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The anatomy of a drill hall

About Drill

A hundred years or so after the heyday of the Volunteer Drill Hall, many people have little idea of what 'drill' actually was, yet it is clear from contemporary sources that drill halls and the training which took place in them were valued by the community. Towns prized their drill halls and encouraged their young men to give up their time, unpaid, regularly and diligently, to participate as Volunteers.

'The Volunteers ... carefully attended to the ordinary routine of drill, with an occasional "camp out", in which very useful work was done,' (1) notes an author writing in Warrington in 1898. He assumes, rightly, that his contemporary readers are familiar with what he meant.

The 'ordinary routine of drill' involved marching and rifle drill (including cleaning and the dis- and re-assembly of their weapons; engineers and gunners and medical professionals would study their own particular skills) relentlessly, week in, week out, to develop unquestioning discipline and proficiency in their role.

The 'camp out' was for many the closest thing to an annual holiday. Each company would join up with the rest of their battalion, and they in turn would join the other units of their division in tented camps. They would then engage in rifle competitions and exercises with hundreds of others to ensure that the division, as a whole, would provide a cohesive fighting force to defend the Empire.

Regular Orders published in the Chatham, Rochester and Brompton Observer give a flavour of the weekly routine. The Local Volunteer Orders published on April 8th, 1905, list the military personnel and the variety of activities from which a Volunteer would select those he was expected to attend.

The Queens Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) comprised:

Saturday 8th April:
Class Firing for Trained Volunteers (A, B, C and K Companies)
Monday 10th April:
Machine Gun - 7.45 pm
Armoury - 7.30 pm - 8.30 pm
Tuesday 11th April:
Recruit Training - 7.45 pm
Wednesday 12th April:
Signallers - 7.45 p.m.
Semaphore instruction, all Companies - 7.45 pm
NCO's Class - 7.45 pm
Thursday 13th April:
Company Training - drill order, with leggings - 7.45 pm
Recruit Training - 7.45 pm
Morris Tube training for recruits - 7.30 pm
Friday 14th April:
Signallers - 7.45 pm
Saturday 15th April:
Class Firing for Trained Volunteers (E, F, G and H Companies)
Signallers - 3 pm
Company Training (H Company) - drill order with leggings, FS caps - 3 pm

The listings helpfully provided details of the times of suitable trains from Chatham Station to enable men to attend Saturday activities.

However, H Hibbard, SSM of the Royal East Kent Imperial Yeomanry, seemed as keen to ensure that arrangements were in place for the annual camp as to inform men of the week's activities. The riding drill on Wednesday and Saturday, and the recruits' drill on Thursday at 8, are given cursory listing, while he urgently reminds men who wish to apply for leave from the annual training that they must do so this week, insists that men who wish to use their own horses give notice this week or face using the Squadron's horses and exhorts men to collect their rifles from Headquarters without further delay.

It is clear that the drill halls were well used, often for several training activities at a time; and that almost every evening and Saturday afternoon, something was happening, overseen by 'Officers trained in tactics and the science of war.' (1) It seems this was to good effect. In 1898, George Venn observed with some pride that the Volunteers had become a serious fighting force, complemented by integral specialist sections such as Signals, Ambulance and enthusiastic Bicycles. Unfortunately, other observers noted a dearth of officers; Colonel Ommanney, speaking to open Congleton Drill hall, recalls seeing many 'fine healthy young men who would have made most suitable officers of the Volunteer corps' but, he reflects in jaundiced surprise, they seem to prefer golf and 'other pastimes'.

Despite this, the opening of a town's drill hall was generally reported with pride and excitement, reflecting the views of local opinion formers that the training activities which would take place therein could only be good for the community and for the country.

Local newspapers record 'the weekly company drills and ... almost nightly training of recruits' (2), which had an additional benefit for towns, 'because the training and discipline of so many of her young men must have a healthy effect upon the tone of the inhabitants at large'. Indeed, the physical activity of drill was seen by some as beneficial to the health of the nation too; apparently boys and young men in large towns, such as Stockport, 'saw great want of physique in the boys who would be the future men of [the] country'; and some argued that their health and physical development would be improved by drill. (3)
Preparation and instruction in drill halls 'developed men physically and taught them organisation and self-reliance, besides training them in the use of arms for the defence of the county against invasion.' (4)

'...They had but one thing to do, and that was to do what they were told, and to do their duty to their country. ... [They were] brought up to that high state of efficiency which was required by modern warfare. ... eager to go into camp realising what practical work in camp meant, realising that a fortnight in camp was infinitely more valuable than one week, and realising that 900 good men were better than 1200 who were only partially efficient.' ( 5)
'The day will come when the country will have to depend on its Grand Volunteer Army. When the country is at war, it is probable that the Regular army will be engaged elsewhere, and England will have to depend mainly upon our Volunteers for her very existence.' (6)

Extracts from the Chatham, Rochester and Brompton Observer are reproduced by permission of Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre.

  1. Walter Crompton & George Venn, Warrington Volunteers 1798 - 1898, published 1898.
  2. Congleton and Macclesfield Mercury, May 6th 1905
  3. Col A E Ommaney, commanding 22nd Regimental District, opening of Congleton Drill Hall. reported in Congleton and Macclesfield Mercury, May 27th 1905
  4. Major General Sir Francis Howard, opening Congleton Drill Hall, Congleton and Macclesfield Mercury, May 6th 1905
  5. Lord Methuen, opening the new drill hall of the 4th Volunteer battalion (Q.O.) Royal West Kent Regiment, reported in Chatham Observer, May 6th, 1905
  6. Col Dunnage, Royal Artillery, 25th June 1898, speaking at Liverpool
The Drill Hall Project - Charting a neglected legacy