On 6th August 1914 The Times published a letter by Percy Harris suggesting that London should form a defence force similiar to the Ulster Volunteer Force established in Ireland in 1912 to oppose Home Rule. His idea was taken up by other counties as well as London, although it would not be until 24th October 1914 that Major MacLaughlin held a meeting at Woking to raise such a unit in Surrey. Originally the units were independent formations outside the control of the War Office until 19 November 1914 when the Army Council established the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC) for those who were over age or not eligible for some other reason to serve in the armed forces. The Corps was intended for home defence, since the Territorial Battalions were being sent to the far flung corners of the Empire and, increasingly, to the Western Front, where the British Expeditionary Force had suffered crippling casualties (one regular battalion, the 1st Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, had mustered 1,000 men on 1 August, but only 32 remained with the Colours in November 1914.Read More
Not all welcomed the creation of the VTC: on 12 December 1914 The Spectator warned ‘While no one can deny the advantage to the nation of these bodies if they are properly organised and disciplined, no one, again, can deny that they would be a cause of danger and confusion if their energies were misdirected, if they fell into bad or incompetent hands, or if their zeal was dissipated by following false ideals’ (page 1).
The War Office appointed Lord Desborough as the president of the Central Association of the Volunteer Training Corps (CAVTC) and Sir O’Moore Creagh, who had been the commander-in-chief of the army in India, was appointed as military advisor. All VTCs had to be affiliated to the CAVTC, which The Spectator hoped would muster 1.5 million men. Since the various units were self supporting the magazine also appealed for donations from the public.
The VTC duties were to repel any enemy invasion, garrison various towns and villages, guard strategic points and help evacuate the civilian population in the event of an emergency. In addition the companies near London helped with the city’s defences. Corps members had to be British subjects and either too old to serve in the army, or unfit, or unable to serve for some other ‘genuine reason’. Despite this some members were called ‘shirkers’ for not joining the Regular Army.
The 1915 Regulations for the VTC stated that to form a VTC unit a provisional local committee was to be appointed, which should request the mayor or chairman of the district or parish council to call a meeting of those inhabitants of a town interested in forming the unit. The meeting would be attended by a member of the Central Association who would explain the ‘objects and aims’ of the Association. Once the meeting had agreed to form a unit then an Organising Committee would be appointed, which were responsible for raising funds for organising and equipping the unit. The Committee was also to find a place, such as a school or ‘public building’, where the unit could drill its members under the guidance of ‘a good drill instructor’. Once the unit had been established then it was to contact the County Association, or if one did not exist, the CAVTC, for affiliation. By 24 June 1916 while some counties, such as Berkshire and Wiltshire, had just one battalion, Surrey and Kent had formed 12; only Sussex, with 17 battalions, had more, although by the following year London had 20 battalions.
Once they were affiliated to the CAVTC members of the VTC would be issued with red armlets inscribed with a ‘GR’, which was to be worn while the men were on duty. These armlets or ‘brassards’ were to be numbered and have the name of the soldier written on the inside and were to be destroyed if the person left the Corps. Each Corps was to supply its own arms and ammunition, although uniforms were not compulsory. Where uniforms were worn they were to be the same colour throughout the county and were usually grey-green rather than the khaki worn by the regular and territorial soldiers. In 1914, to help clothe the 130 men of the 7th Battalion, Major MacLaughlin made a public appeal which raised £286 9s and 6d, but along with the men’s own contribution the battalion was still short by £93 3s 9d (The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette, 15 January 1916, p.112).
On 23 December 1916 the Army Council instructed that all officers were to wear service dress uniforms as worn by the Regular Army, whereas the Non-Commissioned Officers were to wear ‘a special pattern of cloth, which will be known as Serge Volunteer Force’. Unfortunately, what colour these serge uniforms were is not recorded, but it was not khaki, since those battalions which had been issued with khaki uniforms were ordered to replace them (The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette, 13 January 1917, p.75).
The insignia of rank was to be worn on the cuffs, with the County Commandant having two horizontal rings around the sleeve, the Regimental Commandant having five horizontal rings, the Commandant four rings, the Sub-Commandant three rings and the Company Commander two rings. All the upper rings had an Austrian knot. The Platoon Commander had just one ring with an Austrian knot.
The rifles were to be of a non-service pattern, and so the battalions were usually armed with Martini Henry Rifles, which were single shot breech loading rifles that had been in military service between 1871 and 1904. However, not all volunteers had rifles. At a muster of the 3rd (Chertsey) Battalion, only 50 of the 89 men and 21 cadets who formed B (Addlestone) Company had rifles; while of the 89 men of C (Weybridge) Company only 51 had Martini Rifles, 30 of which were privately owned (The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette, 29 April 1916, p.346). Such was the shortage of rifles that The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette contained adverts for replica non-firing Martini Henry Rifles. Later dummy Lee Enfield Rifle appear to have been allowed.
