Blackhall Camp - Formation and training

The home of the Lonsdale Battalion and the Border Regiment in the First World War
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The grandstand at Blackhall

Blackhall Racecourse was the location of the 11th Border Regiment (Lonsdale) Battalion Headquarters in Carlisle, Cumberland. It was the primary site used as a base of operations during the initial formation, recruitment drive and training of new soldiers before they were shipped overseas to fight in France and Belgium from 1916–1918. The Lonsdales at Blackhall was a decision based on several qualifying points, ultimately sanctioned by the Territorial Association. The site was required to have enough space for training in drill, manoeuvres and parading, and there had to be allowances for accommodation and office space.[1] Blackhall was able to fulfil every requirement for a suitable military training ground.

Battalion HQ - The heart of the Lonsdales[edit]

The Right Hon. Earl of Lonsdale

On 17 September 1914, approval of the Army Council was given (War Office letter No. 20/Gen. No./3162 (A.G.1) and an Executive Committee was formed.[2] Hugh Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale and the Executive Committee[3] decided to raise the "Lonsdale Battalion" in three detachments: Carlisle, Kendal and Workington.[2] There were four companies in the three detachments: A and B Companies from East and North Cumberland were based at Blackhall Racecourse, C Company from Westmorland was based at Kendal, and D Company from West Cumberland was based at Workington.

On 25 September the camp at Blackhall was officially started with 75 recruits under the command of Major Binning and Captain Sale. On 15 October 1914, the West Cumberland recruits were transferred from Workington to Blackhall and with an increase in numbers there was greater need for proper accommodation instead of the sleeping in the Grandstand, the stables and other various temporary shelters. Hutments to house all the men needed to be built. Whilst there was ample space for the accommodation, the Westmorland men remained at Kendal until 5 January 1915, when the hutments were completed and ready for use. The Westmorland men moved to Headquarters under the command of Colonel Haworth. He handed over C Company, 280 strong[2] and at this point, with all four companies situated on site, Blackhall really was the epicentre of the Battalion. Men that had grown up together were enlisting together and "during these formative days of the Battalion’s earliest history it became clear to everyone in the Border Counties that this really was a Battalion of 'Pals,' of comrades, and of Border men." [2]

Supplying the men[edit]

The silver Lonsdale cap badge

With war Office approval Lord Lonsdale was the powerhouse behind the formation of the Lonsdale Battalion; a unit in his own name funded with his own money. He brought the battalion together by appointing officers and ordering the weapons and munitions needed to arm his men, all at personal expense. The supply of uniforms did cause some issue. Not everyone had their own uniforms and those that didn't had to train in their own civilian clothing until a time uniforms could be supplied. Lord Lonsdale designed the uniforms himself, his preferred choice being khaki. However, "as khaki was then unprocurable, the uniform was at first of dark grey cloth, similar to that of the old Cumberland Volunteers; but some two or three months later a proper khaki-coloured uniform was supplied." [4] As the harsher northern border weather closed in "neither blanket nor greatcoats could be obtained, Lord Lonsdale sent down a thousand of each from London." [4] In addition, he also supplied "an ambulance waggon, a water-cart, with two pairs of black horses, and later on obtained thirty chestnut mules for the transport." [4] When it came to insignia, the cap badge had to be distinctive and immediately identifiable. Lord Lonsdale's own crest was authorised for use, personally presenting a silver cap badge to every enlistee in his battalion. He wanted the best for his men and he wanted them to look the part.

