"An Historical Introduction"
Major E. Clarke-Smith, MA (Cantab), RAEC
Written in June, 1969
To the geologist, Salisbury Plain is that
undulating tract of chalky downland covering an area some twenty miles
long and sixteen miles wide in the south-east corner of Wiltshire
between Salisbury and Devizes. To
him it is a country of limey soil spread thinly over a thousand feet of
pure soft white limestone consisting almost entirely of the fossils of
minute animals and sea-plants, which lived between seventy and one
hundred million years ago when the Plain formed the bed of a
comparatively shallow sea.
To the archaeologist, it is the country of
Stonehenge, a country of barrow, tumuli, earthworks, hill forts and
field systems through which can be traced man’s progress and
achievements in pre-historic and early historic times, a country which
is probably the finest open-air museum in the British Isles.
To the soldier, the Plain is that lesser area
stretching northwards and westwards from the military cantonments of
Tidworth, Bulford and Larkhill to Upavon and Warminster, a country of
artillery and small arms ranges, of training areas and dropping zones,
of tank tracks and barrack blocks, a country in which he learns the art
of modern warfare.
“Norman, Saxon and Dane are we” – and many
other races too. The Plain
has been one of the crucibles in which this amalgam of races has been
fired to help form the English race as we know it today.
From earliest times the story of the Plain is one of continuing
pressure from tribes and races arriving from the Continent and moving
westwards. On the Plain
they made their homes, absorbed the cultures they found there and,
coming themselves under pressure from the South and East, passed on,
leaving behind for future historians a legacy of burial mounds, henges
and artefacts from which the history of human habitation can be traced.
But of the first men on the Plain little trace
remains. It is possible
that they were here as long ago as 10,000 BC for, among the bones of
pre-historic animals which have been discovered in the Nadder and Avon
valleys – bison, wild cattle, mammoths, lion, hyena, woolly rhinoceros
and many others – have been found hand-axes and other implements of
the Old Stone Age. These
men were hunters who followed the herds of wild animals over the downs
and along the river valleys. They
were hardy, for the animals which they hunted indicate a cold climate
but one in which hunters could survive.
In all, hwoever, they probably never amounted to more than a few
From about 3,000 BC the continuous development of
man on the Plain can be traced, although scatters of worked flints on
the edge of the area, notably at Windmill Hill, Avebury, would seem to
indicate that man was present in small numbers.
The warmer climates which followed the final retreat of the Ice
Age would have encouraged the spread of forests in which, by hunting,
fishing and collecting wild fruits and berries, man could eke out a
By 3,000 BC, however, settled communities were
living here. That they
should have settled on the Plain was not an accident.
Britain was a wilderness covered with inhospitable forest and
marsh; but westwards from the shores of Kent and Sussex stretched
white-chalk open downland, an open invitation to immigrants from the
Continent. That man should
gravitate to these wide open spaces which gave them protection from the
wild animals of the forests, pasturage for flocks and eminences for
their earthworks, was almost inevitable.
These early settlers were agriculturalists as well
as hunters; their remains show a high degree of skill and social
organisation. From the
Western and Central Mediterranean, where their origins are to be found,
they brought a knowledge of agriculture and stock-breeding and the
extensive use of flint for weapons and tools.
They cultivated fields, grew grain, kept flocks and herds, wove
cloth, made pottery and built at places such as Windmill Hill,
Whitesheet Hill (Kilmington) and Robin Hood’s Ball (near the Bustard
Hotel), their roughly circular earthworks surrounded by banks and
ditches with numerous causeways. It
now seems likely that these works, at one time thought to be defensive
hill forts, were built as meeting places and as social, religious and
economic centres for people drawn from a wide area. Certainly the discovery in these sites of ground-and-polished
axes of stone foreign to the locality, possibly from Cornwall, Wales or
even Cumberland, would suggest the existence of a wide-spread system of
These people buried their dead in long barrows (a
particularly fine example is to be found at Winterbourne Stoke
crossroads on the A303 west of Stonehenge).
Up to twenty corpses were laid out on the land and the
surrounding earth was piled on top.
