The British Invasion of Clacton-on-Sea

In the September of 1904, the British Army carried out a full-scale amphibious assault on the seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea. Yes, you read that right. The invasion of the town saw approximately 12,000 men of the First Army Corps wade ashore with some 3,000 horses and sixty guns behind them. Of course, even though they landed on the Essex coast with all the might of an invading force, they fired no shots in anger and no blood stained the sand.

The operation began in earnest in Hampshire, a county with a rich history of embarking troops for war. In Aldershot, often described as the ‘Home of the British Army’, the invading force prepared to march. They were led by General Sir John French (who, as a result of the First World War, would later become Field Marshal Sir John French, 1st Earl of Ypres) and their march would take them around thirty-five miles south-west to a huge camp on Southampton Common. French would have remembered Southampton, for he had previously embarked for the Second Boer War from the port in 1899.

The decision to select Southampton as the launchpad for an invasion was not a random one. Throughout history, Southampton has been a vital port of embarkation for troops heading off to war.

According to the French chronicler Jean Froissart, Edward III sailed from Southampton in 1346 with his teenage son, Edward, the Black Prince, landing with his army in Normandy a few days later. A little over six weeks later, this army would famously defeat the French at Crécy.

Froissart also states that John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, raised a large army and marched to Southampton in 1378. He prepared a fleet of ships before embarking with ‘many lords, men at arms and archers’. The duke and his men sailed from Southampton to Brittany where they attempted to besiege the port of St Malo but, failing in this objective, they soon returned to England.

Henry V assembled his army at Southampton in 1415, prior to his own invasion of France. Henry himself came to Southampton on a number of occasions to oversee the preparations. His men, who would end up fighting at Agincourt, would have marched through the Westgate in order to board their ships. Henry himself embarked from Portchester Castle. Two years later, in 1417, Henry again used Southampton to embark a large army for war in France.

In 1422, Henry’s queen consort, Catherine of Valois, embarked at Southampton with an army in order to reinforce her husband in France. Unfortunately, however, Henry was ill, and he died later that year.

In 1429, Cardinal Henry Beaufort left Southampton with some 4,000 soldiers in order to reinforce the English in their ongoing fight against the French. It was around this time that Joan of Arc was gaining prominence. Beaufort may well have been present at the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431; there is now a statue of her facing his tomb in Winchester Cathedral.

In 1512, during the War of the League of Cambrai, Henry VIII sent Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset on a mission to reconquer Aquitaine. A force of around 10,000 troops mustered at Southampton before embarking for France, and Henry VIII came to Southampton to personally inspect them. Henry watched the fleet set sail, but the expedition turned out to be a complete and utter disaster.

Henry was back in Southampton ten years later, in 1522. He inspected two of his greatest ships, Mary Rose and Henry Grace à Dieu, before watching his fleet set sail for France. The fleet, commanded by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, went to work patrolling the Brittany coast, and the forces set fire to the town of Morlaix. Aside from that, however, Henry’s forces again achieved very little.

Southampton’s importance as a military embarkation port continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was used to embark troops for the Crimean War in 1853, the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, and the Second Boer War in 1899.

It is unsurprising that just two years after the end of the Second Boer War, those in charge would once again use Southampton to embark an army. The town had been relied upon – and it had delivered – for centuries.

The invading force began their march from Aldershot on 1 September 1904. The first column marched roughly fifteen miles south to Longmoor, where they set up camp for the night. The second column stopped slightly further north at Bordon, and the third column set up the force’s headquarters at Anstey Park in Alton. The rest of the force, including the mounted troops, camped in Woolmer Forest, just north of Longmoor.

Early on the following morning, the force set out for the grounds of Avington Park, a sixteenth century country house near Itchen Abbas, about four miles north-east of Winchester. The main three columns passed through Ropley to reach New Alresford, where they marched through East Street and then West Street before heading along the Avenue to the crossroads west of the town. From there, they marched parallel to the River Itchen through Itchen Stoke to Itchen Abbas, and the infantry crossed the Itchen on a pontoon bridge that had been erected by the Royal Engineers so that the men could reach Avington Park. The wheeled traffic passed the Plough Inn and travelled past Itchen Abbas’ St John’s Church. The mounted troops soon arrived and by the afternoon, some 12,000 men were resting in the peaceful grounds of the country house. 7,000 loaves of bread were provided by Dumper and Sons of Winchester and, as the bands filled the air with music, the troops were visited by the Mayor of Winchester and members of the public.

