British soldiers destined for the Western Front usually landed at the French ports of Le Havre and Boulogne. The men were then transported to the main base camp just outside the French town of Etaples. As many as 100,000 soldiers at a time were housed at the camp. In the sand dunes at Etaples was the notorious Bull Ring training camp. Here attempts were made to prepare men for life in the trenches. The new soldiers also received lectures on how to deal with problems such as lice, trench foot and poison gas.
Boulogne was hot and dark and sultry. Boulogne was tiresome. While we were waiting at the station a hospital train came in and trench-stained men, badly hurt, some of them looking quite dead, were hurried out of it and away on stretchers.
As we marched through Boulogne, little French boys ran alongside asking for chocolate and cigarettes, and also suggesting that they could fix up an appointment with their sisters for 5 francs!
16th September: Parade at 9 a.m. and march to Boulogne Station. We start for Etaples at 11 a.m. On arrival at Base Camp, drew rifle, oil bottle, gas helmet, etc. Base Camp very depressing. Reports that we may not be here for more than three days before going "up the line": but could not be anything from 3 days to 3 weeks. Every day, villagers from Etaples come with stalls into the camp and hold a sort of mart with chocolates, fruit, postcards and the eternal 'Spearmint'. They seem to think we can't exist without the latter and that it is the staple article of sweet in the English Army.
17th September: Bayonet fighting with the Royal Scots. Went over final assault and went over all right, I think. After this, rapid loading and firing and then bayonet fighting again.
20th September: Lecture on gas. Officer lecturing had been two years here and through two gas attacks. Callousness of lecturers shocks us.
24th September: Lectures all morning, all of our instructors giving us their experiences at the front. All these men seem particularly callous and talk of killing as nothing at all. "Remember, boys, one of them said, "every prisoner mean's a day's rations gone."
Etaples was about the most detested base camp ever. Men were put through a few days' rigorous training, bayonet fighting, formation drills, etc. Included in the training was passing through a chamber in which gas had been released. The instructors used to say, "just to get you used to the real thing, when you get there".