Commanding the Battalion[edit]

Percy Wilfred Machell Commanding the Battalion

Choosing the right officer to command any battalion has to be a carefully considered decision. Lord Lonsdale asked retired colonial officer Percy Wilfred Machell, C.M.G. if he would consider returning to a position of command. Machell had spent much of his military career in Egypt, having served in the Nile Expeditionary Force, the Egyptian Army and Egyptian Coastguard, among others. When asked, he was living in his substantial retreat at Crackenthorpe Hall, near Appleby, Westmorland. A return to the military would shake the foundations of a quiet country life but he accepted and was granted the temporary rank of Lieutanant Colonel, which was eventually Gazetted on 15 October, 1914. By this point though he had spent his first month in post at Penrith, where he had made his headquarters, but on 17 October, "along with the Orderly Room Staff and Lieut. and Quartermaster Dawson, moved from Penrith to Blackhall and in a very short time the organisation of the four companies was in full swing." [2][4] Machell's prior knowledge of command enabled a structured and order approach to getting the required job done. He was by no means a cold and emotionless man, instead he was considered a caring man and was respected among his men. During October and November there was much "spade work" to be done. All manner of duties were done by himself in the early months. He was constantly busy with preparations having no Company Officers until his Adjutant, Captain P. G. W. Diggle of the 6th Border Regiment, was appointed on 3 December.[5][2][4]

Even with the help of his Adjutant, Lt-Col. Machell continued with his duties in training the border men, many of whom had not even seen a soldier before their recruitment. He knew training and discipline would have to be drilled into them to make them capable, fighting men. Discipline, however, should not be confused with punishment as he says "I have to act as drill-sergeant and buck and bark vociferously to get up to a high standard....Men take the talking well. It is much better than punishing....Far better make a man than break him." [4] It is not difficult to understand why officers and men alike revered and saw him as a capable commander, the man that would lead them to the battlefields of mainland Europe. Major Diggle writes about Lt-Col. Machell describing what kind of a man he was when it came to his work in maintaining the high standards in training of the men:

Every detail had to be taught by him, for the officers, with very few exceptions, knew no more than the men, and had to be taught themselves before they could teach. The simplest orderly-room work, such as making out ‘crimes’, ‘guard reports’ and ‘detail’ etc., were done by him until the adjutant was appointed, and he always checked each of the returns personally. All attestations were made out, and recruits personally approved by him, while the separation allowances claimed his particular attention. He organized the feeding of men (the messing gained the name being the best in the Command); he arranged for hutting, the clothing, the water supply, the lighting and conservancy of the Camp, and he it was who averted a strike that threatened over the wages question among the men engaged to build the huts. These activities alone would have occupied the activities of six ordinary men, but in addition to all this the C.O. was constantly on parade, training and smartening up both officers and men, drawing up the programmes or work and seeing that they were carried out.

P. G. W. Diggle, Record of the XIth (Service) Battalion (Lonsdale) - In England.

From his adjutant's praise of a man that was passionate about his duty, it seems clear-cut that Lt-Col. Machell was leading by example. Not a moment passed that he shirked on his responsibilities towards his men and never was afraid of the slightest bit of hard work. Often the day's entirety was spent on the move ensuring everything that needed to be done was acted on in an efficient manner. This desire to build the Battalion into a worthy fighting force that would stand out in a crowd was just one of many traits that made Machell unique. Everyone, including the officers, had to pull their weight and so from the "Commanding Officer to the last joined recruit, all ranks worked together with a will, and in the friendliest spirit of unity, to make a Battalion which should eventually prove itself to be worthy of the best traditions of the British Army. There was here no suggestion of men working while the officers looked on." [2]

The Battalion reaches full strength[edit]

Parade of new recruits on the racecourse

One week after the Battalion had been formed, Battalion HQ saw a meagre population of just 75 recruits. Just over two months later and the site had been transformed into something entirely different, supporting A, B and D Companies. To garner more interest Lord Lonsdale took recruitment to a new level with the Are you a man or mouse? poster, the text from which was later published in the Workington Star and Harrington Guardian on 9 October. Upon publication the editorial duly caused a stir in the border counties where asking the question in such a manner would "be taken as an insult by most men."[6] The wording of the poster was such that the editorial against it continued by stating:

There are many good men – and quite as loyal as Lord Lonsdale – who, for various reasons – cowardice not being one of them – cannot see their way to joining the Colours just now; but that is no reason they should be called mice. No doubt the poster was issued with a good intention; but – well – we are told that a certain main road is paved with good intentions. My own opinion is that the poster ought to be looked upon as a specimen of zeal over-running discretion; but I know a good many men who don’t take that view of it. [6]

