November 2014

The New Forest at War in 1914
November 2014

The November meeting of the Society was addressed by John Cockram, a local author who specialises in recounting stories of local servicemen and women in both World Wars. John gave a fascinating talk covering the five months of ‘The New Forest at War in 1914’.

The New Forest in the early 1900s was essentially a series of rural communities largely composed of working families living in cottages, some keeping a few chickens and perhaps the odd pig which, together with the vegetable garden, made them somewhat self sufficient. Most men were employed in agriculture, forestry and related activities as industrial employment opportunities were very limited. These limitations meant that local employment for the young was restricted; consequently there was a period when they were encouraged to emigrate to Canada to take advantage of the opportunities to be found there.

At the outbreak of war this all changed—the Boer War had been a wake-up call and Britain undertook the role of ‘global policeman.’ The size of its merchant fleet was increased and in 1906 the first dreadnought battleship was built at Portsmouth using the latest design and technology. By 1914 23 dreadnoughts had been built and the number of both cruisers and destroyers was also increased significantly. In the case of the army, procedures were introduced to ensure that 700,000 personnel could be mobilized quickly.

The speaker provided statistics on New Forest parish populations and the number of men who voluntarily enlisted in the army and navy.

When war was declared in August 1914, It was generally believed that it would be over by Christmas and following the plea from Lord Kitchener, young men rushed to join ‘the Colours’ not wanting to ‘miss out.’ As they left their homes in the New Forest, there was an influx of new soldiers from other districts for whom tented training camps were established, for example, the ‘Immortal’ 7th Division at Lyndhurst. After training it was a common sight to see them marching to Southampton, one of the principle embarkation ports. The forest became alive with activity. Women assumed a prominent role. They were trained as nurses, took positions in local offices or arranged sewing and knitting groups in the villages.

Military Hospitals were established of which Brockenhurst was a prime example. Here was established the Lady Hardinge Hospital for wounded Indian soldiers. Home Mead (now the site of Lymington Post Office) was loaned by the two Miss Sharps to become a hospital and convalescent home. These hospitals were quickly put to use, as following the Battle of Mons in late August and the subsequent retreat by the British Army, the casualties began to arrive back in England.

‘Recruitment’ of horses in large numbers was crucial and Remount Camps (reception centres) were established in various parts of the country. Romsey was chosen as one such centre and building work was commenced in November 1914. By early 1915, the centre was fully operational. Horses were purchased not only from owners in the Forest but also from North America. Following medical examination and initial training they were transported by train to Southampton and then shipped to the Continent.

In spite of all this activity there were during 1914 few fundamental changes to the Forest way of life. The changes were much more pronounced in later years.

This interesting talk was much appreciated by members and visitors. The next meeting of the Society, will be held on Friday 30 January 2015, when the speaker will be Steve Roberts on the subject of ‘Hengistbury Head—from Saxons to Selfridge’.