one of his, officers, to ‘kill those foul foreigners’ by shooting on sight. He remembers:
It was a wretched, pitiful business. The poor bastards had been little more than slaves, earning one penny a day compared to our shilling a day, which was bad enough. They were nearly all illiterate peasants without the slightest notion of why they were slaving eighteen hours a day in order that one alien country might knock hell out of another.
Our officers instructed us not to accord them even the dignity of rebels.
We were under strict instructions to look upon them as pure rabble. If they showed face in the streets in groups of over three in number they were to be shot like rabid dogs, and they were, mainly because a feature of the massacre was the clear understanding that if we did not obey orders to kill we too could be shot.
We had heard what was going on at Etaples, and, as we took up firing positions in groups of twenty on the street corners of Boulogne, we could not help wondering if this was what was being meted out to our comrades just down the coast. The Boulogne affair ought to have been handled by the Military Police, but they were as much hated at the port as they were at the base camp, and it was considered unwise for them to patrol the streets. There was a severe risk of the MPs being ‘accidentally’ shot by our own troops who felt really sorry for the Chinese ‘Coolies’ as they were known.
The most fashionable of the Boulogne restaurants, Mony’s, was to be the scene of the worst slaughter. Its high reputation as the gathering place of the élite was considered sealed when the Prince of Wales dined there. Staff cars continually jammed the narrow street as senior British officers dined on Madame Mony’s lobster Americaine and sole meunitre.
Trouble in Boulogne had started with isolated skirmishes on 5 September, the day the 74 Labour Company were out of control. George Soutter from Glasgow, was a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders:
That morning I was detailed to go on patrol in pursuit of Chinese and Egyptians who had been repelled when they attempted to raid the Louvre Hotel and a café in Rue Edouard VII. As the attackers were weak through undernourishment, and without weapons, they had been easily held off in hand-to-hand combat with the waiters and the kitchen staff of the two establishments.
It was not anticipated that the mutineers would dare approach the exclusive Mony’s, never mind launch an attack upon it, so no special guard had been mounted outside the restaurant. But just after noon a dispatch rider roared down the street shouting out that they had been seen in the vicinity Of the restaurant. Our patrol and two others elsewhere in the town, each consisting of about thirty men, were immediately switched to the scene.
By the time we arrived, the mob was already overturning staff cars outside the restaurant. Inside officers had overturned the marble-topped tables and were cowering and crouching behind them on their hands and knees on the sand and sawdust-covered floor.
It was not an ennobling sight and neither was what followed. Ninety of us opened fire as ordered and the foreigners, who had not even got as far as the restaurant door, fell dead in the gutter. How many I don’t know. I was too appalled to look. I just wanted to get away as soon as possible. Even today, all those years later, I am too ashamed to dwell on the awful details of that massacre. Looking back on it all the only slight satisfaction I get is the memory of ‘stray’ bullets ‘accidentally smashing through the restaurant window. The officers inside had more to fear from their own armed men than they had from the unarmed ‘rabble’.