By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
In the later nineteenth century Easter was the regular occasion for training manoeuvres for the Volunteer units. For the regular troops in Aldershot their main large-scale exercises were in the autumn, after the harvest had finished so there would be no damage to the fields over which they manoeuvred. However, for the Volunteers the long Easter weekend allowed the men time away from their civilian employment. This was by no means a rest period for the regulars as they would frequently be involved in the Easter exercises, giving both regular and volunteer units the opportunity to train alongside each other.
The Easter weekends usually followed a regular pattern. The Volunteer units would arrive on Good Friday, and Saturday was given over to drills and military instruction. Easter Sunday began with church services, and the rest of the day was free. The main event of the weekend came on Easter Monday which was a “sham fight”, involving opposing attacking and defending forces, and at the end the official umpires would rule on how well the respective objectives had been achieved. The sham fight usually finished around mid-day, followed shortly afterwards by a formal march past in review before the senior general. The Volunteers dispersed late Monday afternoon to return to their civilian jobs.
Although Aldershot was used to hosting visiting units throughout the manoeuvres season, the arrival of the Volunteers for the Easter exercises always attracted great interest. On Good Friday 1885 the 11th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers arrived at Aldershot Station and marched behind the band of the Royal Highlanders through the town to their quarters in South Camp. The local newspaper reported that the men’s “smart appearance drew forth the admiration by bye-standers, the grey uniform with scarlet facings looking remarkably neat … It would have been a hard critic who could have found fault with them either as regards equipment, steadiness, or personal appearance”. They were followed the next morning by the 21st Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, who marched to their quarters in North Camp behind the band of the Wiltshire Regiment.
For the field day on Easter Monday there was a Western Force, defending the Fox Hills east of Aldershot, who would be attacked by an Eastern Force advancing from the Guildford area. The Western Force’s objective was to hold their positions on Fox Hills for an hour and a half, by which time it was judged that reinforcements would have reached them. The Eastern Force, which included the 11th Middlesex alongside five regular infantry battalions, one cavalry regiment and five artillery batteries, left Aldershot Camp at 06.30, the cavalry and artillery by way of the Ash Road and the infantry past the gas works and over Ash Vale Bridge. The Western Force, which included the 21st Middlesex plus two regular infantry battalions, two cavalry regiments and four artillery batteries, started later from North Camp, and marched by way of Lyson’s Road, Ash Vale Bridge and Heath Vale Bridge
The start of the action was signalled by firing two guns. Quickly the attacking army advanced from Normandy and soon there was a brisk fire-fight all along the line. Among the volunteers, it was the 11th Middlesex who had the initial success, taking prisoner a number of men from their fellow volunteers of the 21st Middlesex. However, the 21st also had their moment of success when they raced along the Frimley Road to thwart an attempt to turn the Western Force’s northern flank. After the “cease fire” was sounded all units fell in ready for the formal march-past, which began shortly after mid-day. The reporter for Sheldrake’s Aldershot and Sandhurst Military Gazette commented that “The volunteers deserve a word of praise for their steady march past, especially the 11th Middlesex. Both are fine regiments, are well equipped, and as far as pioneers and ambulance are concerned come well to the front”.
The following year there was disappointment in Aldershot that the main Easter manoeuvres were on the south coast, at Dover, Shorncliffe and Portsmouth. But in 1887 the focus again fell on Aldershot, where the exercises were joined by the 3rd, 4th, 11th and 18th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, plus a company of Volunteer Medical Staff Corps. The weekend followed the usual pattern, and after exploring Aldershot town during the free time on Sunday afternoon one Volunteer was heard to declare that “it was not such a bad place after all”.
The Easter Monday sham fight was in Long Valley. Here a Southern Force, which had advanced from Frensham to just south of Aldershot, was to be attacked by a Northern Force across the Basingstoke Canal. The Northern Force took Eelmoor and Norris bridges, but then found the bulk of the Southern Force drawn up in a line extending from Tweseldown race course, past the base of Caesar’s Camp, to Hungry Hill. Some lively actions followed, and the number of hills over which the action was fought, together with the heavy nature of the soil, made this an exhausting exercise for the men involved. At the cease-fire it was judged that the Southern Force would have been forced to give way.
