The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 85

Issue 85

November/December 2005



Archaeologists find trowel - and other stories

Bid to list first commercial nuclear power station

Model views - arial photography on the cheap

Return to Gwithian, Cornwall

Cave archaeologists find human remains

In Brief


From Ashes to Dust: who cares about sports heritage?
Jason Wood thinks the historic environment is losing out to sport in government spending - and this will worsen as the London Olympics approach. He has a solution

Coast Survey special
Archaeology on the shores of Norfolk and the Isle of Wight

White Badges
Mike Pitts visits poignant wartime field art asking 'Will we remember them?'

Roads to the past: Ireland's archaeological revolution
It's a long road: Dàire O'Rourke reveals extraordinary Irish archaeology in danger from the expanding road network.

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


In marches upon the heavenly plain

Chancellor Gordon Brown recently backed extension to memorials of the Listed Places of Worship Scheme, allowing charities to reclaim VAT on maintenance. At Fovant, Wiltshire, says Mike Pitts, unique landscape art should be recognised as a memorial to the men who created it - the soldiers of the first world war.

At 11am on November 11, as first happened on that day in 1919, the exact anniversary of the Armistice signing the year before, we reflect in silence on nearly a century of grief. After world war two Armistice Day became Remembrance Day. This August the British and Irish churches published a new order of service designed to be "as inclusive as possible for people of all faiths and none"; a prayer notes those who "suffer the consequences of fighting and terror". Like everything, the act of recollection moves with the times.

The nearest I have ever been to war was dressing up in antiquated kit in the school CCF, an experience that sealed an instinctive dislike for anything military. For many years I was quite unable to empathise either with those who instigated war or with those who fought in its name. Soldiers, as archaeologist Stuart Piggott observed when barracked in Wiltshire in 1939 before being saved by air photography intelligence, were uncomprehending and incomprehensible.

That changed profoundly when I visited a former world war one training camp at Fovant. There is of course none of it there now: where once was a small town, with hospitals, picturehouse, shops and streets, where thousands trained before leaving for the slaughter across the Channel, is now a beautiful, quiet chalk valley.

It is nonetheless unique. On the long, steep scarp between the iron age hillfort above and ploughed fields below are white signs carved into the turf. The technique is that of Wessex white horses: but the subject is military. These are regimental crests, most created by trainee squaddies in the first war. Seeing them, climbing the rucked turf and realising they had all but disappeared, I knew that war is about us all. Beneath the skylarks and the scudding clouds, no more than a conversation between people and chalk grass, this was a war memorial I could understand. Not here the often crass, sentimental ugliness of memorial sculpture, but art created by soldiers during the war and existing only through the attention of the living. Archaeology had changed me.

Turf-cutters' art

During the first war swathes of farmland were requisitioned fortraining and transit camps. West of Salisbury such a settlement was established in the valley that connects the small villages of Sutton Mandeville, Fovant and Compton Chamberlayne. Cowsheds ceded to stores and tearooms. There were barracks, a hospital, parade grounds and shooting ranges; the Garrison Cinema showed Charlie Chaplin films, while a prisoner of war camp held German soldiers. A single track railway connected the camps to the main line. The lives of local traders, craftsmen and publicans were transformed by what was described as a "goldrush" atmosphere.

Like all folk art, of which these chalk badges are exceptional examples, chronology and authorship are vague. The first crest is said to have been carved by the London Rifle Brigade in 1916, the men working as volunteers on off-duty hours (though a 1925 guide by George Lansdown attributes the first to the Post Office Rifles). The lrb is in pole position, immediately above an old pit, a likely source of chalk for many of the figures, and in line with Green Drove, a track that runs from the top of the hill opposite and down which five of the military camps were ranged.

What inspired this effort is not known. For centuries "chalkworks" had been curiosities for travellers. Writers give most attention to white horses - of which there were eight in 1916 Wiltshire - and the two famous male figures at Wilmington, East Sussex, and Cerne Abbas, Dorset. The actual variety of forms, however, was greater.

Morris Marples, in his classic book published in 1949 and significantly titled White Horses & Other Hill Figures, was rather dismissive of the 20th century "turf-cutter's art". "The solitary figure of horse or giant", he wrote, "becomes a part of the landscape. But a horse on every hill... would be... too reminiscent of the advertising hoarding to be pleasant. We may judge the effect from the serried assortment of military badges and other devices (including, though not cut in the turf, the words drink more milk)... on Fovant Down in Wiltshire. As a collection of tours de force... these are worth preserving... But that we should have all our downs so bedizened, heaven forbid!"

In historical perspective, it is the horses that seem anomalous, relics of no more than a century (c1770-1870) when landscape was an extension of garden, property to be managed for private use and occasionally put to commemorating a favourite steed or celebrated cavalry commander. Before that, figures appear more political in nature, not least the Wilmington and Cerne Abbas men which archaeology and history now suggest link with 17th century satire (British Archaeology July 2004). These earlier figures are poorly dated, but also include other giants, a couple of horses, and crosses.

