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 family groups.
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 precarious living.
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 bartering.
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 predecessors. By 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 druids”.
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 Plain.
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 say,
“But hither shall I never come again …
See thee no more … Farewell.”
From Amesbury, legend has it, Sir Lancelot with a company of knights took her body to its final resting place at Glastonbury.
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 Amesbury.
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 for £95,000.
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 acre.
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 tactical exercises.
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 any damage.
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 restrictions 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 adopted.
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 exists.
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 Station.
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 old track.
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 modern design.
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 fall aright.
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 wagons”.
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 1920s.
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 demolition.
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 standards.
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
Major Ernest Clarke-Smith, MA (Cantab), RAEC served in the British Army 1951 - 71
working at 12 AEC in Larkhill from 1968 - 69.
He retired from the Army in September 1971