Friday , June 14 2024
Home / Historic Dartmoor / Manoeuvres1873


It is a well known fact that since 1873 various parts of Dartmoor have been used for military training. Today the areas on which this can take place are clearly defined but that was not always the case. In the August of 1873 some 9,000 soldiers took part in two weeks of manoeuvres with the main camp being on Ringmoor Down. The exercises were carried out over a wide area of southern Dartmoor, from Eylesborough to Roborough Down to Tavistock and Princetown. It was commented at the time how the landscape provided; “steep hills, rugged tors, sloping valleys, bogs (with the appearance of which every military man should be acquainted and thus avoid what would otherwise be a dangerous enemy), plains dotted with huge boulders, thick hedges, rapid streams, bad roads, copses etc., and what is as important, good level ground for division, brigade and regimental drills.” There can be no question that Dartmoor more than adequately provides all of those landscape features but there are also other components it also provides – rain. fog, and wind. No matter how careful the planning for such a huge event the only thing that can’t be reckoned with is the weather and on this occasion Dartmoor well and truly put a spanner in the works. A local newspaper report from the first day of the manoeuvres read: “The accounts we received up to Saturday presented a picture of camp life more lively than agreeable. The effects of the rain of Friday was enough to disgust the most seasonable veteran,and a correspondent describes the camp, with its long rows of tents, as like so many dejected mushrooms, while its ranks of miserable dispirited picketed horses, its utter absence of any sign of animation, make it from every point of view a place to be avoided. But a camp on Dartmoor, under rainy weather, superadds other depressing influences. The wet attacks the soldier both from above and below. There is no dodging it. Water last week lay in patches several inches deep, collecting in hollows, until it found vent through the natural surface channels, meanwhile soaking into the peaty substratum until the soil became thoroughly saturated.” A much more detailed account of the manoeuvres read:

The weather at Dartmoor has not been altogether favourable for the manoeuvres of the army corps. Soaking rain, such as is not seen in any other county of England, has made the ground of about the consistency of thick gruel, and when the rain has ceased it has often been succeeded by an impenetrable fog, making any attempt at the management of troops little better than guess work. There have, however, been occasional spells of clear weather, during which the men have been no means idle. There have been several engagements during the week in which both divisions have been employed, and the work done is generally spoken of as credible to all concerned. The management of the Control Department, which was at first thought to be the weak point, is said to be excellent. The base depot is at Plymouth, and there are a series of depots all the way up to the most distant camp. These depots do not draw supplies direct from Plymouth, but depend upon each other in the order of their distance from the base, so that in the event of a retreat the army would not be obliged to abandon large quantities of stores collected close to the front, but would on the contrary, fall back on a succession of well provisioned depots.
On Tuesday, as an spectator fell from his horse in consequence of an attack of apoplexy, and tumbled over the rocks being so injured that he died. During the manoeuvres some of the ammunition waggons were lost in the mist, and one whole regiment was marching up to Bellever tor, right away from its destination, when it was fortunately met by a civilian who happened to carry a pocket compass. On Wednesday the weather became so bad in the neighbourhood of Princetown that General Staveley abandoned the scheme of operations for the week, and sent the men back to Yennadon as fast as the defective means of transport would permit. It is not yet certain what day the Prince of Wales will visit the camp; but he is to be present at the ‘march past’ on the 21st.
The incident of the patrol is, of course, one of nightly occurrence. The camp is closed at a certain hour, after which every good soldier is either on guard or asleep within his tent. The patrol’s stern demand, “Any soldiers in here?” is, indeed, a terror to the truant soldier, who may have stayed too long over his pint and pipe in the tap room of the ‘Red Lion’, for he knows that absence without leave is one of the most heinous offences he can be guilty of.”