Almost as soon as the force had arrived at Avington Park, they left. On the following morning, Saturday, 3 September, the entire force packed up their camp and continued onwards to Winchester, where large crowds met them on Jewry Street despite the morning air being filled with rain. The long line of troops continued along Southgate Street to the sound of cheers and military music. As a body of infantry passed City Road, a drover asked the police if the army could be stopped so that he could cross the road with his sheep. His request was denied. Elsewhere, a street sweeper saluted the passing troops with his broom.

The mounted troops turned right at the end of Jewry Street and passed through Winchester’s twelfth century Westgate before heading out towards Romsey Road. Prior to embarking at Southampton, they would camp at Baddesley Common, north of Southampton, between Romsey and Chilworth. Meanwhile, the infantry continued south onto what is now Saint Cross Road, and they followed the route of the old Roman road all the way to Southampton Common, a march of around ten miles.

The cavalry and mounted infantry, along with several batteries of light and field artillery, arrived at Baddesley Common at around noon on the Saturday and they got to work, setting up their camp. Meanwhile, the majority of the force arrived at Southampton Common and proceeded to set up their large camp in the rain. From the Cowherds pub to Bassett, the Common was soon covered by thousands of tents.

‘Saturday Night at Camp’ – 3 September 1904.

The morning of Sunday, 4 September was bright and the troops were up early, laying their kit out in the morning sunshine and readying themselves for the ceremonial church parade and service. Members of the public had already gathered around the camp and they surrounded the band of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders as they played near the Cowherds. Other bands played elsewhere in the camp, including the drums and fifes of the Grenadiers and the bagpipes of one of the Highland regiments. Following the usual inspection, the units were led by the bands to their places for the religious services.

Church parade.

The Sunday morning church parade.

It was certainly a relaxed Sunday for the men on the Common. The soldiers helped themselves to food, some sunbathed, others slept, and some read the Sunday newspapers. A number of men were seen lying on their stomachs, penning letters or writing postcards to loved ones. Men cleaned their kit, used buckets of water to wash and shave, and others played games. A number of soldiers set off to explore the Common and on that Sunday afternoon, vast crowds of people joined them. The lanes and roads leading to the Common were ‘thronged with a long procession of people’ with apparently no end in sight. Soldiers and civilians chatted and shared jokes and those members of the public who came to see the spectacle were treated to an experience of what life could be like in a military camp.

Part of the camp on Southampton Common.

The atmosphere around Southampton Common on that Sunday morning was a relaxed one. However, this was not the case at Baddesley Common. The cavalry and mounted infantry had began arriving at this camp at around noon on the Saturday, a day that passed without incident. However, on the Sunday morning, whilst their comrades on Southampton Common were lounging about in the sun, all hell broke loose in the Baddesley camp.

It is generally believed that during the night, at around two o’clock on the Sunday morning, whilst most of the men were asleep in their tents, one of the horses belonging to the 8th Hussars kicked another horse, breaking its leg. A veterinary officer decided that the horse would have to be put down, but the silent pistol he was given did not work. He decided to use an ordinary pistol instead and the shot rang out in the stillness and the darkness of the early morning. The other horses – about six or seven hundred of them – were startled by the sudden report and they quickly became panicked. Reporting on the subsequent stampede, the Hampshire Independent described a scene of ‘unparalleled wildness and confusion’ as ‘the creatures lashed out in all directions, and, tearing their pegs out of the rain-sodden ground, dashed madly for the road’. Woken by the chaos, the soldiers tried to catch the horses, but it was no use. One young soldier received a serious kick to the face.

Picture of horses, soldiers, and tents.

This image comes from a very basic postcard. The sender of the postcard, Nelly, sent it to Mrs Misselbrook of 18 Atherley Road on 16 September 1904, twelve days after the horses had bolted. The message reads: ‘Did you see this after stampede’.

Hundreds of horses now bolted for the road, jumping over – and crashing through – a barbed wire fence. Many were cut badly by the fence and trails of blood followed them. The main body of stampeding horses galloped straight down the Avenue and past the camp on Southampton Common, and the heavy rumble of hooves woke many of the men sleeping there. As the stampede reached the town, many of the horses dispersed in various directions. However, around one hundred horses continued their dash down the Southampton’s main thoroughfare. They galloped down London Road and Above Bar Street with the men of the Hussars in desperate pursuit. The horses reached the Bargate and some sustained injuries as they were crushed against the stonework under the gate’s twelfth century arch. Still the horses ploughed onwards and the town’s bemused inhabitants opened their windows to the sound of an unexpected Sunday morning cavalry charge.

The Bargate.

The Bargate, a bottleneck for the stampeding horses.