It seems probably, however, that until there were sufficient to
warrant the construction of a barrow the bodies were stored elsewhere.
To later man of this culture, too, we owe the
introduction of a new form of ceremonial monument, the henge, which
normally consisted of a circular area bounded by a bank and ditch and
containing probably a roofed structure.
The finest examples of these monuments are to be found at
Woodhenge and Stonehenge although, at the latter, the earliest work has
been obliterated by later structures.
By about 1800 BC there had arrived on the Plain
further immigrants from Holland and the lands at the mouth of the Rhine.
Known as the Beaker Folk, they take their name from the
characteristic beakers with which they buried their dead in howl barrows
surrounded by quarry ditches from which the material for the mound was
obtained. These barrows,
which look like an inverted bowl, lie scattered in vast numbers over the
face of the Plain like pimples on the face of a spotty subaltern. At least seventy are to be found in the area of Bulford
alone. But the greatest
achievement of these people was the construction of the enormous henge
at Avebury and the quarrying and transportation of the bluestones from
Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge.
The years 1600 to 1400 BC, the beginning of the
Bronze Age, saw the rise of the brilliant Wessex culture.
In search of gold from Ireland and the tin and copper which Irish
and Cornish smiths were learning to smelt into bronze came communities
from northern Germany who were trading with southern Greece.
Appreciating the strategic position of the Plain, astride the
trade routes from Ireland and Cornwall to the Continent, they settled
here and established themselves as overlords, their superior weapons of
bronze enabling them to impose their will on their lighter-armed
controlling the flow of metallic ores they were able to act as middlemen
between the Irish and Cornish miners and the Continental traders.
The magnificent objects and ornaments, many of foreign origin,
which they buried with their cremated dead, testify to the extent of
their commercial links and to the wealth which accrued.
They worshipped the sun as the source of life; to
their flaming god they sacrificed men and beasts and, in its honour,
they completed the erection of Stonehenge, placing the stones in
elaborate patterns based on the movements of sun and stars.
Here, H.G. Wells has suggested that, as awed tribes waited in the
darkness of midsummer night for dawn, the sun “would smite down
through the gloom and the long alley of temple pillars and light up the
god above the altar and irradiate him with glory”.
The true splendour of the Wessex culture lasted a
brief two hundred years for, as the importance of the Irish gold and
copper began to decline and as the centre of trade shifted form west to
central Europe, so their wealth began to decline.
But for over a thousand years the men of the Bronze Age dominated
southern England and brought to it a measure of peace.
By about 500 BC new races were on the march, tall,
blue-eyed, flame-haired Celts or Gauls who had crossed Europe from the
east, had settled in France and were now pushing northwards.
First they came in families and small bands, then in tribal
groups, until they became the dominant strain in these islands.
Indeed, it is from one of these tribes, the Prythens or Brythens,
that, for no clear reasons, Britain has taken her name.
Each race reaching the shores of these islands has
brought something new. The
Celts brought iron which, forged into swords and chariots, gave their
warriors their long ascendancy. For
the Celts were a warrior race for whom pride of battle took precedence
over all else. Incorrigible
fighters, for centuries the tribes raided each other’s lands for
heads, slaves and cattle. A
Greek traveller of the time writes that “when they have killed their
foes, they cut off their heads … They nail them up on their walls as
trophies and preserve those of their chief enemies in boxes”.
Their religion, too, reeked of blood; and
travellers from southern Europe took home with them “horrifying tales
of ritual massacres in dark sacred groves by their magicians or
But though religion played a large part in their
lives, the monuments they have left behind have not been temples, but
hill forts, vast earthwork castles with concentric ditches and ramparts
crowning the tops of the downs. The
Plain is studded with these forts, of which the strongest are to be seen
at Battlesbury Camp near Warminster and Bratton Castle near the White
Horse of Westbury, but there are plenty of others, including Sidbury
Camp near Tidworth and Casterley Camp near Upavon.
