Lancaster's Home Guard of World War One

Whenever danger of invasion threatened and regular forces were overstretched the men of Lancashire always responded

By Shaun Corkerry, war historian
Thursday, 17th February 2022, 3:45 pm

This is hopefully the first in a series of articles about the Home Guard in Lancaster and the surrounding areas, however, whilst researching it, I realised it would be a shame to not acknowledge the predecessors of the Home Guard of 1940.

Whenever danger of invasion threatened, and the regular forces and Militia were overstretched, the men of Lancashire always responded. The Lancaster Guardian of February 21 1941 contained an article pointedly called The Home Guard of 1800.

The article goes on to describe the formation of volunteers in response to the threat of invasion from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805 – Lancaster had the Royal Lancashire Volunteers from 1793-1802, six infantry companies of the Lancaster Volunteers – commanded by John Bradshaw Esq- from 1804, and later the supplementary Militia.

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Early days for these volunteers (located in the south of England) c 1915.

“Napoleon had at that time an army of 120,000 at Dunkirk, and a fleet of barges at Boulogne… to meet that danger a volunteer force of 347,000 was recruited from every town and hamlet in the land.”

The call to arms took a rather basic form: “It came not by wireless but by the London Coach to Garstang, Lancaster and on to Kendal. The Coach arrived at the old Kings Arms Hotel at 11 o’clock in the forenoon. Hardly had the sweating horses been taken from the coach before the Bell man was out on the street crying “Bonaparte threatens invasion, the King calls you to arms!”

Men began assembling at every market cross: “the old flintlocks which had been used to resist the Scottish plunderers in 1745 were taken down from the rafters, whilst the rusty old sword hidden away in the thatch of the cottage was put into service again”. Later in the 19th century, the French threatened invasion again, leading to the formation in 1859 of the Rifle Volunteer Corps; this of course later became the Territorial Force in 1908.

After war was declared in August 1914, there was an immediate demand for a means of service for those men who were over military age, unfit or engaged in important occupations.

Believed to be a Lancashire VTC cap badge.

Combined with the perceived risk of a German invasion, this resulted in the spontaneous formation of illegal “town guards” and volunteer defence associations around the country by former regular or volunteer officers.

By November 1914, a renamed Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps was recognised by the War Office (who were not keen).

Units had to be financially self-supporting, and members had to provide their own uniforms, which could not be khaki; the association recommended lovat green (most went for grey-green Norfolk jackets).

All members were required to wear a red brassard or arm band, bearing the letters GR.

The 'official' uniform patterns for VTC units.

No weapons or equipment were initially provided, but a variety of obsolete patterns were used later.

In Lancaster, a volunteer corps under the title of the Lancaster Volunteer Training Corps (VTC) was formed by Mr F R C Storey (there was also a detachment at Morecambe). VTC Battalions finally legally became volunteer regiments in July 1915.

The Lancashire Daily Post reported in January 1916 that the Lancaster VTC was inspected at the town hall by the Deputy Area Commandant Mr H H Owtram, and the Commandant, Mr FRC Storey.

There were 56 men on parade. Mr H L Storey was the president of the Lancaster Corps. In his address’s Mr Owtram gave the number of volunteers in the whole country as 300,000.

Volunteers in Manchester show off their New uniforms, 1916 - no pictures of the Lancaster Volunteers are known.

Fifty members were reported at church parade in Lancaster in May 1916.

By this time Mr ABS Welch was in command. (Alfred Bassett Starbuck Welch - 1863-1933 - was a stockbroker from Haverbreaks, near Lancaster, who became a leading light in the volunteers - he retired as a captain.)

In August 1916, the War Office decided to include the VTC Battalions into the County Infantry Regiment system, and they later became numbered volunteer battalions of their local regiment.

The headquarters of the 13th Battalion West Lancashire Volunteer Regiment (afterwards the 1st Volunteer Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment) was then located at the Dallas Road Drill Hall.