The horses eventually calmed down and men of the Hussars were joined by members of the public in rounding them up. It was reported that around two hundred horses had made their way back to Winchester, whilst others had gone to Romsey. Some were found in Bishop’s Waltham and one went as far as Basingstoke. It was reported that sadly, by noon on the Sunday, forty-seven horses had to be put down. Three hundred and seventy-one horses were eventually sent back to Aldershot on special trains from Romsey in order to recover from their ordeal.

General Sir John French arrived at the main camp on the Common well after the initial carnage of the stampede had settled down. He arrived a little after eight o’clock on the Sunday evening and immediately assumed control of the force. He was accompanied by Prince Alexander of Teck whose sister, Mary of Teck, was married to the Prince of Wales, the future King George V. French would not be sleeping in a tent on the Common; he instead proceeded to the South Western Hotel where a room had been reserved for him.

At three o’clock on the morning of Monday, 5 September, the sound of bugles echoed across the camp. The soldiers rose and splashed their faces with cold water from nearby buckets. The day of the invasion had come. For the next two hours, the men packed up their camp. Tents were dismantled and wagons were loaded. By five o’clock, the first troops set off for Southampton Docks. Even at this early hour, the streets along the route were lined with spectators. As the soldiers marched through the town, the Hampshire Independent reported that ‘those who were enthusiastic enough to turn out in the early hours were amply repaid by a perfect morning and the sight of a lifetime’.

Some 12,000 men marched through Southampton on that Monday morning, accompanied by sixty guns and approximately 3,000 horses. It would have been an impressive sight as they snaked their way through the streets to the transport ships that lay waiting for them in the docks. As the men embarked, the wagons carrying their camp and kit were loaded, as were the horses and guns. The king’s brother, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, inspected the embarkation in his role as chief umpire of the manoeuvres. His own military career had begun back in 1866 when, at the age of sixteen, he had enrolled at the Royal Military College at Woolwich.

The ships left Southampton that afternoon. The camp on Southampton Common had disappeared, the troops had gone, and the town returned to normal after the excitement of a stampede and a major military embarkation. The Hampshire Independent reported: ‘The people of Southampton sincerely regret their departure, for the behaviour of the “Tommies” has been quite exemplary’. Southampton’s Chief Constable described the First Army Corps as an ‘army of gentlemen’, adding that he had not received a single complaint against any of the men.

General Sir John French did not board a troopship. Instead, he was taken on board Rear Admiral Wilmot Fawkes’ yacht which then conveyed him to HMS Good Hope, the flagship of the Cruiser Squadron, which would escort the invasion fleet of transport ships to the Essex coast.

At around half past four in the morning on Tuesday, 6 September 1904, the Royal Navy cruisers conveying the transports cut through the mist and appeared ominously off Clacton-on-Sea. The troopships followed. The invasion had begun.

Steam-powered cranes lowered white boats full of soldiers down the sides of the troopships and trains of these boats were towed to shore. Boats described as ‘gigantic river punts’ emptied horses and men onto the beach ‘at the rate of a hundred per minute’. Men of the Royal Navy had already landed on the beaches and set up landing places for the soldiers and it was said that they ‘did their work splendidly, these men of the sea, wading up to their waists in the surf’.

Horses coming ashore.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 17 September 1904. Image © Illustrated London News Group /

The never-ending flow of men, horses, guns, and equipment impressed members of the public and the official observers who noted the speed, order, and efficiency of the landing. Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross back in 1858, was said to have been ‘highly pleased’ by the operation. Wood had taken part in the siege of Sevastopol fifty years earlier, after the allied force completed an amphibious landing on the Crimean Peninsula. Admiral Sir William Luard remarked that he had never seen a ‘really successful’ military landing until this one.

Men worked tirelessly to unload the stores over the course of the day. They worked two hours on and one hour off and during their breaks they played cricket on the beach with planks of wood and pebbles. The disembarkation of horses and equipment continued long into the night and the beaches were lit by the searchlights of the cruisers. The disembarkation was still going on at eight o’clock the following morning.

Sketch of the scene on the beach.

Illustrated London News, 17 September 1904. Image © Illustrated London News Group /

After securing the beach, General French’s advanced troops marched through the night and, at dawn, they took Colchester. They were followed by brigade after brigade of infantry and this secured the railway line to the sea, ensuring that supplies could be brought up to the men at the front.

Chased by the invaders, Major-General Arthur Wynne’s defending force retreated towards Chelmsford after losing Colchester. The manoeuvres continued as planned, with Wynne’s men eventually fighting back, and the war games finally came to an end when French’s forces returned to Clacton-on-Sea – with Wynne’s men hot on their heels – and embarked the transport ships that would take them back to Southampton.

