- Related Webpages
To expand and collapse the navigation please click on the headingsGo to other Related Subject areas
Highley Forum articles on military history
These articles describe how conflicts from medieval times to the cold war impacted on Highley and surrounding villages
The Wars of Edward I
The publication “Highley’s Fallen Heroes” contains lists of most villagers who fought in the two World Wars. It is possible to put names to a few villagers who fought in the Boer War. In 1911 the Bridgnorth Journal recorded the burial at Highley of Thomas Pountney, a veteran of Crimea. Beyond that, it is almost impossible to go. It is likely that amongst every generation of villagers, there would have been a few who made their living as soldiers. For the most part, their names are not known to us, apart from the very occasional glimpse. What, for example, was the career of William Jeffreys, “in the late Kings Army” in the Civil War of 1642-5? In the Middle Ages, military service was common-place. Highley belonged to the Mortimers, who were active in politics at the highest levels throughout this time. There is little doubt that some of their Highley tenants followed them to war. Via a fortunate survival of documents, we can see just a little of the career of one of these men, John de Higgeleye.
John was active at the start of the 14th Century, during the reign of Edward I. Edward was a particularly effective warrior. He started at an early stage, fighting for his father, King Henry III against Simon de Montford and rebellious barons. He then turned his attention to the Welsh, finally extinguishing that country’s independence in 1282. A dispute to the throne of Scotland allowed him to exercise overlordship over that country. He also campaigned in France, in Gascony. Throughout these campaigns, he was (usually) supported by the Mortimers and other lords who held land along the Welsh borders. Ever since the Norman conquest, the Welsh borders had been disputed territory, held by force of arms. It provided a ready source of battle-hardened soldiers and commanders. Land was usually held in return for the promise of military service. Typically a minor freeholder might be expected to serve himself in his lord’s army for 40 days a year or provide either a physical substitute or money to pay someone else to do duty. John de Higgeleye seems to have been a landowner who carried out his duties in person or a professional soldier.
The evidence connecting John with Highley is in his name; Higgeleye is a medieval spelling of Highley. At his time, inherited surnames were rare and instead names usually indicated occupation or origin. It is probably significant that he is mentioned in 1304 together with Walter de Kingshmede; Kingshmede was in Kinlet, probably at Meaton. The two may have been neighbours. Both were at that time in Scotland, in the King’s army. At that period the rebellion lead by William Wallace had been crushed but Wallace himself was still at large. In 1304 there was an abortive attempt at a general rising, which was rapidly suppressed by Edward’s army. This was John’s business in Scotland.
In 1304 a decree was issued at St Andrews in which John, “the king’s yeoman” was effectively granted immunity from any legal proceedings for 6 months. This was because John was having certain legal difficulties with his estates in England. Although John had originated in Highley, it seems that he had moved and now held land in Clunton, close to the Welsh border. This may mean that he had previously been active in the Welsh wars. Unfortunately, in 1303 he was accused by one Klerrisa, daughter of Worgan, of robbery. Klerrisa appears to have been Welsh; as her sons were called John and Philip it seems likely she married an Englishman. John was arrested and held without trial in Clun Castle; Klerrisa must have had friends in high places. John was also not friendless, for he quickly obtained his release and joined the Royal army in Scotland. The last we hear of him is in July 1304, when he brought his own proceedings against those who had imprisoned him and who had then stolen the corn from his farms in Clunton and Weston whilst he was on active service.
It seems unlikely that John ever returned to Highley, having obviously acquired both lands and status on the Welsh border. We know nothing of his subsequent career. He does however illustrate the rewards that could come the way of the fortunate from Highley who took up arms in the Middle Ages.
The Boer War
From 1899 to 1902, Britain was engaged in prolonged and bloody conflict in South Africa against the Boers. These were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa from the 17th Century. The British presence was more recent and inevitably there were clashes, particularly in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The Boers emerged rather well from these, gaining recognition of their independence from British control. However, the tensions remained culminating in the war that spanned the turn of the century. Technically and numerically, the British forces were far superior to those of the Boers, but after the first few months of the war the army had been humiliated in virtually all battles. This provoked a change of leadership and which turned the tide, but the Boers themselves responded by turning to guerrilla warfare. It took almost two years of struggle before the last resistance was overcome and British control was established over all of South Africa.
