The Mutiny at Etaples: Manchester Guardian 1930

The article below doesn’t appear to have been seen for the best part of 90 years. Few (if any) historians have referred to it in their footnotes, and yet it remains one of the first and only British press account of the Mutiny at Etaples, a chain of disturbances that broke out across the notorious base camp in September 1917. Despite the 13 years it took for the British press to report the disturbances, it was regarded by readers as an ‘exclusive’. It’s interesting to note that the article was printed within months of Edwin T. Woodhall’s own account of the riots (and fanciful encounter with Toplis) in his 1929 book, Detective and Secret Service Days. R.H Mottram’s, Three Personal Records of War, published the previous September, also spilled the beans and a passage from the book  was used as a ‘spoiler’. Despite being one of only two full accounts of the mutiny in Britain, it was by no means the first in the world. The first full account I have been able to find was published in 1922 by New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times. You can can read the account here. Interestingly enough, the two eyewitness accounts do not differ significantly from Edwin T. Woodhall and Lady Angela Forbes’ versions of events.

Did the election win of Ramsay MacDonald and a minority Labour government in June 1929 have anything to do with it getting past ‘the censors’? It’s possible. The Stanley Baldwin and the Conservative Party had been rooted in No.10 for the best part of five years and had held a strong majority. But there may have been other factors at work, not least the publication of Edwin T. Woodhall‘s memoirs and his inclusion of Percy Toplis in the deserter camps around Etaples.

THE MUTINY AT ETAPLES: An Incident of 1917 FIGHTING SOLDIERS AND REDCAPS The Manchester Guardian Feb 13. 1930

The culmination of this period was that occurrence. chatty disgraceful to writers about the war who wear to be in a conspiracy to conceal it, the Mutiny at Staples. All countries engaged in the war had periods of widespread mutiny, a fact which should be noticed and recorded, not hushed up. . . . With the British it occurred  . . .  over some rumoured disagreement with the police. I never knew the truth and perhaps no one knows it – R.H Mottram in Three Personal Records of the War.

Late on an afternoon in September, 1917, a New Zealander was strolling over the railway bridge toward Etaples with his arm round the waist of a WAAC. His behaviour irritated a military policeman stationed on the bridge to examine the leave-passes of soldiers wishing to visit the town. An altercation arose, as the result of which the New Zealander, having offended red-capped authority, was arrested and marched off to the prison hut just inside the camp.

The dispute had beets followed from the start by the usual group of soldiers hanging about on the outskirts of the camp with nothing to do and nowhere to go. These men, considering that the loathed Red Cap was ill-treating a Tommy, soon gathered in a crowd near the hut, jeering at the policeman and urging the prisoner to escape. As the uproar increased the New Zealander, encouraged by the shouts of the crowd, made a dash for liberty and dived into a group of Highlanders. The policeman, pestered and excited, drew his revolver, fired at the fugitive, missed him—and killed a Jock sergeant!

So the trouble began. It happened that this sergeant was a popular and much decorated veteran, the very opposite (as the men believed) of the military police, who apparently retreated in safety at the base camp anti bullied the fighting soldier on his way back to the trenches.

The Hated Red Caps

This killing of a fighting soldier suddenly set-loose all the long accumulated hatred for the Red Caps.  With a roar of rage the crowd rushed at the policeman, who fled from the camp, past the Officers’ Club, down the steep embankment of the railway, and along the cutting toward the river, and escaped. Armed guards were quickly posted across the line to prevent further pursuit. The crowd, balked of its revenge, returned to the police but and wrecked it. Meanwhile, as the news reached the infantry base depot of the Scottish regiments the Jocks poured out vowing vengeance, and the Red Caps disappeared from the railway bridge.

Dusk allowed the men freedom to break out of camp and search the town for their enemies. That evening we were at dinner in mess discussing the events of the afternoon when an order came that all junior officers were to turn out and clear Etaples of soldiers. We found the riotous crowd in a street near the bridge trying to break into a house where some military, police were believed to be sheltering. A plucky Scotch colonel forced his way to the doorway and spoke to the men, promising that the guilty policeman should be punished and urging the tern to return to their depots without annoying civilians. As the men continued to shout and argue we linked arms across the street and began to push them back toward the railway bridge. Against its junior officers, fighting soldiers like themselves, the men admitted they had no grievance, so, merely grumbling at authority and cursing all Red Cans, they allowed the small group of officers to herd them hack to their hats.

Next morning there were the usual dreary processions to the “Bull Ring,” where veteran soldiers were classed with raw conscripts for instruction in those arts of trench warfare they had already been studying during their two or three years in the front line. In the afternoon there was again nothing to do, for all leave had been stopped. To on officer’s this mattered less, as the Officers’ Club was a pleasant place. For the men there was nothing. Many of them hung about the bridge, chaffing the guard of unarmed New Zealanders that those in authority had considered least likely to irritate the discontented soldiers. No other steps had been taken beyond an order to officers to talk to the men against misbehaviours an order little to the liking of the officers of the Scottish depot.

