Look at a roadmap of northern France. Find the exclusive and aristocratic resort of Le Touquet, go east a few kilometres and locate Etaples. ‘Eat Apples’, as British Great War soldiers used to call it. They quickly found out all about the town and did not want to spend their summer holidays there if they could help it.
It is easy to visit the town if you find yourself across the channel in Calais. Just nip off down the coast road in your car and take the road signs to Le Touquet.
The town name came from the Dutch ‘Staple’. Etaples is now a much run down port that earlier served the very elegant Montreuil sur Mer. Montreuil once rested close to the channel coast before the surrounding marshland silted up. Etaples became its commercial centre providing goods access to the rest of the world. Not anymore though. Etaples presents itself nowadays as a rather dusty, unflattering reflection from the finer days that it enjoyed a couple of centuries ago.
Along the road running through the town, visitors will find now redundant coasters from earlier times. They stand on their plinths like humble street children. The brown and rusting hulls show us all what they have come too. The tourist office located in the now defunct rope factory supports a museum of miniature seafaring models. Actually it is quite interesting to visit if the tourist office can be found to be open. They also have a trawler simulator. People can try and find out for themselves what guiding a commercial vessel was like in and out of a port. It is a bit of a bygone machine but no one seems to know that it’s there. The town also presents a museum of local seafaring practices in the former fish market. Life was vibrant like that in Etaples once, but not anymore. There is also the Quentovic Archaeological Museum. Look for the difficult to find signpost just off the main square.
The town centre main square is home to the Souquet Marteau Hotel. Napoleon Bonaparte paid two visits there in earlier, grander periods. The hotel remains notable today for its facade and roof features. The centre of the town presently is quiet and just a little dishevelled.
As you look over the gloomy marshland towards the west, you can spot the aerodrome at Le Touquet with its prominent control tower. Aircraft fly in and out all the time carrying the affluent and well heeled. Le Touquet is for the upper crust and is home to so many attractions for the well off and sophisticated visitor. They don’t go to Etaples and I shouldn’t think that Etaples tries to get to them. It is a little like that these days and was certainly like that during the Great War. Le Touquet was open to the officers but forbidden to the enlisted men. If the conscripts tried it on they did so almost under the threat of execution.
During World War 1, Etaples had a capacity to support around 100,000 troops. British and Commonwealth soldiers were sent there to receive training before being dispatched off to the trenches. The quality of the training provided by the British army had the reputation of being brutal and unforgiving. The treatment that they all underwent was fearfully aggressive and unrelenting. Where they were all about to go next, I suppose, was similar.
Etaples town had little appeal to soldiers for their rare periods of relaxation. They found it dull and inhospitable. There were so many of them trying to find temporary relief from their current experience. They could see the brighter lights of Le Touquet just across the marshland, rather like American prisoners in Alcatraz. They were tortured with the view of the bright lights and life going on in San Francisco just across the water too. Enlisted men were forbidden from visiting Le Touquet. It was not for them, only for the officers.
This discrimination led to a mutiny in 1917. A conscripted commonwealth soldier was arrested by the British authorities for attempting a down town trip to Le Touquet. He was taken away as a prisoner. His fellow Australian and New Zealand compatriots surrounded his place of incarceration. They demanded his release and they demanded their own private freedom to be able to go where they wished. The ringleaders were court marshalled and sentenced to very grim periods of long imprisonment with hard labour. The central character was executed by firing squad.
Etaples was also the location for the largest spread of military hospitals during the Great War. Many of the furiously injured passed through for treatment before being returned to their own countries. Nowadays, the area has become a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery and is the biggest in Europe. It houses more than 11,500 dead. It is a grimacing monument to events that occurred between 1914 and 1918.
In March 2003, this cemetery was vandalised by protestors following the British and American invasion of Iraq. Many gravestones were daubed with red paint and wholesale damage was done. President Chirac of France at the time felt obliged to make a formal apology to the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II.
Etaples during the Great War left bitter recollections in the minds of many Commonwealth personnel. The treatment that they experienced was brutal and wicked. The cultural separation between Etaples and Le Touquet continues, seemingly, to this day. I have visited both places on a number of occasions and they are almost like different planets orbiting around each other. Etaples has been wounded by the events of history. It is the poor sibling of a modern and sparkling France. I feel rather sad for her.