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Labelled as: Uniform of Wilts Local Volunteers at Museum (taken) 1977

Volunteer Alan Clarke, who, as regulars will know, looks after our photographic archive, has sent in two apparently random photographs, from the collection, for us to enjoy.

But they are not random of course. Both the Home Guard of the 1940s and the local volunteers of the eighteenth century had taken on the same task- when all else failed, when the enemy was ‘at the gate’, they would defend it.

Home Guard Trophies Presented to Museum 1976

Volunteer forces were set up after 1859 when the government realised that half the British army was scattered to foreign parts, defending the Empire. In the Crimean War (1853- 56) even the yeomanry (volunteer cavalry regiments raised from landowners) had been sent out to make up numbers. Some arrangement was needed to defend things closer to home.

Wikipedia includes this about the volunteer forces:

  • Corps were only to be formed on the recommendation of the county’s lord-lieutenant.
  • Officers were to hold their commissions from the lord-lieutenant
  • Members of the corps were to swear an oath of allegiance before a justice of the peace, deputy lieutenant or commissioned officer of the corps.
  • The force was liable to be called out “in case of actual invasion, or of appearance of an enemy in force on the coast, or in case of rebellion arising in either of these emergencies.”
  • While under arms volunteers were subject to military law and were entitled to be billeted and to receive regular army pay.
  • Members were not permitted to quit the force during actual military service, and at other times had to give fourteen days notice before being permitted to leave the corps.
  • Members were to be returned as “effective” if they had attended eight days drill and exercise in four months, or 24 days within a year.
  • The members of the corps were to provide their own arms and equipment, and were to defray all costs except when assembled for actual service.
  • Volunteers were also permitted to choose the design of their uniforms, subject to the lord-lieutenant’s approval.
  • Although volunteers were to pay for their own firearms, they were to be provided under the superintendence of the War Office, so as to ensure uniformity of gauge.
  • The number of officers and private men in each county and corps was to be settled by the War Office, based on the lord-lieutenant’s recommendation.

The website of the Wardrobe, the museum of the infantry regiments of Berkshire and Wiltshire (also in the Close – a neighbour of ours), says this about our volunteer regiments, some early versions of which already existed in the county when things were formalised in 1859:

In 1860 the volunteer units were formed into two Battalions of Rifle Volunteers, each 1000 strong. The 1st covered the Southern half of the county with its headquarters at Salisbury, and included Wilton, Warminster, Westbury, Trowbridge and Bradford on Avon. The Northern half embraced the 2nd Battalion and included Devizes, Market Lavington, Chippenham, Calne, and Swindon. In the Cardwell reforms of 1881 the volunteer units were incorporated into the Regimental District. Before being organised into battalions the uniforms of the volunteer corps were bright varied and original. The Wiltshire uniforms were based on “Rifle green and black and remained so right up to 1914. The original uniform of the 1st Battalion was dark green with black lace, similar to that of the rifle brigade. The original Badge was two rakes crossed, with, in the centre, the historic barrel and moon of the Moonraker legend. It was consider merging the two battalions at this stage but no action was taken to facilitate this for twenty two years.  About 1889 the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers, were renamed respectively the 1st Wiltshire Volunteer Rifle Corps, and the 2nd Volunteer Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment. In 1900, during the Boer War, a volunteer Company was recruited from the two volunteer Battalions as reinforcement to the 2nd Battalion on active service in South Africa. The company was commanded by Viscount Folkestone, joining the Regiment in Bloemfontein in April 1900, and returned home at the completion of its year of service, having seen much active service, and having proved itself in all respects up to the standards of regular troops.

If you are interested in reading more, do visit their website, or plan a visit!

Whether or not the description of the uniform matches the one in our photo is for you to decide. Alan does not give us any clues. If there are any experts in military history amongst our readers it would be good to know exactly what the photograph does show. Some thoughts to be going on with – the colour of the uniform does not seem to be green, the style is earlier than 1859 (perhaps late 18th century) and the cap badge is probably GR – one of the Georges…..

Meanwhile, the very mention of the Home Guard raises a smile, due in part to a certain very popular comedy TV series. However, when Churchill said
“We shall fight on the beacheswe shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” it would have been the Home Guard which, amongst others, would have swung in to action. Road signs had already been taken down to try and confuse the enemy if they landed. Documents from the time (this sort of thing is available in local records offices), show that in one village in Dorset, the then secret orders to the Home Guard commander were, that in the case of a landing by the enemy. a cart should be pulled across the bridge on the outskirts in order to stop their advance. A cart.

Again, we may be tempted to smile, even mock, but imagine knowing that the cart was your last defence, that there would be nothing else you could do and you would be expected to do it. And they would have done, too…

From Wikipedia:

“The Home Guard (initially Local Defence Volunteers or LDV) was an armed civilian militia supporting the British Army. Operational from 1940 until 1944, the Home Guard was composed of 1.5 million local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, such as those too young or too old to join the regular armed services (regular military service was restricted to those aged 18 to 41); or those in reserved occupations. Excluding those already in the armed services, the civilian police or civil defence, approximately one-in-five men were volunteers. Their role was to act as a secondary defence force, in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany and their allies.

The Home Guard were to try to slow down the advance of the enemy, even by a few hours in order to give the regular troops time to regroup; and also to defend key communications points and factories in rear areas against possible capture by paratroops or fifth columnists. The Home Guard continued to man roadblocks and guard the coastal areas of the United Kingdom and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores until late 1944 when they were stood down, and finally disbanded on 31 December 1945, eight months after Germany’s surrender. Men aged 17 to 65 could join. Service was unpaid but gave a chance for older or inexperienced soldiers to support the war effort.”

Do any of our readers recognise any of the gentlemen in the photo? If so, please let us know who they are. Is there anyone amongst our volunteers who was in the Home Guard and could share a story? Please do contact Bridget if you can contribute on this.

Thank you Alan, as always. We look forward to more photos soon.