However the "insult" was worded, it didn't have a disparaging effect as the fallout of it's print might have suggested. The recruit rolled in, joining the ranks of the newly-formed Lonsdales with fervour, the need to "do one's duty" and, for many, the hope of a regular meal, warm clothes and one shilling a day[7]for the trouble. On 3 December, the same day Captain Diggle was appointed the role of Adjutant, the War Office conveyed that the Lonsdale Battalion was officially to become known as the 11th (Service) Battalion, Border Regiment (Lonsdale).[4] During December the hutments were being built as to accommodate the increasing number of recruits. One month later on 3 January 1915, the Lonsdale Battalion had reached a total strength of 1,152 non-commissioned officers and men[2] and on 5 January all four Companies were now stationed at Blackhall and the Battalion was, on paper, attached to the 124th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Collings. Training would continue in much the same manner until the men, some just boys, were deemed ready for battle. They were not ready just yet. The various skill-sets included scouts, stretcher bearers and signallers. Digging entrenchments and bayonet fighting had to be second nature, as would firing a Lee-Enfield rifle and being able to handle the water-cooled Vickers machine gun, which would in late 1915 be replaced with the lighter Lewis machine gun.

The Lonsdales were transferred to the 112th Brigade on 16 March 1915, under Brigadier-General Mackenzie. The work the officers and men had put into creating a disciplined and well-trained unit did not go unnoticed when those who inspected Blackhall[8] during March 1915, reported to Lt-Col. Machell that his Battalion was "far ahead of other service battalions."[4] The Lonsdales were starting to turn heads in the upper echelons of the Brigade. This was a good sign. On 8 May the early group of recruits that formed the initial strength of the Battalion would finally leave Blackhall for training grounds beyond their familiar home counties. Their first port of call was Prees Heath Camp in Salop (present-day Shropshire) where the Lonsdales joined the proud Glasgow men of the 15th, 16th and 17th Battalions of the Highland Light Infantry, forming the 97th Brigade under the command Brigadier-General Hacket Thompson.[4] The Borders and Highlanders, however, moved on again to Wensleydale in Yorkshire on the 22 June owing to the unsuitability of the ground for Brigade Training. There they remained under canvas until the beginning of August, forming part of the 32nd Division under Major-General Rycroft.

At 1am on 23 November 1915, the Lonsdale Battalion left for France with the rest of the 97th Brigade, now under the command of Brigadier-General Jardine, on board the steamer, the Princess Victoria. Their time at Blackhall, Prees Heath, Wensleydale and Salisbury Plain had come to and end. The previous months' training would now have to be addressed in real combat situations, putting into practice the skills and tactics they had developed over the previous year. To stay alive and come back home to Blighty would have been the first, and last, thing on their minds as they sailed towards the unknown in a war that was to last another three bitter, long years.

See also[edit]

References / notes[edit]

  1. David Carter (2014). Carlisle in the Great War (Your Towns & Cities/Great War). Pen and sword Military. pp.34–35. ISBN 978-1783376131
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 The Lonsdale Battalion Border Regiment, September 1914 to June 1915.
  3. The Earl of Lonsdale was appointed Chairman, with Colonel Weston, M.P., as Vice-Chairman, Major Binning, Mr. F. R. Hodgson, and Captain Wakefield were appointed Goveners of Local Committees, at Carlisle, Workington, and Kendal, respectively, and Mr. Gerald Spring-Rice became Hon. Secretary of the Executive Committee.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Record of the XIth (Service) Battalion (Lonsdale) - In England
  5. The position of Adjutant was later appointed to Lieut. M Gordon.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Notes of the Week (Editorial against Man or Mouse Poster)
  7. Chris Baker. British Army rates of pay The Long, Long Trail. Accessed 26 February, 2017.
  8. The inspector of Recruiting from the War Office, the Musketry Staff Officer from Headquarters (Western Command), and a Staff Officer for Physical Drill (Inspector of Gymnasia).