The Sheffield Artillery Volunteers

A brief history

 

In 1793 the judicial murder of the French king, followed by that country’s declaration of war against Britain and the Netherlands, caused great alarm in England. The state of the professional armed forces was lamentable and there was a wave of amateur recruitment to volunteer forces. One of these was the Sheffield Artillery Volunteers, in its first form, which was raised in April 1794, as the Artillery Company of The Loyal Sheffield Independent Volunteers. It lasted only as long as the immediate crisis and was disbanded in 1802. This is of interest today only because the two original bronze guns with which the force was armed are still extant. They are now in the possession of the Sheffield Town Trustees, and are known as the ‘Town Guns’. They are stored at Kelham Island Museum, in Sheffield. Another surviving artefact of that period is a portrait of Captain James Shemeld who commanded the unit at that time. It now hangs in the Gunner Room of the Officers’ Mess of the TA Drill Hall at Endcliffe Hall, Sheffield.

The ferment in Europe in 1848, followed by the election of Napoleon III as President of France and his declaration of war against Austria in 1859 precipitated the next wave of alarm and volunteer enthusiasm in Britain. Many units were raised or re-formed, including the 4th West Riding (Yorkshire) Volunteer Artillery in Sheffield in February 1861. The two Town Guns (6 Pounders) were brought out of retirement as their armament, until 32 pounders were delivered next year. There was some improvisation in accommodation, too. For a few months drills took place in Surrey Street at the ‘Music Hall’, before a move to Tudor Street. It was not until 1880 that a permanent purpose-built Drill Hall was opened at Edmund Road - Norfolk Barracks - where the Unit remained until 1965. Initially the organisation was strictly purist in its volunteer status: members paid an annual subscription of one guinea and were expected to provide their own uniform at a cost of four pounds. This period of local initiative and individual motivation did not last long. The Volunteer Act of 1863 introduced a degree of formality and standardisation to the volunteer forces for the first time, with some financial inducement.

Recruiting was brisk and by 1865 eight batteries had been formed, with an establishment of 640 soldiers. Apart from a brief foray into forming a Field battery in 1864 - an experiment which lasted only to1870 - the SAV remained Garrison Artillery until 1889, when the Unit was converted to Position Artillery. This involved a substantial increase to the establishment of horses, and the riding school, on the first floor of the Drill Hall with its wooden approach ramp, was established. Up to this time a variety of pieces had been served by the SAV, including 64 pounder and 10 inch muzzle loaders, and the conversion to Position Artillery did not involve the latest technology. But the unit worked effectively, for in 1867, 1872 and 1894 it won the Queen’s Prize at the National Artillery Association competition at Shoeburyness. (The cups won in 1872 and 1894 were loaned back to the National Artillery Association in 1999 as prizes in current Volunteer gunnery competitions.)

1899 brought more serious issues - the Boer War. Twelve officers and two hundred and fifty NCOs and men volunteered to serve, and the CO, Lieut-Col Allen, offered to provide ‘four guns of the most modern type’ at his own expense. Clearly he was not satisfied with the guns issued by the War Office. The offer of both men and guns was refused, after a delay which caused some frustration. Eventually only thirty-six soldiers volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry, disappointed not to have been mobilised as an Artillery Unit. Nine did not return - two killed in action, one dead from enteric fever and six who settled in South Africa.

The ferment of military reform following the embarrassments of South Africa, combined with the perceived threat of another German invasion of France, produced the Haldane reforms, and the establishment of the Territorial Force in 1908. Clearly this was seen at the time as the end of an era. In the SAV there was a sentiment of congratulation that in the previous forty-seven years the Unit had experienced only three commanding Officers. More importantly 15 pounder breech-loading field guns were issued. The Unit was familiar with these, having trained upon them for some years past, thanks to the cooperation of the regular Royal Artillery. A new name was issued, too - 3rd West Riding Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (TA) - although the vernacular name had been The Sheffield Artillery Volunteers since 1864. By 1916 it was 247 Brigade, RFA (T), and later 71st West Riding Brigade, RFA(T).

The Brigade went to France early in 1915 as part of 49 Division, going into action firstly opposite Lille, close to Fleurbaix. In July it moved near to Ypres, where in October it was re-equipped with 18 pounder guns. In March 1916 it was in action on the Somme, where in the attack upon Thiepval it supported, amongst others, the Hallamshire Rifles. After the carnage of the Battle of the Somme, in December 1916 the reorganisation of artillery resulted in the unit being broken up, with batteries posted to other units. Those batteries fought the remainder of the 1st World War on the western front in France. It was characteristic of that campaign that during the whole of the period in France none of the batteries moved outside a frontage of sixty miles.