During 1917 things changed: the volunteer units started to be funded by the Government.

Enfield rifles began to be issued, followed by light machine guns.

These volunteers are lucky to have rifles!

In addition to anti-invasion duties, volunteers undertook a wide range of other tasks including guarding vulnerable points, munitions handling, digging defence lines, assisting with harvesting, firefighting, and transport for wounded soldiers.

Army instructors were supplied through the period 1917 to the end of the war, and courses of instruction in these subjects took place in the evenings.

Saturdays and Sundays afforded opportunities for musketry and field work. Officers could undertake home study courses as well!

Administration staff were needed also – the position of a staff clerk being advertised at Dallas Road on the generous salary of £5 per week (it was hoped to attract a retired NCO).

Like the Home Guard of 1940, younger men also served in the VTC and learned the basics of military service before being called up for active service (the Military Tribunals who governed conscription locally frequently “combed out” men previously exempted from service).

The force was sometimes ridiculed by the public; there were jokes that the GR on their armbands stood for George’s Wrecks, Grandpa’s Regiment, Genuine Relics Good runners, Gorgeous Wrecks or Government Rejects.

By February 1918 however, there were 285,000 volunteers, 101,000 of whom had been directed to the corps by the Tribunals. (15,000 volunteers were in Lancashire.) Nor was the VTC confined to infantry: there were Army Service Corps (Motor Transport), medical and engineer units.

In 1918, when there was an acute shortage of manpower because of the German spring offensive, 13,000 Volunteers undertook three-month coast defence duties in East Anglia. The 1st Volunteer Battalion of the King’s Own furnished a company for service on the North East Coast from June 29, 1918, to September 29, 1918.

Typical duties recorded by the 1st Volunteer Battalion were guard duties at Carlisle Bridge, Lancaster, patrol of Railway Bridge from Dec 1916 to Jan 1917, providing munition train guards and guarding crashed aeroplanes, supporting tank fundraising weeks, turning out during air raids (August 1917), and assisting during the White Lund explosion in October 1917. The only time that Volunteer Training Corps men were engaged in actual combat, was in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

However, several volunteers died accidentally during training.

We should also mention here two other little known voluntary organisations of WWI.

The National Reserve was created in 1910 as a means of retaining the option to call on the services of ex-military personnel in the event of a major war.

The older reservists, considered unfit for more active duties, played a leading role in the creation of the VTC. The introduction of conscription early in 1916 resulted in the younger reservists being called up for service in the army.

The remaining reservists were transferred into the Royal Defence Corps.

The Royal Defence Corps was initially formed in 1916.

Made up of older men from 45-61, the role of the corps was to provide full-time troops for security and guard duties inside the United Kingdom, guarding important locations such as ports or bridges.

It also provided independent companies for guarding prisoner-of-war camps. It numbered around 27,000 men. I came across two men from Ellel who served in the RDC, one a Boer War Cavalry veteran: Matthew Reeder, and William Fishwick, who was guarding German POWs on the Isle of Man from 1916.

The Volunteer Training Corps was suspended in December 1918, and officially disbanded in January 1920, except for the Volunteer Motor Corps which was retained until April 1921 in case of civil disorder.

The Government gave little thought to the volunteers after the war: they were sent on their way with a certificate of service and little else. The VTC was unloved and had failed to get the affection and support of the people, unlike the Home Guard of 1940. Its 312 Battalions (the Regular Army had 259) were consigned to history without hardly a mention.

The German Invasion threat in WWI never fully receded – they deserved better.

However, it had performed valuable service and was not forgotten by some members of the Government, notably Winston Churchill!

I would like to acknowledge the following in preparation for this article: The website of the King’s Own Museum (which has some great items on the volunteers), Grandads Army by Mike Osbourne, Ray Westlake’s Guide to the VTC 1914-1918 and Defending Albion by KW Mitchinson.