The mutiny at Étaples
WORLD WAR I – 100th Anniversary
TIME FOR THE TRUTH
Last year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the first imperialist world war, the CPGB-ML and Stalin Society held a series of meetings. The purpose of these meetings was to refute the imperialist falsification of the meaning and essence of that war and to espouse the proletarian viewpoint and to expose the hideous reality by cutting through bourgeois lies and obfuscations. In the September and November 2014 issues of LALKAR we published the presentations made at a public meeting organised by the CPGB-ML at Saklatvala Hall in Southall on 9 August 2014 when Ella Rule, Deborah Lavin and Harpal Brar made presentations concerning various aspects of the First World War. In our last issue we reproduced the very substantial presentation on World War 1 and the Irish national-liberation movement that Keith Bennett made to the Stalin Society on 20 July 2014 to coincide with the 99th anniversary of the Irish Easter Uprising. The final article in the series is produced below, namely, the excellent presentation made by Paul Cannon on the little-known mutiny of British soldiers in France in 1917.
The events at Étaples base camp in September 1917 don’t sit comfortably alongside the fairytale stories that are presently being told in BBC dramas. Nor do they lend much support to the fantasies that are being spoon-fed to a population largely ignorant of the horrors of war.
Since the government rebranded Veterans Day as ‘Armed Forces Day’, we have witnessed the inexorable rise of Help for Heroes and various other militaristic support organisations, which pass themselves off as ‘impartial’ ‘charities’ while being used by imperialism as cheerleaders for warmongering and aggressive intervention.
To mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, there have been numerous documentaries broadcast championing the ‘defence of democracy in 1914′, and celebrating the plucky courage of British men and women who went off to ‘do their bit’ in France a century ago. All this propaganda is in stark contrast to the actual views of the men and women who suffered the horror of participating in that conflict. But, now that the last of those awkward veterans Harry Patch (a pacifist and left-winger) has died, the total white-washing and rewriting of imperialist history has moved up to a new level.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become far easier for the imperialists and their historians to complete their project of rewriting the record of the major events that unfolded in the 20th century. At the moment, the focus of this campaign is quite clearly on the events of the first great inter-imperialist world war – a carnival of murder, slaughter and human misery'; a hell on earth where the burden of human suffering was saddled squarely upon the shoulders of the working class.
If you are inclined to sit through hours of a pontificating Dan Snow (or some other non-entity of a TV ‘historian’), however, you’d be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the ‘Great War’ was a bloody but necessary inconvenience – interrupted by a bit of football hi-jinks at Christmas for the warring troops.
The significance of the resuscitation of WW1 lying propaganda for workers today is this: the ruling class is seeking to distract the workers from their very real grievances towards a failing capitalist system, which is in deep systemic crisis, and to palm them off with a hundred-and-one scapegoats whom they can blame for their problems – benefit scroungers, single mothers, immigrant workers, the Russian and Chinese ‘menace’, and so on .
In this way, not only are workers being fooled into blaming each other for the problems of life under capitalism, but they are also being prepared to accept the ‘inevitability’ of more wars of aggression (sorry, make that ‘necessary inconveniences interrupted by Christmas footy with the Hun’). This includes, in the final analysis, being prepared for the eventual initiation of the third inter-imperialist world war, and the inevitable call to ‘back our troops’, ‘do our duty’ and ‘fight for Queen and country’.
Our Party’s meetings and publications on the subject of the real history of World War One are a part of our own preparations for the coming conflicts. We wish to do what we can to expose the lies being peddled by media, historians and politicians alike, and to help British workers learn the important lessons of the last century of barbaric imperialist warmongering and oppression.
The monocled mutineer
The millions of men who were mobilised by imperialism in general, and by British imperialism in particular, were sent to the slaughter-house of the first inter-imperialist world war often as mere teenagers. The men who sent them were from the bourgeois ruling class, and the young conscripts fought in France for the bourgeois class interests, despite the fact that they were working people with absolutely nothing to gain from the slaughter of millions of their fellow workers.
The purpose of this presentation is not to lay out any new or revelatory material concerning the unfolding of the first world war and the uprising at Étaples; we have done no new academic research. All we propose is to lay before our readers details of events that are now nearly 100 years old; details which for most of those 100 years have been covered up and obscured.
