Long before the outbreak of the First World War, the New Forest had been used by Queen Victoria’s army as a training ground in a manner similar to their use of nearby Salisbury Plain. During the 19th century the Royals had long since lost their desire to hunt and deer were being removed from the Forest. Steel was gradually taking over from timber in ship construction and, in any event, by the beginning of the century the stock of trees had been severely depleted.
The Forest was in a state of upheaval regarding its future use and direction. While its future lay in the balance, its wild, open undulating wilderness proved an ideal location for the training of troops, especially in the last decade of the century following military campaigns in the Crimean (1853-56) and the first Boer War (1880–1881).
During this period various Volunteer Rifle Corps were formed around the district, supplied with rifles by the government, and the New Forest became home to several rifle ranges near Beaulieu, Brockenhurst, Godshill and Lyndhurst. Towards the end of the century in 1895 one of the biggest troop manoeuvres ever seen in the Forest at the time was undertaken at the request of the Duke of Connaught (son of Queen Victoria) when 15,000 men were encamped on the Forest for almost a month.
Various Army firing ranges were also set up across the New Forest following the passing of the Ranges Act in 1891. As these ranges took up large areas of the Forest, it is not surprising that the Verderers were opposed to their establishment as they sought to protect the rights of commoners to graze their animals without the risk of their stock being shot! Some concessions were obtained after lengthy discussions but it remained a thorny issue for several years.
Remains of these ranges can still be seen on the Forest. The image below shows the improvised butts (backstop) for one such range on Beaulieu Heath. The Victorians were no respecters of ancient monuments as these butts were formed by piling the earth from one Bronze Age burial mound on top of another!
During May 1898 another series of army manoeuvres took place involving large numbers of men from the New Forest Volunteer battalions. These manoeuvres were held under active service conditions and the exercise were based on a scenario of an invading force landing from the sea at Lymington and attempting to capture Southampton. The defending force was camped on Southampton Common initially and then marched to Lyndhurst to encamp whilst the invading forces were based at Hatchet Pond. Both groups eventually encountered each other near Beaulieu Road Station when the invaders were eventually driven off. The exercise was observed by Lord Wolseley, Commander in Chief of the British Army who was pleased with what he witnessed. Interestingly many of the volunteers were on bicycles!
The New Forest Pony was also called into action regularly, having been used in South Africa during the Boer wars where it is said to have performed well against other breeds. In 1900 the 4th Volunteer Battalion Hampshire Regiment (based in Bournemouth) was joined by a Mounted Infantry Company which became known as the New Forest Scouts, using New Forest Ponies as their mounts. Subsequently, the 4th Bttn. adopted the Crown Stirrup that hands in the Verderers Court as it badge.
An indication of the scale of military activity on the Forest in the early 1900s can be found in Parliamentary questions of the period. Hansard of 1906 reports that the Secretary of State for War was asked to state the number of troops that were camped and trained in the New Forest. He replied that in 1904, training exercises involved the Royal Marine Artillery, six Volunteer battalions. In 1905, Royal Marine Artillery, 1st and 2nd Divisions, Telegraph Battalion, Royal Engineers, five Volunteer battalions, and one Cadet Corps were encamped on the Forest. In 1906 the Royal Marine Artillery were again present together with eleven Volunteer battalions and one Cadet Corps. During this period the local population must have become quite accustomed to significant troop movements.
Against this background, it was not surprising that the Forest’s use by the military should step up with the onset of the Great War with Britain declaring war on Germany in August 1914 – the war they said would “be over by Christmas”. At the beginning of the war there was the assumption that it would be won quickly by cavalry on horseback supported by infantry but the reality couldn’t have been more different as they dug in for four years of trench warfare.
At the start of hostilities, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was mobilised and sent to France and first encountered the German Army at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The BEF consisted of six Infantry Divisions made up of UK based regular soldiers, territorial reservists and volunteers. At that point much of Britain’s Army was based overseas protecting its Empire and these soldiers were hastily recalled to supplement the BEF. The first brigades to arrive back on home shores formed the 7th Division which unlike the BEF comprised entirely of time served regular soldiers and became known as the “Immortal Seventh”
The Immortal Seventh came into existence with its initial assembly on the Forest at Lyndhurst which they used as a staging post before embarking for France at the nearby port of Southampton. Over a period of weeks the remaining UK based troops were joined by soldiers from overseas postings in Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt and South Africa and were encamped near Bolton’s Bench at White Moor and the old Racecourse just outside of the village on the Cadnam road. During their stay in the New Forest regular drills were the order of the day and various trenches were dug to replicate what they were about to experience on the Western Front, some of which are still visible along the ridgeway from Bolton’s Bench to Matley. There were repeated route marches and as one officer put it, “they marched close on three hundred miles around the New Forest by way of hardening the men who had come off foreign service”. They departed the Forest in October 1914 marching the eight miles into Southampton for embarkation to France and from there on to Belgium where they were almost immediately thrown into action at the Battle of Ypres.
