Widecombe History Group Talk on the History of the Army on Dartmoor


The Military on Dartmoor

By Lt. Col. Tony Clark. Rtd. O.B.E.

This original look at Military Activity on Dartmoor from a man who has spent most of his life on and around Dartmoor was a very enlightening talk. Tony was born and brought up in Okehampton in the 1940-1950s, his father worked at Okehampton Camp, he then went to military school in 1954, joined the army and travelled all round the world and was eventually posted to Dartmoor as Officer In Charge of Okehampton Army Camp and military training in the South West. He is now Commandant and looks after the camp and the training area and is very much the Public Relations Officer and is also responsible in seeing that the military activity does not do untold damage to the moors. He began by inviting comments in saying that he is always interested to hear from anyone who has observations and experience of any military activity with particular interest in the military presence on Dartmoor throughout the last century.

He began by saying that the armed forces is not all about war, in fact their aim is to avoid war by providing a good and responsible defence organisation. The other activity is often being involved in the provision of help and aid wherever the need arises, in fact anywhere in the world.

It was suggested that military activity could well date back to prehistoric times, when the choice of sites for habitation were likely to have been chosen for their defensive position, perhaps against marauding clans or tribes opposed to those that had built the site. Iron Age camps are sometimes referred to, the Romans and then Castles, positioned for defence rather than aggression. Dartmoor was a Royal Hunting ground, and to this day ‘hunting’ the enemy by means of stalking is still a method attached to military training.

Gradually coming more up to date, the early 1800s when Napoleon Bonaparte was a threat there was the Volunteer Act, when many able bodied men were recruited into what we may consider to be an early type of ‘Home Guard, Dads Army or Territorial Army’. This was needed when we were at war with the French 1807 and the Americans in 1812, and to remind us of that there is still Dartmoor Prison, originally built for military prisoners. These Volunteers also acted as guards for the prisoners of war of both conflicts. This then led on to the fact that captured Officers at that time, being allowed if they could afford it, to be permitted parole in some towns and villages on and around Dartmoor. Moretonhampstead, Okehampton, Tavistock where the 1 mile parole stones erected at the time, to show how far from the centre of town these Officers were permitted to walk, can in some instances still be found, and upstairs in The White Hart at Moretonhampstead there are some carvings in French, that pub being one of the billets of the time. The 1Miol stone opposite ‘Stouts Cottage’ on the Natsworthy road from Widecombe immediately came to mind, was this too a parole stone?

These British Volunteers had very grand uniforms, there were thousands of them, what business that must have generated. In 1853 there was the well documented Training Camp between Haytor and Saddle Tor, when a great deal of target practice must have taken place. This reminded the meeting of the old law when every able bodied man had to practice archery back in the 1500/1600s in their local Manors. These sites known as ‘Butts Parks’ in most cases, butts being the term used for targets, in most of the Medieval Manors of Widecombe there are still fields with the word Butts incorporated in their name.

At the end of the 19th century came the Boer War. We were not prepared for the style of warfare that our men encountered. The Boers had a system of surprise, seemingly appearing from nowhere in attack and then disappearing again equally fast. They were using the terrain of undulating ground and they also dug trenches, unheard of tactics, this ultimately led to the practice of digging trenches for protection and surprise by our forces. A very large exercise covering 200 miles from Salisbury to the coast at Shoeburyness was carried out one year in the autumn of course, after the harvest was finished, including the use of heavy artillery.