Much of what is said about the Étaples uprising, and particularly about the role of Private Percy Toplis, is disputed – and it’s not hard to see why. After all, the British government did not officially acknowledge that a mutiny had even taken place until 1978! The sources available to us come largely from a number of books that have been written since the 1920s, and from the many interviews that were collected together from war veterans with experience of the Étaples base camp.
For those who wish to read more about this subject, there are a small number of published memoirs of officers and soldiers available. These works were not written by communists; they are a product of their time. Indeed, many of the books that have been written about mutinies in the British armed forces are by men who are in no short measure contemptuous of the working class and the soldiering ranks, and hateful towards both mutineers and those who might hold them up as heroes.
Perhaps the most contentious issue that surrounds the Étaples mutiny is the ongoing disagreement and rubbishing of a book written by William Allison and John Fairley entitled The Monocled Mutineer. This book has been subject to severe criticism, especially since it was dramatised for the BBC. This caused a furore amongst some Tories in the 1980s, who used the drama as evidence of the BBC’s alleged ‘left-wing bias’ (don’t laugh!).
The BBC drama was never repeated after its initial airings and was released on DVD only in 2012. Whatever the ‘factual’ limitations of the Monocled Mutineer television show, or of the original book version, it is well worth noting that even today, 97 years after the events at Étaples, the names of those heroic mutineers shot – those whom we know were shot dead after court martial – have yet to be officially released. In addition to these missing names are the names of any of the ‘ring-leaders’ or other persons who were referred to by the highest echelons of the British military establishment – men who may have been singled out by the investigation that was carried out by the British Secret Services immediately following the uprising.
On 3 October 1917, Field Marshal Douglas Haig (aka the Butcher of the Somme) wrote a letter to Lord Derby, in which he gave his assessment of the men who had caused so much trouble for his planned Passchendaele bloodbath, and who had thereby shown that the British working class like any other is capable of mutiny, insurrection and heroism:
“Men of this stamp are not satisfied with remaining quiet, they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances, and their teaching in this respect is a regrettable antidote to the spirit of devotion and duty of earlier troops.”
Many of the records of the investigations that were known to have been carried out by military authorities after the mutiny have never been seen or heard of again, while a number of documents that were known to exist appear to have ‘disappeared’. In 1978, the British government claimed that many of them had been destroyed in a fire during WW2. The remaining papers that are known to be held by the British authorities are locked down until 2017. In this context, we see no reason to take issue with Allison and Fairley’s book on supposed ‘factual’ grounds, since it stands up to scrutiny as well as any other account of the events.
It is beyond dispute that Allison and Fairley actually did speak to and interview the men whose testimonies appear in the book. Indeed, a number of the men appeared on radio shows and television with the authors in the late 1970s and early 80s. The historians and military aficionados who seek so desperately to undermine, dismiss and rubbish the accounts of the Étaples uprising, including the actions of Percy Toplis (or men like him), have no physical material evidence of their own upon which to base their criticisms.
Meanwhile, it is clear that future governments will continue to do their best to keep the truth about Étaples from coming out – in much the same way as the government of Lloyd George did everything it could to hush the news of the uprising 97 years ago.
The BEF in France
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the name given to the British army in France during the First World War. At two million men, it remains the largest army ever assembled and sent abroad by Britain.
These men were not only sent to hold the hundreds of miles of ‘the front’ and wage war with workers from Germany and Austria-Hungary; many hundreds of thousands of them were sent to the rear, where they supplied and maintained lines of communication that stretched all the way back to Britain. These lines of communication were responsible for supplying the front with everything it might need – using road, rail and canal transport to supply the army with vehicles, fuel, maintenance, food, equipment, supplies of all kinds and medical attention.
Along these lines of communication were numerous large transport depots, and the British also occupied and ran French ports – with enslaved colonial labour and with men drawn from British industry. Amongst the 300,000-odd workers who maintained these networks were French citizens, soldiers coming to and from leave, officers hiding from the front and having a ‘good war’ in French cafés, casinos and brothels, and a mass of new recruits being brought over from Britain for deployment and near-certain death or injury on the battlefield.
In the rear, many of men roamed as deserters, thousands were absent without permission, many hundreds escaped back to England as stowaways on boats, and still others lived in the dunes and caves along the coast, constantly hounded and chased by military police. The much-maligned Percy Toplis was one of these deserters who lived in the woods and fraternised with German and French deserters. He had served with the Medical Corps and suffered at the front lines with the rest, and, like many of his contemporaries, he came to prefer life as an outlaw to life in the trenches.
