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Thursday, 17 July 2014

Sites and Monuments with links to the Great War

As part of its work programmes in support of events commemorating the First World War the Royal Commission has been enhancing the National Monuments Record in respect of sites and monuments with links to the Great War. David Leighton and Medwyn Parry have been taking a closer look at rifle ranges. These were established in significant numbers from the mid-nineteenth century onwards as local volunteer militias and rifle associations were set up. Dozens have been identified across Wales, usually located in fairly remote places such as the fringe uplands above towns and villages, old industrial workings, estuaries, marshes and sand dunes, but also on farmland.

Dolgellau rifle range (NPRN 419815): view of the still-intact target winding gear behind the revetted target mound. Rising ground to the right, on the opposite side of the road, acted as the stop-butt. Established in the mid-1890s the range was upgraded to its present form a few years later. (image: DS2014_090_001)

The County Series Ordnance Survey maps, which started to appear after 1870, depict many of these sites. They typically show a target, or a line of targets, which were probably portable, at one end of a firing line with shooting positions marked at 100 yard intervals up to a distance of 1000 yards, though usually shorter. More complex examples might include a ‘marker’s hut’ or a ‘mantelet’, a protective screen or bunker to shelter the markers, and perhaps several separate firing lines. Shooting positions were usually shown as points but were sometimes depicted schematically as ‘box’ features, which might indicate a wooden stand or perhaps something more substantial such as an earthen mound, examples of which still survive. Firing lines were often directed so that naturally rising ground behind the targets (e.g. NPRN 413309) or even an old quarry face or spoil tip (419602) might act as the ‘stop-butt’ to catch bullets. Elsewhere, earthwork banks were raised (420199).

By the later nineteenth century local militias were being drawn into the regimental system and a degree of rationalisation of training grounds took place. Some ranges were already shown as ‘disused’ on first-edition Ordnance Survey maps, but some new sites were established and many others were redeveloped as technology moved on and more powerful rifles became available.

It was not just technical advances that lay behind new developments. Safety concerns also came to the fore. War Office guidelines in the 1890s led to changes at many ranges and the closure of others. Rifle ranges, particularly the undeveloped ones, could be dangerous places and accidents, even fatalities, were not uncommon despite the use of bugles and warning flags. Such incidents were widely reported. In 1902, for example, a schoolgirl was shot dead at the Presteigne range while collecting wimberries in woodland behind the targets (420175). The Llangollen range was condemned in 1903 after a soldier was badly wounded there (413317). Markers were especially vulnerable at the older ranges where mantelets and shelter huts were placed close to targets. In 1890 a marker at the Cardigan range on the Pentwd Marshes was shot through the hand while repairing a target (413338). At the Haverfordwest range in 1896 a marker was seriously hurt when a bullet entered both his thighs and ‘passed out at the other side’. Nonetheless, the report adds, ‘the bullet struck the target…..and was registered as an inner just below the bull’s eye’. The following year the range failed a safety review and an alternative location was found (518723).

Rifle mound at the 600-yard shooting position on the Caldicot rifle range (NPRN 419523); 1 metre scale. The range was probably established just before or during the First World War and remained fully operational until the mid-1990s. (image: DS2013_511_002)

An example of upgrading is the range on Merthyr Mawr Warren near Porthcawl (415721). This was initially set up in the 1880s, or thereabouts, possibly when an earlier range at nearby Candleston was closed down (420030). It was laid out conventionally with a line of targets, markers’ huts between them, and firing positions shown as lines of posts over 600 yards. This was described as an ‘old rifle range’ in 1899 but by 1904 it had been completely remodelled with the creation (on the same site) of more permanent structures. Local newspapers described the new range and its patent design in reports of its opening. Targets were now mounted on a winding mechanism. This was set into a slit trench and allowed targets to be raised and lowered behind a revetted linear mound, which sheltered the markers under a roofed, open gallery. Beyond the targets Cog-y-brain, a massive sand dune, acted as the stop-butt. Control rooms were also built with communication cables to each firing point. Shooting positions were marked by linear mounds, which also appear on maps. The range remained in use during the Second World War and after and although some refurbishment was likely the structures visible there now are much as they were during the First World War. In developed ranges like this the massive nature of the earthworks, and their marginal locations, mean that many ranges – though long out of use – can still be traced on the ground today.

Rifle ranges were not just training grounds. They were often also venues for public entertainment. Competitions were held regularly with spectator facilities provided, usually followed by prize-giving events, and were reported in the local press. But they could also be a source of friction in communities. An example is the range on Park Common near Machynlleth, now the town golf course. An early range here had gone out of use before 1887 but in 1900 a new one was built on the same alignment as the old one (420131). Correspondence and reports of local authority meetings (1900–04) reveal the conflict this created. Objections centred on the firing line crossing the road to Llanidloes and there was also a perceived threat to common rights. However, this was the time of the Boer War and local volunteer corps numbers had increased sharply generating considerable demand for a new range. Despite the controversy the range successfully opened when it was reported that ‘shooting mounds, flag-staffs, target mound, buildings etc’ were built. The range went on to have a long history of use, throughout both world wars. The target mound and its revetment wall are still visible today, they are converted into an equipment shed.

After the First World War the number of ranges declined as fewer, larger, more centralised sites were developed. Legislation since the Second World War curtailing the ownership and use of firearms accelerated this decline. But the structural features of many ranges survive in the modern landscape and are a reminder not only of the character of local military training in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also of what was once a popular recreational and social activity.

By David Leighton

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