The Boer War was in some ways, the first “modern” war in that it involved significant numbers of volunteers who went out to supplement the regulars. For many years there had been volunteer battalions based in the UK, attached to regular regiments but traditionally these were not sent overseas. The Boer War changed this. There was a particular need for mounted troops but ordinary infantry was also sent. Initially a number of volunteer battalions were formed in South Africa but quickly men were recruited at home into the Imperial Yeomanry. Thus the war had a direct impact back in Britain, in a way that was to be seen on a much larger scale in the two World Wars. Even in Highley and Kinlet, the war cast a shadow.
Major Charles Baldwyn Childe was the owner of Kinlet Hall; the head of his family. He had enjoyed a distinguished military career but had retired from regular service to join the Shropshire Yeomanry. He was amongst the first wave to answer the call for reserves, travelling to South Africa to join the newly formed South African Light Horse. On 29th January 1900 he was part of a force that attacked a well-defended Boer position on Spion Kop, a steep sided hill. Showing considerable courage, he successfully led his men to take their objective, Sugar Loaf Hill, but in so doing, he was killed. By all accounts Childe was a popular officer. Before the battle he became convinced that he would die and left instructions for words of comfort to be passed to his family “Is it well with the child? It is well”, a quote from the prophet Elisha who raised a child from the dead as recounted in II Kings, chapter 4 in the Bible. There is a memorial to Childe in Kinlet Church.
In Highley, one man who certainly answered the call was Tom Davis, who was a member of the volunteer company of the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. He was a number of volunteers who went with the regulars to South Africa, arriving in January 1900. Like many regiments, the Worcestershire’s lost more men through illness than enemy action. Davis died from disease at Heilbron on January 19th 1902. He may not have been the only Highley man to serve in South Africa. In July 1903 a new pulpit was erected in Highley Church as a memorial to him. Present at the service were three other Highley men described in a newspaper report as “Troopers S. Brick, H. Edmondson and E. Lucas”. Sam Brick was a member of the Worcestershire Imperial Yeomanry (he served in it as a sergeant in the First World War) and the regiment saw service in the Boer War. It is however possible that he and the others joined after the Boer War. Regardless of this, Childe and Davies stand as the first local military casualties of the 20th Century, in a war that is not without parallels to current conflicts.
Civil Defence and the Cold War
It was during the First World War that it became apparent that fighting was no longer confined to armies on fields of battle. The development of aircraft meant that for the first time, civilians far away from major engagements could be targeted by bombers. In the Second World war the consequences of this became all too apparent. The Government was of course aware of the threats and instituted a number of measures specifically to meet the threat to civilians. These ranged from evacuation to air raid wardens and shelters. Whilst far from perfect, these did save many lives.
Following the end of the Second World War, it may have seemed that civil defence was no longer required. Sadly, it rapidly became apparent that the war had brought only an uneasy truce, with the threat now provided by the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. In 1948, the Soviet Union attempted to blockade West Berlin and the tone was set for thirty nervous years of the Cold War. This time there was an added menace with the knowledge that any confrontation would easily escalate into nuclear war with unimaginable carnage. Given the size of the respective arsenals on both sides, even a conventional war would bring death on a scale never before seen. The brunt of this would fall on civilians.
In recognition of the threat, the Government passed a new act of parliament in 1948 specifically to update civil defence measures. This eventually lead to the establishment of units of civilian volunteers who would be specially trained in first aid and rescue and whose job would be assist the emergency services at any disaster. These civil defence units were frequently organised around major employers, particularly those with bases in many different parts of the country. One of the largest employers was the National Coal Board and so it came to pass that a civil defence team was set up at Alveley Colliery.
The team was drawn from the surface workers; in view of the chronic coal shortages that were a feature of these years, I suspect it was considered politically inexpedient to remove men from the coal face on a weekly basis for training. The Alveley men appear to have been selected by the manager with very little room for dissent. The team was lead by Jack Lewis and consisted of nine members. Training was once a week, usually on a Monday morning from 10.00-12.00. This provided an not entirely unwelcome break from normal routine. The team were trained in basic first aid and practised rescue scenarios. The trainer was a Fred Hayes from Newdigate Colliery, near Coventry; presumably he covered many of the colliery teams in the West Midlands area of the Coal Board. Sometime exercises were held jointly with other Shropshire teams, particularly the team from Madeley Wood Colliery. One such exercise was held on the site of what is now the Blists Hill Open Air museum. There the team had to cross the Lee Dingle plateway bridge, as now, lacking any decking.
