'YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU'. Such was the call in August 1914 that by mid September three and a half thousand volunteers of The University and Public Schools Brigade (UPS) paraded in Epsom High Street. The War Office had selected Woodcote Park as a likely place for a military camp and the chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, The Hon. Arthur Stanley, had been asked if he would 'form a Brigade of infantry.' The Woodcote Park Estate had been purchased by the Royal Automobile Club in 1913 and it was therefore an obvious place to train the new recruits.
Raised from the Universities and Public Schools of the empire, the ranks of the original volunteers quickly swelled to their required five thousand. Initially, they were billeted in homes in Epsom and Ewell, Ashtead and Leatherhead. In February 1915, however, they were to move into the brand new camp. This was divided into two parts. 'The Farm Camp', situated near to the present entrance to the estate, and 'The Ridge Camp' which created the line for The Ridge residential road today.
Situated within the camp were all the usual facilities of a military base. One hundred huts each housing fifty men had been built by Humphreys Ltd. of Knightsbridge, ably assisted by members of the UPS, also Cookhouses, Mess Halls, Ablutions, an indoor Rifle Range, a large Recreation Hall, Barbers, a Church, a shop and a Post Office. The whole camp was supplied with electricity, mains water, telephone lines and a regular bus service to Epsom. They were a self-contained military unit able to train on the 338 acres of club property and all the while the golf course still stayed open! Once they had entered camp the men of the UPS became Royal Fusiliers forming the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st service battalions and as well as exercising in Woodcote Park they also used Epsom Downs, Headley Heath and the surrounding countryside in order to attain a level of efficiency that would allow them to go to war.
We have a very good idea of what life was like for the recruits at this time thanks mainly to one Harry Johnson who was the sub-postmaster in Ashtead. Harry had a camera, a motorbike and facilities to turn his photographs into picture postcards, selling them at his Post Office. Many photos were taken during the life of the camp and these coupled with the notes written on the reverse of the cards give us a unique insight into military life at Woodcote Park at this crucial time.
The weather during that first winter at Woodcote Park Camp was severe, delaying the erection of the huts. On 22 January 1915 an inspection by Lord Kitchener was held in blizzard conditions. This parade was held on Epsom Downs and, in total, over 20,000 troops were drawn up for inspection, the UPS having been joined by soldiers who were encamped all over the district. Reveille was at 0400hrs to allow for the march to the Downs. Lord Kitchener, who arrived at 1030hrs, stayed only five minutes before going to inspect even more men of his eponymous Army.
By February, all four Battalions were in the newly finished camp and training continued in earnest. We read in one card that the men were frustrated because they 'can't wait to get at the Hun' and were thoroughly fed up with the incessant parades and route marches. The camp newspaper 'The Pow Wow', produced by the Fusiliers themselves, clearly shows that even after nine months of war, the spirit of jingoism persisted.
At the beginning of May, it was time for the Royal Fusiliers to be moved on, firstly to Clipstone in Nottinghamshire, then to Salisbury Plain and thence to France. Many of the original recruits, because of their background, were to receive commissions in other regiments to fill the many gaps that were appearing in the ranks of the army, others were to stay with the regiment until their battalions were disbanded later in the war. Many were not to return.
The departure of its original incumbents left a big gap not only at Woodcote Park but also in the locality. These men had brought spirit and also income to the district. Their replacements were to be of a different ilk.
The powers that be decided that the camp should become a Convalescent Hospital and in June orderlies were sent to prepare the way for the first patients. Initially, The Farm Camp area was the hospital but very quickly the whole site was ready to receive many ANZAC troops who had been wounded at Gallipoli. Harry Johnson was still taking pictures and in some of those we can see the slouch hats of the Australians and the typical headgear of the New Zealand soldiers. There were also British troops convalescing and, like their Colonial fellow patients, all were waiting to be discharged, many to be returned to the frontline. Not all were war wounded. Levels of sickness and disease in the army were high. Even so all wore the bright blue uniform of the wounded soldier and many were allowed into Epsom town as they returned to full health.
King George had first visited Woodcote Park in October 1914, when he inspected the UPS but on 18th July 1916, accompanied by Queen Mary and escorted by the Commanding Officer Colonel Kilkelly, the Royals talked with the patients and the Queen opened the 'Queen Mary's Tea Rooms'. At this time there were over 3000 convalescents at the hospital, which now included many Canadians with only a few ANZACS left. Such were the injuries sustained by the Canadians during the Somme offensive that in August 1916 the whole military establishment was handed over to the Canadian Army as their main convalescent hospital, Major L.E.W. Irving commanding.
The Canadians are well featured in the postcards of Harry Johnson. On one they can be seen practicing baseball, surely a new sport to this country. The recreation hall was put to good use with home made entertainment as well as concert parties brought down from London, lectures and musical recitals. We also learn of personal stories including how a wounded soldier reached Woodcote, having been on a hospital ship that was torpedoed in the Channel.
At this time The Duke of Connaught, third son of Queen Victoria, was not only The Governor-General of Canada but also President of The Royal Automobile Club. In this dual capacity he was to visit the hospital, a visit that was recorded uniquely on a Pathe newsreel.
The war dragged on until the Armistice in November 1918 and all this time the hospital was kept busy. Into 1919, there were still Canadians at Woodcote Park but in June there was a riot by Canadian soldiers in Epsom when a local policeman, Station Sergeant Thomas Green, was killed. This sad event no doubt hastened the departure of the Canadians, who eventually left for home at the end of July.
The camp was used for a while as Queens Mary's Convalescent Centre, still being used by ex servicemen. After a short period as a Training Centre for War Pensions Administration the Camp was eventually returned to The Royal Automobile Club in 1923.
This is just brief summary of events that took place at Woodcote Park during nine years of the club's history.
This article was written by Graham Deeprose and first appeared in the January 2007 issue of Pell-Mell & Woodcote, the journal of the Royal Automobile Club.
All the above images are courtesy of Graham Deeprose.