Originally a volunteer was to attend four drills per month and was expected to serve for the rest of the war. A register was to be kept of those attending the drills and once they had attended 40 one hour drill sessions and obtained a second class shot certificate then they were eligble for a CAVTC Proficiency Badge. By December 1916 the number of drills had risen to 14 per month, although in 1918 this had been reduced to 24 drills per quarter, six being for squad and foot drill, six for musketry, six for riding and horse management and six for driving. New recruits still had to attend 12 drills per month until an officer passed them as proficient. These drills were to comprise five squad and foot drills, three musketry, two elementry horse instruction and two driving drills.
The soldiers were allocated a number with a V prefix and a register was to be kept of all the members within the unit. Unfortunately, none of these registers are known to have survived and since the volunteers did not serve abroad they were not entitled to any campaign medals. However, there are a number of members recorded in the East Surrey Regimental Recruitment Registers, which are held at the Surrey History Centre (reference 2496). In addition, officers are listed in the Volunteer Force List, held by the Imperial War Museum from October 1917 to October 1918. An October 1919 list is held by the British Library, which also holds The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette, which mentions the names of some officers and men.
In July 1915 the VTC battalions were grouped into County Volunteer Regiments. In 1915 the president of the Surrey Committee was The Hon Henry Cubitt CB and General Sir Josceline Woodhouse was the regimental commander, although all communications were to go to Colonel G A Williams, Caxton House, Westminster. Among its officers was Lord Onslow, Sir George Cave, the Home Secretary, and Lord Beaverbrook, who was appointed the Minister of Information in February 1918 and would later be known as the ‘first baron of Fleet Street’.
Each battalion had a different rank structure to the Regular Army: a Commandant in the VTC was the equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, a Sub-Commandant of a Major, a Company Commander of a Captain and a Platoon Commander of a Lieutenant. However, the Commandant’s position was purely honorary and the command of the battalion fell to the Sub-Commandant or Major. However, despite the regulations calling the ranks a different name, the 1918 Volunteer Force List records the officers under the Regular Army system, apart from the commandants.
According to The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette of 9 September 1916 (p.234) the following battalions had been formed in Surrey:
1st (Croydon) Battalion (460 men))
2nd (Kingston) Battalion (379 men)
3rd (Chertsey) Battalion (358 men)
4th (Reigate) Battalion (349 men)
5th (New Malden) Battalion (287 men)
6th (Guildford) Battalion (286 men)
7th (Woking) Battalion (468 men)
8th (Richmond) Battalion (473 men)
9th (Sutton) Battalion (540 men)
10th (Dorking) Battalion (366 men)
11th (Mitcham) Battalion (500 men)
12th (East Croydon) Battalion (673 men)
Wimbledon Company (165 men)
Since each battalion was meant to be 600 men strong many were clearly understrength. Each battalions was also further divided into four companies. For example, the 9th Battalion consisted of the following: A (Sutton) Company, Commanded by Walter Barry; B (Sutton) Company, commanded by G R Glegg; C (Carshalton) Company, commanded by L T M Digby; and D (Epsom and Banstead) Company, commanded by W D Waller (The Volunteer Training Corps Gazette, 13 May 1916, p.381). Each company was further divided into four platoons and each platoon into four sections.
During the Spring of 1918 the Surrey Volunteer Corps Regiment was reorganised, with its 12 battalions being amalgamated into six: for example the 9th and 11th Battalion now formed the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, and the 6th and 7th Battalions formed the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. However, each new battalion had eight companies rather than the standard four of the regular army.
In addition these six battalions were also divided into three groups, Northern, Eastern and Western each comprising two battalions. The Northern Group’s headquarters was at 139 Gloucester Road, London SW7 and comprised the 2nd and 3rd Volunteer Battalions, East Surrey Regiment, while the East Group had its headquarters at Harriott Cottage, Ashtead, and consisted of 1st and 2nd Volunteer Battalions, the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. The Western Group was formed from the 1st Volunteer Battalion, the East Surreys, and the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, the Queen’s, with a headquarters at Roydon, Heathcote Road, Camberley, where the commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Forbes Macbean, lived with his family.
During the Summer of 1917 the Surrey Motor Volunteer Corps received official recognition. Its commandant was W J Dayrell-Steyning and it was to consist of 12 squadrons of vehicles. An appeal went out for more cars, vans and lorries so it could be completed. This Corps later became a volunteer Motor Transport Company within the Army Service Corps. There also appears to have been a Surrey Volunteer Company in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
In December 1918 the Volunteer Battalions were stood down, and finally disbanded in January 1920. Only one company of the Dublin VTC had seen action, but this was not against the Germans but against their fellow Irishmen during the 1916 Easter Uprising. The company suffered several casualties.
Written by Laurence Spring, Surrey History Centre