The town of Étaples, situated near the French coast, was the major base camp through which all new drafts (recruits) for the BEF passed. It encompassed thousands of men living in tents and wooden huts in a camp that had grown up on the outskirts of the town itself. In addition to the mass of British soldiers, there were colonial troops, Australians and New Zealanders in large numbers, and a large group of hospitals treating men who had been injured at the front.
Once these injured men were deemed ‘fit’, they were put into the camp for an intensive ten days of ‘training’ in what became known as the Bullring, and, once this was completed, they were duly despatched back to the front.
There are plenty of first-hand accounts of what life was like at the Étaples base camp and in the Bullring.
“At Étaples, the troops met with conditions which most remember as oppressive. Not even the most experienced or battle-weary were given respite from the war. At the ‘Bullring’, as the training grounds were called, soldiers barely discharged from hospital and men who had seen much service in the trenches were put through the same training as the latest drafts from England.
“A course in gas warfare and ten days at the Bullring was the usual programme; ten days, that is, of march and double-march across the dunes, supervised by officers and NCOs of the ‘blood and bayonet’ school.
“An officer remembers the training to have been ‘demoralising beyond measure’. Another man, newly arriving at Étaples, found the Bullring to be like ‘passing through hell for two weeks’. A corporal encountered several men returning to the front with wounds which were far from healed: ‘When I asked why they had returned in that condition they invariably replied: ‘To get away from the Bullring.”‘ (Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill, The Unknown Army, Verso Books, London, 1985,, p.65 ).
Even the famous World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen, an officer, who was entitled to a relatively privileged lifestyle at Étaples when compared to the rank and file, wrote in appalling terms about his time there.
“I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts were kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead.
“I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in the camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples.
“It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.” (Wilfred Owen, Collected Letters, Oxford University Press, London 1967).
Officers like Owen were fortunate enough to have their own private tents, servants on hand and all manner of small, but important privileges that were denied to the ordinary soldiers. Not least, officers were allowed freely to enter Étaples town and to visit the cafés, casinos, bars and brothels in their time off. On every route into town, guards were positioned and roadblocks put in place to prevent privates and lesser men from enjoying any of these pleasures.
In addition to this, soldiers were not even allowed access to the beach to swim and bathe on their days off. To enforce this rigid system there was a large military police force. These men were known as ‘Red Caps’, and by all accounts were hated as intensely, if not more so, than the ‘enemy’. When the Étaples mutiny broke out, the Red Caps were some of the first recipients of the soldiers’ quick justice.
The only men hated as much if not more than the Red Caps at the camp were known as the ‘Canaries’, because of the yellow armbands they wore. These were the sadists who ran the Bullring training camp, and who enjoyed privileges denied the troops. Their role as stooges of the officer class earned them the undying hatred of nearly every man who wrote a memoir about his time passing through the camp.
“‘Even now, in my eightieth year,’ writes Private Notley, ‘I remember the abuse heaped on the rank and file there and wonder what comradeship means.’
“The Bullring itself was merely a set of staked out patches in the sand-hills. It was tailor made to compound the torments of the instructors. In the heat of the summer, high collars had to stay tightly buttoned, sleeves immaculately rolled down.
“The soft sand dragged at the ankles. Wet, it stained the khaki of the uniforms to the fury of the Canaries. Dry, it penetrated collar and cuff to rasp the flesh red against the coarse serge. The sand exacerbated everything … In the frightening dark of the gas chamber where the crude gas-masks were tested, there was sand to drag the feet so that escape seemed as remote as in a nightmare.
“Private David Paton of Dundee remembers this as the worst of all the trials of the Bullring. ‘You thought you would collapse and choke forever in that deep sand. If you took too long the Canaries were there to swear and send you through again’ . . . said Private Joe Perks of Dundee. ‘They had a fence at the Bullring, and often there would be rows of men tied to it no matter what the weather ” (William Allison and John Fairley, The Monocled Mutineer,, Quartet Books, London, p.610}
It may seem shocking to us today, but a terrifying system of field punishment was used to enforce discipline in the British army, and Field Punishment No 1, described above by Private Perks, was a common ritual.