The war affected the Forest in other ways including its iconic ponies. When war began in 1914 the War Office was given the urgent task of sourcing 500,000 horses and ponies to go into battle in France and Belgium. They were essential to pull heavy guns, transport weapons and supplies, carry the wounded and dying to hospitals and, in the early stages of the war, to mount cavalry charges. In the first year of war the British countryside was emptied of shire horses and riding ponies, a heartbreaking prospect for many farming families who saw their horses requisitioned by the government as “war horses”. Whilst numbers were not recorded, many ponies were taken from the New Forest who, like many of their owners, never returned.
After the initial excitement of this large troop mobilisation, the presence of soldiers and their weaponry soon became commonplace in the New Forest as it remained a convenient staging post for troops on their way to the Western Front in France and Belgium via the port of Southampton. After the departure of the 7th Division military manoeuvres continued on the Forest for the duration of the war. Elsewhere around the Forest, an airfield for the newly formed Royal Flying Corps was established at Beaulieu and the Royal Naval Air Service at Calshot which are covered in more detail elsewhere on this website.
With the war in France and Flanders looking increasingly likely to continue beyond 1914 the Indian Army, which at the time was the largest in the world, was mobilised and its soldiers were dispatched to the Western Front landing at Marseilles whilst others arrived Britain to establish bases for re-enforcements and training. Initially Indian troops settled into temporary tented quarters in the New Forest in the early autumn of 1914. The arrival of these men caused quite a stir as it was the first time that large numbers of Indian troops had been present in the country. During the course of the war one million Indian soldiers fought for the British Empire and over 74,000 lost their lives.
At the end of 1915 the construction of a Grenade School at White Moor was commenced and was ready for use the following March, occupying 190 acres of the heath. In the immediate vicinity a further 230 acres north west of Matley Wood was put into use as a Trench Mortar School the following year and these facilities formed the Southern Command Bombing School through which many soldiers from across the British Empire passed on short courses. Students were taught the mechanisms of every type of grenade that they were likely to meet, including German types, and how to prime them for action. They were also taught bombing tactics with particular attention on attacking and clearing trench systems. Those who passed were entitled to were a red grenade badge on their right arm. Later in 1917 these operations were extended further with the addition of an artillery range between Matley and Decoy Pond. During 1918 the Trench Mortar School closed and the site taken over by a War Dog Training School which accommodated 200 dogs which were trained to carry messages under battle conditions. Whilst little evidence remains of any buildings, over nearly a hundred years later, unexploded ordinance is still being discovered in the area and made safe by the Army Bomb Disposal team.
As casualties mounted there was an urgent need for more troop hospitals in the UK. In the early stages of the war one in every three soldiers under British command came from the Indian sub continent and it soon became apparent that the British military was ill prepared to deal with the needs of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim soldiers who died or were wounded on the battlefields of France. These troops had been rushed to Europe ill equipped for the cold weather. The heavy rains in late 1914 were followed by severe frost and snow but most of the Indian troops did not have winter clothing or proper footwear, giving rise to respiratory illnesses, frostbite and ‘trench foot’. Initially it had been intended to evacuate the sick and wounded Indian troops via Marseilles to Egypt but this was soon proved impractical in view of the high number of casualties.
By November 1914 a hospital for wounded Indian troops had been established at Brockenhurst. The village was ideally situated on the main railway line only a few miles from Southampton through which port the wounded soldiers arrived back in the UK. During that month more than 1,000 wounded Indian soldiers arrived in the village. Both the Balmer Lawn Hotel and the Forest Park Hotel were requisitioned for the purpose and renamed the Lady Hardinge Hospital (named after the wife of the Viceroy of India). The short road that linked the two hotels was renamed Meerut Road after the district of India where many of the wounded had originated from – it still retains the name today.
The combined unit had a total of 640 beds but it proved so overcrowded that wounded soldiers were accommodated on mattresses on the floor. It soon became necessary to expand the facilities and by 1915 it was supplemented by a collection of tented and galvanised accommodation units which became known to the locals as “Tin Town”. It treated soldiers of the 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Divisions of the Indian Army Corps, before they were posted to Egypt in November of that year where the warmer climate was more similar to that of their native India, which doubtless helped in their recovery. Another issue that had to be resolved while the Indians were in situ was a cremation site for the Sikhs and Hindus in accordance with their respective religions. At that time cremation was not a common practice in the UK as parliamentary approval had only been given in 1902. After due consideration Perry Wood was chosen for the site.