As with mines rescue and first aid, there were also competitions. In 1954 the combined Highley and Madeley Wood teams came 2nd in the Shropshire competition at their first attempt, after only 3 weeks practice. They subsequently won the trophy.
The team was stood down in the latter part of the 1950s, although members were instructed to retain their uniforms in case required. Fortunately for us all, they were never needed.
The Territorial Army was (and is) a volunteer force of individuals who, whilst remaining in normal civilian jobs, undertake military training largely in their spare time and who can be called up to reinforce the regular army at times of crisis. Strictly speaking, the story the Highley Detachment begins just a few months before the modern Territorials came into being, when older volunteer battalions formed a military reserve. There had been a company of volunteers based in Bridgnorth for many years and with the growth of Highley at the start of the Twentieth Century, it was considered worth while trying to start a detachment in the village. Accordingly, in December 1907, 60 men from Bridgnorth paraded through Highley on a recruiting march. At a meeting at the New Inn the vicar, the Rev Pryce, urged the Highley men to join up. According to the Bridgnorth Journal report at the time “several” men came forward. By January 1908 the Highley Detachment was in existence, drilling on Monday and Wednesday evenings in the club room of the New Inn under the supervision of Sgt Instructor Morgan. On March 31st of that year, the modern Territorial Army was inaugurated and of the 20 or so men who had joined the old volunteer band, 14 transferred to the new force, to become part of F Company, 4th Battalion of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI). This was not enough to form a complete section and for administrative purposes the Highley and Bridgnorth Detachments were treated as a single unit; however, the Highley Detachment seems to have had its own identity, drilling and training together. In addition to drills there were other duties; in 1913 they formed a guard at the funeral of 87 year old Thomas Poundford, a Crimean veteran buried with full military honours at Highley.
In October 1914, after the outbreak of war, the Highley men were sent first to India and then to Singapore to allow the regular army to move to the front. Back in Highley, another volunteer detachment was raised, nominally for home defence. These were nominally run by the colliery manager, Lt Charles Nicholas and drilled by Sgt Arthur Jones, landlord of the Castle Inn and former regular soldier. In practical terms there was little the volunteers could do in Highley, although it was reported that the drill instruction was useful training for those who left for the regulars.
The Volunteers were stood down in 1919 after the end of the First World War. However, there absence was clearly felt as the next year a detachment of the Territorial Army was refounded in the village, under the command of Lt Nicholas. Whilst patriotism no doubt played some part in this, there were other advantages to joining the Territorials. The chief of these was a two week camp in the summer, with pay. The Highley Mining Company did not offer holiday pay for another 15 or so years. One of the first men to join in 1920 was the late Len Giles, who recalled that the camp that year was the first time he had seen the sea. At camp the men lived in tents and were able to carry out more extended exercises than was possible in the evening drill sessions at Highley. George Davies, who was sworn in at the pit offices by Lt Nicholas, recalls weekly drill sessions at Highley where there was a home-made rifle range next to the pit and also a range where they could do grenade practice. There was another rifle range at Bridgnorth. At camp there was a chance to compete against other detachments. In 1927 the 25-strong Highley company, now led by Lt FC Smith, the headmaster of the school, won the Brigade Efficiency Cup, the Battalion Efficiency Shield and the prestigious Prince of Wales Shield at camp in South Wales. The Prince of Wales Shield included points for shooting, obstacle courses, obeying orders and general knowledge; George Davies was twice in teams that competed for the shield. In 1934 Highley, as 15th platoon, D Company, 4th KSLI, won the cup for the smartest and most efficient platoon in the battalion. The NCOs in the 1930s included AJ Davies, E Lucas, AJ Jones, G Jones and W Wilson.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, as with the First, the Territorials were called up and their place was eventually taken in the village by the Home Guard. After the war, changes in army structure and size meant that small units such as the Highley Company vanished; in due course amalgamations meant the KSLI itself disappeared into history.