The WW1 author and researcher Chris Baker has produced a very good online guide to field punishment amongst his other research. According to the rule book, Field Punishment Number 1 consisted of the convicted man being shackled in irons and secured to a fixed object, often a gun wheel or similar. He could only be thus fixed for up to 2 hours in 24, and not for more than 3 days in 4, or for more than 21 days in his sentence. This punishment was often known as ‘crucifixion’ and, due to its humiliating nature, was viewed by many Tommies as unfair. Field Punishment Number 2 was similar, except the man was shackled but not fixed to anything . . .
Anecdotal evidence actually suggests that this cruel form of punishment was very freely used to discipline the troops for hours on end, and it seems, from the testimonies of men who were there, to have been frequently resorted to by the bigwigs in charge at Étaples base camp. When Field Punishment Number 1 or 2 were deemed insufficient, men would be locked up and detained in large jails, which existed not only at Étaples but at many of the base camps and behind the lines.
These jails also housed men whose sentence of death at court martial had been commuted to a term of imprisonment. The sentence of death could be given for any of the following:
Sleeping at his post, casting away arms in the presence of the enemy, showing cowardice in in front of the enemy and striking a superior officer.
In addition to these were other offences, including mutiny. The two regulations regarding uprisings were as follows:
Ÿ Causing a mutiny in the forces, or endeavouring to persuade persons in HM forces to join in a mutiny, and
Ÿ Disobeying in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer.
The official figures are all we have to go on. How many men were murdered, done to death and despatched without the proper records will never be known. In addition to this, British imperialism has a long and distinguished record of covering over and hiding from public view its most outrageous acts of cruelty and murder, including those perpetrated against ‘its own’.
But even the official figures record that
Ÿ 5,952 officers and 298,310 other ranks were court martialled. The court martial was the procedure for dispensing military justice . . . Of those tried, 89 percent were convicted; 8 percent acquitted; the rest were either convicted without the conviction being confirmed or with it being subsequently quashed.
Ÿ Of those convicted, 30 percent were for absence without leave; 15 percent for drunkenness; 14 percent for desertion .. 11 percent for insubordination; 11 percent for loss of army property, and the remaining 19 percent for various other crimes.
Ÿ The main punishments applied were: three months detention in a military compound – 24 percent; Field Punishment Number 1 – 22 percent; Fines – 12 percent; six months detention – 10 percent; reduction in rank – 10 percent; Field Punishment Number 2 – 8 percent … 1.1 percent of those convicted were sentenced to death.
Ÿ Of these, 89 percent were reprieved and the sentence converted to a different one. 346 men were executed. Their crimes included desertion, murder, cowardice in the face of the enemy, quitting their post, striking or showing violence to their superiors, disobedience and mutiny.
One of the many testimonies that bourgeois hacks have tried to dismiss in the book by Allison and Fairley is that of Victor Silvester. In the years after, the war Victor Silvester became a well-known band leader. In later years, he appeared on radio alongside William Allison talking about his time at Étaples, but he held back a section of his statement that he found too horrifying to talk about.
He left that chapter for release after his death and Allison included it in the Monocled Mutineer. In it, Silvester recalls carrying out executions at Étaples as punishment for being caught by his superiors reading the lists of those to be shot, which hung on the wall in the headquarters. He carried out five before his nerve broke and he was committed to hospital as a nervous wreck.
His testimony is as follows:
“The first man I had to help to kill was a private in my own regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a fact which filled me with even greater shame. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.
“We marched to a quarry outside Étaples at first dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair, to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area.
“Mortified at the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order, raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face their ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they had tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whiskey during the night, but he had remained sober through fear.
“The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gun smoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man’s temple.
“He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word ‘mother’. He could not have been very much older than me.” (‘The grim wartime secret of Victor Silvester’, The Guardian, 16 Aug 1978).
At the time of the execution, Silvester was 17.
Sunday 9 September
The uprising at Étaples began, as these things tend to, with a single spark.
On Sunday 9 September, men were gathered outdoors in the sunshine. Some were pleading with guards at the various checkpoints to be allowed into Étaples town, while others were milling about the vast camp. At three in the afternoon, military police unjustly arrested Gunner AJ Healy, who, after a beating in the prison cell was released from custody the worse for wear.
Angered by the ease with which the military police were able to brutalise their fellows, rank-and-file soldiers called a series of demonstrations. At one of these, a scuffle broke out. In the ensuing melee, a policeman named Private Reeve drew a revolver and managed to kill a corporal from the Gordon Highlanders and a girl he was said to have been talking with.