Other encampments on Dartmoor were mentioned, 1873 a large excercise on Roborough Down, when nearly 5000 men were involved. Tony Clarke then showed the meeting a scrapbook of photographs taken at that time, showing participants of that exercise, a very valuable and rare record of that time. These photographs showed regiments that included the Highlanders, Hussars, Royal Artillery and other groups. In 1883 Artillery were brought to Okehampton by Great Western Railway, the horses transported in special Stable Wagons. Targets were set up on the moors and it has been calculated that 40 miles of rope was needed to operate these targets. There was a time at Watchet Hill Cottage when the boundary fence was made of many of these man-size targets ‘salvaged’ from the moor, (photograph in Elizabeth Stanbury’s Dartmoor Magazine No 71 Summer 2003). Some of this old equipment will soon be on view at a museum/information centre being set up at Okehampton Camp. This will hopefully include some of the old rail track used for the targets. It is estimated that 150 horses, 12 guns and 120 men were involved with this training event. There are still plenty of items on the moor to show military activity, some quite old and some more modern but they are all part of the history of Dartmoor. Much has been removed, but some must be allowed to stay as this all helps us to understand the "History of the Military on Dartmoor".

Evidence of those early trenches can be found, remnants of the early telephone communication boxes and the mechanical semaphore equipment, target rail tracks, and even stones to measure distances.

Most important of all there can still be unexploded shells and armaments on the moor that could date back as far as World War I, these should never be touched, the position should be noted and marked if possible and

on returning to base reported to the Police or The Ministry of Defence.

Of the firing/training areas on Dartmoor only Wilsworthy some 3000 acres is owned freehold by The Ministry of Defence, the others are leased from The Duchy (The Duke of Cornwall’s Estate) on long term leases.

1893 saw the initial building of Okehampton Camp. The horses had well constructed metal stables, secure sheds were built for the guns but the men were provided with bell tents (that was good enough for them!). 1930 saw improved buildings, nissen huts and prior to World War II much more military training took place. A visit to the Okehampton Camp is very enlightening. There are some of those early buildings remaining, the cook houses, the hospital, a small married quarters built of galvanized iron (very thick compared with todays material), the ammunition stores and the terraced areas where the men pitched their tents.

Some of this must be retained as it is part of our heritage.

When World War I began there was little or no training, men were given a basic uniform and a gun and told to go to war.

Training took on a far more important role between the two World Wars, it was realised that if another war was to happen the defences of the nation had to be well prepared. Dartmoor had an important part to play in this preparation. It is no good coming second in a war - thats called losing!!!

Locally at that time the 14th Moorside Battalion of Home Guard, a form of mobile defence was based at Parke, the present day headquarters of The Dartmoor National Park.

1943 saw extensive training on Dartmoor, not only British Troops but also those of our allies, particularly the Americans. On 4th June 1944 they had all gone, we now know as history tells us, of the D-Day Landings and all that went on from then. Mention was made of the 15 inch naval shell situated outside The Church House here at Widecombe, presented to the Parish as a token of thanks for the work done in collecting "Sphagnum Moss" during W.W.I. This moss when dried was used for the dressing of wounds and very good it was too!

On the moors can be seen ‘Bunkers’ used in training and as a result of some intense lobbying some will remain as examples of those days. The places where guns, searchlights and encampments were situated should be recorded for future generations information. There are ‘legends’ that when the Americans left our shores no end of equipment, Jeeps, Harley Davidson Motorbikes were dumped or buried, including gas and a variety of other articles - this still has never been proven!

The flagpoles that carried Red Flags when live firing was taking place need preserving, some of them are a 100 years old, the red and white poles that marked the perimeter of the range, the remnants of the targets and their rail tracks, even a base for a mechanical semaphore machine are still in situ to be seen.

Heavy military vehicles are rarely used now on Dartmoor. Modern activities are mostly foot excursions backed up by parachuting onto the moor and the use of helicopters. This was a brilliant training ground prior to the Falklands.

Tony concluded by saying war is not what the army train for, it is defence and keeping the peace that we should all be concerned about. No heavy artillery practice takes place on Dartmoor but it is an excellent area to train and keep fit our young men and women that make up our armed forces. This is ideal terrain for ‘yomping’, long fast trekking across open and inhospitable countryside. Ideal for the practising of stalking, observation, survival skills, adventure training, building up the skills of leadership and of course the trust in your colleagues. Unfortunately we never know when these rehearsed skills will be needed. We must not forget Suez, Korea, Falklands and even now Iraq. We must keep training and all the time hoping

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