Toward nightfall the group of men by the bridge became, larger and larger without seer attempt being made to disperse them or keep them on the more. At last as we watched from the club but we heard the shouting increase, and presently we saw the mass of men hurl themselves upon the powerless picket and burst over the bridge. Then, as if satisfied with this display of their power to break through, most of them charged back, laughing loudly, and returned to camp. But camp discipline was affected and under cover of darkness some of the men wandered as they pleased through Etaples till they were tired and came back to sleep.

Armed Guards Pushed Aside

 Memories of the following morning are misty, but probably there were the naval parades. After midday our infantry base depot, being especially well behaved, had to provide armed guards, not for the railway bridge but for the two bridges over the river on the other side of Etaples. The men picked for this duty grumbled quietly as we distributed ball ammunition, for there was much sympathy with the mutineers, though these now consisted of the riffraff of the camp rather than of justly indignant fighting soldiers. The guard for the bridge that carried the main road to Le Touquet over the river was put under the command of a major. The other guard, a small one, for the railway bridge over the river was put under the orders of a young officer of the Border Regiment with bayonets fixed the two guards were marched off, and most of the men in the camp turned to kill time in such ways as opportunity offered.

In Etaples itself there had been no red-capped military police since the first outbreak, though we noticed a group of tall, well-drilled men in the town, obviously military police in plain caps. The bridge over the railway was unguarded, so Etaples was open to those who ignored the order that all leave was stopped, and a number of men had left the camp and gathered in the town. When this crowd of rioters, for they were really rioters now, had pushed unhindered through Etaples they reached the main road bridge In impetuous mood and swept along to-ward the guard. The major ordered his men into two ranks, with the front rank kneeling, with rifles loaded and bayonets at the ready, and then walked out to remonstrate with the mob.

The ringleaders pressed on, arguing with him and pushing him back till his men had to put up their bayonets to avoid them wounding he rioters pushed aside the rifles then through the guard, and continued towards Le Touquet.

Meanwhile a smaller mob came to the railway bridge over the river. The young officer it, charge ordered the mutineers to -go back or be fired upon. Some hesitated, but the ringleader took no notice of the command and approached the youngster with a threat about the river being handy for drowning such puppies. As he came close, up went the officer’s fist and the man was laid out. While he was being bound his comrades retreated hastily, giving no more trouble.

After dark armed pickets from our unfortunate depot, were sent through Etaples and arrested a certain number of men, most of whom “happened” to escape in the darkness. Otherwise all was quiet. Of course, rumours seem plentiful. One rumour tan that the mob on reaching Le Touquet had attacked the house of the Assistant Provost Marshal. Another was that Horatio Bottomley, “the defender of the Tommy,” was at headquarters and had been given control of the situation. The most popular was that the hated Bull Ring was to be abolished. In reality the mutiny had played itself out, and the following day wan free from trouble. Then the authorities at last made a decided move and sent a regiment of the Seventh Division, just out of the line for a rest, to guard the river bridges in force.

At this point the present writer who had managed to avoid the Bull Ring and the other unpleasant duties and had explored instead the attractive country behind and beyond the great camp, was ordered to proceed to his regiment, never knowing what happened to the few men arrested.

The Rioters Motive

Except on the first evening there had been very little bad feeling shown and no man in camp refused openly to obey an order. As Junior Officers we had considered only two dangers possible, other than the rioters might break into the canteen stores of drink and so become difficult to manage, or that some of them, as discipline was weakened, might invade the Waac huts beyond the railway bridge. Unofficially we kept a casual watch over both places and officers turned back a few men who tried to approach the women’s huts.

Probably, there was never any risk of serious trouble, though hatred of the Bull Ring and of police authorities was fairly general; in fact, an officer was under arrest in the club for beginning to make a speech of sympathy with the so-called mutineers. The whole protest was against the alternately dull and harassing life of the huge, unwieldy camp Etaples rather than against the war itself; against those believed to be shirkers at the base rather than against service in the line.

The last flicker of the mutiny was seen on the way up to the front with a draft of men suspected of rioting rid hurried off to their units. At some large station, name now for-gotten, they caught sight of a couple of Red Caps. In a moment thee had swarmed out of the train and had fallen upon the amazed policemen who were chased into the town, as their fellows had been on the first day of the troubles. With the last Red Caps in full flight the men returned full of laughter to the train, and went on to take our part in the terrible fighting on Passchendaele Ridge

S. J. C. R

The report in the Manchester Guardian was followed by a flurry of letters in the Scottish press both supporting and extending the paper’s account.

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