The oldest, the Uffington horse, dated by archaeology to before 200BC, is perhaps a symbol of territory. It may be that its uniqueness lies not in its carving, but its survival. The transformation of the Fovant hillside since 1918, as we shall see, warns not to assume that we know even the majority of older hill figures.

After 1870 chalkworks are mostly badges and symbols again, as commemoration or promotion (think of the Whipsnade lion, cut in 1933), although nostalgia seems behind new horses such as that on Roundway Hill, Devizes, carved in 1999. Precedents for the contemporary works at Fovant lie in the Wye Crown, Kent (1902), taken from a coin design and illuminated for Edward VII's coronation, and an aeroplane at Dover (1909) which celebrated Blériot's channel crossing.

Important to landscape

The London Rifle Brigade's crest was quickly followed by others. No record of them all is known, but it was said by the end of the war there were at least 20.We have a brief description of how one was done, the 6th Battalion, City of London Regiment. Sergeant Hall "had no difficulty in getting 60 volunteers", who worked 4-7am, before firing practice began at the bottom of the scarp and the men slid back down on their shovels. It took three months to complete. The Royal Corps of Signals badge, carved in 1970 with spades and picks with chalk bucketed in, took 10-12 men 20 days' work.

The first war regiments had a key resource, free labour, in abundance. Photos of the early figures show the result, with an extraordinary facility and detail of design that is perhaps lacking in more recent attempts. Nonetheless, it was said that many units had no time to dig, and instead laid chalk, crockery, brick and tiles on the turf. The lone Australian rising sun crest at Codford, 11km north of Fovant in the Wylye valley, was first made with glass and stones, but probably because it was cut into the turf, still survives.

After the war the government, as at Stonehenge where aerodrome buildings were adapted for a piggery, left the farmers to reclaim their land, and soon little but the crests remained. Some regiments paid for local upkeep. The Australian government, in memory of the substantial number of Australian soldiers at Fovant, provided an annual sum. The costs were steep, however, and many crests had grown over by 1939, when renewed war - much fought in the air - led to them being officially abandoned, so turf would spread and camouflage them.

The Fovant Home Guard Old Comrades Association, formed in 1949, revived care for the figures, by then as much a task of re-creation as conservation. At that time Marples could see 15 figures, including the map of Australia to the east at Compton, of which he was unable to decipher three. Inevitably resources could not match the challenge, and pleas to save the Fovant crests ("Cannot boy scouts be found to clean them all regularly every year or two?" asked a 1925 writer) ring down the decades.

The modern turning point came when they were, at last, scheduled as ancient monuments, in 2001. This made it possible for the Fovant Badges Society, continuing the work of the Old Comrades Association, to obtain a lottery grant (all crests are on private land). After consultation it was decided, "with much sadness", to restrict restoration to the military crests on Fovant Down. The resultant spectacle is a sample of some 50 years of carving: beside the Signals badge (1970) and two Wiltshire regiments added in 1950-51 are five from world war one; the still visible ymca triangle is now grassing over. For even this limited task £220,000 had to be raised. Annual maintenance was priced in 2003 at £15,000.

The scheduled areas cover the nine visible crests at Fovant; the 7th Battalion, City of London Regiment and Warwickshire Regiment on Sutton Down to the west; and the Australia map on Compton Down to the east. Because many crests are grown over and several were superimposed, it is certain that more than can be seen are within the scheduled areas, and many more outside. Documentary research may help extend the story, but archaeology is especially important.

Major figures were created by digging out trenches and packing them with pure chalk. Modern field archaeology should be able to detect those that are gone. A few can still be seen. Air photos, for example, show a circle immediately west of the Devonshire Regiment crest (probably the one noted by Marples) with an apparent CND symbol overlying it.

The schedule entry notes that surviving figures "represent by far the largest and most complete group of hill figures in England... Their significance is further enhanced by their association with a number of regiments or units which were either subsequently disbanded, or whose members left Fovant to fight in some of the most bloody battles of World War I".

The badges society holds a summer Drumhead Service in the farm at the bottom of Fovant Down. A few hundred gather outside or in the barn, the must of grain blending with the scent of cow pasture, as sparrows twitter and flit over a crowd of navy blue jackets and bright flowery frocks.

For nearly a century these remarkable chalk emblems, created, one imagines, in a heady atmosphere of bravado, laugher and foreboding, have been kept alive, just, by local effort. Perhaps it is time to mark their significance, not just by listing, but also by recognising them as war memorials, allowing the society to reclaim vat on renovation and maintenance. "Memorials make an important contribution to the landscape", said culture minister David Lammy announcing the new vat scheme in August, "as well as being central in helping us to remember people and events that shaped our country". That can certainly be said of Fovant Down.

See Thanks to David Greenwood, Fovant Badges Society, for help with this feature. Mike Pitts is editor of British Archaeology

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