With wooden stockades surmounting the ramparts, themselves kept
free from turf and gleaming a dazzling white in the sunlight, and heavy
wooden doors barring the entrances, such forts must have presented a
formidable sight to any would-be attacker.
Besides being warriors, the Celts were farmers and
their use of iron enabled them to make ploughs, drawn by oven, with
which they could break virgin soil previously too hard for the hand hoes
and small wooden ploughs of the past.
Their crops, mainly cereals, they grew in small square fields,
traces of which can still be seen on various parts of the Plain, and the
harvested grain they stored in pits around their circular wooden houses.
As with other races, so the Celts finally succumbed
to external pressures. In
AD 43, the Second Augustan Legion, under Vespasian, advanced from the
south-east, crushed all resistance and established Roman authority over
the Plain. An easy conquest, it seems to have made little
difference to life after the initial resistance had collapsed.
The common people were little affected, the reigning princes were
left in peace, as long as they acknowledged the power of Rome, and life
went on much as before.
The Romans themselves seem not to have settled on
the Plain, for few remains have been found there and the main sites of
the Roman villas are located on the edge of the downland.
Wiltshire and its neighbouring counties were the granaries for
Roman Britain and the roads which were built in the early years of
occupation not only served military purposes and connected their towns
of Serviodonum (Old Sarum), Cunetio (Mildenhall near Marlborough) and
Verlucio (Calne?) but also facilitated the distribution of produce from
the downland farms. One
such road, the Old Marlborough Road, which cuts through the centre of
Bulford Camp and on through the ranges, linked Old Sarum with Mildenhall,
where it connected with the major Roman road from Londinium (London) to
Acquae Sulis (Bath).
For nearly four hundred years the Plain enjoyed the
stability emanating from Roman authority.
Towards the end of the fourth century, however, the Empire was
coming under the pressure of whole nations on the march from central
Europe and Asia. In Britain
itself the weight of attacks from Picts and Scots in the north and
Angles and Saxons in the east was increasingly felt.
Finally, in about AD 407, the Roman legions were withdrawn.
During the next 150 years the British knew no
peace. Subject to constant
raids, the population was decimated.
It has been calculated that at the height of Roman power the
population of England and Wales was approximately 600,000; by the time
the Saxon invasion started in real earnest these raids had reduced it to
about 60,000 people, the greater part of whom were concentrated on the
It seems likely that during this period the British
split into warring kingdoms, striving against each other for local
supremacy. Certainly there
is no evidence of organised resistance to the invader, yet the presence
of great ditches which zig-zag across many parts of the Plain (one cuts
across the Bulford-Tidworth road and round the rifle ranges) would
indicate that some form of local opposition was offered, since their
nature is definitely defensive. The labour needed to construct these defences would also
point to a substantial population living in this area.
It is from the time of the Saxon invasions that the
Arthurian legends spring, to link King Arthur with the Plain. Probably he organised here some petty kingdom in which he
made one of the last stands against the Saxon invaders. And it was to Amesbury Abbey that his beautiful, faithless
but repentant wife, Guinevere, withdrew after it had been discovered
that she had been unfaithful to her king, and to which Arthur came to
hither shall I never come again …
From Amesbury, legend has it, Sir Lancelot with a
company of knights took her body to its final resting place at
By about AD 550 the Saxons had conquered the Plain
and such Celts as were unwilling to suffer the rigours of subjection had
fled to the pastures of the Cornish peninsula or to the mountains of
Wales, there to be the forebears of the Welsh nation.
On the Plain, the hill villages come to an end.
The Celts had been hill dwellers; for the Saxons the chief
attraction was the lush meadowland of the valleys.
Avoiding, with superstitious dread, existing settlements and
permanent buildings as the haunts of ghosts and spirits, they built
their thatched wooden huts in the valleys, which could provide pasture
for their cattle and land for the plough.
Here would be the manor and the mill, the peasants’ huts
clustering nearby, and the pasture for the herds; above would be the
arable fields and then, beyond, the now-deserted open downs.
From these Saxon settlements, strung along the valleys, have
sprung the villages and parishes which we know today.
During these years of Saxon rule there was every
indication that a great civilisation was on the verge of being founded.