As photography had not reached many of the media papers they would often send a sketch artist to such events and below are some of the portrayals of camp life on Dartmoor during these manoeuvres. It is interesting to see that once troop movement plans were drawn up no obstacle could stand in their way and there definitely was no option of a detour around any obstruction. As can be seen if the army had to get somewhere an enclosure wall was not going to stop them hence the sketch of some engineers dismantling an enclosure wall. Although the image is probably too small to see but the effigy on op of the engineer’s bonfire has a plaque around its neck which reads – ‘Dartmoor Demon’.
Below is a personal account by a soldier belonging to the Second Division of his experience whilst at the camp.
Certainly camp life is apt to knock the squeamishness out of one. Every company has to furnish every day; two to fetch rations, two for wood, two for water, two to help the cook, two for picket to keep order in the camp, two for pioneers to do spade work and act as scavengers, and in addition has to furnish the guard in its turn. As our companies were weak, every private had to take a turn at one fatigue or the other about every two days, and in addition to this there was the tent to be tidied, rifle and bayonet to be cleaned – an endless task in wet weather, mess tin to be scoured, and boots and uniform to be cleaned, so that the ordinary camp duties took up no small amount of time. The great inconvenience was that most of this work was more or less dirty, and the opportunities of washing were small; one’s only chance was to take a bucket and trudge to the nearest brook, which might be a mile off. One had not always the time for this, and on such occasion one’s toilet was as limited as the ‘three stamps and damn’ of the privateer’s man. My hands were generally of a rich sepia with peaty soil, boot dubbing and oil, and I don’t expect my nails to be very respectable for another fortnight. However, cleanliness is an acquired instinct and the natural dirty savage soon crops out in most of us. The dirt was, however, not more external, as out cookery was highly primitive, and I am afraid not very cleanly. Certainly during the fortnight we all of us must have made large inroads into the peck of dirt which tradition says it is the fate of all sons of Adam to devour during their lives. To a person of delicate stomach it would not be pleasant to go on rations fatigue and see carcasses of sheep with the life barely out of them, loaves, and groceries chucked pell-mall into a dirty service waggon, with a dirty-booted, dirty-handed individual standing in the midst endeavouring to keep order in the chaos. Neither did I suppose till I tried it that I could slice up great gory joints of meat for the camp kettle, and afterwards devour the proceeds of my scullion’s work with the utmost relish…
A man who really likes soldiering and is prepared to take everything in good part – to put his kid gloves in his pocket and do his work without shirking, and who also has a fair spirit of camaraderie – may derive a great deal of pleasure from a miniature campaign. It is no small thing to be transferred for a short time to a thoroughly novel field of experience. Then the stir and animation of a camp is always an interesting sight. To those who are fond of the pomp and circumstance of war nothing can be more inspiring than the muster for the march out on a fine day, with the regiments music sounding, and the great bands of scarlet moving over the sward to their places. Later comes the more serious work, and to advance in a line of skirmishers, keeping one’s place and distance pretty well, and at the same time using all available cover, is admirable practice for legs, lungs, eyes, and brain…
But it is not only the men of one’s own corps that one comes in contact with. I saw a good deal of the regulars, and come to the conclusion that the British soldier is a grossly maligned creature. Of course, there are a good many black sheep, and sobriety might be more extensively cultivated; but still the better sort of privates and non-commissioned officers are men whom it is a pleasure to mix with
.” The Newcastle Journal, Friday 29th August, 1873.
Regardless of Dartmoor’s weather vagaries the manoeuvres took place throughout the August of 1873 and culminated on the 21st of August. throughout this period numerous exercises took place which are too numerous to detail here. Ironically on the last day of manoeuvres Dartmoor put its best face on by providing a nice sunny day. The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh both attended the march past and after leaving the filed the troops were dismissed. Some troops marched to Okehampton whilst others marched to Bickington stations before being returned to their respective barracks. By the 23rd of August the majority of the contingent from Robrough had departed leaving only a few engineers, a detachment of the Army Service Corps and a Divisional Hospital. Besides the normal brigade drills and skirmishes several  field days took place amongst which involved the pontoon train which was used to cross what was called ‘The Devil’s Dumble’ wherever that may have been?  Apart from the civilian fatality as noted above there was one more sad occurrence involving the Deputy Quartermaster General, Colonel Mackenzie. He and his  brother-in-law were travelling in a gig when they attempted to cross a ford on the river Meavy.  The current was far too strong and the gig turned over mid-stream, both men made it back to the bank but  the Colonel; “died almost immediately from apoplexy resulting from the shock.” It is hard to imagine what a huge impact the influx of so many troops, their horses and equipment must have made to the fold living on and around Dartmoor at that time. Clearly there would have been opportunities of supplying local meat etc. to the army as well as the extra tarde coming to the various inns and taverns. It was announced in parliament in the July of 1873 that; “as a temporary measure, to give licensed victuallers and inn-keepers an extra allowance of 3½d. for each hot meal issued. In cases in connection with the Autumn Manoeuvres where this allowance has not been given, special application should be made for it direct to the War Department.” Additionally there would have been many people who came to watch the various exercises and skirmishes that took place which again would have brought passing trade to the various businesses.
After all was done and dusted various reviews were posted in the media of the time, many of which were none to complimentary. Here is a more balanced view taken by a reporter from the Bradford Observer and written on the 25th of August 1873:
“The Autumn Manoeuvres really collapsed into improvised marchings, and skirmishing, and mischances of flood and fell, of mist of directions and mist of the scene. Military men seem to be vexed enough, and in their vexation they are just a bit unjust. The authorities could not control the weather, and it was the weather which upset the programme, and washed out the pipeclay. Officers and men have had a bit of roughing instead of gala performances. Their professional performances have not been quite satisfactory; but is not a chief purpose of these musters to apply practical tests of efficiency for actual warfare, and to find out defects in order that they may be remedied? In actual war good weather cannot be got to order, nor can a choice of ground be secured… The newspaper accounts of the Dartmoor muster must be read with some allowance for the irritation of the writers, which the wind, mist, and general disappointment and discomfort occasioned. They had no inspiration for glowing descriptions, and they got too much into the carping vein. But let us look at the matter from the training point of view, and the alleged failure will turn into a very wholesome lesson, which ought to produce better results than a hundred fair-weather holiday gatherings and effective displays. The Transport Service prove insufficient. The Control Department which is now charged with the duty of provisioning the troops, got into bad odour with the officers and men. The medicine chests and hospital arrangements were neglected. Finally there was a want of harmony of efficiency prevailing among nearly all the services of the army. The bad weather and complete breakdown of the pretty programme drawn up beforehand brought weaknesses which must now be cured.”

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.