As time passes so memories fade.
As time passes tales of Weymouth’s involvement in the build up to and part played in WWI get forgotten.
Weymouth and Portland once had a large military and naval force based in this area. Men were stationed at the Nothe Fort and Red Barracks and of course not forgetting Portland Roads was a busy naval base.
What follows are just a few extracts from the manuscript of my second book Nothe Fort and Way Beyond, ones that hopefully give a flavour of what part we played in these events.
Weymouth’s role in the build up was fairly extensive so I’ve decided to serialise them because I think it’s so important we don’t forget our heritage.
1913; The Build Up to WWI
The start of July saw the arrival in Weymouth of some of the high-ranking men from naval powers. Amongst them was Winston Churchill, British Lord of the Admiralty, who was meeting his continental counterpart, M. Boudin, the French minister of Marine.
(Image courtesy Weymouth Museum)
They were there to witness the British naval fleet in action, this was a tightening of the bonds between allied countries, an inkling of the future. Once again Weymouth bore witness to the impressive might of the British naval powers as the various sea going vessels were put through their paces out in the bay. Churchill and Boudin watching on, no doubt whilst discussing the fragile state of European alliances, and the brutal nature of things to come.
August arrived, and that year’s Territorial camp had an air of urgency and seriousness about it. What for many men had started out as a bit of excitement, a jolly jape, and a chance to get away for a few days from their humdrum lives was suddenly for real.
Those men could only have been all too aware that very soon they could be using all these newly learnt skills out in the field, and under very different and difficult circumstances.
The men of the Dorset Fortress RE (T) and the Dorset RGA (T) combined camps as usual, taking over most of the ground atop the Nothe peninsula.
The RE had soon set up a wireless station on top of the hill, with a connection down to the town. They spent a great deal of their time working inside the fort practicing and honing their newly acquired skills.
The volunteer artillerymen spent their time working on their gun drill in the Nothe fort and out on the breakwater forts. They were also given instruction in the new machine gunnery.
I wonder what was going through their minds?
Did they stop and think about the fact that within months their weapons would be aimed at another human being, even more so, that another human would be aiming their own guns in their direction.
But of course, where ever the military were based, they were more than willing to provided entertainment for the town.
The Dorset Fortress RE (T) military band (pictured above) had arranged to perform in the Nothe grounds at the weekend. Crowds flocked to the gardens to enjoy their rousing renditions, probably looking at these men and young boys through fresh eyes, wondering if should we be dragged into war, these soldiers would be defending our very shores.
Many would end up going overseas and fighting for King and country, some never to return.
Right behind them came the camp of the Ambulance Brigade, those men whose job it was to take care of the sick, wounded, dying and dead, when and if war should break out.
With them arrived a transport party including their 25 horses. Their aim was to teach techniques of fieldwork, stretcher work, loading ambulances, preparing hospital tents to be used in the field and methods of sterilising operating equipment under less than sanitary and safe conditions.
As a sign of changing times, part of their lectures consisted of learning the new rules of the 1906 Geneva Convention, or to title it correctly, The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. An important agreement drawn up between major nations, one which set out the strict terms for the treatment and protection of those persons not taking part in the hostilities, either civilians or injured soldiers and sailors.
There was even coverage of the treatment and care of the horses delivered by the accompanying Army Veterinary Corps, horses still being one of the main mode of transportation out in the battlefield at that time, as anyone who watched the poignant film War Horse will be aware.
The next to arrive on our doorstep in the build up to the start of hostilities, in September, the Russian Fleet, consisting of 5 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 4 destroyers sailed into Portland Roads. A further signal to those observing the increased amount of naval and military traffic in the area, as if any were needed, that Britain was busy girding her loins. Such blatant shows of the entent cordial, and the continued necessary cementing of alliances for dark days ahead.
During 1913, all of this history in the making happened right under the noses of those regular soldiers based on the Nothe. With their grandstand viewpoint they could watch the non-stop coming and goings of both harbours and the frantic multinational naval activity out in the bay, only reinforcing the idea that something big was on its way.
Would they be a part of it this time?
Would they be called into action?
For now all the RGA based around the coast were on high alert, primed and ready.
Another little mentioned fact is the actual timing of the treaty in 1918.
Finally, in November, came the official end of the fierce hostilities that had been decimating the lives of so many around the globe. In a railway carriage tucked away in a forest on the outskirts of Compiegne, France, the German delegation put their signature to the Armistice treaty. The war was over. The iconic phrase that goes hand and hand with Armistice Day, ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ is a time and date that is very much with us still as we annually commemorate those who lost their lives in the Great War. (The treaty was actually signed at 5.10 a.m. that morning, but didn’t come into effect until 11 a.m. giving time for the message to be relayed to those still fighting at the front and to the people back home.)