Autumn Manoeuvres, 1891
In September 1891, the parish of East Meon played host to two Divisions from Aldershot Camp, probably more than 20,000 men. One Division was encamped near the source of the River Meon, the other at Soberton. For two weeks, the two Divisions conducted war games. The Report written by the Adjutant General was given to the History Group by Mrs Jennifer Toomey of Froxfield. It describes in great detail the choice of this area, the movement of the battalions to the Meon Valley, the exercises conducted and the lessons learned. This account was written by Michael Blakstad for Meon Matters, June 2015.
The tone is set by the handwritten dedication to the Earl of Airlie, of Cortachy Castle, by Evelyn Wood, Lieutenant General of Aldershot Camp. And the choice of location was an exercise in upper-class networking. The original terrain had been north of Whitchurch. The willing landowner was the Earl of Carnarvon, whose tenant farmers had given their consent, but “after several visits to the ground and personal interviews with the shooting tenants, I found it impossible to overcome their objections.” The Adjutant goes on to complain that “Manoeuvres are not possible where the sporting rights are leased to persons residing out of the district.” East Meon came to the rescue, with the major landowners, the Bonham Carters, Captain Le Roy Lewis (of Westbury House) and their tenants agreeing “in a cordial spirit”. The only problem was the weather, which delayed that year’s harvest, causing the Manoeuvres to take place ten days later than usual, starting on September 10th.
The Aldershot force was divided into two Divisions (each, typically, 11,000 men or more, comprising cavalry and infantry, artillery and engineering brigades, an ammunition column and field hospital). One was to be based at Soberton, the other would have camped at Buriton but lack of water supply led to it being at Fairfield Farm (South Farm). “The choice of camping ground at East Meon was further restricted to the left bank of the river, the fields on the right bank being under cultivation, with crops in many cases still standing when the Manoeuvres were terminated. “Staff Officers rented for themselves a private house in West Meon. The ground at East Meon became a sea of mud after three days of rain” and sanitation appears to have been poor … “For want of proper instructions beforehand the trenches in the screens were not properly placed and in consequence men urinated against the walls of the screens.” Too much information? The march from Aldershot was an ordeal for the infantry men: “The number of men falling out varied in proportion to the care taken by the officers to ensure proper attention being paid to the fitting of boots and socks and the cleanliness of feet …73 fell out in one battalion, only one in another.”
The weather improved. “On the second day of the Manoeuvres, owing to the heat of the sun, both opposing forces wore helmets, from which some confusion arose. I recommend a proposal made by Lieutenant General His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, that we should assimilate our practice to that adopted in the German armies, by putting white cap covers on the head-dress of one side.” “Every Staff Officer when coming under fire removed his cocked hat and walked about bare-headed, because opposing troops were invariably directed to fire upon any officer with this too conspicuous head-dress.” The Report contains meticulous descriptions of each exercise; they mainly involved the Soberton Division attempting to march north, with the East Meon Division directed to intercept them. (The two Divisions swapped base camps half-way.) The Umpires were unforgiving … “In one Division, the mistake was made of ordering a (cavalry) squadron leader not to fight on any account, and acting on these orders he allowed a company belonging to his force to be surrounded without an effort to extricate it. These orders I was obliged to cancel.” “In several instances, (artillery) batteries were pushed forward up lanes before it was ascertained that the exits from such were free from the enemy. The Artillery officers were not generally sufficiently supervised … in many cases received orders such as ‘Take up the best position you can’ or ‘Conform’. On one occasion the Artillery of one Division took up its position within 500 yards of unbroken infantry.” “On 12th September, officer commanding one of the opposing forces placed one battery of his Artillery on low ground, 210 feet under a steep hill, and when the force was driven back no instruction was apparently sent to assist the battery commander in regaining the line of defeat. In consequence he attempted to ascend the hill with a gradient so steep that although three of the guns reached the summit yet the fourth stuck fast and all were so delayed that the enemy’s Infantry arrived within 500 yards before half the hill was surmounted. Thus the battery must have been captured.” “The Cordite blank cartridge being made up of 150 pieces of brown paper makes the ground very untidy …”
As a footnote, the balloon section also had difficulties: “The country was not favourable for the use of balloons, and yet their utility is undoubted when one force stands on the defensive land, the experience gained fully repaid the cost of taking a balloon down with the troops. The force of the wind prevented its ascent on two occasions and an on another day the operations were cut short by a dense fog.”
A PDF of the full report can be downloaded from ww.eastmeonhistory.org.uk.
Click here for PDFs of the Report, one containing highlights from the text, the other scanned pages of the document.