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First World War: Camps

Historic England is investigating the traces of the vast new army camps built to house the troops.

Southam, Warwickshire, a rare survival of a First World War accommodation hut.
Southam, Warwickshire, a rare survival of a First World War accommodation hut. This hut saw service in Belgium and after the war was returned to England and was subsequently bought by the people of Southam as a recreation hall for returning servicemen. (Private Collection)

At the outbreak of war Britain had a small regular volunteer army of about 250,000 plus around 145,000 reservists, with large depots at Aldershot, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Shorncliffe, and Curruagh (Ireland). By the autumn of 1914 this accommodation was inadequate to house the thousands that volunteered to join the colours and at first many were housed in tented camps. Field Marshal Kitchener’s call for hundreds of thousands of volunteers for the New Army, put further strain on the peace time system.

New camps were built to standardised plans. Model huts were designed so they could be adapted depending on the kind of unit (or hospital) to be housed there and its role. Many were later adapted as hutted hospitals. To begin with the huts were prefabricated timber frames clad in corrugated iron with asbestos sheet lining, later due to steel and zinc shortages wooden huts were commonly used.

Some camps were vast affairs, with their own canteens, hospitals, post offices, and clubs. Camps on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, were built to hold 40,000 troops.

PoW camp
PoW camp, Frith Hill, near Deepcut, Surrey. By 1918 about 164,000 German prisoners of war were held in the United Kingdom. At first ad hoc tented camps were set up, the one at Frith Hill was close to many existing British Army depots. (Private Collection)

Despite their size, the camps’ temporary nature meant that entire sites have been dismantled leaving scant evidence of their existence. At Seaford, East Sussex, English Heritage’s Aerial Survey and Investigation team has shown the potential of historic aerial photographs to document these lost camps.

At Catterick, North Yorkshire where a new divisional camp for 40,000 men was built, 2,000 huts were required and it become the ‘Aldershot of the North.’ Historic England is investigating this military town, a new town created as a consequence of the war.

In addition to the camps required for British and allied troops accommodation was also required for prisoners of war. Initially, they were often held in tented camps surrounded by barbed wire. More permanent camps were established in former workhouses and even a newly completed Lancashire textile factory. Elsewhere, purpose-built camps were built often housing small groups of men engaged in agricultural and forestry work.

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