Herepath is an alternative name for sections of The Ridgeway: it is Anglo-Saxon for Army Road. The greatest military activity near the trail in historic times was indeed at that period – the Romans seem to have preferred their own strategic highways. Later this year, I mean to reprint an article on Alfred and the Ridgeway from Aspects of The Ridgeway. This article deals with modern times. It is far from being exhaustive.
Michael Riggs sent us a supplementary note on the Ridgeway baseline which incidentally draws attention to the military connections of the Ordnance Survey. “I understand,” he wrote “that the initial triangulations were carried out by the military at what is now the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham. The survey baseline was from White Horse Hill to Liddington Camp, as the major convenient and prominent hilltops. “There was, I think, a survey in 1820 by Col. Mudge RE using a 2” to the mile scale. “Old guns were used as the end marker points for triangulations.” (When I visited Old Sarum my mind was more on rotten boroughs than triangulation, so I ambled to some wrong conclusions about the note on the map “Gun. End of Base” War memorial for the RA, I supposed, at the limits of a range.)
The next paragraph is taken from Kate Crennell’s account of a Friends visit to Chilton: “Just before the second World War the Air Ministry decide to build an RAF station on Chilton Field; known as RAF Harwell, it was used throughout the war and today another memorial stone at the end of the old runway commemorates those who took off from the airfield in June 1944 to take part in the D-day landings. A remembrance service is held there annually.”
The site of Didcot power station was an important WWII munitions factory, and the Didcot-Southampton Railway was strategically vital in the preparations for D-Day. A cutting and bridge survive where the Trail crosses the Beechinged line at Blewbury Down. Nearby, the Churn Rifle Range is in view.
Ridgeway Heritage issue 3 notes “earthwork evidence” for an anti-aircraft battery at Barbury Castle Also, at Liddington, a more esoteric piece of kit survived: a large metal trough, a “boiling oil fire tray” that formed a bombing decoy. The trough was filled with burning oil and flushed with water to create violent bursts of flame simulating explosions. The idea must have been to convince the next wave of bombers that Liddington Castle was Swindon. The command post for the decoy survives amongst trees north-east of the hillfort.
The Ridgeway Historic Landscape Survey East (Oxford Archaeological Unit for English Heritage and Countryside Commission 1998) records seven pillboxes along the Thames in Oxfordshire, the remains of WWI practice trenches on Whiteleaf Hill and undated rifle butts below Pulpit Hill NE of Princes Risborough. There is a Boer War memorial on Coombe Hill a few miles away.
Three of the pillboxes are visible from the Ridgeway, one described as extraordinarily crenellated, attached to a half-timbered boathouse in Mongewell Park. One of the others is beside the Moulsford Railway Viaduct; the third in the grounds of Little Stoke House.
The WWI trenches are considered poor examples, obscured by vegetation. Representing different kinds of zigzag trench, they were built, it is said, in the winter of 1914. “Although they are undated, it is almost certain the [Pulpit Hill Rifle Butts} were constructed after the general issue of rifles to the Army at the time of the Boer War, when target practice became part of military training. The earthworks consist of three large banks crossing part of the base of the coombe . . . They are in a typical topographic position, where stray bullets would have hit the surrounding hillside.”
I am one of nature’s civilians, but have doubts about this statement as military history. The Line abandoned its smooth bore muskets in 1854, until when only the Rifle Regiments used precision weapons. The Crimean not the Boer War began that year. Hythe musketry school was established in 1855. Clearly, by the time Kipling began to write about the Army in the 80s, it was taught marksmanship. (Private Ortheris was a gifted pupil see “On Greenhow Hill” in Life’s Handicap and “With the Main Guard” in Soldiers Three. Private Learoyd preferred smashing faces or breaking arms with the butt. The philosophic Mulvaney, a bayonet man “wid a long a double twist av ye can, an’ a slow recover” considered “each does it his own way, like makin love, the butt or the bay’nit or the bullet accordin’ to the natur’ av the man”.) The “outer frame” of one Kipling story that I have been unable to trace for verification deals with the issue of a new mark of rifle and its maltreatment by the squaddies as they try to ease the mechanism.
After the embarrassment of the First Boer War (1880-1) the great reform was the abandonment of scarlet for khaki in the field The Army had been reequipped in the 70s with the Martini-Henry after initial delay because the recoil tended to disable the soldier. In 1881, because of continental developments and new technology rather than Africa, a committee was set up to advise on a new weapon: the instantly obsolete Enfield-Martini. By 1890, the whole army was using the Lee-Metford “magazine” rifle. In short there was no “general issue of rifles” at the time of a Boer War (Metford, by the way, is till honoured by street names in Bristol though his other invention, the explosive bullet was internationally banned under the Hague Convention.) 1
The better-known and even more embarrassing Second Boer War took place between 1899-1902. I suggest the butts were probably constructed then to train the influx of volunteers rather than the Regular Army.
The Rifle Volunteers2, a Victorian precursor of the TA, inspirited no doubt by Tennyson’s “Riflemen form” in The Times, set themselves up for an invasion scare in 1859 with the motto “Defence not Defiance”, were legitimised by Parliament in 1863 and notoriously under funded till 1887. By 1900, the force expanded to 119,0003 about a third of whom volunteered for Africa – overseas service was not required. Professionals may not have held them in great respect and the profane called after them in street “who shot the dog?” or “cat?”4 but Volunteers were cheap. In the early 1890s, a regular soldier cost the taxpayer £81 p.a.; the other amateurs cost £13 p.a for a militiaman (infantry), £10 p.a for a yeoman (cavalry). Rifle Volunteers cost £5 a head2.
1 Veronica Smith The Street Names of Bristol
2 The National Encyclopaedia c 1890 Articles on Volunteers and Small Arms.
3 Notes to “The Army of a Dream” in the Penguin Traffics and Discoveries
Annis Flew has suggested a possibility for the Kipling reference I couldn’t trace (Newsletter 76 p7): a story called “Black Jack” in Soldiers Three. Briefly, the young Mulvaney was set up by his comrades to take the blame when they shot an NCO with his rifle. After an harangue from the armourer sergeant on the maltreatment of the newly issued Martini-Henry, Mulvaney booby-traps the gun in the hope of killing or blinding the real murderer. The story was published in 1895 but the anecdotal core is set during Mulvaney’s early days in the army, so the date is plausible.
Setting the plot aside, the reference supports the National Encyclopaedia comment that this gun was issued slowly because it sometimes disabled the soldier firing it.
However the issue of this new rifle is an essential element in the plot of “Black Jack” whereas I recall a framework to a story where soldiers were using twigs to ease the mechanism. Perhaps there is yet another reference for someone to spot.