The first real involvement of the military on Dartmoor in (relatively) recent times was to guard prisoners of war in Princetown and the surrounding area. In the late eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, a friend of the Prince Regent and one-time Member of Parliament for Okehampton, leased and enclosed 2,300 acres of land in and around Tor Royal and Princetown. His intention was to create a large agricultural estate, but as with so many other would-be “improvers” this ambition was defeated by Dartmoor’s soil and climate.
While this was going on, Britain became involved in a war against Napoleon and later with America. The French emperor commenced his attempts to conquer Europe in 1803 and met with opposition from Britain which continued until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Towards the end of his reign, in 1812, America also declared war on Britain.
Both of these conflicts resulted in the arrival of large numbers of prisoners of war in Britain. As conventional prisons grew full, some of the prisoners were held in dreadful conditions in rotting prison hulks off Plymouth Sound. This gave rise to some concerns at the Admiralty regarding the possible risk of escapees damaging or destroying the nearby ordnance stores. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tyrwhitt proposed the building of a prison next to his Dartmoor estate. After negotiations with the Admiralty, the foundation stone was laid in 1806. Following long delays, the prison was more or less completed in 1809 and the first prisoners began to arrive. It remained a prisoner of war camp until 1816.
The story of the prison during the war years is almost worthy of a “theme” of its own. There were escapes, murders and suicides; gambling was rife and one group of French prisoners even gambled away their clothes, bedding and rations. Disease was rife. The prisoners were guarded by the military and militia who were rotated every few months. Their behaviour left much to be desired. In 1810, members of the Nottingham militia were found to have accepted bribes in return for allowing prisoners to escape. They had also worked with prisoners to forge Bank of England banknotes and to produce counterfeit gold coins. In 1815, frustration amongst American prisoners at the length of time taken for their release boiled over into a riot. They tried to overpower the guard and actually managed to seize some of their weapons before the guards opened fire, killing 5 prisoners and wounding 34 others in what became known as the “Princetown massacre” – although the report into the incident described it as “justifiable homicide”.
During the course of its use as a prisoner of war camp, around 1,500 prisoners died in Dartmoor Prison. After Waterloo and peace being made between Britain and America, the number of guards was reduced, stores returned to Plymouth and the prisoners were released. The prison was then left to fall into a decrepit state until it was returned to use as a prison for criminals nearly forty years later.
It was nearly sixty years before a significant military presence re-emerged on Dartmoor, but then. from the 1870s onwards, encroachment on the moor by the military became an ever-increasing threat to the landscape, antiquities and tranquillity.
In 1873, the Corporation of Exeter and Plymouth Town Council worked together to persuade the War Office to hold its autumn manoeuvres on Dartmoor. These took place in August that year and were most notable for the appalling weather, which detracted from both the military benefit and the pageantry of the planned march past. A cartoon from the time shows a bedraggled sentry, lashed by rain, saying, “Three more days of this and I desert!”
This was not enough to make the War Office give up however and over the next few years it carried out field artillery training and established temporary camps near Okehampton. This was not universally popular and opposition soon began to mount. The Duchy of Cornwall allowed artillery practice to take place from 1875 onwards and in 1882, agreed to give the War Office a 27-year lease to establish a permanent camp at Okehampton. However, the need for longer periods of practice and the use of longer range guns resulted in opposition from commoners and an increase in the compensation paid to commoners.
Tiring of the protracted negotiations with the landowners, the War Office wanted to buy the land and have parliament extinguish the rights of commoners. In 1900, the Military Manoeuvres Bill proposed the appropriation of the whole of Dartmoor. This aroused vigorous opposition by the Dartmoor Preservation Association and the bill eventually failed through lack of government funding. However, a year later, the Military Works Bill of 1901 made £125,000 available for the War Office to buy over 25,000 acres of Dartmoor moorland. The Duchy was willing to sell, but went further, proposing that the War Office should actually buy the whole of its land, some 68,000 acres, at a cost of £200,000. Thankfully, once again, purchases on this scale proved impractical and too expensive.
Although purchasing the whole of Dartmoor was unaffordable, the services continued to take on leases from the Duchy, acquiring 39,000 acres at Okehampton and Merivale and buying the smaller, Wilsworthy range from another private owner. Amenities organisation waged an implacable war against the renewal of the leases, right up until the present day, but such successes as they had were mainly limited to securing reductions in the number of days when firing was allowed.
During the First World War Dartmoor Prison was emptied of criminals and in 1917 it was handed over to the military authorities. Conscription had begun in 1916 after the passing of the Military Service Act, which also created the category of “Conscientious Objection” for those unwilling to fight or to carry out war work. These were labelled as “conchies” and they were sent to Work Centres such as Dartmoor Prison and tasked with carrying out work of “national importance” instead of fighting.
So, in March 1917, around 1,000 men arrived at the Dartmoor Work Centre as it became known. Whether their work was really of “national importance” is debatable. They seem to have been put to work building walls, roads and drainage ditches. They are remembered to this day in local names such as Conchies Wall and Conchies Road. After the end of the war the government was in no hurry to release the COs, and its priority was the repatriation of fighting soldiers. They were finally released in the spring of 2019, six months after the end of the war.
Dartmoor suffered a great deal more militarisation during the Second World War. Firing ranges were established in the north-western sector of the moor and on Rippon Tor. The south-eastern area was used for training with anti-tank weapons and machine guns. Eventually, almost all of the moor was in use as training areas for troops headed for the Far East and the D-Day landings in Normandy. At Harrowbeer an aerodrome was established, to be used partly as a base for fighters protecting Plymouth from bombing raids, and later as an air sea rescue facility.
During the war, the conservation and preservation bodies accepted that their concerns were outweighed by the national interest. They became dormant and seemed content to await the demilitarisation of the land acquired during the war once the conflict ceased.
This was something of a forlorn hope. Conscription, in the form of national service, continued after 1945 and Britain still had military commitments throughout the world. All of this necessitated a training capacity far in excess of that available prior to 1939. In 1946, the services proposed extending the Okehampton, Merivale and Willsworthy ranges; excluding the public from Scorriton and Penmoor; retaining the use of Rippon and Laughter Tors and Plaster Down; as well as 12,000 acres south of the Moretonhampstead to Tavistock Road – in total 72,000 acres.
Led by the redoubtable Sylvia Sayer, the Dartmoor Preservation Association and other organisations vehemently opposed these land grabs. They were supported by the South Devon Planners, who felt that Dartmoor should be a public amenity and that the land used by the services should not extend beyond that occupied before the war. As time passed and the prospect of Dartmoor being granted National Park status came to be a real possibility, there was even more opposition to the extension of land used by the Services. After protracted negotiations and a public enquiry, the 72,000 acres demanded by the military was eventually reduced to 33,000.
The dispute over whether the services should be allowed to use Dartmoor for training and live firing continued for many years. In the last decade, the Dartmoor Preservation Association claimed that this was not a proper use of the National Park, and led an attempt to persuade the Duchy of Cornwall to refuse to renew the leases which it had granted to the Ministry of Defence. This failed, the leases were renewed and unless live firing leads to some sort of human tragedy, it is unlikely that the debate will be renewed before 2050 when they are once again due for renewal.