The Great War in Lyndhurst: Uncovering the story of soldiers known as the Immortal 7th
- Credit: Archant
Towns and villages across the county have reason to remember the Great War of 1914-18, but none more so than Lyndhurst. Viv Micklefield goes back in time to uncover the fascinating story of the soldiers known as the Immortal 7th
Think of Lyndhurst and streets thronged with tourists sniffing-out a cream tea, and of traffic snaking towards the deeper reaches of the New Forest spring to mind. Yet just over 100 years ago, these roads and byways would again have been a hive of activity as British troops prepared for a war that the politicians optimistically said would be over by Christmas. And it’s unlikely that October 4 1914 is a date that the 3,000 or so residents of this once sleepy Hampshire town would ever forget, as 15,000 soldiers who’d been encamped nearby for the previous month, marched off to Southampton and the bloody battlefields of Ypres.
“The Forest has been used for military training arguably all the way back to medieval times when archery was practised here,” says Gareth Owen, project officer for the New Forest Remembers digital archive, which has uncovered previously unseen records from public and private collections on the Forest’s vital role during both the First and Second World Wars. He continues: “We have evidence of rifle training taking place for the Boer Wars, which left visible remains on the landscape, and these areas were then re-used during World War 1.”
The British Expeditionary Force had been mobilised and sent to France at the start of hostilities with Germany. However, it soon became apparent that additional manpower was needed - so having recalled brigades of regular soldiers from across the British Empire, the first ones to arrive back on home soil assembled as the 7th Division at their staging post in Lyndhurst.
With many of the official war records sadly lost to bombing raids during 1939-45, piecing together what went on here during the Great War has, he admits, taken some dogged investigation.
“We have been able to use the National Archives at Kew, where we photographed a few hundred pages of WW1 diaries, but the most challenging aspect is that these were all hand-written in pencil, which makes them incredibly hard to read. Now local residents have also come forward with diaries and accounts.
“Additionally, what we’ve found are requests relating to certain areas of the Forest being used for camping and for training which, to my knowledge, would have been Crown land.”
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These records show, for instance, that the 20th Infantry Brigade, the 14th Horse Artillery and the 3rd Heavy Brigade were allocated land for training purposes between the Lyndhurst to Totton and Lyndhurst to Lymington Roads. Whilst other brigades, including Field Artillery and the Northumberland Yeomanry, would have been based in the Burley and Ringwood direction.
According to Gareth: “They were predominantly camped in the White Moor area as well as on the old Racecourse - and from what we can make out, roughly when the 7th Division arrived, troops from the Indian army encamped near Ashurst, and it was they who once the 7th Division left, then moved into the Lyndhurst area before also leaving for the Front. At which point the Racecourse was no longer used and the White Moor area became known as a Bombing and Trench Mortar School.”
Not surprisingly, a newspaper cutting from the archives of the Christopher Tower New Forest Reference Library talks of the peaceful way of life having been shattered in the space of a few weeks, “…it is impossible to get a bed, or to be shaved, or even to buy a stamp unless you are willing to take your place in a queue of soldiers... and the landscape for miles around is dotted with their tents”.
Jude James, who established the Library in 1995, recalls a report from the wartime medical officer of health: “This said that despite the influx of soldiers, the girls of Lyndhurst behaved ‘very properly’, as there was no increase in the birth rate in the period following the troops’ stay.” Perhaps, army regulations at the time might also have had some bearing. “The standing orders for troops arriving suggest they weren’t allowed to go drinking in Lyndhurst,” confirms Gareth, “Although it may have been because there would have been officers staying in the public houses.”
With non-commissioned officers billeted in local homes, The Crown Manor House Hotel appears to have bragging rights ahead of the former Lyndhurst Park Hotel as the Division’s HQ under the command of Major General Sir Thompson Capper. But who can say, if references to the officers’ ‘womenfolk’ staying nearby and to servicemen of all ranks eagerly accepting prayer cards, is fact or propaganda?
What is evident from Gareth’s research is that “for the most part, the Verderers were very sympathetic to supporting the War” and that residents lined the streets to cheer-off the 7th Division - a column of men, horses and vehicles that reputedly stretched the entire length of the eight-mile journey to the embarkation point. It was their subsequent bravery in the defence of Ypres that earned them the title ‘Immortal’, when heavily outnumbered (it’s said that within three weeks of leaving Lyndhurst, only 2,380 of the original 15,000 survived) they held the line, preventing the German advance to the French ports of Dunkirk and Calais.
Paying tribute to this feat at a commemorative service held in 2014, local historian Richard Reeves observed: “Their rifle fire was so accurate and fast that the Germans thought they were facing machine guns. If it were not for the Immortal 7th, history could have been very different.”
And as the months became years, and 68 of Lyndhurst’s own men were lost, compassion towards “our brave young boys” fighting overseas seems undiminished. The town’s War Savings Association saw civilians donate at least 6d each week, while many became Red Cross volunteers at Hill House Hospital, grew vegetables for the Fleet, and raised money in aid of the Hampshire Regiment Prisoners of War Fund.
Save for a memorial window at Lyndhurst Catholic Church and a plaque at the council’s Appletree Court offices, reminders of the Immortal 7th Division may at first glance appear scarce. Yet scratch beneath the surface and the autumn breeze echoes to their legacy.
The New Forest Remembers online archive is a unique record of the area’s role during WW1 and WW2. Anyone can register to add new articles and photographs, or comment on the existing content. Visit www.newforestheritage.org.
The Christopher Tower New Forest Reference Library at the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst houses a comprehensive collection of books, maps and reports. Opening hours are Wednesdays 10am-4pm and Fridays 10am-12.30pm, or by appointment on 023 8028 3444.
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