The Palmerston Forts have been temporary Barracks to many Regiments of the British Army over the years; it was the custom that the last Regiment to arrive in the Portsmouth area would be assigned to the Forts and so it was for the Wiltshire’s. In 1894 some sections of the Wiltshire Regiment were at Portsdown Hill, possibly in Camp between the Forts. On the 23rd of February, a Draft of 3 Officers, 2 Sergeants and 168 Rank and File left Portsmouth to join the 2nd battalion (formerly the 99th Regiment of Foot) in Mandalay, Bhurma. On the 9th of April 1894 a Draft of thirty-two Privates are recorded as joining the Regiment at Portsdown from Le Marchant Barracks, Devizes Wiltshire (the Regimental Depot since 1881).
In January 1895 the Band moved to Fort Purbrook and the Drums moved to Fort Southwick.
After service in India the 2nd Battalion returned home to England in the Troopship Brittania, arriving in Southampton Water in the early hours of Wednesday the 6th of November 1895. There was no free berth available and so the Brittania anchored in a gale in Stokes Bay overnight. In the morning, the Battalion disembarked at Southampton and was transported by rail to Barracks at Portsmouth.
The Battalion arrived at Cosham at four pm that evening in high winds and rain, "B" and "C" Companies under Captain Dickson were left behind to unload the baggage and bring it to the Forts later. The village was quiet and apart from a small group of "village loafers" the men didn't see any welcoming faces during their long slow March up the hill to the Forts. The men had hoped to be accommodated in Victoria Barracks in Portsmouth, but as the Wiltshire's were the last Regiment to arrive in the area, they were assigned to the Forts, this being the custom.
The distribution of the Regiment was as follows:
Headquarters, Band and Drums and "A" Company to Fort Widley
"B" and "C" Companies to Fort Purbrook
"D" and "F" Companies to Fort Southwick
"G" and "H" Companies to Fort Nelson and "E" Company to Tipner Magazine
The Home Establishment was fixed at 801 All Ranks. A Detachment of 8 Officers, 31 Corporals and 278 Privates joined the Regiment at Portsdown from the 1st Battalion on this day.
On the 30th of November 1895 a further Draft from Devizes Depot arrived (1 Sergeant and 30 Privates).
During December, an instruction was received allotting the Battalion on Mobilization, to the 6th Brigade, 1st Army Corps to Field Army for Home Defence. For the foreseeable future the Regiment were to stay in the Portsmouth Area. After service in India the Forts of Portsdown Hill must have seemed very quiet, the men were involved in menial tasks much of the time, so life for the Wiltshire’s became monotonous. Shooting contests were held between the Companies and sport featured prominently in their lives, along with regular Drill practice. The men had opportunity for some local leave on a “night pass” in the surrounding villages, so the Wiltshire Soldiers must have been a common sight around places such as Cosham and Portchester at this time. In fact the whole of the Portsdown area would have been used to the sight of ever changing uniforms in their Taverns.
The Regiment continued to receive regular Drafts from the Depot; another came on the 7th of January 1896 consisting of 1 Corporal and 30 Privates. Whilst at Portsdown, the Regiment received several Army Orders: on the 11th of January 1896 the British Army changed their way of Marching with Rifles at the “shoulder”, from this day the disengaged arm would be swung instead of kept steady at the side and it was at the Portsdown Hill Forts that the Wiltshire Regiment first practiced this new way of Marching. Another Order abolished the “Long Shoulder Arms” in favour of the “Short Shoulder Arms”, previously only used by Rifle Regiments, so the Forts have seen a number of changes come to pass in the British Army.
Drafts were still coming in and on the 21st of February 22 more Privates joined the Regiment at the Hill Forts. Men were often drafted between Battalions within a Regiment and on the 28th of February 1 Officer, 85 Other Ranks, 1 Woman and 3 Children left to join the 1st battalion in India (The Portsdown Hill Forts also accommodated families if they were “brought onto the Establishment” of the Regiment).
On the 1st of April 1896 the Battalion distribution among the Hill Forts was recorded as:
Fort Widley – Headquarters and “A” Company (22 Corporals, 107 Men)
Fort Purbrook – Band, “E” and “H” Companies (20 Corporals, 109 Men)
Fort Southwick – Drums, “C” and “D” Companies (22 Corporals, 103 Men)
Fort Nelson – “B” and “G” Companies (9 Corporals, 30 Men) Tipner Magazine – “F” Company (10 Corporals, 52 Men)
Fort Gomer – (for Musketry, 15 Corporals, 71 Men)
A further 11 Privates joined from the Depot on the 1st of May 1896 and on the 1st of June 1896 the Battalion Establishment was fixed at 801 All Ranks.
The monotony of life in the Hill Forts continued until for some, a half Battalion (Band, “A”, “B”, “G” and “H” Companies) moved to tents at Browndown for the Annual Musketry Course. A further 8 Privates joined on the 7th of July.
The 22nd of August saw most of the Battalion (“B”, “C”, “D”, “E”, “F” and “H” Companies) encamped in tents between the Forts on Portsdown Hill. Two days later on the 24th, these Companies (23 Officers, 80 Corporals, 588 Men marched to Petersfield en route to Aldershot. The next day the Battalion Marched to Aldershot and encamped on Farnborough Common as part of 4th Brigade, 2nd Mobile Division, with the 2nd Scottish Rifles, 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 2nd Gordon Highlanders.
On the 29th of August, the Battalion Marched to Frensham for Manoeuvres, returning to Farnborough on the 1st of September, where they stayed until the 12th when, due to inclement weather, the Battalion returned by rail to Cosham and once again Marched up Portsdown Hill to occupy the Forts once more, distribution as follows:
Fort Widley – Headquarters, “A” and “E” Companies (34 Corporals, 114 Men)
Fort Purbrook – Band, “F” and “H” Companies (28 Corporals, 104 Men)
Fort Southwick – Drums, “C” and “D” Companies (30 Corporals, 97 Men)
Fort Nelson – “B” and “G” Companies (24 Corporals, 133 Men) Tipner Magazine – Garrisoned by the 2nd Battalion Shropshire Regiment)
On the 23rd of September another Draft of 1 Officer, 1 Sergeant and 79 Men left for Southampton to embark on the hired transport “Victoria” to join the 1st Battalion in India.
On the 3rd of October 1896 the Wiltshire Regiments time at the Portsdown Hill Forts came to an end when the Battalion moved into Victoria Barracks in Portsmouth where they relieved the 1st Northumbrian Fusiliers. The 2nd Battalion of the Kings Shropshire Regiment took the Wiltshire Regiment’s place in the Palmerston Hill Forts on Portsdown Hill on the same day.
Submitted by Mr I. M. Smith conducting research into the 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment.