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Remembering our troops at the home of the British Army in Aldershot

PUBLISHED: 14:36 18 March 2014 | UPDATED: 14:38 18 March 2014

Soldiers

Soldiers

Archant

With the centenary of WW1 in everyone’s thoughts, Claire Pitcher heads to Aldershot ‘The Home of the British Army’ to remember our troops

The military museum is home to many ex-army vehiclesThe military museum is home to many ex-army vehicles

There’s been both good news and bad for the British Army of late, most recent to hit the headlines are the reports of further cuts to the armed forces, bringing the number of soldiers down to around 82,000 by next year. For Aldershot, widely known as ‘The Home of the British Army’, the effect of the cuts won’t feel too severe due to plans to bring two additional battalions – around 750 soldiers – to the town as part of the £100m investment by the Ministry of Defence.

There has in fact been soldiers in this part of north Hampshire for over 160 years. Before the formation of the ‘Camp at Aldershot’ no camp or garrison existed in the UK for the massing or training of troops on a large scale. The British Army was stationed in long established garrisons, most of which had been military centres through history. The soldiers inhabited forts, castles, or similar old defensive structures. Troops that weren’t stationed in these places were quartered in county towns and main cities, mostly in modest detachments billeted on the civil population.

The strategic choice

It was in 1852 that The Duke of Wellington died, having been Commander-in-Chief for almost 25 years. There had been little progress or development in the army since Waterloo, which was concerning the Prince Consort, so Prince Albert wrote to his new Commander-in-Chief, Lord Hardinge, urging him to do something about the training of the Army.

Quick to respond, Lord Hardinge set up a summer camp in 1853 on Chobham Common in Surrey and exercises were carried out for two ‘divisions’ in succession. They were both hailed a success and this led Lord Hardinge to ride over all the commons and heaths around Ash, Aldershot and Farnham to select a suitable site to become a more permanent training area. It was important to be strategically positioned not too far from the south coast, where the threat of a French invasion occasionally loomed.

Lord Hardinge recommended that Aldershot Heath should be selected for the new permanent training area and not long after nearly 10,000 acres were purchased at a cost of £12 per acre.

It was thought at first that just a summer tented camp was to be set up on the site, but the need to accommodate the militia called out during the Crimean War led to the erection of two hutted camps, each for a division, north and south of the Basingstoke Canal. Construction began in February 1855 and the first troops moved into their huts in North Camp in May that year.

Plans were later approved for the building of permanent brick barracks for another two brigades of cavalry, infantry and artillery close up against the village of Aldershot, which then had a population of around 850.

Aldershot was fast becoming a major military station and although the two hutted camps were supposed to be only temporary, they soon became the permanent home of the troops returning from the Crimea.

All change

Over 100 years on and our modern soldiers are a far cry from their Victorian counterpart. This was recognised when, in the early 1960s, National Service was ended and the Army again became a dedicated professional, all-regular force.

At the same time a decision was made to build the Army a new home on the site of its old one. It was to be built on very different principles from those which had driven the buildings of the old camp.

The new plan made a distinct division between the soldiers’ living and working areas. In particular, married quarters were built away from the barracks in the form of estates on the outskirts of the garrison. Plus the living quarters of single men were designed to enable them to get away from their places of work at the end of the day.

Rather then building on what was already there, the decision was made to » demolish the old and start all over again. The rebuilding programme started in 1960 and spanned two decades. To speed up and modernise building practices the Government dictated that pre-fabricated materials should be used. Other modernisation included an electricity generating station, the waste heat from which is used to warm buildings, and a brand-new sewage disposal system.

The end result was very much a product of its period and controversy still surrounds it as the buildings have proved vastly expensive to maintain. However, the landscaping of the new camp gave a feeling of space that was lacking in the serried ranks of the Victorian barrack blocks.

Today’s Aldershot has a population of around 10,500. This consists of 3,900 resident soldiers, some 1,000 transient military personnel on courses or sport, 770 MOD Civil Servants and some 5,000 service dependents. The garrison contains 2,145 Service Family Accommodation quarters. The rest of the garrison comprises barracks, the Aldershot Military Stadium, Queen’s Parade playing fields, Garrison Sports Centre and the Aldershot Centre for Health, which is a joint MOD and local authority venture. Always worth visiting are the military town’s local landmarks, such as the Wellington Statue, Aldershot Military Cemetery and the Royal Garrison Church.

Moving in

During the 1880s and 1890s the huts were gradually replaced by permanent brick barracks with schools, hospitals, sewage works, gas works, power station and a reservoir, indeed everything, even its own bye-laws, needed to make Aldershot Camp the only complete military town built in the country since the Roman occupation.

Aldershot was the home of the 1st and 2nd Divisions comprising mostly of the 1st British Army Corps, and it was from here that the British Expeditionary Forces left for France in 1914 and then again in 1939. Reviews, manoeuvres, sporting events, the famous Searchlight Tattoos and now a military population of 25,000 had given rise to Aldershot becoming known as ‘The Home of the British Army’.

During the first 40 years of this century Aldershot saw a complete transformation of the Army. Having once fought shoulder to shoulder in open fields, now the mobile and armoured force of the type that we recognise today was beginning to emerge. In 1904, the first military motor car arrived for trials in Aldershot, and the first aeroplane flew in this country in 1908, developed by S F Cody, an instructor at the Royal Engineers Balloon School at Farnborough.

In 1939 when the main body of the regular Army left for France, Aldershot became the base for the Canadian Army for the entirety of the war, while many British units and formations continued to use Aldershot as a transit area before travelling on to battles abroad.

The Canadians left in 1945 and there was a drastic change in the character of the camp as it became a training centre for the National Service army, including the famous Mons Officer Cadet School. It also became the home of depots and training centres for eight Corps of the British Army as well as the newly-formed Parachute Regiment.

For almost 50 years the town became synonymous with ‘The Paras’. However 1999 saw the disbandment of the 5th Airborne Brigade, of which they had formed 
a major part and now Aldershot is home to 12 (Mechanised) Brigade.

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Did you know? It took 30 men over three years to produce the Wellington Statue which is situated on Round Hill.

Did you know? Adjacent to Aldershot is some 2,700 hectares of open military training area. This area is open to the public when not in use for military purposes.

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Want to know more?

If you would like more details about the history of the military in Aldershot then pay a visit to the town’s Military Museum on Evelyn Woods Road. For opening times call 01252 314598.

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