Étaples is a small town near the Normandy coast. During the First World War it was behind the lines and British troops were sent there for hospital treatment and recuperation. Its cemetery holds significant memories and history especially the moment when a steam train rushes past in the distance, noisily intruding on the women standing among the graves, and a brutal reminder that life goes on regardless. Many cemeteries were already in existence by the time John Lavery got to France in 1919, mostly tended by the female staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in their brown working uniforms. John Lavery was clearly moved by this view of the cemetery at Etaples.
The railway, with its network of connections across the north of France, became of strategic importance during World War 1. Étaples became the principal depot and transit camp for the British in France and it became the point where the wounded were transported. Among the atrocities of that war, the hospitals there were several times bombard from the air during May 1918. In one hospital, as reported, «One ward received a direct hit and was blown to pieces, six wards were reduced to ruins and three others were severely damaged». Sisters, patients were killed outright, whilst two doctors, five sisters and many orderlies and patients were wounded. The nearby six-hectare Etaples Military Cemetery was the resting place for 11,658 British and Allied soldiers from the conflict. That was when the war artist John Lavery depicted it, in 1919, showing a train in the background, running along the bank of the river below the sandy crest on which the cemetery was located.
The reputation of the military camp for harshness and the treatment received by the men there led to the Étaples Mutiny in 1917. In World War II, Étaples suffered again from German bombing and the tramway was irreparably damaged. The town was then occupied by the Germans and during the Allied invasion was again bombarded, causing seventy civilian casualties and destroying or damaging a third of its houses.
A cross-sectional view of the cemetery at Étaples showing the rows of simple crosses tended by a group of women. In the background is a steam train crossing a green landscape.