Newhaven Army Camps
The people of Newhaven had been used to seeing soldiers in the town before the war. Regular soldiers from the Royal Garrison Artillery manned the Fort. Newhaven also played host to military summer training camps. However, the numbers were minimal when compared to the influx of men, who arrived in the town following Kitchener’s call to arms.
When war broke out in 1914, the daily strength of the Garrison increased dramatically. Some men were accommodated at the Fort and others in requisitioned buildings around the town, including schools and the workhouse. Over 2,000 men lived in tented camps, which were mostly replaced by wooden huts in early 1915. By 1917, the daily strength of the Garrison was 4,052 (the population of Newhaven and Denton in 1911 was 6,665).
Camps were set up around the town. There was Meeching Rise Camp, incorporating what is now First and Second Avenues, Valley Camp, which we believe was located in the Court Farm Road area, and the Railway Road Camp, which was for the men of the Transport Workers’ Battalion. From 1916, following the introduction of conscription, there was also a Non-Combatant Camp, located at Valley Camp, and the Denton Road Board Camp, used by Conscientious Objectors, who worked repairing the road between Newhaven and Seaford.
Private William Alan Sugden, an engineer from Rotherham, enlisted in the Army and arrived in Newhaven, for his training, on 29th October 1914. He kept a diary and wrote letters to his fiancée, Amy, describing his time here.
There were generally 12 men to a tent and Private Sugden found the men he shared with“a most cosmopolitan lot. My tent includes a South African plate layer, a tram driver from York, an old soldier from Bostock’s Lion Tamers and 3 fishermen from Durham”. The men would take it in turns to be Tent Orderly for the day. “You have all the men in the tent to look after, potatoes to peel for 12 and all pots to wash, what little washing they get. I have to clean out the pans with a sod. I have been cleaning out the urinal buckets, a rotten, filthy job. The officer has just been round for inspection and says my tent is the cleanest in the lines”.
In peacetime, it would have been unusual for a soldier still to be camped out after September. With the high volume of recruits at the beginning of the war, however, and the lack of other accommodation, many of the soldiers at Newhaven still found themselves in tents in November.
In his diary for 1st November 1914, Private Sugden described the conditions. “It is raining as I have never seen it before. The life is harder than an outsider would believe, the horrible dampness of everything. The tents are so soaked the rain comes through and that means wet blankets”. Two weeks later the weather was even worse. “The wind is blowing at a terrible rate and raging like mad. Half the tents are down on the floor and all the large tents are blown goodness knows where. 3 poor devils have come limping into the tent wet through to the skin, their tent having been blown away”. Following this, the men were billeted in the town until wooden huts were built for them.
Sport was very popular during the war, fulfilling the dual purpose of keeping men fit and building team spirit, as well as relieving boredom. A wide variety of sports and games were played at Newhaven, including football, cricket, tennis, boxing and athletics. They also played sports we would now associate more with a school sports day, such as egg and spoon races, sack races, wheelbarrow races and dressing-up races. Then there were the more unusual races, such as kangaroo races, boot races and cigarette-lighting races.
Over two days, in August 1915, a boxing tournament took place at the recreation ground. It attracted an audience of over two thousand servicemen and civilians. “The boxing took place on a platform erected on the site of the Newhaven Football Club’s old football pitch and a large space surrounding it was roped in and seating accommodation provided for officers and others”
Drilling took place on the recreation ground and on the cliff top west of Castle Hill. It included general drilling, where the men would learn how to march, form fours and about turn. After a few weeks they would progress to route marches and more specific training around weapons, such as bayonet practice and rifle handling. Private Sugden recorded his daily routine at the beginning of his training. “We arise about 7:30, breakfast at 8 and parade until 9. We then drill till 12. We drill on the top of a huge chalk cliff over-looking the sea and I am already getting fit. We have dinner and then our time is our own until 2pm. We drill till 3.30pm and that finishes our day, but we are not allowed out of camp until 4:30pm”.
With the increased number of soldiers encamped in the town, places of entertainment were needed. There were three cinemas in Newhaven, but it was the pubs that would provide the main distraction. So to provide an alternative, many church and local organisations set up huts, where the men could write letters home and enjoy some entertainment. People from the town donated books and pianos and provided entertainment in the form of concerts, talks, recitals and reviews. Venues included the Missions to Seamen Institute, the Wesleyan School Hall in Chapel Street, the Baptist Hall, a hut next to the Roman Catholic Church and the Church Army Mission Hall on East Side. The YMCA also provided a number of huts, both in the camps and around the town.
In 1915, a Women’s War Time Club was opened as a place where soldiers could take “their female friends who visit them, to spend a happy time in comfortable surroundings”.
By Jenny Flood.
Photographs by kind permission of Newhaven Museum.
Unless otherwise stated quotes are taken from the East Sussex News, copies of which are held at The Keep.
Private Sugden’s letters and diaries can be found at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916 by Peter Simkins.