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Photographer: Chris Knowles

Etaples Military Cemetery

Gazetteer No. G0622

Date 1918-20

Address Le Touquet, Pas-de-Calais France


Etaples M.C. was the largest war cemetery Lutyens designed, containing 10,761 British burials and 655 German graves. This huge cemetery had grown next to the important base hospital and reinforcement centre near Le Touquet, by the sea and adjacent to the main Calais-Paris railway. In his second scheme, Lutyens took superb advantage of the site and on the rising ground placed twin monuments to be visible to passing travellers by train. These are twin ‘cenotaphs – stone sarcophagi placed on massive arched bases, flanked by the still, stone flags. The cemetery was constructed in 1923-1924; the Assistant Architect was George Hartley Goldsmith (1886-1967). (Amery et al, 1981, Cat no. 295)

There was a huge concentration of British reinforcement camps and hospitals in the area around Étaples during the First World War. This location was sufficiently distant from the theatre of war to guarantee some degree of safety, and could easily be reached by train from the northern as well as from the southern battlefields. A substantial part of the British soldiers were stationed in Étaples, which was a good operating base for the front. The British headquarters were housed in a castle in nearby Montreuil. In 1917, 100,000 soldiers were stationed in the dunes, and the numerous hospitals there had the capacity to treat 22,000 wounded and sick soldiers. Of these hospitals, three remained in September 1919, ten months after the Armistice, and graves from small cemeteries in the vicinity were transferred here. There was a notorious training camp in the area that was bombed by the Germans in 1917. Among the casualties were some nurses from the hospitals in the vicinity. In the course of World War ii, hospitals were established in Étaples once again, and 119 casualties of this war were buried.

The cemetery is in a beautiful location in the dunes north of Étaples, west of the road to Boulogne. The railway from Boulogne to Paris runs on the west side. Originally the cemetery was clearly visible from the train, and from the highest point of the cemetery one had a good view of the estuary of the river Canche, and of the seaside resort of Le Touquet-Paris Plage. The cemetery consists of two parts. There is a low-lying field with the graves, which is practically level, and a higher dune with the War Stone, the Cross of Sacrifice and two watching pavilions with two cenotaphs on top. The entrance is on the higher road.

The way to the cemetery has been dramatized. After going through a small entrance between two pillars with urns and climbing a stairway, the visitor comes to a strip of lawn that broadens out as far as the Cross of Sacrifice. Near the Cross of Sacrifice, the visitor descends one of two stairways on either side, which run into a wide platform with the War Stone flanked by two huge pavilions. These have been placed at some distance from the War Stone and are connected with the central stairway with the Cross of Sacrifice by means of long benches. The view from the platform of the field with more than 10,000 headstones is impressive. The vast field with headstones is oriented towards various directions by means of straight and diagonal paths and conveys the idea of a necropolis in a landscape of dunes.

As the greater part of the cemetery had already been constructed, Lutyens particularly fastened upon the design of the platform with the War Stone and the pavilions. This is evident from the main directions of the paths of the cemetery, which do not link up with the position of the War Stone and the Cross of Sacrifice. As a consequence, the field with graves seems to be somewhat apart from the platform. Lutyens sought to visualize a detached relation, which has intensified the dramatic effect.

Lutyens had to base his work on the existing plan of the cemetery, which did not link up with his ideas of the green cathedral, for which he had made a first design in Trouville in 1917. The orientation of the central axis of the existing cemetery was not eastwest, as is usual with cathedrals, but northsouth. In addition, the cemetery was surrounded by trees, so that it was not strictly necessary to have the cemetery bordered by a formal formation of trees. There- fore Lutyens opted for a different approach. He made the view from the train his principal theme, realizing that the majority of the visitors to the cemetery would be fellow countrymen. High on a dune next to the existing cemetery, and clearly visible to the British coming by train from Boulogne or Paris, he installed the large platform with the War Stone and the pavilions, the design of which was derived from his rejected design of a temporary monument in London’s Hyde Park, the War Shrine. A sketch of this design is known, on a letter to his wife. In this letter Lutyens described the two pavilions as sentinels watching over the memorial stone and as symbols of God and man, recalling the story of the Creation from the Bible, in which God created man in his likeness. In this design, the pavilions have been stretched out vertically to create tetrapylons and are adorned with a fir cone as a symbol of eternity.

