Another day of minimal happenings (the Caucasus excepted) affords us an opportunity to look at a small French town whose name is soon to be written into British Army folklore.
Battle of Sarikamis
Entire divisions are surrendering to the Russians now. Hafiz Hakki gives the only order he can give; those who can, get out and get back to Erzurum. Between typhoid, frostbite, and bullet, there’s precious few who are in a fit state to go anywhere. Some of them are completely cut off from communications, and for want of orders will continue clinging desperately to their positions as long as possible. Grand retreats are always bad; this one will be no different.
Bradshaw’s railway guide to France once described Etaples, somewhat dismissively, as “a decaying fishing port on a sandy plain”. English armies have been visiting the area for almost as long as there’s been such a thing as an English army. They’ve sacked the town, burned it, captured the castle, visited the castle as honoured guests, and glared warily across the Channel at Napoleon’s Grand Armee as it formed up.
In recent times, the town’s recovered its fortunes somewhat with the coming of the railways. The line itself links all the Channel ports now being used by the BEF for resupply with the rest of France, and there’s no shortage of open country. When the supply lines were moved back north from St Nazaire some months ago, there’s been a need to find a convenient location for a base in the area. Several locations will be experimented with; it’s Etaples that will eventually become the site of a major transit and training camp.
It has several advantages; plenty of open space for expansion, excellent rail links, a central location between the northern and southern ports. There’s also a conveniently-sited river splitting it off from a rather prestigious beach resort called Le Tocquet, extremely popular in peacetime with well-to-do Parisians. Le Tocquet will soon be appropriated for officers’ accomodation, in order to observe King’s Regulations and keep the officers from socialising with the Other Ranks.
In times to come, millions of men will pass through Etaples. It will become by far the most notorious camp in France, and it’ll even have its own mutiny. At the moment, however, it’s just another shitty, wet field in France. Territorial Army battalions are arriving almost daily as reinforcements, but they need to go somewhere while the Staff decides where to send them. So it is that the 1st London Infantry Brigade has arrived at Marseilles. They’ve been garrisoning Malta while they get themselves up to speed for war.
Now they’re boarding a northward train, with all the fun and games that train travel during the war entails. The blokes are busy writing “Don’t breathe on the windows” and “Non-stop train to Berlin” on the sides of their cattle wagons. The officers are rather put out to find that their carriages are unheated and don’t have toilets. All are in an excellent situation to observe the temperature dropping alarmingly as they trundle north towards Etaples.
They finally arrive, and are welcomed by a vicious hail-storm and ankle-deep mud everywhere. The camp is less than a mile from the station, but it takes then an hour just to form up by companies in the pitch dark, slipping and falling and swearing copiously. The march to Etaples then takes another full hour.
When they arrive, to modern eyes Etaples might have looked something like the world’s worst music festival. In theory, the tents have all been pitched in the lee of some trees. In reality, they’re on the seaward side, and with their openings pointing directly at the stiff sea breeze. And the creme de la crap is that there aren’t enough tents to go round. Nobody gets much sleep as fifteen or sixteen blokes at a time cram themselves into tents designed for twelve and with minimal spare room.
Meanwhile, Corporal Letyford is hard at work again.
6.1.15 Spend the morning trying to dry out our clothes. We are all covered in mud from head to foot. At 6pm I go with Captain Reed to the trenches, and we fix six pumps. Wading about in water to our waists until 2am.
History does not record whether he made it back to his shed before that night’s rain turned to sleet.