The Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson


On 1st. June 1899 the terms Royal Garrison Artillery and Royal Field Artillery were substituted for the old Garrison Artillery and Field Artillery titles. As a result the three divisions of Garrison Artillery (Eastern, Western and Southern) formed in 1889 were re-titled. Additionally many Volunteer Artillery units changed titles e.g. 1st. Hampshire R.G.A. (V) On 1st. January 1902 the three divisions of R.G.A. were re-organised (effectively re-titled, although a few new batteries were raised) All of the companies (the term substituted for ‘battery’ in the R.G.A.) were placed in one numbered series. Numbering remained fixed until 1914 when international events required slight changes in the scales and organisation of the British army. The predecessor to 35 (H) Battery was formed as early as 1794. Its designations after 1882 were as follows:-
2nd. Northern Division R.A.
1889 - 11th. Company Southern Division Royal Artillery.
1902 - Converted at Gosport at the No.2 Depot R.G.A. Fort Rowner and titled 35 (Siege Train) Company, along with two other companies (No.s 31 & 108) it formed the 1st. Heavy Brigade.
March 1903 - Company converted to ‘Heavy’ role with title 35 (Heavy) Company R.G.A. (at Dover although the unit was at Gosport in this year).
December 1906 - Re-titled 35 (Heavy) Battery R.G.A. shown in a photograph as at Fort Nelson in this year. Also shown at the Fort in January 1906.
1908 battery at Fort Nelson. March 1909 - Photographs show the battery at Fort Nelson, also with 60pr BL guns in 1912.
August 1914 - Re-designated 35 Heavy Battery R.G.A.- Photographs show the battery at Fort Nelson with 60pr BL guns
During the 1st. World War several convoluted changes in organisation took place.
April 1919 - Re-designated 35 (H) Battery.
December 1919 - Battery converted to Mountain Artillery role and absorbed three of the old R.G.A. batteries (33, 34 & 36)
May 1920 Re-designated 12 Mountain battery in India.
After 1924 units were simply designated R.A. It seems certain that 35 (H) battery were in fairly continuous occupation of Fort Nelson from at least 1906 to 1914.
Batteries of this type were armed with 6-inch B.L. guns, 8-inch and 9.2-inch howitzers. The Divisional Heavy Batteries, including Fort Nelson were also equipped with 41 pieces of 60pr BL Mark I guns by 1914.
This period at least can be seen as one of the few in Fort Nelson’s history when there was any stability in terms of garrison rather than the transient nature of occupants pre and post the period.

 

Fort (Nelson) was occupied by 35 Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery from 1905 to 1914. During this time it had three Battery Commanders. Major Riddell assumed command on 10th. October 1906, and it is not yet clear what the Battery achieved during its occupation of the Fort. we do know that of the 26th. September 1909 the battery returned from Aldershot to the Fort, having completed its annual Practice Camp. During this time Major Riddell was posted to Bombay on the 4th. September 1909. Major J.B.Mackintosh assumed command on the 13th. April 1909. Again there is no record of achievement until the 6th. June 1912, when he was posted. Major A.C. Wilkinson joined the Battery on 17th. June 1912 and presumably took the battery overseas to form part of the British Expeditionary Force. There were several requests made by ‘Officer In Command Royal Artillery Records’ that he should submit Digest of Service reports. He wrote to OIC Records in 1915.
“I beg to point out, that owing to this Battery being on active service and continually in the firing line, I have not the means of the opportunity of giving you the information at present and this information is recorded in the Digest of the battery and stored at Fort Nelson at Fareham. The War diaries of the battery, which are compiled monthly are forwarded to the War Office.”
There are various letters from Officer In Command Records repeatedly asking Major Wilkinson for Records of Digest, these apparently fell on deaf ears. The Battery was reformed after the Great War and renamed 12th. Pack Battery. The battery moved to Catterick on 15th. December 1919. A letter was received from Officer In Command 12th. Pack Battery after the Great War stating that the War Diaries of 93 Brigade of which 35 Battery were affiliated ends in May 1918. This is because the diaries were being transported by lorry, and were destroyed by shell fire. A direct hit was recorded on the lorry carrying the War Diaries. In a distribution list of July 1920 Lt. Col. Wilkinson is mentioned having been awarded the CMG and the DSO. He was then in 1st. Brigade Headquarters stationed at Fort Brockhurst until 1921. They were posted to Woolwich in October.

