Caravans and the First World War

By 1914 the horse-drawn caravan holiday had become fashionable in Britain, yet on the outbreak of the First World War the caravan took on a new role. Curator of the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection, Angela Willis, takes a look at the contribution that the Club made towards the war effort.

In the years leading up to the First World War, horse-drawn caravanning had become a popular way of spending leisure time for wealthy ladies and gentlemen. Membership of The Caravan Club (now known as the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection), an organisation which represented the interests of caravanners, was thriving. Yet Britain was about to enter a devastating conflict which would have an unimaginable impact on every aspect of society and daily life.

The Hutchings horse-drawn caravan fleet being requisitioned for the war effort.

Only a few days after Great Britain declared a state of war on August 4th 1914, the active recruitment of volunteers to the army began. Yet for some time the impact of the conflict was not felt by much of Britain, and for many life carried on as normal believing that it would be ‘over by Christmas’. The Caravan Club was no exception, and from 15th to 24th August its members and their caravans gathered for a social event (known as a ‘Meet’) in a field in Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire. Yet as 1915 dawned the War showed no signs of ending, with increasingly fierce fighting and shocking numbers of casualties, the impact of the conflict began to set in for those on the home front.

A number of Caravan Club members found themselves heading into the thick of the action, some sadly were never to return. Major Cecil Wedgwood, the Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent and Chairman of the world famous Wedgwood Pottery was typical of the wealthy and influential persons attracted to Club in its pioneering days. Having been decorated with a DSO in 1902 for service in the Boer War, he raised the 8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment in 1914. Two years later he was tragically killed while leading his troops at La Boisselle during the Battle of the Somme.

A number of Club members served with great distinction behind the front line including Captain Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first Director of the Secret Intelligence Service, today more commonly known as MI6. Meanwhile, those too old for active service, like Club founder and Honorary Secretary J Harris Stone, supported in other ways. Harris Stone, then in his sixties, joined the Civil Service as a clerk in the Petrol Control Department of the Board of Trade. Here, he interviewed people assessing each applicant’s need for fuel in a time of rationing. Harris Stone juggled his role with The Caravan Club throughout the War years. Many women members, who made up one third of The Club’s ranks, would have also found themselves occupied with war work, with some entering the workforce for the first time.

Hutchings caravans on the front line at the Somme in 1916.

As men and women were increasingly consumed with war work, leisure time became an impossible luxury. The last wartime Caravan Club Meet was held in June 1915, an event which did not return until 1920. This low-key affair took place in Highgate, London. In contrast to peacetime events where the public and press were openly invited to promote The Caravan Club, this Meet was to ‘be conducted in as private a manner as possible’ out of respect for those that had already lost their lives.

Leisure caravanning during the First World War was largely curbed by the requisition of hundreds of thousands of horses. In a time when motorised technology was still in its relative infancy, horses were in extremely high demand for roles in the cavalry and to tow heavy goods and ammunition on the battlefield. For one Caravan Club member for whom caravanning was not only their hobby but their livelihood, this widespread requisitioning of horses would have a destructive impact. Bertram Hutchings of Winchester in Hampshire founded a caravan building business in 1911, and was rapidly building an excellent reputation as both a manufacturer and owner of a 15 caravan strong hire fleet. At the onset of the First World War all twelve of Hutchings’ horses were commandeered for the front line. With the threat of closing down a business that had been gathering pace, Hutchings himself was rejected from active service due to disability.

Hutchings mobile Royal Naval Division Recruiting Office built on a Crossley chassis, 1915.

Hutchings was thrown a lifeline by fellow Club Member, Commander Eldred, who commissioned a motor caravan for use as a mobile recruiting office by the Royal Naval Division. Hutchings also recognised that the excellent mobility of caravans made them a perfect shelter amidst a front line that was constantly shifting. He sent several caravans from his hire fleet across the channel, where they were used as mobile units for the Red Cross and as officers’ quarters. He then continued to build caravans for use near the battlefield throughout the conflict.

Other Caravan Club members followed suit, at The Club’s Annual Meeting of 1916 the Chairman reported on ‘the aid the Club had afforded to many branches of War organisations, notably of the supply of caravans for the Red Cross, for nurses, for officers at field [camps], for munition workers’. As the conflict came to a conclusion The Caravan Club was given one last task. Field Marshal Haig sent an urgent request for caravans for use by officers, enabling them to plan on the move while pursuing the retreating enemy. J Harris Stone worked throughout the night sending telegrams to every caravanner who might be able to help. Working together, Caravan Club members achieved the incredible feat of supplying 50 caravans to the front line in only 48 hours.

As the First World War came to an end, a changed world emerged. The catastrophic loss of lives left Britain with a new social order, and those returning from the front line held new expectations of life and had a bonus in their pocket for which to pursue them. The modern trailer caravan, designed to be towed by the motor car, was born and it was set to change the face of caravanning forever.

Discover more about the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection.

 

 

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