“The shooting incensed the crowd, whose wrath was concentrated on the Military Police. They withdrew from their hut, and when the officer responsible for them, Captain Strachan, the Assistant Provost-Marshal, rode up, he was stoned. Another officer, the Adjutant, Captain Guiness, also came to see what was happening and realised that the police had lost all control.
“He reported to Colonel Nason, the officer in charge of reinforcements, who immediately ordered a piquet to be collected . . . One officer and twenty-five men with rifles and bayonets but no ammunition were sent to the bridge. Nason went too and ‘seeing the serious state of affairs’, called up two further piquets of over a hundred men from three other base depots.” (Lawrence James, Mutiny, Buchan & Enright Publishers, London, 1987, p.90).
The camp adjutant, Captain Guiness, later became Major Guiness, and, in his dotage, he wrote his recollections of the affair. In these Notes on the Mutiny he recalled:
“Word of the incident went round to all the depots, and that night . . . the men poured into the town and refused to obey orders.
“One of the Staff Captains at the office of the Officer in Charge of Reinforcements, a very brave man, stood on the parapet of the bridge, with a drop of about 40ft below him, and started to harangue the men, but they disregarded him.
“Before this, he attempted to stop the men crossing the bridge by lining up a lot of officers from the camp about six deep, but the men swept them aside. They swarmed into town, raided the office of the Base Commandant, pulled him out of his chair and carried him on their shoulders through the town.”
One account of this first night of rioting actually maintains that the Commandant and his officers were paraded before the troops before being thrown over the bridge into the river!
One of those who took part in the rush on the Commandant’s office was Frank Reynolds of Leicester. He was a founder member of the Old Comrades Association, which later became the British Legion, and gave his story to Allison and Fairley. He said that:
“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” (The Monocled Mutineer).
In Allison and Fairley’s account, the story of the first night continues:
“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 soldier’s 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.'”
Despite all contrary evidence, the Camp Diary that was kept by the Base Commandant Brigadier Thomson dismissed the events of that first day of mutiny and recorded that all men were back in camp and tucked up by nightfall!
Of course, much of what is recorded in that diary – one of the few official accounts to have survived – is quite clearly an attempt to play down and dismiss the serious disorder that began on Sunday and lasted until the following Friday; disorder which was to effectively see Brigadier Thomson removed from Étaples and banished to a lesser posting.
In an article in the Guardian, William Allison later commented that the Commandant’s diary had attempted to make the entire week-long mutiny sound like ‘one very long, rowdy soccer match’.
Vera Brittain who was a nurse at the camp and later wrote a famous autobiography, Testament of Youth, recalled this rowdy ‘soccer match':
” Quite who was against whom I never clearly gathered, but one party was said to be holding the bridge over the Canche . . . Obviously the village was no place for females, so for over a fortnight we were shut up within our hospitals . . . As though the ceaseless convoys did not provide us with sufficient occupation, numerous drunken and dilapidated warriors from the village battle were sent to such spare beds as we had for slight repairs. They were euphemistically known as ‘local sick'” (Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, Seaview Books, New York 1933, p386) .
Vera might not have known what all the fuss was about, but then she probably didn’t subscribe to the left-wing press of the day. A letter published by Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought was received by a British soldier. It reads:
“[A]bout 10,000 men had a big racket at Étaples and cleared the whole place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped . . .”
Monday 10 September
By Monday morning, the unrest had been serious enough to bring two bigwigs down to the camp in the shape of Lieutenant-General Asser from Command and Major Dugdale, a senior policeman from General Headquarters. With these top brass came some 100 men from the Le Touquet Lewis Gun School, who strung out along the coast as far as Paris Plage to protect the bourgeois dining rooms and casinos.
Throughout the day, a sizeable number of riotous troops remained in Étaples town centre, holding meetings and doing all those things denied to them that hungry men do so well. They began to be joined by others from across the camp, and a sizeable number moved to the far side towards Paris Plage and gathered at the bridge over the river Canche.
“[O]n one of the bridges a piquet of British and Canadian soldiers under a captain confronted a band of seventy or eighty men who were marching from the camp towards the town, some carrying red flags and wrenched-up notice boards . . . one of the mutineers . . . call[ed] upon the piquet guard to join the mutiny.