One of the volunteer units frequently at Aldershot was the Artists Rifles, whose members included Brandon Thomas, author of the famous comedy play “Charley’s Aunt”. During his first camp, Private Thomas decided he did not care for the cookhouse food so went out to the Queen’s Hotel for a fine dinner. Returning to Camp he was challenged by a sentry, an Irish militia man, with the usual “Who goes there?” “I am Brandon Thomas of ‘B’ Company of the Artists”, came the reply, “my regimental number is 3327 and the number of my rifle 6701”. With a touch of irritation the sentry called again “Who comes there?” “I have already told you that I am Private Brandon Thomas of ‘B’ Company of the Artists. My regimental number is 3327 - it is written in my greatcoat - and my rifle number is 6701.” After several more challenges and similar responses the sentry gave up and called out “Why the divil don’t you just say ‘friend’?”
The Easter manoeuvres were well publicised in the local newspapers, and the inevitable result was large crowds of spectators who came out to watch the entertainment. The Military Police had the difficult task of keeping the crowds under control. The 1894 exercises, which included the full Surrey Volunteer Brigade alongside regulars from Aldershot, had 9,948 men on parade and took place under the supervision of HRH The Duke of Cambridge. Attracted by the size of the spectacle and the good weather, thousands of people turned out to watch the sham fight, but shortly after the action began it was clear that the numbers of spectators were a major problem. Members of the public had climbed onto the hills over which the fighting was to take place, leading to confusion for both officers and men who had difficulty distinguishing friend from foe. The Military Police tried to clear the area between the forces, but when “the volunteers came sweeping over Romping Down they carried a great crowd of spectators with them, and these were so thick between the opposing lines that very little could be seen of what was going on”. Despite all the problems, as the Volunteers departed on their special trains from North Camp it was declared “a very satisfactory mobilisation of the Surrey Brigade”.
The last Easter manoeuvres of the nineteenth century, in 1899, saw a muster of the South London Volunteer Brigade. It is a sign of the growth of the Volunteer movement that this exercise consisted entirely of volunteer units with no regulars involved. Five battalions were quartered in Aldershot, with mounted infantry and cyclist units, plus another three battalions at Pirbright, Bisley and Woking. The Easter Monday sham fight was once again on the Fox Hills, which were defended by the battalions based in Aldershot as the Western Force. If driven off it was to take up a new position extending from Marlborough Lines in North Camp, over Thorn Hill to the Redan, bringing the manoeuvres right to the edge of Aldershot.
Without the regulars this was an entirely infantry exercise. At the start of the action the Queen’s Westminster, South Middlesex, and West Middlesex and Harrow Battalions were defending Fox Hills, with the West London and Inns of Court battalions in reserve, and the Volunteer Field Hospital and Bearer Company was at North Camp Station. Cyclist scouts and mounted infantry from the attacking Eastern Force were the first in contact, quickly followed by the London Scottish, Civil Service Rifles and Artists Rifles who advanced from Normandy and attacked the hills. As the morning wore on, the Eastern Commander was bringing his right wing around the flank of the defenders and would have succeeded in driving them back through Aldershot Camp had not the “cease fire” been sounded just before noon. The officers in charge of the exercise, led by General Sir Redvers Buller, GOC of Aldershot Command, judged that the attackers had successfully taken the hills and that the Western Force was making a “steady retreat”.
The Civil Service Rifles had been sending detachments to Aldershot since 1875, and regarded the time spent on the manoeuvres as invaluable. Their regimental history records that volunteers benefitted from “adopting the soldier’s daily routine and hard fare, the living with and fraternising with soldiers … all this is calculated to make the most light-hearted Volunteer feel that he is in earnest at last … The stamp it puts on a man is never effaced. To say ‘he is an Aldershot-man’ means that he is entitled to considerable respect as a good Volunteer”.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 006, February 2016/March 2016
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.