Salisbury Plain has been a military training zone for over a century. This special status has led to the preservation of many prehistoric monuments that might otherwise have been destroyed by mechanised agriculture and other developments elsewhere in Wiltshire and beyond.
Visitors today might think they are stepping back into a well-preserved landscape relatively untouched by recent activities. Yet the military dimensions of the landscape have shaped, and continue to shape, its land use and its buildings. Bowden et al. (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape explores the 20th-century military landscape, with Larkhill being established in 1909 for the early experiments in flying and how it became teh base of the Royal Flying Corps.
Subsequently, from 1917-1921, an aerodrome was constructed between the Larkhill Military Light Railway and Stonehenge. Bowden et al. (2015) even discuss how the aerodrome buildings might have been aligned so as to respect pre-existing views between Stonehenge and Normanton Gorse where quasi-druidical groups had camped from 1913.
Furthermore, it is also a landscape of military memorials, both in its villages to those who served and/or died in wars, and those along its roadsides commemorating deaths during military aviation training.
I have elsewhere written a research article about the commemoration of military training deaths in Devon with Dr Samuel Walls: Death and Memory on the Home Front. Salisbury Plain possesses commemorative dimensions of its own that merit discussion, linked to its significant role in the history of military aviation from 1911.
What is striking is how two of them have been fully, and somewhat incongruously, incorporated into the new Visitor Centre and routes linking it to Stonehenge and monuments in its environs. Rehabilitated through association, re-location and restoration, they make the Stonehenge experience a martial one.
They have been discussed by archaeologists before. For example, see Mike Pitts’ discussion and photographs of them here and here and here. As Mike notes, it is almost 100 years since the crash commemorated by the earlier memorial that the new Visitor Centre began to be built. By happenstance, is the Visitor Centre a anniversary martial monument? This is enhanced by a series of other quasi-military dimensions to the English Heritage uniforms and security.
Between the car park and the Visitor Centre is the first monument: a short stumpy cross first erected in July 1913. The memorial was located nearby and moved in 2012 ahead of the building of the Visitor Centre. Prior to that, it had been rededicated in 1996 and had an additional plaque. I’m not sure where this additional plaque has gone.
In 2012, it was relocated from the crossroads previously known as, and still known as, ‘Airman’s Corner’ to the path between the car park and the Visitor Centre:
TO THE MEMORY
AND STAFF SERGEANT WILSON
WHO WHILST FLYING ON DUTY, MET WITH
A FATAL ACCIDENT NEAR THIS SPOT
ON JULY 5TH 1912.
ERECTED BY THEIR COMRADES
Loraine and Wilson were the first British Army personnel killed whilst flying on duty. It has acquired its own heritage board explaining it too, and situating the memorial in relation to Loraine’s friend Hugh Trenchard who led the RFC in France and was founder of the RAF. As Walls and Williams (2010) argue, death during military training is a frustrating and ambiguous context for commemoration. It creates a frustration since one has to commemorate those that never even reached the context for heroic battlefield death. This commemorative ‘failure’ needs rectifying and situating in relation to a future timeline of British military achievements. This is quite evident in the fashion the heritage board discusses the deaths of Loraine and Wilson.
The second memorial is located at Fargo Wood, along the route buses take between the Visitor Centre and Stonehenge. When I visited in 2014 with family, I saw it briefly as the bus went rapidly past, but I got the chance to recently walk and investigate it.
The slate memorial plaque is fresh and seemingly a replacement, stating:
MAJOR ALEXANDER WILLIAM HEWETSON
66TH BATTERY ROYAL FIELD ARTILLERY
WHO WAS KILLED WHILST FLYING
ON THE 17TH JULY 1913 NEAR THIS SPOT.
This monument therefore commemorates a second early casualty in the army’s attempts to develop its flying potential.
As with the Loraine and Wilson monument, again, the new arrangements at Stonehenge have facilitated safe and regular access to this monument, for it is now on a pedestrianised road (apart from the Stonehenge ferry buses).
This taller three-stepped cross has been carefully revitalised by the ‘Wings over Stonehenge’ National Trust volunteer group and the military; they restored the monument in time for the centenary of Hewetson’s death in 2013 with a gravel surround.
The geographic rehabilitation of the monument into the flow of people’s lives is about more than the pedestrian access. It is now also a ‘bus stop’ where you can request the Stonehenge buses to let you off and pick you up to explore the Fargo Plantation and Cursus Barrows group and the Stonehenge Cursus.
For walkers and those taking the bus all, or part of, the way to Stonehenge, the memorial is integrated into the heritage dimensions of the Stonehenge landscape. It is therefore encountered by many thousands of people every year. Even if a tiny fraction stop and read its plaque and look at it and reflect, this is by far a more prominent position than many other roadside war memorials across the land.
These memorials feel like preludes, both to the Great War and to its memorials, as well as standing for the events they commemorate. They are commemorating military training deaths, and yet are given temporal and spatial contexts, rooted into the distant past and projected to the military present. In this fashion, they also reveal the intersection of war commemoration and heritage in the Stonehenge landscape; elements that cannot be ignored in narratives centred on prehistory alone. Hence, I’m delighted that the military landscape of Stonehenge, and these memorials, rightly find a place in the latest English Heritage publication on the Stonehenge landscape by Mark Bowden and his colleagues.