Wartime ‘Sandhurst’ on the downs
Now completely gone, a huge hutted camp once hastened ordinary men towards Army commissions during WWI on an expanse of chalk downland near Winchester.
In the last years of WWI so many officers had been killed or injured that the Army faced a crisis of command. And many of the dead were the products of public schools. More than 500 of the nearly 2,500 former pupils of Winchester College who served their country lost their lives (www.winchestercollegeatwar.com).
The story nationwide is told in Public Schools in the Great War by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh, who challenge such productions as the 1960s Oh! What a Lovely War and the 1980s TV series Blackadder Goes Forth.
In a bid to set historical scholarship against popular entertainment, they point to Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff, a play based on personal experience on the front line. Whatever the reality, there was definitely a shortage of officers in the later years of the war, which required taking other ranks ‘from the trenches’.
This was the purpose of the 24th (Tank Corps) Officer Cadet Battalion, which in January 1918 moved from Pirbright, Surrey, to an enormous transit camp on Hazeley Down, near Twyford. It had ‘popped up’ in record time early in the war. From here, London Battalions went to France via Shawford rail station and Southampton.
The camp brought a brutal change to a beauty spot beloved by boys from Twyford School. Depicted as ‘Hazeldown’ in Tom Brown’s Schooldays by former pupil Thomas Hughes, it was where the fictional Tom discovered a ‘beautiful little butterfly with golden spots’.
As well as receiving six-months’ instruction on a variety of military subjects, in field and classroom, the cadets were given extensive advice on how to conduct themselves in their new role, especially in the Officers’ Mess and similar settings.
The whole story has been brought to life in Sullivan Will be There, a book by Easton resident Steve Percy. Although fiction, it is based on the real-life experience of his uncle Frank at Hazeley Down and relies on meticulous research. It took the author to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, and the National Archives at Kew.
After the war, Frank emigrated to USA which led Steve to further sources known to relatives. Frank’s great-niece working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation discovered memoirs by him that had found their way into family and North American archives.
A key source was also a book simply entitled Memories, which gives rare insights into life in Hazeley Down Camp (HRO, uncatalogued). It was written by the commanding officer of corps, Lt.-Col. R.A.C.L. Leggett, and published in 1919 in Winchester by Warrens.
He writes in the style of a holiday camp manager, rather than someone involved in last-ditch attempts to prepare for the ‘last push’. But for him at least it seems that the whole show, which was immaculately organised, was extremely enjoyable,
Until the Armistice of 11 November 1918, young men up for commission at Hazeley Down were expecting to follow the huge numbers of officers killed and injured since 1914. Yet Leggett recalls that ‘no work could have been more congenial’, due to ‘the spirit of camaraderie, and the esprit de corps’. Like many a CO, he talks of ‘one happy family’ and thanks everyone for their ‘unswerving loyalty and magnificent support’.
To cater for the course, local training areas were surveyed, and imaginary conflicts devised, such as the Battle of Owslebury and the Meon-Bitterne Campaign. Bombs and grenades in current use were laid out in one hut and another had a ‘very large concrete model’ of the countryside around Hazeley Down, to aid map-reading and ‘topography’.
Nothing was left to chance: a full-scale trench warfare system was constructed, as well as a scale model ‘for use on wet days’. A part of the parade ground was dug up to simulate a shelled area, with ‘shell-hole defences’.
Cadets made their own ‘large coloured diagrams’ to aid training, based as it was on the countryside around Morestead. Some, in the CO’s opinion, even ‘possessed real artistic merit’! Model landscapes were built to demonstrate ‘field engineering’.
There was a 30-yard range for firing practice, as well as two ‘trench’ ranges, one for ‘revolver training with ball ammunition’. Another had ‘ordinary bull’s-eye and figure targets’ and yet another a model landscape with ‘a buzzer and electric lights’, to highlight ‘pop up’ targets for cadets.
Full instruction was given for two light machine-guns much used in WWI, both designed by Americans – the Lewis gun, made in Britain, and the Hotchkiss gun in France. There were also assault courses for bayonet fighting.
Basic instruction covered tank engines, including the 105 HP Daimler engine, made in England from the designs of German pioneer Gottlieb Daimler, and the six-cylinder 150 HP engine designed by Sir Harry Ricardo, which was favoured for its clean exhaust.
General education was meted out to cadets, most of whom had had limited schooling. An eclectic mix of subjects included Life in Early Britain, Folk Songs, Democracy, the Causes of War, European History and Housing and Education in the Light of the War – presumably in an attempt to envisage life after the conflict.
Much of the course was aimed at giving cadets the ‘habit of mind and sense of responsibility of the officer’. They were encouraged to adopt ‘the standard of living expected of the officer’ and were even given money to ‘improve the appearance and comfort of their living rooms’. Barrack rooms were turned into ‘comfortable and well-decorated dormitories’, with artwork on the walls drawn by the cadets themselves.
For men who had long been accustomed to the ‘trench floor and parapet’, it was thought necessary to teach the most banal things, including the ‘use of ash-trays and waste-paper baskets’. Also a wide range of sports was played, apparently with ‘Public School spirit and enthusiasm and … reputation for clean play’, and stripped of ‘traces of professionalism’.
Frank Percy would no doubt have benefitted from much of this, had the war gone on. As it was, one of his most terrifying moments came when he had to sing a popular song, Sullivan Will Be There, in front of his fellow cadets at the end-of-course show in the camp theatre. Of course, he survived the ordeal!
After the war, he got a job with a timber company in his native Liverpool, ‘pushing a handcart … to the docks’. It was no reward for a man who had risked his life serving three years in the trenches and going on to a commission as 2nd Lieutenant. He decided life would be better in the USA, where he forged a successful career as a journalist on the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Herald-Express.
In Sullivan Will Be There, Steve Percy brings to life an attractive character and relates a compelling tale, which paints a vivid picture of life at Hazeley Down Camp based on sound work in the archives (available from: firstname.lastname@example.org, £10 inc. p & p.
Contributed by Barry Shurlock, first published in the Hampshire Chronicle, 6 May, 2