In January 1916, Tin Town became No.1 New Zealand General Hospital, responsible for orthopaedic injuries, and further huts were erected. In all some 21,000 New Zealand casualties were treated, including the 93 who died and are buried in a War Cemetery at the nearby St Nicholas Church. The hospital closed in March 1919 after the war ended and whilst the two hotels still remain, there in nothing left of Tin Town. However, whilst it was operational it was visited by King George V and Queen Mary – the first monarchs to visit the Forest since the reign of King George III over a hundred years previously.
Apart from the build up of troops, the war had other major impacts on the Forest. The prolonged war brought much new innovation with the introduction of airplanes, tanks, bigger artillery guns and larger warships. The war fuelled a rapid increase in manufacturing by British industry and this was driven by coal. Coal mining increased dramatically and with it came the demand for more and more timber for pit props. Coal was the strategic industry which fuelled the steam driven ships of the Royal Navy and British manufacturing industry. Without timber, coal could not be extracted – it was as simple as that. Without coal, British ships would have to stay tied up in port and industry would grind to a halt.
Britain’s woodland resources had been declining since the Middle Ages, but reached an all time low (only 5% of total land area) by the beginning of the 20th century and with the outbreak of war the country was no longer able to rely on timber imports, mainly from Canada. Imports of timber fell from 6.5 million tonnes in 1916 to only 2.5 million tonnes by 1918. Forests and woodlands all over the UK had to make up the shortfall and in the New Forest around 2000 acres of trees were felled producing 8 million cubic feet of timber, the equivalent of 300,000 tonnes of shipped timber. Much of the timber felled was broadleaved deciduous trees and these were replaced with faster growing coniferous trees during the replanting that took place after the war, changing the face of the Forest. As most able bodied men had enlisted or were conscripted into the army, there was a shortage of skilled woodmen to meet this demand.
By the beginning of 1916 the situation had become critical. In February the British Government contacted the Canadian Government seeking their help. The message read, “Owing to the very serious shortage of freight for munitions, food, forage and other essentials, which is a matter of the gravest concern to H.M. Government, it is impossible to continue to import Canadian timber on a sufficiently large scale to meet War requirements, and arrangements must therefore be made for felling and converting English forests“. By March the Canadian Timber Corps had been formed and a small advance party of 200 woodmen arrived in the UK and were despatched to the New Forest. By the end of the year there were well over 2000 men of the Canadian Forestry Corps employed across the UK and by the end of the war 17000 were employed in the UK and France.
By 1917 Canadian Timber Corps operations across the UK were split into five districts with No. 54 District covering the South West, West Midlands and Wales based in Southampton. Their New Forest operations were based at Hawkhill, near Beaulieu and Millyford on the road between Emery Down and Bolderwood. Sawmills operated at both locations with narrow gauge railways used to transport timber. The sawmill at the latter location was based in the area that is now Millyford Bridge car park where some of the concrete footings still survive.
In the same year Britain called on its oldest ally, Portugal with a request for men to act as labourers to support the efforts of the Canadians. A compliment of around 150 labourers were attached to each unit around the country. In the New Forest additional accommodation was provided next to the Canadian Camp at Millyford. Nothing now remains of the camp apart from a brick fireplace that was part of the cookhouse, which stands on its own just off the minor Forest road near Millyford Bridge. Known as the “Portuguese Fireplace”, it is preserved as a memorial to the essential work of the Canadians and their Portuguese helpers during the war.
In addition to timber, charcoal production was re-introduced to the Forest using the traditional method of pit burning covered with turves. This particular craft had died out by the beginning of the century and there was only one man left, Frederick Cull of Cadnam, who still retained the secrets of production. Armed with this knowledge, charcoal production recommenced for the duration of the war using the Forest’s hardwoods. The charcoal was largely sent to France for use in gas masks and also for water filtration.
Another interesting wartime requirement from the Forest was acorns. During the war it is estimated that the British Army and Navy fired around 258 million shells, all of which were propelled by cordite of which a key component was acetone. Acetone was normally produced by the distillation of wood but with timber in short supply other natural products were used and one of these was the acorn. All across the country and in the New Forest schoolchildren were asked to collect as many acorns as they could to support the war effort! Heather was also in demand and was harvested for bedding and packaging for munitions.
After the end of the war the Forest gradually returned to normal but nothing would be quite the same again. It had played a significant part in the victory as had its menfolk, many of whom never returned to enjoy its tranquility after the horrors of war. Each Forest village has its own war memorial listing those who gave their lives – the village of Lyndhurst lost 68 men, Brockenhurst lost 78 men and even the small settlement of East Boldre lost 17 men. No village escaped.
Little did anyone realise at the time that in just over twenty years world turmoil would return and the New Forest would play an even greater role in the outcome of the Second World War.