 

 

Re-structuring an Army: The 1st Heavy Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery and the
Portsdown Forts 1904-14 : Ian Maine

During 1904 the 1st Heavy Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) was formed. It consisted of three batteries, 26, 35 and 108 Companies RGA which were stationed at Forts Fareham, Wallington and Nelson (1). The Brigade was formed shortly after the Boer War, when it was realised that the Siege Batteries which had been regularised during the conflict would form an essential part of the Army's changing composition (2).

These changes coincided with the final acceptance of the obsolescence of the Forts on Portsdown as viable defensive structures and the removal of their fixed armament. As has been argued before it is important to understand the Portsdown Forts contribution to National Defence not purely in terms of their original role, but their contribution in different ways, both as deterrance and as part of the real estate of the War Office. In this respect we have seen before their role as Barracks (3) or Mobilisation Centres for war (4). The period covered by this article represents an important part of the British Army’s recovery from the disasters of the Boer War and the re-structuring of the Army, making it the widely acknowledged highly professional one it had become by 1914.

Notwithstanding the re-structuring of the Army, the Heavy Batteries were a scarce resource. The 1st Heavy Brigade, though titled as such, was not deployed as a brigade, the batteries being allocated one per Division. This was in addition to 12 batteries of 18 Pr Quick Firing Artillery and 4.5inch howitzers. Moreover new types of equipment such as the 60Pr Breech Loader and 4.7inch Quick Firing Gun were giving the Army far more potent firepower than before (5).

The Forts received few alterations to prepare them for their new role. Fort Nelson has the best preserved examples of these alterations. The forge in the West Haxo casemate recently restored would have provided the Farriers with adequate space to cater for the shoeing of the horses, which were supposedly on establishment. However the Saddlers shop in the Forts cell block seems a little modest given the establishment of horses and the amount of work involved in keeping all of the harness and saddlery in good repair.

Some re-designation of the accommodation took place, as well as the provision of other requirements for the equine additions to the Forts, hitherto unseen in their composition. These additions consisted of troop stabling, forage and bedding stores.

The equine dimension was a moot point. Despite the changes mentioned above and the changes sweeping through the Army, the horsing of the mobile batteries of 1st Heavy Brigade RGA was seriously neglected (6). Although each of the Batteries required 8 horses for each of its four guns for draught purposes alone, only twelve horses were allocated for each battery. Although the peace time establishment of horses was poor, the Army remount service kept censuses of horses available in the UK which could be called upon in the event of mobilisation for War.

Notwithstanding this, the Manoeuvres act of 1897 allowed for yearly training periods for the Army in a number of different locations. In most years prior to 1914 these periods were during August and September. For the 1st Heavy Brigade this training took place at Aldershot, where the brigade appears on War Office returns for the following periods (7):

1909 August – September
1910 June – September
1911 June – August
1912 June – September
1913 June – August
1914 June - August

 

The brigade was also in Aldershot for Maneouvres as early as 1906, as on 27 July 1906 King George V, when Prince of Wales inspected troops at Aldershot, including the 1st Heavy Brigade, at that time commanded by Colonel E G Store(8).

It seems likely that these periods in Aldershot were the only occasions that the batteries would have functioned in anything like their full role. We know that for these periods the horses required to bring the battery to establishment were hired in. It is likely that when back on Portsdown Hill the Brigade would have settled to a routine of low level training and the usual rounds of courses for both officers and men (9)(10). Despite the parsimony that kept the battery below strength, we know that courses of instruction at Okehampton, Shoeburyness, Lydd and other places brought the use of new methods of fire control using new types of directors etc.

