On the way to the Front – Boulogne and Étaples

Boulogne – Then…

On 13 March 1917 Charles William Palmer departed Folkestone, England on a ship bound for Boulogne-sur-mer in France. On arrival from Australia he had spent some two and a half months at a training camp in Codford, England and his time had come to join the fight. The short entry in his diary merely records the fact of his arrival in Boulogne and his departure the following day. It takes another source, also arriving in April 1917, to fill in the details of what the arrival may have been like. George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers, writes in his diary:

“… we crossed the Channel, most of us for the first time. The journey took 1 ½ hours … . Prompt to time we entered the bay in which Boulogne stands as our escort of two destroyers who had convoyed us across, took their leave. After a couple of tries we succeeded in getting sufficiently near enough to the landing stage to enable us to be made fast … and awaited the order to disembark. After this had been done, we made our way down the quay and across the bridge and formed up in the main road… At last we moved off and marched into the town, turning at length up a side street which proved to be the beginning of a very long hill on top of which stood the Camp. With the aid of two halts, which were badly needed for the weather was hot and our packs heavy, we succeeded in reaching the Camp which was composed of a large number of tents divided into sections so many tents to each section. The camp was fairly full of men going on or returning from leave in addition to numerous drafts awaiting to entrain for the base, and we were allocated at the rate of 10 in a tent, rather crowded perhaps, but nothing to the discomforts we were to suffer later on.”

And now…

When we arrived in Boulogne it was under overcast skies that gave the town a feeling of dejection. We were looking for the port and harbour to get a sense of where the troop ships would have berthed. We were fortunate to find a very helpful man at the tourism bureau who could speak some English and was able to indicate areas of interest. It seems that there was a large hospital located near the docks and the camp was probably located up the hill near the castle. This will require more research. The photos I’ve used give a sense of the area now, but obviously much has changed.

The uninspiring Boulogne docks and harbour as they are now.

Up the hill to the castle.

Étaples – Then…

Next we followed Charles to Étaple, 34 km further along the coast from Boulogne. After staying overnight in the Boulogne camp Charles arrived in Étaples on 14 March where he stayed for 3 weeks. Again, his diary entry is brief, but much has been written about this notorious camp.

“The camp was a training base, a depot for supplies, a detention centre for prisoners, and a centre for the treatment of the sick and wounded, with almost twenty general hospitals. At its peak, the camp housed over 100,000 people; altogether, its hospitals could treat 22,000 patients. With its vast conglomeration of the wounded, of prisoners, of soldiers training for battle, and of those simply waiting to return to the front, Étaples could appear a dark place.

The Étaples Military Cemetery.

And now …

Unlike Boulogne, when we arrived in Étaples we had no trouble locating the site of the camp. The only area still visible is that taken up by the Étaples Military Cemetery, where over 10,700 Commonwealth soldiers are buried. Most died of their wounds while being treated in the Camp hospital. As the CWGC sign states at the entrance to the Cemetery: “… of the vast complex of roads, huts, tents, rifle ranges, training facilities, ambulance parks, operating theatres, offices and cinemas that made up the Étaples base, only this cemetery remains.” Ref: Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Then …

In a diary entry on 26 March 1917 Elsie Tranter, an Australian Army nurse working at the Étaples Camp, stated:
“Thousands of men pass by every day. Day after day we say ‘Goodbye and good luck’ to lads with their full kit on, on their way to that well known place ‘up the line’. There is a continual tramp, tramp all day long.” Ref:

Just nine days later, on 4 April 1917, Charles William Palmer would have been one of those soldiers heading ‘up the line’.

– All photos in this post were taken on 24 October 2016 –


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