Dragoons, Yeomanry and Signallers
Roger Guttridge finds that there has been a strong link between Blandford and the military for more than two hundred years
Published in May ’10
In October 1770, after he and a colleague had tracked a gang of smugglers from the Isle of Purbeck to the World’s End pub at Almer, Customs officer Richard Cole promptly set off on another journey to Blandford. His mission was to seek help in pursuing the smugglers from a troop of dragoons quartered there. Although his request was in vain, the commanding officer of the cavalry insisting he had ‘no orders to let his men go’, the handwritten account in HM Customs letterbooks provides one of the modern era’s early references to a military force being stationed in Blandford. Nine years later the same letterbooks recorded that six dragoons from Blandford had been overpowered and beaten at Hooks Wood, Farnham, by forty or fifty smugglers intent on regaining their contraband.
According to Blandford Camp historian Alan Harfield, the town’s proximity to known smuggling routes was one of the main reasons why troops were stationed there from time to time during the 18th century. Another was the suppression of riots and Harfield cites instances of dragoons in Blandford as early as the 1720s and 1730s.
According to some sources, Major General James Wolfe reviewed and/or drilled his troops at Blandford in 1756, two or three years before his famous victory and death in the Battle of Quebec. In fact, Wolfe was a ‘mere’ Lieutenant Colonel in 1756 and the thousands of troops camped not at Blandford but in Hambledon’s foothills at Shroton. It is true that they were reviewed at Blandford before an appreciative local crowd but Wolfe himself was seriously unimpressed by the performance. ‘We had a general review and exercise of our forces yesterday upon Blandford Downs, to the great entertainment of the ignorant spectators,’ he wrote in a letter to his father; ‘though, according to my judgement, we do not deserve even their approbation. There are officers who had the presumption and vanity to applaud our operations, bad as they were … I think we are in imminent danger of being cut to pieces in our first encounter.’
The review was in the area of the present-day Blandford Camp at Race Down, so-called because it was also a popular venue for horse-racing from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The open downland was also ideal for military activity and, in 1799 and the early 1800s, when an invasion by Napoleon was feared, became a regular training ground for the Dorset Volunteer Rangers and the Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry. However, the location of the early army camps was a couple of miles to the west, between Pimperne and Stourpaine, where a dip in the downland offered a more sheltered site and easier access to water. This area is still known as Camp Down.
The first known military fixture at Race Down was the Admiralty’s Blandford Racecourse signalling station, built in 1806 as a link in a hilltop chain of Murray Telegraph stations cross the south. The two-room hut at a site now known as Telegraph Clump included a living room-cum-kitchen for its three staff, who operated a simple but ingenious system of six shutters whose combinations could represent up to 63 letters, numbers and selected phrases. Using a telescope, the staff kept a close eye on the neighbouring stations a few miles to the west at Bell Hill, Belchalwell, and to the east at Chalbury. The operators became so proficient that a message could be conveyed from Plymouth to London in just three minutes. As in all things military, there were also economic benefits for the local community, not least for Blandford man Henry Ward, who was paid 10 guineas for his invention of a crank that made it easier to move the shutters in high winds.
A wave of unrest and agricultural riots led in 1830 to the re-formation of the Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry, whose Blandford Troop trained at Race Down and paraded in the Market Place in 1837 before being disbanded the following year. The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards were briefly stationed in the area in 1837.
By 1860 Race Down was again in regular use as a training ground for the Dorset Yeomanry and the Blandford Corps of the newly-formed Dorsetshire Rifle Volunteers. A map from that year shows that the area had now acquired a rifle range, which for decades was used for shooting practice and competitions and produced riflemen of national renown. The Royal Engineers’ C Telegraph Troop, early forebear of the Royal Corps Signals, who have a long association with Blandford, were involved in a major exercise in 1872, when Race Down was the headquarters of the Southern Army.
Blandford Camp’s birth as semi-permanent camp dates from the winter of 1914-15. In the early months of World War 1, a massive construction project got underway to provide accommodation for several battalions of the Royal Naval Division (RND), army-type brigades formed from the thousands of naval reservists who were surplus to fleet requirements. The first men arrived in November 1914 and later arrivals included Blandford Camp’s most famous former resident, the poet Rupert Brooke. Here he penned his most famous and poignant lines:
‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England…’
The ‘foreign field’ turned out to be the Greek island of Skyros, where Sub Lieutenant Brooke was buried in April 1915 after dying of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship. He was on his way to Gallipoli, where many of his comrades also perished. First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, who, along with King George V, had inspected the RND men before their departure, personally wrote an obituary in The Times.
The RND remained at the Camp for most of the war and in his scarce and out-of-print book Blandford and the Military (1984) Harfield writes of their engineers carrying out bridge-building exercises at Blandford St Mary and going on route marches to Lulworth. He also quotes a card, printed by Blandford stationers Hobbs and Son and sold at the Camp, which includes such lines as:
‘Oh what a happy place is Blandford,
Such a jolly place to spend the war,
But if you’d ever been to sea,
Gad, you’d love the RND,
Oh what a lucky lot you are.’
In 1918 Blandford Camp was gradually transferred from the RND to the Royal Flying Corps and its successor, the fledgling RAF, who used it initially as a training base for young recruits. Other departments followed, including a 90-bed RAF hospital. A three-mile branch railway line from Blandford station was also built at a cost of £60,000 but its use was short-lived. In the 1920s the Camp’s buildings were either sold (three RND huts became village halls in the Tarrant Valley) or demolished.
Gathering war clouds in 1939 inevitably brought Blandford Camp back into focus and began a new phase of military occupation which has continued until this day, albeit with many major changes along the way. From the summer of 1939, it became successively a tented training camp, a camp of newly-erected wooden huts for the training of reservists and anti-aircraft gunners, a battle training ground and a US Army hospital where almost 20,000 service people were treated in the twelve months following D-Day in 1944. Bombs dropped on the camp in 1943 caused some structural damage and the death of the Commandant, Brigadier H S Woodhouse, of the brewery family.
From 1946 to 1962, Blandford Camp was a training base for national servicemen of the Royal Artillery, RASC, REME and Army Catering Corps and was also a motorcycle racing circuit, where world champion Geoff Duke was the most illustrious competitor. In 1960 the 30th Signal Regiment arrived at Blandford, followed in 1967 by the Royal School of Signals, which moved down from Catterick in Yorkshire to bring it closer to research and development centres and other south-based corps. In 1995 the Royal Signals relocated their soldier training from Catterick and subsequently their headquarters from London, making Blandford Camp the official ‘home of Royal Signals’. This extended a ‘Signals’ connection begun in 1872, when C Telegraph Troop were at Blandford, and continued in 1940, when RCS personnel were there, and again in 1967.
The military presence at Blandford has produced economic spin-offs for the local community for most of the last hundred years, while its social impact on the town is well known to long-term residents. The links between town and army were further cemented when the Royal Corps of Signals were, amid much pomp and ceremony, granted the Freedom of the Borough of Blandford Forum in 1972. More recently, in 2005, the Freedom of Blandford Town was granted to the Queen’s Gurkha Signals.