Millions of British troops passed through the French coastal town of Étaples, France, on their way to the Western Front. The training camps housed as many as 100,000 troops at a time. Many thousands of British and Empire wounded returned to Étaples to one of more than a dozen hospitals there. Patient population peaked at about 22,000. Étaples was the largest base camp ever established by the British overseas, before or since.
No wonder the Tommies had a love-hate relationship with the place and rechristened it their own tongue-in-cheek name: “Eat-Apples.”
No wonder, too, that Germans targeted it with air raids in their spring offensive of 1918, Geneva Conventions be damned. The German Luftstreitkräfte were not very scrupulous about avoiding medical buildings when there were so many legitimate targets nearby: munitions depots in addition to training camps.
On the night of May 19, 1918, Étaples was hit hard. Among all hospitals, including both hospital staff and patients (some of whom would likely have been German prisoners) one hundred and sixty-nine were killed. Six hundred and twenty-two were injured. These data, taken from the war diary of the Etaples Base Commandant, appear higher than those found in other sources. The St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, one of at least seven major hospitals, listed a total of only fifteen casualties (of whom five were killed).
More mayhem struck on May 31. Twenty-three patients and personnel were wounded at the SJAB hospital, of whom eleven were killed. Damage to infrastructure was extensive. Four of the major hospitals were closed and their patients sent to England for care.
The Germans had chosen their target wisely–or brazenly. Either way, the battle was engaged in a fight that really would yield a finish. A second War of Movement would progress, following three and a half years of trench-bound stalemate. Casualties would continue heavy for the remaining months of the war, but never again would so many patients and medical personnel come under direct attack as they did at Étaples in May 1918.
- Etaples Hospital Bombing: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/topic/91216-etaples-hospital-bombing-1st-june-1918/
- First World War Centenary: http://www.1914.org/news/st-john-in-the-first-world-war/
- Museum of the Order of St. John: http://museumstjohn.org.uk/research/st-john-archive/
- Road to the Great War: http://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2015/07/notorious-etaples-camp.html
Reproduced without permission from http://throughtheselines.com.au/research/etaples.