“‘Don’t listen to the bloody officer. What you want to do is to tie a rope around his neck with a stone attached to it and throw him in the river’ . . . The speaker was a thirty-year-old corporal from a northern regiment . . . He was charged with mutiny, found guilty, sentenced to death and executed three weeks later.”
But before this particular man, and no doubt many others, could be caught and executed, it seems as though a number of meetings were held in the town at which the troops planned the way forward and formulated demands.
No documentary evidence of these proceedings exists, of course, but recollections of those who took part state that a committee was elected to present the demands of the men. Despite this testimony, many bourgeois scholars of the uprising either deny that there was any formal organisation of the mutiny, or maintain that in the absence of what Allison once wryly described as ‘the dry meat of official records’ there was no ‘proof’ of any organisation.
But in writing their book, Allison and Fairley managed to speak to a number of men who actually took part in the uprising and who gave a very different account.
“Those officers who had maintained control of the troops in their own IBD compounds, now attempted . . . to march them out for the usual training in the Bullring.
“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 nearby RAF College, was there:
“‘The moment you got to the Bullring, 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 . . . . there were sergeant-majors, corporals and instructors by the hundreds, all shouting at us to get to our feet. Not a man moved . . . In the end, they got us up by promising us we could go back to camp, have a day’s rest . . .’
“Back at the camp, the sit-down troops were given a meal, and when they had finished eating they were asked ‘Any complaints?’ Phil Chester and his mates were so astonished that they celebrated by bursting through the railway-bridge pickets into Étaples . . .
“The mutineers who had not returned to the 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 . . .
“Mr William Stephens, of Elsynge Road, Wandsworth, London, a Ministry of 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 . . . 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 Étaples. Maybe he, too, was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalised 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 . . . on the morning of Monday . . . 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 Étaples 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 Étaples in the late afternoon. They were about 1,000 strong and they swung along the coast road . . . Before they got to the Canche bridge, they merged and then split up into four separate groups, each numbering over two hundred…
“Toplis felt he had a clear duty. He headed his mob straight for the detention compound and released the prisoners, about fifty of them . . . Madame Andree Dissous of Étaples remembers . . .
“‘I saw 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…'”
It is reported that as the situation deteriorated Commandant Thomson began a tour of the camp, haranguing the men to fall back into line. His car was forced to stop at a roadblock set up by Toplis and his men.
“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, begging 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 the ending of the mutiny . . . The revolt would end, he told Thomson, only when the town of Étaples was thrown open to the troops, when the Bullring had been closed, the military police removed and food and general conditions improved.”
A group from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade put similar demands to Thomson on the Monday, but for the moment the Commandant wouldn’t budge. When Thomson rose on the Tuesday morning, he set about bringing into Étaples sufficient forces to quell the uprising.
He immediately put in a request to the 9th Cavalry, but his request was refused. His diary records this as a ‘misunderstanding’, but Thomson must have felt hung out to dry. It is quite probable that his superiors were fearful of inflaming the situation and concerned about the effect of withdrawing troops from the front – particularly with the offensive at Passchendaele, so long planned by Haig, due to begin just eight days later.
Thomson’s camp diary reads:
” At 1.30pm 9th Cavalry Brigade were rung . . . no answer could be given . . . At 2.00pm 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 . . . 4.00pm a message, telephone, was received to say GHQ would NOT authorise use of Cavalry . . . About 4.00pm men again broke through the picquets on the bridge, went through Étaples, 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.”
By Tuesday evening, faced with the refusal of GHQ to use the cavalry, and with ongoing problems controlling the bridges and picquets, Thomson conceded the demands of the troops and allowed free entry to and from Étaples until 10.00pm.
In the days that followed, order was gradually restored and troops arrived in the camp and town to take up the positions vacated by the military police and the police commander Strachan, who himself was removed.
On Wednesday, with disturbances continuing, and angered by the impunity with which orders were continuing to be disobeyed and flouted, Lieutenant-General Asser made a return visit and gave final sanction to the calling up of 400 men of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) composed of many public schoolboys and other such ‘reliable men’.
Robert Graves, chinless author of WW1 memoir Goodbye to All That, served with this battalion and freely admitted to Bertrand Russell many years later that he and his fellows would have been happy to fire on striking munitions workers (referring to men such as the communists Willie Gallacher and Arthur MacManus who so bravely led the workers of Glasgow’s Red Clydeside in exactly such action during WW1). In addition to the HAC, the 15th Hussars were ordered into position along with one section of the machine-gun squadron.