The fleet of transport ships emerged through the fog on Southampton Water on the evening of Thursday, 15 September. It had been ten days since they had left. Slowly but surely, overnight and into the following day, the transports came to their berths and emptied their cargo of men, horses, guns, and equipment on to the quaysides. The infantry and unmounted men would return to Aldershot, Farnborough, and Woking by train, whereas the cavalry and artillery would make the journey to Aldershot by road, camping again at Avington Park.

Whilst the British Army carried out their war games in southern England, the Germany Army were also carrying out their own manoeuvres at the same time in northern Germany. However, the British press were keen to point out the failings of the Kaiser’s army. British correspondents claimed to witness old-fashioned and ‘suicidal’ tactics, with one attack drawing considerable criticism. Apparently, the attacking force simply marched in close order across an open plain, with no cover or shelter, in the face of a ‘tornado of rifle and artillery fire’. Had it been real, with live ammunition, it was said that they would have been slaughtered. Yet the men continued to walk steadily onwards, ‘amidst the uproar of 10,000 rifles and sixty guns’, for twenty minutes, completely exposed to the enemy’s guns. Nobody even pretended to take cover, they simply marched on until they were within one hundred yards of the enemy and they then broke into a run, gave a cheer, and charged with fixed bayonets. ‘Splendid, but not war,’ the correspondent wrote. Another reporter described the German manoeuvres as ‘a hideous nightmare, the degradation of a superb army forced to play a game of tin soldiers.’ The British press also reported on instances of German soldiers being accidentally killed, maimed, dismembered, wounded, and blinded during the manoeuvres. There were newspaper reports about cruel officers, soldiers being arrested for firing live ammunition at an unpopular captain, and other soldiers feigning illness and injury to get out of their duties.

Just ten years later, the two nations would be facing each other in a very real and very deadly war.

Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, a large number of men, horses, weapons, and vehicles began pouring into Southampton. The British Army planned to embark the British Expeditionary Force – under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French – at Southampton and they would have remembered the successful manoeuvres ten years earlier. Just like the medieval armies of old, thousands of soldiers began leaving Southampton for France on board troopships in August 1914 and over the next four years, more than eight million troops, from many different countries, would pass through Southampton.

Northumberland Hussars embarking HMT Minneapolis, which sailed from Southampton for Zeebrugge on 5 October 1914. Image © IWM Q 50700. Original source:

The success of the 1904 manoeuvres had clearly shown the military top brass that Southampton was certainly still a suitable port for the mass embarkation of troops, and Southampton remained the country’s number one port of embarkation for the duration of the conflict. Millions embarked at Southampton on their journey to a war zone, and so many returned to Britain through the same port, injured, wounded, and scarred, both physically and mentally. For some, Southampton would have been the last piece of British soil they ever stepped foot on.

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain again declared war on Germany. Southampton suffered some of its darkest days during the Blitz, especially towards the end of 1940, when the town was targeted by the Luftwaffe and subjected to a number of brutal air raids. The face of the town would be irrevocably changed but just three-and-a-half years later, Southampton would take part in the largest amphibious assault the world had ever seen.

Once again, the military would rely upon Southampton to be a major port of embarkation. In June 1944, vast numbers of men boarded landing craft in and around Southampton in order to cross the English Channel and land on the Normandy beaches. Most of the infantry who took Gold and Juno beaches on D-Day had embarked at Southampton, and between D-Day and the end of the Second World War, some three-and-a-half million Allied troops passed through the port on their way to France, including over two million Americans.

Countless landing craft at Southampton.

Countless landing craft at Southampton. Image © IWM (A 23730). Original source:

Southampton was again used as a port of embarkation during the Korean War and then, in 1982, thousands more troops boarded ships at Southampton, this time heading for the Falkland Islands and war with Argentina.

It is interesting to consider that there may have been men embarking at Southampton in 1914 who took part in a similar practice embarkation ten years earlier. There may have been men fighting in the trenches of the First World War who had previously helped to invade Clacton-on-Sea. Many of Southampton’s citizens would have watched the procession of troops and equipment in both 1904 and 1914. The British Army certainly would have learned from the 1904 exercise, and they would have put that experience into practice when the real thing came just ten years later. However, when it came to landing the troops on a beach, it was one thing landing at Clacton-on-Sea. Gallipoli would be an altogether different story.

For centuries, Southampton rose to the occasion when called upon as a military port. Millions of people have passed through Southampton on their way to and from conflict zones – or Clacton-on-Sea – and sadly, many never returned. It can only be hoped that Southampton will never again have to be called upon to send masses of men and women off to war and uncertain futures, and that the port can remain one of peace, focusing, as it has done for decades, on its regular embarkation of cruise passengers.