When the 1914-1918 war broke out, there was a need to find accommodation for the New Army. In many areas, training and transit camps were established for troops leaving for, and returning from, the battlefields in northern France. One of these areas was the village of Fovant, in Wiltshire and its neighbours Compton Chamberlayne and Sutton Mandeville. The villages and the fields in the shadow of the chalk downs became a military camp, complete with barracks, a hospital, parade areas, shooting practice ranges, a camp cinema and YMCA huts. A military railway was constructed to serve the camp, branching off the main line railway from London to the southwest
Thousands of men from all parts of Britain and overseas lived for a while in the area, passed on to the Western Front and returned from it. Many never returned but gave their lives on the battlefields in France. Others died of their wounds in the hospital or from disease. Rows of silent War Graves in Fovant and other nearby churchyards are testimony to their presence. In remembrance of their colleagues, many of the regiments carved into the hillside replicas of their cap badges. Many of these no longer survive, but by the end of WW1 there were some twenty discernible badges.
Local workers from Fovant and the surrounding villages, supported by Regimental Associations maintained the Badges after WWI. During WWII, the badges became overgrown in order to disguise landmarks, which might assist enemy aircraft. Weather and time, as well as the effects of grazing cattle, caused decay. After the end of WWII, the Fovant Home Guard platoons formed themselves into an Old Comrades Association and undertook the task of restoration. It was in the period of 1948/51 that the two Wiltshire regimental badges were cut and in 1970 the Royal Signals badge was added.
In 1961, the Old Comrades Association was reformed as ‘The Fovant Badges Society’ with redefined, more positive objectives related to the maintenance and preservation of the Badges and the holding of the annual Drumhead Service. The Society became a charitable organisation and in 1994 adopted a new constitution, which governs its operation and objectives; these are the preservation and maintenance of the Regimental Crests cut on the chalk downs.
The Society was determined, aided by much public and international interest, that the Badges should remain an historic, fitting and truly visible memorial to the soldiers who passed through Fovant and its neighbouring villages on their way to the Great War, many never to return.
By 2000, there were only twelve discernable badges on the downs. A new management structure was put in place and, in consultation with professional civil engineers, a survey of the condition of the badges was made. It appeared that the Fovant Badges were unique in their detail and posed difficult restoration problems relating to the slope of the hill, the complexity of design, and their sizes. These vary; the Australian Badge, the largest, measures 51m x 32m, which is just under half the area of a football pitch.
The Trustees, faced with a potential bill of £350,000 upwards for restoration and large annual sums for increased maintenance thereafter, realised that the task facing them had to be brought to realistic proportions. They decided, with much sadness, that the objective should be the restoration and maintenance of the military crests on Fovant Down. These are clearly visible from a lay-by in Fovant whilst passing along the A30 road between Shaftesbury and Wilton. There is also a public footpath from the road to the village of Broad Chalke, which passes by the area of the Badges. This inevitably meant that the Map of Australia on Compton Down and the crests of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 7th Battalion, City of London Regiment on Sutton Down would continue their decline. These badges would, in addition, have posed intractable problems because of the nature of the ground and their more advanced state of decay. Also, the YMCA badge on Fovant Down would be allowed to fade away.
Since the badges lay on open private farmland, with the movement of cattle unrestricted, it was clearly essential that large expenditure had to be used with good effect. A crucial first step was, therefore, to ensure the long lasting protection of the Badges. In co-operation with the farm owners, application was made to English Heritage to have the Badges scheduled as Ancient Monuments. Scheduling was granted in 2001 by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport placing all twelve badges, including those not being restored, under the protection of the government.
The estimated cost of the more limited objective was £220,000 and a national appeal was formally launched at the annual Drumhead Service in July 2001. The response to this was very positive and sufficient sums were assured by the end of 2001 to allow work to commence in 2002. Work experience by contractors, Dean and Dyball Construction Ltd, Ringwood, and favourable weather in 2002 allowed more work than anticipated to be done. This led to five badges being restored in 2002 and the remaining three (including the Royal Signals Badge who undertake their own maintenance and restoration) were completed in 2003.
The appeal has been successful. We are enormously grateful to our many benefactors – too large to name them all - but special mention must be made of the significant support given by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Daily Mail And General Trust, the Pilgrim Trust, the Clothworkers’ Foundation, the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Salisbury District Council. And also to the very many private donations from throughout the country.
The Badges were originally constructed by cutting outlines into the rough tussocks of grass down to the underlying soil using such tools as were available in 1916. Chalk from external sources was then hauled manually from chalk dumps and used to fill in the areas exposed.
profile before restoration - section through large chalk areas
Restoration problems involved work being carried out on a hillside that sloped at about 30 degrees and where a combination of grass, chalk and rain makes for a hazardous working environment. All chalk hills suffer from surface soil movement or ‘creep’. This causes ridges to develop above and below the horizontal chalk outlines and distorts the view of the badges from the A30 road. These so-called ‘eyebrows’ had to be removed.
Existing chalk on the Badges was removed to a depth of 150mm, stabilising the slope where necessary using geotextile materials together with one metre long metal rods, and replacing the excavated areas with compacted new chalk. On a large badge this required handling about 50 tonnes of chalk out of and into the site. As each badge is restored it is fenced to prevent cattle damage which had occurred in previous years.
The restoration of the eight military crests on Fovant Down was completed by the end of June 2003.
However that is not the end of the story. The annual cost of maintenance is above the current, and projected future, income level of the Society. If we cannot achieve the necessary level of funding to carry out effective annual maintenance work then the long-term existence of these memorials as visible emblems on the Downs must be in doubt.