Legacy of the Great War on Cannock Chase
Text © Copyright John M, December 2013
Cannock Chase is a 68 acre Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the south of Staffordshire comprising rolling open heath and woodland divided by deep valleys. The underlying geology is Triassic Sherwood Group Sandstone.
The Chase is a remnant of the royal hunting lands of Cank Forest on the high ground originally bounded by the River Trent and tributaries Sow, Penk and Tame. The area was granted to the Bishops of Lichfield in 1290 who built a deerpark and hunting lodge at Beaudesert. Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII Beaudesert passed to the Paget family.
To fuel the Industrial Revolution the woodland on the Chase was exploited for charcoal and later extensive areas of bell pitting for shallow coal deposits. Deeper coal mining continued into the 20th century. Commercial forestry was introduced by landowners in the late 19th century.
In the 1860s Cannock Chase was considered as a new home for the Woolwich Arsenal but the scheme was abandoned. Full scale military exercises by regular army units were held in 1873 and volunteer units set up temporary tented camps for exercises at Wolseley Park in late 19th century.
The main landowners on Cannock Chase are Staffordshire County Council and the Forestry Commission. Recent years have seen a move away from dense forestry plantations and restoration of the heathland areas by felling and managed grazing. This will return the appearance of the heathland to pre-1914 when the area was rough grazed by sheep. The AONB recognises the heathland and important areas of ancient oak forest such as Brocton Coppice.
At the outbreak of the Great War insufficient barrack accommodation existed for the overwhelming numbers of men enlisting. By December 1914 with over one million recruits new hutted camps were required. Lord Lichfield offered free use of part of his property on Cannock Chase.
Two camps were to be constructed on either side of the Sher Brook Valley, Rugeley and Brocton Camps, each capable of holding an Infantry Division of approximately 20 000 men and 5600 horses with their entire associated infrastructure, roads, railway, power, water and sewerage.
A workforce of 1000 men was employed through the winter 1914 and spring 1915 erecting a large wooden encampment numbering 500 huts by March 1915 and eventually rising to more than 1500.
A military railway later known as 'The Tackeroo' was built in late 1914 to transport construction materials on to the top of the Chase from the railway lines at Hednesford and Milford.
The first troops of the Army Service Corps arrived in May 1915 though some accommodation may have been used before this for troops in transit. The 94th Brigade 31st Division was based at Penkridge Bank (Rugeley Camp) from April to July 1915 with Service Battalions of the Accrington Pals (11th East Lancs), Sheffield City, 1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals (12th, 13th and 14th Yorks and Lancs). Occasional use continued through 1915 with other Service Battalions en-route overseas.
As the main contingents of the Territorial battalions and Kitchener’s New Army had by now embarked for the Western Front the role of the camps changed to training. The camps were ideally placed for this surrounded by heathland where a series of rifle ranges and practice trenches were constructed.
The Reserve Battalions of various regiments re-located to the camps in autumn and winter 1915. In September 1916 the Reserve Battalions became Training Reserve Battalions in the newly formed Training Reserve Brigades. The 1st and 2nd Training Reserve Brigades were based at Rugeley Camp with the 3rd Training Reserve Brigade based at Brocton Camp.
As numbers rose a 1000 bed hospital was established nearby at Brindley Heath in spring 1916 to serve the camps and convalescing troops from France. It comprised twenty huts linked by a long corridor, chapel, officers and nurses quarters. Prior to 1916 beds were provided at the Sister Dora Convalescent Hospital at Milford and Ravenhill House at Brereton.
A military cemetery was consecrated in 1916 at Broadhurst Green. Many of the burials are for New Zealand troops and German POWs. It was permitted for home based troops to be buried near their homes.
The 5th Battalion New Zealand Rifle Brigade, The ‘Dinks’, arrived at Brocton Camp in September 1917 being based here until June 1919. Numbers in the camp varied with a complement of up to 2500. A training model was constructed of the trench systems at Messines Ridge.
From 1916 German prisoners were held in a wired and guarded hutted enclosure at the edge of Brocton Camp guarded by troops drawn from units on the camp. Prisoner numbers reached 6000 including some U-Boat crews.
The hospital at Brindley Heath remained in use until bought by the Colliery Company in 1924 as accommodation for miners at the West Cannock No 5 pit. Brindley Heath Village including its own school survived until the 1950s.
The Forestry Commission started planting pines in the 1920s over large swathes of the Chase including the camp areas. Many of these trees will have been harvested and replanted over the last 90years.
At the onset of World War 2 the RAF established a training camp on the Chase at Hednesford and a bombing range for aircraft from RAF Seighford. The training camp closed in 1958 and was sold to Staffordshire County Council.
In the 1960s a war cemetery was developed in the Sher Brook valley near the Commonwealth Cemetery for the German casualties of the Great and Second World Wars.
The last operational rifle range closed in the late 1980s. An exclusion zone with red flags was enforced during firing.
Quarrying for sands and gravels continues on the Chase with large quarries at Pottal Pool and Slitting Mill.
A single surviving Great War hut has recently been reconstructed at the Marquis Drive Visitor Centre.
An overall impression of the camps is shown on a model made for Staffordshire County Council topographical modelby Christine Williams.
The Chase was aerially LIDAR surveyed in 2016 for the Cannock Chase Through Time Project. Field verification of identified features will be carried out by volunteers in 2017.
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