 

1914 would see the Brigade brought up to full establishment of both men, guns and horses and mobilized for war as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), becoming part of Britain's 'contemptible little army'. 26th Battery went as part of BEF as 1st Divisional Heavy Artillery, 35th Battery as 2nd Divisional Heavy Artillery and 108th Battery as 5th Divisional Heavy Artillery. They were all quickly in action in the initial battles on the Western front, with 26th Battery in action at Mons and the ensuing retreat. 35th battery was in action at Mons, the Marne and the First battle of Ypres, whilst 108 battery saw the same actions as well as Le Cateau. It is interesting to think of the summer days of 1914 in some of the forts on Portsdown, as being the last place where some of the drills and skills required to operate the batteries were honed, prior for active service - the Forts, as in the Boer War, once removed from the brutality of War.

 

References

1. Ian Maine, 35 H Battery at Fort Nelson, Redan 22, June 1991
2. General Sir Martin Farndale, History of the Royal Artillery Western Front 1914-1918, (Royal Artillery Institution, 1986)
3. Ian Maine, First in ?, Redan 42, February 1999
4. Ian Maine, Palmerston Forts and the Boer War, Redan 34, 1993
5. I V Hogg, British Artillery Weapons and Ammunition 1914-1918, (1972)
6. Farndale, op.cit
7. Aldershot Military Museum, extracts from War Office returns
8. H. N. Cole, The Story of Aldershot, (Gale and Polden, 1950)
9. Frank Bartlett, 35 H Battery 1905-21, Redan 25, June 1992
10. 1st Heavy Brigade RGA, Observations on Winter Training, from the Dalton Report, 1908-9, Redan 28, p32

Photographs of the Royal Garrison Artillery Heavy Battery at Fort Nelson

 

H Company Cambridge University Rifle Volunteers at a training event, Fort Nelson in Easter 1901 35 Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in 1906 35 Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in 1909

Cambridge Artillery Volunteers at Fort Nelson in 1901


35 Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in 1906

35 Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in 1909

1st. Heavy Artillery Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery  Fort Nelson in May 1909 35th. Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in March 1909 108 Heavy Battery RGA at Fort Nelson in 1913

1st. Heavy Artillery Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in May 1909

35th. Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery at Fort Nelson in March 1909

108 Heavy Battery RGA at Fort Nelson in 1913

 

The following photographs were kindy supplied by Nick Bennett following an equiry to the PFS concerning his grandfather William Pyt Bennett who is shown in the photographs wearing the uniform of a Captain RGA. The photographs were taken inside Fort Nelson below the main rampart on the north face of the fort. The steps on the expense magazine leading up to the Battery Commander's map table can clearly be seen in the background of the third photograph, together with the 64pr RML gun emplacements of the terreplein of the fort. A 60pr BL gun on a Mark I carriage can be seen in the first photograph.

 

The Army Lists suggest that the date of these photographs is 1912. Nick would apppreciate any information that would help with his research into the service history of his Grandfather, Major William Pyt Bennett. Commissioned Second Lieutenant January 6th 1900, died at the Somme on 15/7/1916 whilst serving with the RGA attached to the 162 Battery RFA.

 

Officers of the RGA with a 60pr B.L. Mark I at Fort Nelson circa 1912. (Photo appears with the kind permission of Nick Bennett) Officers and men of the RGA at Fort Nelson circa 1912. (Photo appears with the kind permission of Nick Bennett) Officers and men of the RGA at Fort Nelson circa 1912: The steps on the expense magazine leading up to the Battery Commander's map table can clearly be seen in the background left of the picture together with the 64pr RML gun emplacements on the terreplein of the right face of the fort. (Photo appears with the kind permission of Nick Bennett)

Battery officers of No.35 (Heavy) Battery RGA with a 60pr B.L. Mark I at Fort Nelson 1912

Major J.B. Mackintosh

(or Major A.C. Wilkinson if taken after June 1912)

Captain W.P.Bennett

Lieut. J.A. Geary

Lieut. A.B.Hearle

Liet. L.H.Higgon

Officers and men of No.35 (Heavy) Battery RGA at Fort Nelson 1912

Officers and men of No.35 (Heavy) Battery RGA at Fort Nelson 1912

 

 

 

:Map:News:Fortification:Artillery:Research:Gallery:Publications:Guestbook:Links: