WW1 Wiltshire Part One: Codford & Larkhill

Facing a year without my usual battlefields tours, earlier in the Summer I decided instead on a more local history trip. I headed down to Wiltshire to explore areas of Cranborne Chase AONB that had played host to army camps during the First World War. 

Located to the west of Salisbury, this hillier region had effectively been an extension of Salisbury Plain, which was home to thousands of soldiers throughout the war stationed in numerous training and rest camps. I started my trip at Codford, on the north-eastern edge of Cranborne Chase.

Driving down, with rain beating against the windscreen, I started to wonder if I was mad for doing this sort of thing for 'fun', but I was also happy to be off on any sort of adventure after the months of lockdown.

Map of the Codford Camps (source)

Codford was selected for use during the war as the command depot for convalescing New Zealand soldiers, who first arrived in the town in July 1916. It was later also used as an extension of the Australian depot at nearby Sutton Veny, giving this town's war service a very ANZAC character.

I arrived in the small town with the rain still drizzling and parked up beside St Mary's Church. The car park overlooked a gently sloping field that during the war had been home to Codford Camp 5. According to a wartime map of the area, a light railway also ran along between the church and the field. Today it seemed difficult to picture, that a place that was now so quiet had once been so busy. One hut located at the end of the field did look as though it may have been an original from the war, but it did still seem odd to imagine the same long wooden huts repeating across the grass. 

With many Covid restrictions still in place, St Mary's Church itself was closed, but I had a look around the graveyard where there were a few First World War headstones. The deaths of these men all predated the arrival of the New Zealanders, when the village's camps had been used for the early training of British soldiers. 

Among them is the grave of Pte W Cooper of 10th battalion, Cheshire Regiment. He was the first man to be buried here during the war, having died on 27th September 1914. He was a particularly unlucky man, as the battalion he was training with had only been raised a fortnight before, meaning that he was a new volunteer at the beginning of his training when he died. It's not known whether this was from an accident or illness.

When the New Zealand Command Depot arrived in Codford in 1916 they established the No 3 General Hospital and along with it, a dedicated ANZAC Cemetery, which today contains the burials of 97 Australian and New Zealand soldiers, as well as an additional grave from the Second World War. 

Entering this slightly secluded cemetery felt like stepping straight onto the Western Front, with the familiar forms of the CWGC's uniform headstones and the Cross of Sacrifice. However, the one difference was the number of private headstones that were scattered in between the regular ones. It is thought that these were paid for by family members of the dead during the war, before the stone headstones were built in the subsequent years.


Among the private headstones is that of Cpl Albert Button who was killed during an accidental bomb explosion on 23rd November, 1916. L/Sgt Brown, who witnessed the accident, recalled how 'Pte Taylor threw a bomb. He threw with a round arm motion instead of over-arm as he had been instructed, and did not release it until his arm had completed practically a half circle. The bomb hit the top of the parapet and rolled to the left, twisting into the next bay. Mr Swann called for everyone to get out if the bay. I also called out at the same time. The men continued to rush out of the bay on my left until the bomb exploded. I then noticed several men had been wounded.' Part of the grenade entered Button's head in front of his right ear and exited two inches behind his left ear, killing him instantly. It was a sad accident and unfortunately not an uncommon one, sustained as the men learnt to soldier and use live weaponry.

Back at the car, the rain started to ease up so I set off on a run to discover some of the area around Codford. This was the first time I've jogged instead of walked on a history trip, but I really enjoyed it. Especially given the less-than-ideal weather, it was nice to move along a bit quicker, but I was still able to experience everything as closely as if I had been walking the ground. The route was about 16km and encompassed much of the surrounding hillside.

The 'Punch Bowl' hospital (source)
My first stop was at the 'Punch Bowl', an interesting dip in the landscape that had hosted a hospital during the war. Sheltered on all sides by the hills, this would have been as comfortable a place as any for the hospital which, like much of the army's presence in this region, was dependent on temporary wooden and metal huts. One hut, now overgrown, remained at the edge of the Bowl so I had a bit of a poke about. 


From here, I headed off up the hill - past Auckland Farm, named in memory of the New Zealand legacy - and up to Codford Circle, an Iron Age hillfort. A few thousand years before soldiers had occupied this area during the First World War, these hills had been used for defensive purposes. All that remains today is a large flat circle of land on top of the hill, but it was still impressive, with 360 degree views that would have been even better on a clear day! In the centre there is also an Ordnance Survey trig pillar, which I 'bagged' on my seemingly never-ending quest to visit all the remaining pillars in England and Wales.

On up the next hill I visited another trig pillar at Clay Pit Hill, before running along and back down to the Wylye Valley along the road from Codford. By now it was raining pretty heavily again, so I got my head down and ran on, trying to enjoy the nice fields and tracks despite the dreich weather (can weather be dreich in southern England?). 

Instead of running up the A36, I took the quieter and more scenic option of crossing over into the village of Stockton. This was beautiful and I doubt much of it (other than the car parking!) had changed much since the soldiers would have visited during the war. I wondered if any of them had put their letters into the village postbox.

I cut along the footpath through the grounds of Stockton House and was amazed to get such a good view of the Lamb Down Chalk Badge between the trees. The house had been the headquarters of the Australian Brigade Commander and Lamb Down had been a hill soldiers had frequently marched over. Sometimes this had been on punishment parades, which earned it the nickname 'Misery Hill'. When the Commander wanted to leave a lasting tribute to the Australians in the area, the hill was chosen for a carving to be done, with 13th battalion digging out the shape of their Rising Sun cap badge into the chalk hillside. It's an impressive tribute, and also a nice reminder of the Australians' presence in the area beyond the more sombre graves that remain. On my walk tomorrow to Fovant, I would see far more of these chalk badges.

Back in Codford, I waited for some huge modern tanks to drive past, shaking the ground beneath them, (I'm sorry, I have always been useless at identifying vehicles) and returned to the car to dry out. It was now only early afternoon so I had some snacks and decided to go for a drive east towards Larkhill, where New Zealand soldiers had also been stationed during the war.

I had been hoping to locate the YMCA hut that was in the village, but with the Royal Artillery garrison now there, it was hopeless trying to match the photo to anything. I did, however, happen across the Garrison Church so stopped by. It was, typically, closed, but outside there was a really interesting memorial wall. A plaque explained that these were the Artillery memorial plaques that had been moved from the original chapel at Woolwich, including a large memorial to the Victoria Cross winners. 

Plaques from the First World War included one to Brigadier General Perkins who died in 1921, having served in Hazara in 1891, as well as the Great War and North Russia in 1919. Another was to Captain Eric Croftim who was 'accidentally killed' in January 1918. Some of the other memorials dated back to Lucknow in 1802. 

From Larkhill I drove round past Stonehenge (and the obligatory A303 traffic jam) and back into Cranborne Chase where I headed off to my campsite in Bowerchalke. This was very much a basic farm site, but it felt lovely and peaceful, with just a few other tents there. I made camp, ate lots of food, and had an early night ahead of a long walk the next day.

Come back next week for part two of my WW1 Wiltshire trip!


Sources: https://www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk/explore/items/anzacs-codford

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting about this interesting visit. I’m a former soldier who shares your interest in WW1 and history in general, albeit with perhaps understandable military slant. I lived on Salisbury plain for some years, first at Netheravon, but then at Codford and I have wandered the exact same path as that you’ve recorded. I’m pleased to see that it’s still largely preserved as I remember it.