During Thursday 13 and Friday 14 September, the number of battles and disturbances gradually diminished, and more than 10,000 troops were hurriedly moved out of Étaples and sent up to the front line in preparation for the Passchendaele offensive. Among their number were many of the mutineers.
Passchendaele was to serve as a mass execution for the mutineers from Étaples. For those left, and for the new arrivals into the camp on Saturday, conditions were very different from those that had prevailed a week earlier.
The men were allowed the freedom of Étaples town and bathing in the sea was permitted. Meanwhile, in the weeks that followed, the Bullring training ground was closed for good. All these concessions to the anger of the men can be considered as sensible moves from a ruling class well schooled in dissipating unrest and putting retribution off for a later date.
As these reforms were being carried out publicly, the lust for vengeance on the part of the officer class and establishment was well underway behind the scenes. A secret service agent Edwin Woodhall, who later wrote his story, was sent to Étaples to undertake an investigation along with the military and the police. All these reports, along with those of the Board of Inquiry that was set up, have never been seen again.
Woodhall, in his memoirs, relates how he spent the weeks that followed rounding up deserters and following the trail of Percy Toplis, whom he managed to capture some weeks later. Unfortunately for Woodhall, Toplis was able to escape from his imprisonment and make his way back to England, where he re-enlisted in both the army and the RAF! He was eventually caught up with by the police following a nationwide manhunt.
Sadly, Percy Toplis met a violent end. Framed for a murder in England (being the first man in English history to be found guilty in his absence), the state eventually caught up with Toplis in Penrith, where he was shot down dead in the street by plain-clothes policemen, whence he was taken to the coroner and his tongue was cut out (just for good measure).
The inquest into his death was swift, and the officers involved in his extra-judicial execution were later given awards for their ‘bravery’. The inquest delivered a verdict of justifiable homicide and Toplis was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in Penrith cemetery. Some of his possessions, including the monocle that he used to ‘cut a dash’ when impersonating officers, are on display to this day in Penrith Museum.
Despite the reforms undertaken at the Étaples base camp, a number of smaller uprisings and mutinies did continue to break out. Some were brutally put down and others were more sedate, but they persisted well into the period of demobilisation.
The story of Étaples and the disturbances that followed expose the myth of an army happily carrying out its duty for King and country. Yes, there was no revolutionary direction given to these struggles, but how could there have been? The British working class at that time had no revolutionary organisation. The Communist Party did not come into being until 1920, by which point the opportunity was lost.
In Russia, it was very different. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had built up a revolutionary organisation over many years and were able to direct the many strikes, mutinous actions and fraternisation behind Russian lines into a single revolutionary struggle, which culminated in the October Revolution of 1917.
A particularly gruesome battle took place just weeks after the Étaples uprising. A number of Chinese and ‘colonial labourers’ (in reality they were slave labour, brought in from across the British empire) rioted against their oppressive conditions, and British authorities moved swiftly to deal with them.
Corporal Harry Rodgers from Birmingham was one of the soldiers ordered at Boulogne to ‘kill those foul foreigners’.
“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 Étaples, and, as we took up firing positions in groups of twenty on street corners of Boulogne, we could not help wondering if this was what was being meted out to our comrades just down the coast.”
A Glasgow private who took part in a massacre of Chinese labourers who had stormed an expensive bourgeois café called Mony’s recalled that:
“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 . . .
“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 then they had from the ‘rabble’.”
From this, we learn another lesson about the failure of the British working class, which lacked revolutionary leadership, to make common cause with the colonial oppressed peoples. It was not until the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), with the assistance of the Third International, that serious, organised attempts were made to link up the struggles of British proletarians with those of the colonial peoples.
Mutiny and revolution
The Étaples uprising took place at a time of severe hardship for the men sent to do the bidding of their imperialist masters. In February, the bourgeois revolution in Russia had shaken the allied forces, and many hundreds of thousands of Russian troops took strike action and began to distribute the revolutionary proclamations of the Bolsheviks, who were openly agitating among the soldiers for the defeat of ‘their own’ government and the end of the war.
Sadly, with a few honourable exceptions, the British labour movement was not led by men of the Bolshevik type. Rather, our leading trade unionists and Labour members of parliament had fallen in with, and were actively advocating, the bourgeois slogan of ‘defence of the fatherland’ – along with the rest of the so-called ‘socialist’ parties of the Second International and the ruling classes with whom they were united. They had betrayed the international working class.
