Long before the outbreak of the First World War, the New Forest had been used by Queen Victoria’s army as a training ground in a manner similar to their use of nearby Salisbury Plain. During the 19th century the Royals had long since lost their desire to hunt and deer were being removed from the Forest. Steel was gradually taking over from timber in ship construction and, in any event, by the beginning of the century the stock of trees had been severely depleted.

new forest pre first world war

Rest time during Volunteer manoeuvres – 1890s

The Forest was in a state of upheaval regarding its future use and direction. While its future lay in the balance, its wild, open undulating wilderness proved an ideal location for the training of troops, especially in the last decade of the century following military campaigns in the Crimean (1853-56) and the first Boer War (1880–1881).

During this period various Volunteer Rifle Corps were formed around the district, supplied with rifles by the government, and the New Forest became home to several rifle ranges near Beaulieu, Brockenhurst, Godshill and Lyndhurst. Towards the end of the century in 1895 one of the biggest troop manoeuvres ever seen in the Forest at the time was undertaken at the request of the Duke of Connaught (son of Queen Victoria) when 15,000 men were encamped on the Forest for almost a month.

Various Army firing ranges were also set up across the New Forest following the passing of the Ranges Act in 1891. As these ranges took up large areas of the Forest, it is not surprising that the Verderers were opposed to their establishment as they sought to protect the rights of commoners to graze their animals without the risk of their stock being shot! Some concessions were obtained after lengthy discussions but it remained a thorny issue for several years.

Remains of these ranges can still be seen on the Forest. The image below shows the improvised butts (backstop) for one such range on Beaulieu Heath. The Victorians were no respecters of ancient monuments as these butts were formed by piling the earth from one Bronze Age burial mound on top of another!

new forest pre first world war

Remains of Victorian Rifle Range – Beaulieu Heath

During May 1898 another series of army manoeuvres took place involving large numbers of men from the New Forest Volunteer battalions. These manoeuvres were held under active service conditions and the exercise were based on a scenario of an invading force landing from the sea at Lymington and attempting to capture Southampton. The defending force was camped on Southampton Common initially and then marched to Lyndhurst to encamp whilst the invading forces were based at Hatchet Pond. Both groups eventually encountered each other near Beaulieu Road Station when the invaders were eventually driven off. The exercise was observed by Lord Wolseley, Commander in Chief of the British Army who was pleased with what he witnessed. Interestingly many of the volunteers were on bicycles!

new forest pre first world war

4th Volunteer Bttn. Hampshire Rifles – Camp at Lyndhurst 1898

New Forest Scouts 1905

The New Forest Pony was also called into action regularly, having been used in South Africa during the Boer wars where it is said to have performed well against other breeds. In 1900 the 4th Volunteer Battalion Hampshire Regiment (based in Bournemouth) was joined by a Mounted Infantry Company which became known as the New Forest Scouts, using New Forest Ponies as their mounts. Subsequently, the 4th Bttn. adopted the Crown Stirrup that hangs in the Verderers Court as it badge.

An indication of the scale of military activity on the Forest in the early 1900s can be found in Parliamentary questions of the period. Hansard of 1906 reports that the Secretary of State for War was asked to state the number of troops that were camped and trained in the New Forest. He replied that in 1904, training exercises involved the Royal Marine Artillery, six Volunteer battalions. In 1905, Royal Marine Artillery, 1st and 2nd Divisions, Telegraph Battalion, Royal Engineers, five Volunteer battalions, and one Cadet Corps were encamped on the Forest. In 1906 the Royal Marine Artillery were again present together with eleven Volunteer battalions and one Cadet Corps. During this period the local population must have become quite accustomed to significant troop movements.