MY FAMILY AT WAR
NO 1 GENERAL HOSPITAL B.E.F. ETRETAT
The small French seaside resort of Etretat is located on the Channel coast about 40 minutes drive from the port of Le Havre. Today, its population of 1600 permanent residents is swollen in the summer by streams of visitors from all over the world. They come to admire the World Heritage site of its white chalk cliffs --- Les Roches Blanches. On the seafront is a fish restaurant of this name, where once stood an imposing hotel of La Belle Epoque called L’Hotel des Roches Blanches.
During WW1, this small town became a major medical centre and the location of the No 1 General Hospital BEF from December 1914 to January 1919. Between 1917 and 1918 it became the No 2 American Presbyterian Base Hospital, although still administered by the British.
My wife and I have had a holiday apartment in Etretat since 2004 and have recently discovered that the building in which our apartment is located, was the Hotel Place or Plage (differing opinions) in 1914 and later became used as an annexe for the military hospital. Internet research has established that many other hotels and large country houses, including the aforementioned L’Hotel des Roches Blanches, the Dormy House Hotel and the Casino, were used as hospital buildings and as billets for the medical and military personnel. The resident French population, who were a significant distance away from the fighting front, had their lives disrupted by the impact of the war - as the casualty trains arrived at the small rural station and fleets of ambulances brought the wounded into the small centre of the town.
At the time of the Battle of the Somme, the volume of casualties was too great for the hospital and its annexes to cope and thus a tented village had to be created near to the railway station building. This building still survives, though the rail line has long since been closed down.
The beautiful Romanesque church of Notre Dame has 546 British and Dominion graves within the churchyard. The churchyard and its extension designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield is beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. During WW1 every one of the burials was preceded by the coffin being ceremonially marched from the seafront mortuary to the graveside, Each burial was accompanied by either British or old French territorial soldiers and each had the Last Post played by a bugler.
The attached photographs show the town as it was during WW1 and in some instances the same views as they are today taken by me. Many of the old photographs were found in a book in the Seine Maritime Lire sur La Plage library at Etretat, now available from the Etretat Tourist Office and online on websites produced by an Etretat resident, Alain Millet, and from the diary of a British Nurse, Edith Elizabeth Appleton who was in Etretat from 1915 to 1918*. Readers are encouraged to visit these websites to learn more about Etretat’s involvement in the war.
In addition, there are period post cards sent by a RAMC orderly to his wife which are part of an extensive collection held by Tony Wharton in Queensland, Australia.
For those of you who travel to Normandy, may I urge you to visit Etretat for yourselves where, armed with these old photographs, you can walk around and trace the footsteps of your British or American ancestors who worked there or who were patients in the many hospital buildings that are still there for you to see.
THEN Post card of the Hotel Des Roches Blanches at the turn of the century
NOW The front at Etretat where the Hotel Des Roches Blanches was located where the white apartment block is now
THEN The hotel PLACE used as a hospital by the Americans . This is a post card produced by the Americans for troops to send home
NOW The apartment block La Residence today
THEN Post card of the Hotel Place and the Residence bar and restaurant on the left during the war
NOW A picture of the Boulevarde Rene Cote today containing the Residence apartment block and the residence bar and restaurant on the left side
Figure 4a. THEN British Officers standing outside the Officer’s bar
NOW The Bar is now a restaurant
THEN The churchyard at the time of the WW1 burials
NOW Photo of the Etretat Churchyard CWGC cemetery today
THEN Ambulances lined up waiting for the hospital trains to arrive during WW1
NOW The old Etretat railway station today
THEN The Rue Monge with ambulances May 1917
NOW The Place Marechal Foch today
THEN British troops and nurses marching through Etretat in 1917
NOW Looking down what is now called the Boulevard Reny Cote
British nurses marching through Etretat in 1917
Memorial plaque in the Place Marachal Foch
A Memorial seat on the front at Etretat
Notre Dame church Etretat today
Plaque inside the church commemorating the British soldiers buried in the churchyard
The CWGC visitors book for Etretat Churchyard cemetery
The following are the original 7 soldiers buried within the French civilian grave yard, which were moved at a later date into the Churchyard extension.
Pte C S Hunter
Pte H Savage
Pte R Wright
Guardsman J White
Pte H White
Gunner C E B Gardiner
Pte J Daily
First Burial in February 1915 – Pte E Mooney
Last Burial in December 1918 – Driver R J Cussins
The following are graves of those soldiers whom Edith Appleton mentions in her diary pages 110,112, 126 and 174.
Serjeant F G Middleton
Capt P Hammond
Sapper G H Sawdon
Pte C Kerr
Rifleman J Lennox
Oldest and highest ranking soldier in the cemetery and whose grave was tended by Edith Appleton see page 126 of her diary – Col F R Thackeray
The grave of a German soldier who may have been looked after by Edith Appleton see page 206 of her diary – R Bayer
Australian International Rugby Team member – Capt C Wallach MC
The only VC holder buried in the cemetery – Serjeant L Clarke Canadian Inf.
A soldier from Ticehurst Sussex who shares my Initials and family name – C R Weekes
Post card Sent by RAMC orderly Joe Nixon to his fiancée Mary telling her he is going to collect and eat mussels and cockles from the beach . Posted 23rd April 15
Post card sent by RAMC orderly Joe Nixon to his wife Mary in Sunderland telling her that they are going to receive another lot of wounded soldiers in the hospital.
Note post mark ARMY POST OFFICE May 30th 1916. One of many sent to Mary who collected them.
* 'A NURSE AT THE FRONT' The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton edited by Ruth Cowen published by Simon Schuster.
Edith Appleton’s website page about Etretat is here
Joe Nixon's Postcards – Part of a collection owned by Tony Wharton Queensland, Australia.
Thank you also to the Seine Maritime Library, France.