For most of the war the headquarters of the British High Command was situated in Pas-de-Calais. As the supreme body responsible for elaborating strategies the British High Command was also a large administrative platform which oversaw the logistical needs of the troops in Belgium and in France. Although it was initially situated in Saint-Omer, the British High Command moved to Montreuil-sur-Mer in March 1916.

In the early years of the conflict Saint-Omer was ideally situated in the sector in which the British troops were fighting. The city had the necessary infrastructure. The British soldiers for the most part were quartered in barracks while several officers were quartered in civilians’ houses or in large houses that had been specially requisitioned for this purpose. After the transfer of the High Command to Montreuil-sur-Mer, the region of Saint-Omer was still used for British infrastructure. What’s more, Saint-Omer continued to serve as the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps.

The transfer of the British High Command to Montreuil-sur-Mer coincided with the extension of the front, which was entrusted to the British in northern France and which corresponded with strategic obligations. They chose the small fortified city because of its position, near the coastal bases and halfway between Paris and London. Every day hundreds of soldiers worked in the High Command. The offices were situated in the premises of the former Military Preparatory School. In April 1919 a ceremony was organised to mark the official departure of the British High Command from France.

Boulogne-sur-Mer and Etaples-sur-Mer also became "English" cities. The former was the main zone of embarkation for His Majesty’s troops. Thus the station in Boulogne saw 1,700,000 soldiers pass through between 1914 and 1916. From 1915, the logistical base at Boulogne could provide for the logistical needs of 300,000 soldiers and 100,000 horses. The city became a cosmopolitan place, where you could encounter colonial workers, for the most part of Chinese origin. It was also bombed by German planes on fifteen occasions, because of its strategic importance for the British. The attacks caused extensive material damage and killed sixty people.

The city of Etaples had the biggest British camp on the Western front (100,000 persons in 1917). There were twenty hospitals on this site. As a result the site was also home to several women auxiliaries, mostly nurses. Although Etaples was a cantonment for troops in transit it also served as a training camp. In September 1917, following the "accidental" death of a corporal who was killed by a policeman Etaples experienced several days of British riots. The order was quickly restored however. The camp was also the target of several heavy aerial bomb attacks, because of its proximity near a highly strategic railway hub.

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  • The British camp at Etaples, 1917, plans on paper, © Musée Quentovic – Ville d’Etaples-sur-Mer

    At the height of its development the British base at Etaples covered about 12 km².

  • Aerial view of the city of Montreuil, 12 April 1918, photo, Musée Rodière, Montreuil-sur-Mer

  • Boulogne-sur-Mer. English soldiers on their leave embarking, first quarter of the 20th century, gelatin silver print on paper, coll. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne

    Several British soldiers converging on Boulogne-sur-Mer to embark on their home leave.

plan of the British camp at Etaplesaerial view of Montreuil-sur-MerBoulogne-sur-Mer. English soldiers on their leave embarking