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.
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 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
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”.
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
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.
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.
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
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
“But hither shall I never come again … See thee no more … Farewell.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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