In this post, our valued member of the 2021 voluntary Citizen Curator programme, Paulette Burgess, discusses her research into Bodmin’s Victoria Barracks during the Second World War…
As a Citizen Curator at Bodmin Keep, I have spent much of my time so far listening to and transcribing oral testimonies given by various British Army Personnel. The first of which were delivered by new recruits detailing early military training during the Second World War at, or around the Barracks at Bodmin. I have quickly discovered that within the walls of the Barracks, lies hidden stories of friendships, discipline and anecdotes which have survived for decades. Amongst other memories, many of those interviewed begin by fondly recalling their arrival by train at Bodmin Road Station (now Bodmin and Wenford Railway) and being ‘marched’ to the Barracks for the first time. This would of course, be their first taste of discipline; soon to become a habitual routine.
Training was frequently described as ‘disciplined, but fair’ with strict routines and attention to detail required at all times. Route marches of over 10 miles across nearby Bodmin Moor were also commonplace, and often the only real means of discovering the local area, as trips to Bodmin were infrequent. In addition, basic drill, physical training (P.T.) and boxing matches were a daily ritual and considered vital in developing optimum fitness in recruits.
A typical day would start at sunrise with a call to inspection where kits were scrutinised by Officers, in an attempt to discover who had failed the test to keep their ‘boots shining’. Another part of this routine is what one ex-Serviceman describes as the daily ‘rush’ – the charge to be at the front of the queue for food at break times. This futile attempt to secure some treats in a break from training reflected the meagre rations of the time – scant and in great demand as there were frequently, more mouths to feed than food to go round.
Men were billeted in Nissen huts furnished with bunks, straw pallets and pillows. Personal space and privacy were rare when living in such conditions. Despite this, there seemed to have existed a genuine sense of camaraderie. Anecdotal snippets of jests regarding whether to wear pyjamas in the bunks was not only fun, but vital. Life was tough for these soldiers at the time; friendships invariably flourished and were indeed, crucial for ensuring that men felt part of a unit. Nevertheless, there was also talk of those for whom the regime proved too onerous & tragically resorted to taking their own lives by jumping out of upstairs windows. It was noted that little mention was subsequently given to these events by others, in fact it was rarely talked of for fear of lessening the morale of the men.
Amongst the many amusing stories collected during these interviews, there are two in particular that I deem worth sharing. The first being from a recruit describing the details of his medical. After quickly discovering that his teeth were in such a poor state that they all had to be removed, he spent the entire time training without any dentures at all!
Another memorable tale being the description of the day that German bombers flew over the Barracks to attack the nearby railway station at Bodmin. He states that ‘there wasn’t a single loaded gun at the time’ and notes dourly that this situation was rectified very quickly after that event!
Overall, I am left with an overriding impression that the training that men received at Victoria Barracks, although intense and thorough, was also fair with clear recognition given when a recruit performed well. In fact, several men noted that Officers remarked how they saw a ‘marked’ improvement in their abilities at the end of the training period. Another interviewee describes being taken into Bodmin and treated to a very nice meal to celebrate the culmination of training. He remembers being asked for his views on the training he had received and when doing so, feeling that Officers were willing to listen to what he had to say.
To summarise, my research has uncovered that the Barracks at Bodmin played an important role in training many men for War, at a time when they were far from their homes and families. It was integral in providing the requisite discipline and basics which would be necessary to ensure that soldiers were equipped to play their part in the War.
Written by Paulette Burgess, Citizen Curator at Bodmin Keep