Given the dominance in Britain of the class-collaborationist position of the parties of the Second International, very few of the newspapers available to British workers during the war were capable of demonstrating the way out of the crisis.
Only through a firm struggle against opportunism within the British labour movement would it have been possible to take the revolutionary road towards socialist revolution. In words of Lenin:
“Social-chauvinism is advocacy of the idea of ‘defence of the fatherland’ in the present war. Further, this idea logically leads to the abandonment of the class struggle during the war, to voting war credits, etc. Actually, the social-chauvinists are pursuing an anti-proletarian, bourgeois policy; for actually, they are championing not ‘defence of the fatherland’ in the sense of fighting foreign oppression, but the ‘right’ of one or other of the ‘great’ powers to plunder colonies and to oppress other nations.
“The social-chauvinists repeat the bourgeois deception of the people that the war is being waged to protect the freedom and existence of nations, and thereby they go over to the side of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. In the category of social-chauvinists are those who justify and embellish the governments and bourgeoisie of one of the belligerent groups of powers, as well as those who, like Kautsky, argue that the socialists of all the belligerent powers have an equal right to ‘defend the fatherland’.
“Social-chauvinism, being actually defence of the privileges, advantages, robbery and violence of one’s ‘own’ (or every) imperialist bourgeoisie, is the utter betrayal of all socialist convictions . . .
“Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same ideological-political content: collaboration of classes instead of class struggle, renunciation of revolutionary methods of struggle, helping one’s ‘own’ government in its embarrassed situation instead of taking advantage of these embarrassments for revolution. If we take all the European countries as a whole, if we pay attention not to individuals (even the most authoritative), we will find that it is the opportunist trend that has become the chief bulwark of social-chauvinism . . .
“The bourgeois newspapers of all the belligerent countries have reported cases of fraternisation between the soldiers of the belligerent nations even in the trenches. And the issue by the military authorities (of Germany, England) of draconic orders against such fraternisation proved that the governments and the bourgeoisie attached grave importance to it.
“The fact that such cases of fraternisation have been possible even when opportunism reigns supreme in the top ranks of the social-democratic parties of western Europe, and when social-chauvinism is supported by the entire social-democratic press and by all the authorities of the Second International, shows us how possible it would be to shorten the present criminal, reactionary and slave-owners’ war and to organise a revolutionary international movement if systematic work were conducted in this direction, if only by the left-wing socialists in all the belligerent countries . . .
“Both the advocates of victory for their governments in the present war and the advocates of the slogan ‘neither victory not defeat’, equally take the standpoint of social-chauvinism. A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow.
“Only a bourgeois who believes that a war started by the governments must necessarily end as a war between governments and wants it to end as such, can regard as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘absurd’ the idea that the socialists of all the belligerent countries should wish for the defeat of all ‘their’ governments and express this wish. On the contrary, it is precisely a statement of this kind that would conform to the cherished thoughts of every class-conscious worker, and would be in line with our activities towards converting the imperialist war into civil war.
“Undoubtedly, the serious anti-war agitation that is being conducted by a section of the British, German and Russian socialists has ‘weakened the military power’ of the respective governments, but such agitation stands to the credit of the socialists. Socialists must explain to the masses that they have no other road of salvation except the revolutionary overthrow of ‘their’ governments, and that advantage must be taken of these governments’ embarrassments in the present war precisely for this purpose” (War and Socialism).
We must learn the lessons from our own history if we are not to be doomed to make the same mistakes in the future. British imperialism is doing everything it can to whip up fresh jingoism to accompany its aggressive manoeuvring, especially with regards to Russia and China.
We have yet to see exactly how the forces of international capital will line up, and in which situation we may find ourselves confronted with a third inter-imperialist world war, but we must be clear that it is the job of communists and revolutionaries to turn the inevitable riots, mutinies and uprisings against austerity and war into riots, mutinies and uprisings against capitalism – to imbue them with class-consciousness and to turn any imperialist war into a civil war here at home.
That means we must wage a determined struggle against opportunism in the labour movement; against the role of the social democrats and Trotskyites; against those who continually find new ways to put a ‘left’ spin on siding with imperialism in its wars of aggression – be those wars aimed at Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria or even Russia or China.
The fight against imperialism is a sham and a fraud unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism.