As the Canadian Expeditionary Force moved towards Passchendaele in October, a clear victory was becoming increasingly paramount. In mid-September 1917, riots had broken out in the reinforcement depots along the French coast, signalling a growing discontent in the ranks of the Commonwealth forces. These of course followed the massive French mutinies that had taken place over the summer of 1917.
At Etaples, the largest infantry reinforcement depot abroad, raw recruits, recovering wounded, and grizzled veterans were thrust together through training meant to prepare them for a return to the front (Dallas, Gill, The Unknown Army, p. 64). The training grounds, coined the “Bull Ring”, were simply considered hell (Dallas, Gill, The Unknown Army, p. 64-66). In fact, men were known to report back to the front still nursing wounds, just so that they could get away from the “Bull Ring” (Dallas, Gill, The Unknown Army, p. 65).
On 9 September 1917, tensions in the Etaples camp overflowed. Pushed to their limits by heavy-handed discipline, horrific training regimens, and poor food, an altercation between troops and the “Red Caps” (Military Police) was the spark that lit the fire. When shots were fired by the Red Caps, the camp exploded and the bridges and picquets leading into Etaples were rushed by crowds in their hundreds.
Victor Wheeler, a signaller in the 50th (Calgary) Battalion, was in Etaples recovering from wounds when he was placed on riot patrol. He described the scene:
“I drew a rifle and ammunition and at 7:00 P.M., with several other front line men, I was rushed into Etaples… Wearing special white Military Force Police brassards, we patrolled the streets, in close groups, until midnight. Like a sudden flood, hundreds of soldiers broke into the town and joined in the melee. The rioters made an awful mess of the place… a Red Cap was shot and three draftees were wounded: a draftee was shot dead when he attacked several Red Caps… The explosive atmosphere was immediately sensed when one began to patrol. Keeping one’s eyes open for infringements and ears turned to any strange noises – and restraining oneself from the savage reaction of the front toward the enemy against a fellow Canuck – left me feeling as if I had been stretched on the rack.”
(Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 151).
Episodes of rioting and outbreaks from camp would continue throughout the week at Etaples. The September 1917 Etaples Riots would not be the last of their kind. “Events”, (as they were classified by the military authorities), would continue to take place in the later stages of the war, and especially after the Armistice during the drawn-out periods of demobilization. Canadians especially would be involved in a number of high-profile cases that threatened to tarnish the reputation of the CEF.
Future posts will detail these “events” on their respective centenaries.