Saturday 9 August 2014

Route march

(Fred Spalding; author's collection)
This is a classic Fred Spalding postcard of a column of soldiers marching past the Shire Hall. But a number of questions leap out, not least who are they? Where are they going? Where are they coming from? When was the photograph taken?

Fred Spalding owned a photography business at the top of the High Street and he often took the opportunity to photograph events viewed from the upstairs window (he lived above the shop). From the angle of the shadows this photograph was taken fairly early in the morning.

This is a large column, the front ranks of which (officers, without rifles) have already passed Spalding's window. The group in the foreground, which extends back to the young lad on the right, appears to comprise about 48 men, which would be a platoon. From the Shire Hall back up Duke Street there seem to be another three platoons, which gives us a full company.

It is impossible to see the detail of the soldiers' cap badges but they appear large and circular. During the war there were many different regiments stationed in the area so it would be difficult to identify this specific regiment.

Looking at the uniforms we note that the men are carrying rifles but no webbing or packs which suggests that they are on a short march.  They are approaching from Duke Street and on down the High Street. At the time Duke Street was at the top, north end, of Chelmsford - as Basil Harrison recalls, the corner of Duke Street and Broomfield Road was "where the countryside began". There were a few military camps out at Admiral's Park and on Broomfield Road, but there was a large Drill Hall on Market Road (where the RSA building now stands). We might also consider that the men could be coming from the railway station.

There is little apparent reaction from the few civilians in the picture, which suggests that there is nothing particularly exciting or interesting about this event. We can also see a rather tall civilian with a flat cloth cap marching in the column. The soldiers appear to be of "military age" (between 18 and 41), which would suggest that they are regular soldiers, rather than members of the Volunteer Corps, a part-time force made up of older men. However, younger men in certain occupations might be given exemption from military service on condition that they joined the Volunteers. There were large numbers of such men working in the great munitions factories in Chelmsford, such as Marconi's and Hoffmann's. Men about to join up might also attend Volunteers' drill nights and parades to gain military experience, which could explain the civilian.
Essex Regiment
Essex Regiment cap badge

By 1916 the Volunteer Corps had received official recognition from the Government and was integrated into the formal defence of the United Kingdom mainland. Volunteer units were given military designations and the Essex Volunteers were given the cap badge of the Essex Regiment, which was large and circular.

The Drill Hall location, light marching dress, and a company-sized column leads to a tentative conclusion that this photograph shows C (Chelmsford) Company of 1/2nd Essex Volunteer Regiment on an early morning march, perhaps on their way to a local church such as St. Andrew's at Sandon, which according to the Chelmsford Chronicle took place on Sunday 15th July 1917.

Or not.


  1. There is another of Fred Spalding's photos taken on the same day showing a cow wandering nonchalantly along the High Street with the marching soldiers!

  2. Would you have a copy of that photo that we could post up here?