The Unit was reformed in 1920, much in the same form as in the early years of the century. But mechanisation was started, on an experimental basis, in 1928. By 1933 the whole Brigade was motorised, apparently with little regret. Horsemanship was a declining civilian skill, and motor engineering an increasing one: the management of horses in any number was becoming impossible for a volunteer unit. (This seems to have been regretted by Captain Orde Wingate, who became the regular Adjutant for a time. Riding appears to have been his only solace in what he saw as a dull and dead-end posting. Later he forged his own excitement and advancement as the founder of the ‘Chindits’ in the Burma war of 1942 - 45).

By 1939 the Unit was titled ‘Regiment’ rather than ‘Brigade’, and was armed with18 pounders with pneumatic-tyred carriages, and 4.5" howitzers, still with wooden wheels. These pieces were quickly replaced with 18/25s - the new 25pounder piece on the old 18 pounder pneumatic wheeled carriage. With these weapons the Regiment went to France in June 1940 as part of 52 (Lowland) Division, following the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk, in the unsuccessful attempt to stabilise a front in the area of the River Seine. Despite shortages of ammunition, fuel and rations it went into action against the Germans south-east of Paris before a long but orderly retreat to Cherboug. On return to Britain the Regiment eventually became part of 46 (North Midlands) Division, with whom they fought until 1945. In late 1941 the issue of the new 25 pounders was complete, and the Regiment fought those guns through the remainder of that war.

In January 1943 the Regiment landed in North Africa and in the next four months experienced fierce and almost constant action in foul weather, including Hunt’s Gap, Longstop Hill and the Kasserine Pass, in the push to Tunis and the clearance of Axis troops from North Africa. The next action was at Salerno, on the Italian mainland, where the Regiment was part of the assault force which landed on the night of 8-9th September. For the next ten days the narrow beach-head was under fevered attack before a break-out was possible. The advance up the western coast of Italy was punctuated by well-prepared German positions, all resolutely defended - the River Volturno, the River Garigliano and the Gustav Line, with its fulcrum at Monte Cassino. After these battles the Regiment was withdrawn for refit. It returned to action in August 1944, to take part in the assault on the Gothic Line, and the subsequent bitter battles. Early in 1945 the Regiment was transferred to Greece, where despite the Germans already having retreated the unit was involved in patrolling and even a little gunfire from time to time. The return to Italy in April was too late for more action - the campaign had been won. The Regiment concluded that war in Austria, as occupying forces. During their campaigns members of the Regiment won 2 DSOs, 8 MCs, 10 MMs, 1 BEM, 1 Silver Star and 1 Bronze Star (American) and 31 Mentions in Despatches.

The Regiment was disbanded in March 1946. But the ‘Cold War’ with The Soviet Union smouldered into life soon afterwards, and the Unit was reformed as 271 Field Regiment (TA) in May 1947. The familiar 25 pounders were re-issued.

The following years were confident. Many of the volunteers were well trained, very experienced and tempered by war service, although the presence of unwilling conscripts was a slight problem at times: (these were national servicemen doing a portion of their service part-time with Territorial Army Units). The Regiment remained a field unit until 1961, when a reduction in the size of the Territorial Army precipitated an amalgamation with 323 LAA Regiment and 884 Locating Battery - the other Sheffield volunteer gunner units - as a light air defence Regiment. But that manifestation did not exist for very long - in 1965 the Unit ceased to be armed with guns, and left Norfolk Barracks. It remained a lightly armed general defence unit for only three years, after which it became a cadre of eight soldiers, merely a token to retain the identity and the name. But that token was worthwhile, for when 3 YORKS was formed in 1971 it was based upon four such cadres, and the Sheffield Artillery Volunteers formed B (SAV) Battery, at Rotherham. Later, as the Battalion identity became firmer, it became B (SAV) Company. With the reorganisation and formation of 4 YORKS in 1988 the SAV Company became part of the 4th Battalion. Subsequently, in 1992 the Company formed part of the amalgamated 3rd/4th Battalion. So it remained until The Yorkshire Volunteers were disbanded in 1993.

 

Grateful thanks to Lieutenant Colonel L H Tattersall TD JP for providing this history.
The author acknowledges with gratitude the assistance in preparing this history of:
1. ‘History of the Sheffield Artillery Volunteers’ by Hon Major F. W. Hardwick, Sheffield 1911
2. Personal records of Lieut-Colonel G. S. Willis OBE TD JP
3. Personal records and reminiscences of Major J. Machin TD

 

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