The pavilions in Étaples display a complex composition of different architectural elements that have been welded together into a new whole. The architecture of the pavilions stems from the research of forms that Lutyens started in 1911, when he designed the monument for the Boer War in Johannesburg inspired by the tetrapylon at Aleppo. This was actually the first time that he combined motifs of classical typologies, such as the temple and the triumphal arch. In Étaples the triumphal arch is the principal motif, with openings different in height on either side. The temple motif of the monument in Johannesburg is only partly visible in the two lower volumes that have been pushed into the main volume, as it were. A stone coffin has been placed on the triumphal arch, along with stone flags and wreaths. It also bears a striking likeness to the preliminary design for the Southampton War Memorial, which was slightly less stylized, however, and which was designed by Lutyens in early 1919, as a precursor to his famous Cenotaph of the summer of the same year. The idea of the stone flags had been rejected in the case of the Cenotaph, but recurred in other monuments by Lutyens, for example in Villers- Bretonneux.

The War Stone has been placed between the pavilions, exactly on the east side of the cemetery. Due to this, the platform is at an angle in relation to the main direction of the field with the headstones. Access to the field is possible by way of a number of easy stairways that link up with the paths of the cemetery. As the oldest graves of plot i had been placed alongside the dune, a direct connection was blocked in some places. On the north side Lutyens added a low plateau, the direction of which does not correspond to the other graves either. However, its terrace wall is a mirror image of the meandering dune edge. This plateau effects the right balance in the overall composition of the cemetery. The plateau is connected with the large field by means of two stairways. The westernmost stairway enables a rotation in direction between the plateau and the field by means of curved steps. The east stairway lies exactly in the axis of the two pavilions and the War Stone. From this stairway, the plateau has been extended along the dune edge with a system of stairways and retaining walls that is connected with the northern pavilion, creating a circuit for the visitor. However, this circuit is not on the CWGC plan and was apparently added at a later stage.

The majority of the graves face west, the side of the rail- way, and have been laid out in pairs. Probably on the advice of Lutyens, the direction of the later graves on the south side was rotated a quarter turn so that a slightly more symmetrical layout was achieved in relation to the platform. The graves here lie at a regular distance from one another. There is a part with German graves and graves of non- British soldiers and non-Christian soldiers in the southwest corner. The majority of West Indians, South Africans, Chinese and Hindus lie in an enclosed part on the southeast side. To create a more oriental atmosphere a Japanese nut tree (ginkgo) has been planted here.

There are some solitary trees in the cemetery, which is otherwise bordered by trees, among which are young chestnuts and maple trees. The greenery along the edges has been intensified and it is only along the long and wide paths that there is a border at the back of the graves, so that there is greenery on both sides. There used to be a so-called ‘backborder’ along the broad path between the graves on the south side, but it is no longer there. Extra greenery has been planted at the head of the rows of graves, along the lateral axis. A photograph from May 1918 shows that the majority of the graves had already been constructed and that this now insignificant axis once was the direct entrance to the cemetery from the road. This entrance did duty until Lutyens proposed the dramatized entrance; since that time the visitor has had to climb the dune first before descending to the graves. (Geurst, 2010, pp.284-7)


Amery, C., Richardson, M. and Stamp, G., (1981) Lutyens, the Work of the English Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944): Hayward Gallery London, 18 November 1981 – 31 January 1982. London: Arts Council of Great Britain.

Geurst, J. (2010) Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Also Cited In

Butler, A., 1950. The architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens: the Lutyens memorial series. Vol III: Town and Public Buildings: Memorials: The Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool, Country Life: London and Scibners: New York.

Gradidge, R. (1982) Edwin Lutyens: Architect Laureate. London: Allen & Unwin.

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Listing Reference


Imperial War Graves Commission