The commencement of the First World War in 1914 sparked a period of great upheaval and change across the world; the international conflict saw 30 nations declare war between 1914 and 1918. The “Allies” included Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Italy and the United States, who were opposed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Britain and the Commonwealth’s entry into the conflict made the war truly global, with fighting occurring in Africa and the Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as on the Western Front. The First World War was virtually unprecedented in the levels of death and destruction that it caused.
To mark the centenary of the signing of the Armistice on 11th November 1918, we have chosen to highlight the story of Roffey Camp.
The outbreak of war saw around 1,500 young soldiers from London arriving in Horsham. The population of Horsham in 1914 was a mere 11,500, and therefore the addition of 1,500 young men would have been a major event. These soldiers were part of the newly formed 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, otherwise known as the Kensingtons. The battalion was raised by the Mayor and the Borough of Kensington in White City on 11th September 1914, and was largely made up of young men from London who had chosen to join the war effort early on.
The Kensingtons, along with local territorial units, were initially housed with local people in “billets”. By early March 1915, work was completed at the new Roffey Camp and the battalion were moved into new, purpose-built accommodation. Roffey Camp stretched from the Norfolk Arms to Forest Road, with the main entrance on Crawley Road. The camp was home to numerous groups of soldiers and remained in use until 1919.
Roffey Camp had it’s own medical centre, known as the Detention Hospital. The camp’s medical staff treated soldiers over 8000 times, despite there only being around 1500 onsite. This suggests they soldiers suffered from generally poor health, something that would have been common in early 20th century Britain.
When the Kensingtons arrived in Horsham, in October 1914, they were initially billeted in the homes of local people. These hosts were financially compensated for the cost of the soldiers’ food and board. Unfortunately for many of these townspeople, their generous hospitality in support of the war effort did not always go rewarded. There were numerous reports in the county times of local people not receiving the promised sums of money. Many local people were therefore out of pocket, but refused to leave the soldiers without a good meal and somewhere warm to sleep.
Despite some initial bad feeling in the town due to issues surrounding payments for billets, relations between Horsham and the Kensingtons were very cordial. The townspeople hosted entertainments, sporting events, dances and concerts for the entertainment of the battalion. These events were well attended and helped to boost the morale of the troops, as well as the townspeople.
The Kensingtons produced their own newspaper, the Fortnightly Gazette, which actually came out once a month. The newspaper featured photos from the camp, as well as articles by the soldiers. These ranged from comedic poems and tales, to sports reports as well advice on health and hygiene. The Gazette was printed in Horsham and featured adverts from local businesses. It was sold at the camp, as well as in the town, and provided a strong link between the camp and the townspeople.
Sporting events such as cricket, golf, and football matches raised money for charitable causes, and provided an opportunity for the young, boisterous men, to let off some steam. These matches were arranged by both the townspeople, and the soldiers themselves. Several young men in Horsham were so inspired by the strapping Kensingtons, and their sporting prowess, that they volunteered to join the battalion themselves.
Town businesses and organisations offered support to the soldiers during their time in Horsham. A local solicitor, F. Orton Smith of 33 London Road, offered an out of hours will writing service for military personnel, completely free of charge. Holy Trinity Church extended their opening hours, offering soldiers a quiet space to read, write letters, or to simply relax, from 7-9.30pm on weekday evenings. The Corn Exchange offered entertainments for the Kensingtons, as well as for the territorial regiment stationed nearby.
The local YMCA made an enormously generous donation to the military personnel, handing over their own meeting hut to provide a recreational space for the soldiers. The YMCA hut housed the camp’s Post Office, and the Fortnightly Gazette published some statistics about its use. According to the Gazette:
- 136,710 letters had been posted in the pillar box
- £160 stamps had been sold
- £969 15s 0d postal orders had changed hands
- 7,000 picture postcards were sold
The Kensingtons left Horsham in the summer of 1915, much to their distress. The soldiers had been made very welcome in Horsham, and had become an integral part of town life. Articles and cartoons published in their self-produced newspaper, the Fortnightly Gazette, show just how comfortable they were! The battalion was transferred to Clipstone Camp near Nottingham before going over to France in November 1915.
Following the departure of the Kensingtons, Roffey Camp quickly became the home of a new group of soldiers – the 165th and 167th Siege Batteries of the Canadian Garrison Artillery. Organised at Horsham in June 1915 under the command of Major G. M. Maxwell, the batteries were formed from personnel of the Canadian Siege Artillery Depot at Horsham. The batteries were at Roffey Camp for just over a year, before being deployed to France in September 1916. Notably, the 165th fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge from 9th–12th April 1917. They were demobilised in Vancouver in May 1919.
The diary of William Albery of Horsham suggests that, shortly after the departure of the Canadian Artillery troops, Roffey Camp was inhabited by Portuguese soldiers. Albery’s diary indicates that the Portuguese soldiers were only on-site for a short period of time:
“September 14th 1916: See many Portuguese soldiers in street, strong looking men.”
“October 30th 1916: I hear Portuguese going away, Yankees coming.”
Unfortunately, our records do not confirm who stayed at Roffey Camp during 1917, but it is highly improbable that the camp would have remained empty. In all likelihood, Roffey Camp would have been used as a base for a number of regiments on their way to and from the coast. However, we do know that another group of Portuguese soldiers arrived in the summer of 1918 and stayed through to October of the same year. Footage, displayed elsewhere in the exhibition, taken at Roffey Camp in August 1918 shows the Portuguese soldiers training alongside British troops.
After four long years of war, on 11th November 1918 the notification that the Armistice had been signed arrived in Horsham, via telephone. Word quickly spread around the town that the war was over, and the streets buzzed with excitement and rejoicing. That evening, a thanksgiving service was held at St Mary’s Church. There were so many people in attendance that many had to stand throughout the service. On 14th November, the townspeople held a candlelit procession throughout the town, finishing on the Carfax. The town was bathed in light for the first evening since the introduction of the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914.
Following the celebrations, Britain entered a period of adjustment. The war had been a terrifying and challenging time, yet for many people it had been exhilarating and a change from their everyday lives. Around 700,000 British service personnel were killed during the First World War (around 10% of the adult population under 45), and millions more were wounded. In Horsham, around 420 men aged 16–50 had been killed; a significant number for this small community.
The human cost of the First World War was enormous, and is still felt to this day. The photographs and ephemera in this display demonstrate the duality of the war. Lively, active young men signed up to do their bit for King and Country, with the support of the nation. Gradually, as the reality of the brutal conflict became clear, the joy and national pride so visible in these images began to fade. The First World War serves as a reminder of the devastating impact of war, and the tragedy of these young lives cut short in their prime.