Britain was divided into seven kingdoms, with the Plain forming
part of the kingdom of Wessex. To house the kings and their courts during their travels
there were built royal manors around which started to grow small towns
such as Wilton, a favourite residence of Saxon kings and, at one time,
their capital. Near their
royal lodges they founded religious houses, some of which were to grow
into the monastic foundations of the Middle Ages as at Salisbury and
But even the Saxons eventually came under pressure.
Raids from the Danes which grew in intensity in the early years
of the ninth century, were a serious menace, and were halted only by the
determined efforts of Alfred, one of the greatest of Saxon kings.
After biding his time in the Somerset marshes he assembled his
armies on the hills west of Brixton Deverill, south of Warminster, in
May 878. In one of the most
decisive battles in history he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Danes,
at Bratton Castle where is now carved the White Horse of Westbury.
The victory was for the Saxons a respite of over a
hundred years until once again the Vikings swept over the country.
This time there was no Alfred to halt them.
In 1003 the army of Sweyn destroyed Wilton and swept over the
Plain. Saxon rule was over.
Henceforward the importance of Salisbury Plain in
English history steadily declined.
The battles which placed England under Norman rule were fought
elsewhere. With the
transfer of the seats of power eastwards to London, the Plain and its
peoples no longer influenced, or felt the impact of, major events any
more than did any other part of England.
From this time onwards, its history falls into the normal pattern
of historical development.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, military
interest in the Plain began to develop at the national level. Military training had, of course, been conducted on the downs
before this time but seems to have been confined to exercises arranged
by the local yeomanry with the local landowners, themselves often
members of the yeomanry regiments.
Provided such exercises were restricted to the period between
harvest and the start of the shooting season they would have interfered
little with normal farming activities.
By the 1890s, however, it was becoming increasingly
apparent that the Regular Army and the Militia needed more land of their
own for manoeuvres. Since
the chalky downlands of Wiltshire appeared to offer admirable facilities
for training in the military tactics of the age, the decision was made
to acquire large tracts of land in this area.
The first purchase was made on 25th
March, 1897, - 750 acres at Bulford from Miss J.M. Seymour of East
Knoyle at a price of £7,500. On
this site now stands Bulford Camp.
In the following month, Lord Lansdowne, Secretary
of State for War, set up a War Office Committee, consisting of the
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the Finance Secretary, the
Adjutant-General, the Quartermaster-General and the Inspector-General of
Fortifications, to deal with the problems involved in the acquisition of
further land for military purposes.
By the time the Committee was dissolved on 1st May
1902, some 42,000 acres had been bought at a cost of over £550,000, the
most notable purchase being the Tidworth Estate of Sir John William Kelk
The first acquisitions were manors and farms mainly
at the eastern end of the Plain; their purchasing continued until 1912.
No further purchases were made until between 1927 and 1933 when
numerous acquisitions were made in the area of Warminster.
The village of Imber was bought during this period but the
farming community was not totally dispossessed until after the outbreak
of Hitler’s War. Shortly
before 1939 the War Department acquired a further 3,000 acres at
Everleigh and Collingbourne Ducis at a cost of £46,850 and in 1954 the
1,100 acre Everleigh Manor Estate was purchased for £21,000.
It is interesting to note that when purchases
started in 1897, land was worth about £10 an acre.
Today that same land would fetch about between £260 and £300,
whilst land for development would bring between £3,000 and £6,000 an
Today the estate totals approximately 92,000 acres
stretching from Ludgershall in the east to Warminster in the west and,
at its extremities, measures 27 miles by 10 miles.
It contains about one-ninth of the whole county of Wiltshire.
But not quite everything within this area is MOD
property. A number of
houses and cottages is the Avon Valley are privately owned as is the Coombe
Estate, which extends from Coombe towards Everleigh.
Failure to purchase this estate was an act of
deliberate policy. When
negotiations for the Coombe Estate were being conducted in 1897, the
Great Western Railway were also negotiating for a line down the Avon
Valley from Pewsey to Salisbury. To
this latter proposal the War Office was strongly opposed.
As the Adjutant-General said, “There is no military operation
which can be more usefully practised than the crossing of a river in the
face of opposition. This
practice the Avon will give; but if a railway is to be made alongside of
the river, the defiles over or under that railway will not, as a rile,
coincide with those over the river, and a situation will be produced
which will practically prevent instruction being afforded.”
To be on the safe side, the Committee decided to
postpone all negotiations on the Tidworth side of the valley. Although, in the event, the railway was never built, the
negotiations for the Coombe Estate were not resumed and it has remained
ever since as an unwelcome obstacle hampering north-south movement on
The acquisition of these vast estates by the War
Office did not mean that the farmers were dispossessed.
Indeed, the Secretary of State made it quite clear that he wished
to disturb the agricultural population as little as possible.
The local squires, therefore, were offered the option of
retaining their manor houses with some surrounding land, and tenant
farmers were offered renewed leases.
But limitations were placed on the use to which the land could be
put. It had been bought for
training purposes; consequently full agricultural tenancies were granted
only for lands around the periphery of the training areas and in the
valleys. These lands, known
as Schedule I lands and clearly marked to warn troops of the
restrictions in force, could be farmed to their full potentiality.
Although the War Office reserved training rights, the ground was
to be used by troops only when failure to use it would have created an
artificial tactical situation, compensation being paid to the farmer for
On the rest of the training area, known as Schedule
III, adjoining tenants of Schedule I lands were given grazing rights
only. Here the farmer had
to accept all loss caused by military activity other than by deliberate
damage. The farmer was
allowed to graze but could have only limited permanent enclosure to hold
his stock at night or during major exercises.
These restriction s are still in force but from
time to time ploughing consents are granted either to “bring back”
land which has become sour, to create desirable tactical features, or to
rehabilitate land in danger of erosion.
The farmer cultivates, fertilises and takes the crop at his own
risk. After two or three
years he is requested to under-sow with grass and the land reverts to
its old use for training purposes.
It is clear from the minutes of the meetings of the
War Office Committee that initially no permanent camps were to be built
on the land they acquired. Troops
were to be accommodated in tented camps, the location of which might
vary each year, and units were to visit the Plain for specific periods.
To some, but no all, of the Committee members,
water supply appears to have presented a problem.
The AG held that “the river water was fit for the horses to
drink, but he doubted if the doctors would allow the water to be used
for the men to drink”. On
the other hand, it was IGF's opinion that “the men on manoeuvres would
probably drink river water”.
The provision of ranges does not appear to have
merited the importance which would be attached to it today. The AG saw fit to remind the Committee in December 1897 that
“before going headlong into constructing a number of ranges (they)
should remember that the primary use for which the land was acquired was
for manoeuvring troops”.
Lord Lansdowne, however, was most anxious that
ranges should be provided for use in 1898, especially as Parliament had
voted £500,000 for them. In
spite of this, the AG still gave it as his opinion that a range at
Salisbury was not required that year.
He went on to say that “volunteers do not generally shoot when
they are in camp, and if necessary, for one year at any rate, they could
shoot without ranges, as in India … Commanding Officers did not as a
rule, when they put their men together in camp, care about spending
their time in shooting, they preferred drilling.
The gist of manoeuvres would be to move troops every day, and not
to keep them in standing camp”.
Attitudes soon changed.
By the Spring of 1898 work had begun on the construction of a
temporary rifle range, an artillery range on land west of the Avon had
been proposed, and by the end of the year plans for building permanent
barracks were being discussed.
The decision to erect permanent buildings solved
one problem facing the Committee – the disposal of Tidworth House.
Various proposals had been put forward including its sale or
lease for use as a private residence or for conversion into a hotel or
country club. None of them
had proved feasible and when it was suggested that the house “should
be handed over to the newly appointed Commanding Royal Engineer, Colonel
Barklie, to provide quarters for himself and staff, and accommodation
for the drawing offices, etc, so that the preparation of plans for the
new barracks may be commenced without delay”, this solution was
The first rifle range built on the Plain was built
on the downs to the west of Netheravon, much to the discomfiture of the
inhabitants of Newfoundland Farm who found that the range was directed
straight into the farm buildings. As
a compensation, the farm rent was reduced to ten shillings per week
until the range was required for use when the buildings would have to be
vacated. The farm itself,
which was situated near Old Farm Clump west of Netheravon, no longer
The present ranges west of Netheravon date from the
Kaiser’s War when the Machine Gun School moved into buildings vacated
by the old Cavalry School which had been stationed in the camp now
occupied by the Small Arms Wing of the School of Infantry.
Those now in use along the Bulford-Tidworth road are, on the
other hand, the initial permanent ranges built shortly after work on the
camps started. Their construction necessitated the virtual closure to
traffic of the Old Marlborough Road which ran northwards from Sling to
Everleigh and, in so doing, passed through the range danger areas and
by-passed Tidworth. Consequently,
to provide for normal traffic and to connect the two new camps, the
present Bulford-Tidworth road was brought into use.
The artillery ranges, in part of what is now the
Larkhill Impact Area, came into use for the first time in 1899, when
several batteries came down for practice camp.
Their stay was short, from 10th to 24th
August only, and firing was restricted to the interval between nine and
two o’clock to interfere as little as possible with agricultural
activities. Two years later
the range was extended to the old Salisbury-Devizes road although this
remained in use after a new range had been acquired at West Down in
1911. In 1912 the road was
closed and traffic was diverted through Tilshead.
Each year batteries visited the plain for short
summer stays to fire their practices.
They lived in tented camps, fired their guns and departed.
Not until 1914 did tents give way to hutted camps at Larkhill nor did
activities take place the year round.
Meanwhile plans for the construction of permanent
buildings at Tidworth had gone ahead and in 1902 work started on the
erection of ten quarters at Clarendon Terrace, later to be occupied by
WOs, to house WD employees working on the project.
By 1903, work on all barracks in Tidworth was in hand.
Eight barracks were planned : four for the cavalry (Aliwal,
Assaye, Candahar and Mooltan) and four for the infantry (Bhurtpore,
Delhi, Jellalabad and Lucknow). In
external appearance they have changed little from the time they were
first occupied about 1910, and today’s visitor can still gain a good
impression of what the camp must have looked like in its early days.
The interiors have, of course, been extensively modernised to
meet the demands of the present generation of soldiers.
Building of married quarters began at roughly the
same time as the barracks. Originally
these consisted of 16 for officers (one for the CO and one for the QM of
each barracks) and 421 for soldiers, the majority of which were the
“Merthyr Tydfils” still standing along Bazaar Road.
Bulford was, perhaps, not so fortunate.
Here the decision was made to erect wooden huts instead of
permanent brick buildings and some of these, put up in 1903, can still
be seen on Headquarters Street. Only
the riding schools, now occupied by the Command Study Centre, the NAAFI
Stores and the Garrison Gymnasium, and the “Merthyr Tydfils” (106 of
them) were built of brick. As
for the officers and their wives, they made do with converted huts or
found private accommodation in nearby villages.
With the decision to build permanent camps came the
need to improve communications. The
application by the GWR to lay a line down the Avon Valley was, as we
have seen, rejected, but the need to transport not only men but large
quantities of stores and ammunition led to the building of a spur line
from Amesbury to Bulford Camp in 1903-4.
The course of this line can still be traced and rails are to be
found by the Command Supply Depot.
Two stations were built, one at the bottom of Horne Road, the
other at Sling; the former has now been demolished but the Sling
platform can still be seen to the south of the old Sling Pumping
From the Amesbury-Bulford line ran off a spur to
serve Larkhill. This in
turn threw off a series of spurs and branch lines to serve the various
camps and traces remain opposite Strangways Stables, where the old
platform stands, and in Fargo Plantation, where it was crossed by the
At the same time a railway was built from
Ludgershall to Tidworth with a spur line running through to the
barracks. All has now been
demolished, including Tidworth Station, on the site of which now stands
the new NAAFI Families Shop.
Also on the heels of the troops and their families
came the traders to serve their needs.
In Tidworth a garrison market was established in Lucknow
Barracks; Bulford set up its shopkeepers in “Tin Town” with access
off the suitably named Bond Street; Larkhill’s traders were to be
found in the dip below the Garrison Church.
Clustered in wooden and tin huts, the shops must have presented
the appearance of an Arab market. Today only Bulford’s Tin Town is standing and that is
scheduled for demolition for, with the opening of the new shopping
centre, all shopkeepers are carrying on their business in shops of
The First World War brought increased activity to
the Plain. With the
increased size of the Army, the existing barracks could no longer
accommodate all the troops. Tented
camps sprang up all over the Plain and photographs of the time show
serried ranks of white bell-tents lining the length of Bulford Fields
where now stand Carter Barracks. Sling
Camp was occupied by the New Zealanders who left behind a permanent
memento in the Kiwi which they carved on Beacon Hill.
The camp they occupied has gone but the foundations of their huts
can still be seen in the Crescent when the grass is low and the shadows
But the greatest change of all came to Larkhill.
Here had been built no permanent barracks; by December 1914 some
34 battalion-sized hutted camps had been built and occupied by units of
practically every arm of the British Army.
It was this expansion which led to the disappearance of the
aerodrome whose sheds stood on Wood Road on ground leased to the British
and Colonial Aeroplane Company, now BAC, in 1909.
Their flying school, now commemorated by a stone plinth in Wood
Road, was the first to be formed on Salisbury Plain and occupied the
wooden huts between Tombs and Wood Roads.
These camps have now gone.
On the sites of many of them have been built the married quarters
in use today, the choice of location for these having been dictated by
existing drainage, water and power systems.
It was not until after the First World War that
Larkhill became almost entirely a Gunner preserve with its life centred
round the School of Artillery. The
artillery ranges had, of course, been used extensively during the war
years and the Overseas Artillery School (later called the Chapperton
Down Artillery School) had been formed in 1916 to standardise methods of
terminology. Its students, however, were billeted in Salisbury and motored
out daily to Chapperton Down, on the present Imber Ranges.
In 1919 this School moved to Larkhill where, in 1920, it was
renamed the School of Artillery, its staff being enlarged by instructors
from other artillery schools. From
this time onwards Larkhill and Gunners became almost synonymous.
With the end of the War, life on the Plain returned
to normal and the victorious Army settled down to the serious business
of peacetime soldiering. At
Larkhill the lessons of the previous war were studied and techniques for
the next devised. Here it
was that the 25-pounder was successfully developed during the inter-war
years, the gun itself being accepted into service at a trial in Larkhill
shortly before the outbreak of Hitler’s war.
Amenities in the camps appear to have been scarce.
The History of 17/21 Lancers, who were stationed at Aliwal
Barracks as part of 2nd Cavalry Brigade in 1922 records that
“when the Regiment had arrived from Ireland, they were surprised to
find that the recreation provided for the troops was very inadequate.
There was only one cinema, very few shops, no dance hall, and the
train and bus services were very bad.
Worse than that, the recreation grounds were very poor.
At Aliwal Barracks there was one small, uneven football ground,
which was considered to be the best in Tidworth”.
The Regiment was not prepared to let this situation
continue. With unit labour,
the officers working and digging side-by-side with the troopers, they
started work on building two football pitches with a cricket pitch in
between. “All the work
was done by the Regiment, thousands of tons of chalk sub-soil was
shifted, and turf cut from Perham Down, was brought down in limbered
Other units caught the self-help fever.
“By 1923 all work on unit ground was finished, and the Garrison
set out to build an arena, a tattoo ground, and a polo ground”.
Tidworth owes much to the units stationed there in the early
1923 was the year of the first Tidworth Tattoo when
2nd Cavalry Brigade staged a small performance in Tidworth
Park before a handful of local residents.
By 1938, the last Tattoo before Hitler’s War, the audience had
grown to some 150,000 spectators; special buses and trains came from the
north Midlands, Wales and the West country, roads were sign-posted for
twenty miles round Tidworth and arrangements were made for caravan-parks
for those staying the night. Since
the last war the Tattoo has been resumed, though on nothing like the
scale of earlier years.
In all garrisons during these inter-war years more
married quarters were built and in 1932 a start was made on the
rebuilding of Bulford, the plan being to pull down the old wooden
hutments and replace them with permanent brick buildings.
Little had been done, however, beyond the construction of barrack
blocks in Wing Barracks and the two Headquarter blocks in Beacon
Barracks before the outbreak of the Second World War brought the
programme to an end. However, pressure on accommodation caused by the introduction
of conscription had necessitated the building of Carter Barracks in
Bulford Fields in 1939.
The outbreak of war in 1939 brought an end to the
building of permanent barracks on the Plain but the vast increase in the
size of the Army led to an outcrop of hutted camps over the whole area.
Men poured on to the Plain in their thousands for training before
embarking for the jungles of Burma and the deserts of North Africa.
In the preparation for Operation Overlord, the
invasion of Europe, the Plain was one of the most vital training areas.
General Dwight Eisenhower described it as “the best training
ground in the United Kingdom” and to it brought the American II Corps
under General Mark Clark in the summer of 1942.
One who was here at the time has described the garrisons as being
like the United Nations, so many were the different nationalities
assembled here for the attack on Festung Europa.
Having perfected their trade on the Plain, they went forth to
practise it on the Normandy Beaches, before Caen and the Falaise Gap, in
the Ardennes, over the Rhine and across the North German Plain.
With the return of peace in 1945, the Army started
to run down. The wartime
camps were no longer needed and over the years they have one by one
disappeared until very few of the temporary buildings which lasted for
so long are still left standing and even those are now scheduled for
Rebuilding started in the late 1940s and has
continued almost without stop. Today
the garrisons contain some of the finest barrack buildings ever occupied
by the British Army. At
Larkhill the School of Artillery has been completely rebuilt whilst both
there and at Bulford new barracks have been erected in the contemporary
architectural style, with every amenity to increase the soldier’s
comfort. Although Tidworth
has seen no new major barrack construction considerable work has been
done on the interiors of the old blocks to bring them up to modern
Many more married quarters have been built and
Larkhill now has 700, Bulford has 1,253 with 26 still under construction
and at Tidworth there are 2,371 with another 105 still being erected. The most recent have been built in the contemporary style and
contain the most recent developments in housing construction including
the central heating which the married serviceman has been demanding in
his quarter for some years and which the Army has now accepted as a
necessity. Such quarters
compare more than favourably with estates now being built by local
authorities elsewhere in the British Isles.
Even the old Merthyr Tydfils, which stretch out in endless
Coronation Streets towards a non-existent “Rover’s Return”, and
are still in occupation after more than sixty years, have had their
interiors modernised and their comfort improved.
In all garrisons new shopping centres have been
built to replace the tin and wooden shacks of the tradesmen who followed
closely on the heels of the servicemen in the early days.
Here the housewife can find almost everything she wants to meet
her everyday needs; NAAFIs, newsagents, grocers, butchers, greengrocers,
hairdressers, banks, cleaners, clothes shops, hardware stores and many
others are all there. Today
these garrisons are no longer camps in the old sense of the word; with
their tree-lined roads, spacious playing-fields, swimming pools and
shopping centres, they are akin to new towns.
In Britain’s defence role, units here play a
vital part. Bulford is the
home of Headquarters Third Division, “the fire-brigade”; Tidworth
houses Headquarters Five Brigade; Larkhill is the main training school
for gunnery; in all garrisons the majority of units have an operational
role in Strategic Command whose Headquarters are at Nearby Wilton.
The whole is administered from Bulford by Headquarters Salisbury
Plain, a direct descendant of the Salisbury Military Plain District
which came into being in the year 1900.
For seventy years garrisons on the Plain have made an important contribution to the efficiency of the British Army. There can be little doubt that they will continue to do so in the future.
8th June, 1969
Clarke-Smith, MA (Cantab), RAEC
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