The Story of Territorials go to War: a painting by Michael Lees

Territorials go to War by Michael Lees, MBE

The painting is currently on loan to Newark Town Council for the duration of the Great War centenary commemoration.

Territorials Go to War depicts the 1914 muster of the 1st/8th Sherwood Foresters at Newark on Trent. The painting by artist and former RAF pilot Michael Lees, MBE, was commissioned in 1989 by his brother, Lt. Colonel Richard Lees, OBE, MC, a regular Army Officer who commanded the 3rd (V) Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment. The 1st/8th Sherwoods had been absorbed into this regiment in 1971. Lt. Colonel Lees presented the painting as a farewell gift to the Battalion when he handed over command in the early 1990s. The painting  was hung in the entrance to the Officer’s Mess at Newark. It was later returned to the family when the battalion was disbanded in the late 1990s before being absorbed into the Mercian Regiment. Territorials Go to War is currently on loan to Newark Town Council for the duration of the Great War centenary commemoration and is displayed in the Council Chambers of Newark Town Hall.

On August 10th 1914 the 1st/8th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Territorial Forces), who had their headquarters in Newark, was mustered in the town square. The scene in the painting is based on original photographs of the Muster and Michael’s recollections of visits to Newark when he was a pilot at RAF Syerston. The town square today remains much as it was a hundred years ago with many easily identifiable buildings such as the imposing Town Hall.

The men depicted in the picture were territorials from Newark and surrounding towns and villages who had just returned from summer camp when war was declared on August 4th, 1914. They were called up immediately. Captain Weetman, MC, who was present at the Muster and later wrote the 1st/8th Battalion’s history in 1920, described what happened:

On Monday, August 10th, at 9.30 a.m., we paraded in the Market Place ready to begin our move to concentration areas. The Mayor (Mr. J. C. Kew) and Corporation were present, accompanied by Canon Hindley, Vicar of Newark, and other Clergy, and there was a dense crowd of onlookers. After an address by the Mayor, who wished us God speed, and a short service, we marched off via the Fosse Way to Radcliffe-on-Trent, leaving behind H Company under Capt. Becher, to guard the railway.

For the first time in its history the Battalion had complete First Line and Train Transport with it, this being under the command of Lieut. Davenport, who had been appointed Transport Officer. The vehicles were not exactly regulation pattern, but little fault could be found with the horses, all of which had been purchased locally. Floats from Warwick and Richardson’s and Hole’s formed the majority of the Small Arm Ammunition and tool carts, whilst Dickens’s Mineral Water drays and Davy’s Brewery drays made fairly good General Service wagons, when fitted with light wooden sides. A furniture van full of blankets, two Corporation water carts, and a bread cart with a large red cross on each side, completed the collection. We feel sure that few Regimental Transports can have looked more like a circus than did ours as we left Newark.

The fine horses and makeshift army transport mentioned by Weetman feature in the composition; the Corporal holding a bicycle draws attention to the important role army cyclists would play in reconnaissance and communications. Dignitaries are discernible on the Town Hall balcony,  crowds throng the streets in the background and people watch from upstairs windows. The original photographs show families gathered to wave the men off; a touching scene in the painting’s foreground portrays a sergeant saying goodbye to his loved one in front of the dray. Children whose fathers are going to war are represented by the group of three, centre left.  The two children facing the viewer are modelled on Michael’s son and daughter, James and Natasha. James is wearing his ‘Waterloo’ uniform and waving a Union Jack, signifying the war will preserve the empire and nation-state for future generations. The girls’ light coloured ruched dresses evoke a time of carefree innocence. However, the dominant white tones in the costume of the mother standing next to the marching soldiers forshadows the crucial role nurses would play in the war years.  The men in the background are half hidden  by early morning mist, prefiguring soldiers disappearing into the smoke of the battlefied as the war unfolded. The gradual shift in colour from gold to brown shades as the men move forward suggests sombre days ahead.

Following the Muster, the men marched seventeen miles from Newark to Radcliffe on Trent where they overnighted. The officers were billeted with Lt. Colonel Birkin, C.O. of the 1st /7th Sherwood Foresters at his home, Lamcote House, while other ranks were dispersed around the village. The 1/7th and 1/8th went on to fight alongside as members of the 139th (Sherwood Foresters) Brigade, 46th (North Midland) Division until the 1/7th left the Brigade at the beginning of 1918.

On August 11th 1914 the 1st/8th Battalion marched twenty three miles from Radcliffe on Trent to Derby, via Nottingham. The men were part-time soldiers (territorials) whose training had taken place at weekends and  annual camps. Captain Weetman commented, This was a very severe test for all, as few were really “hard” enough at that time for such a long trek. Route marches were accordingly carried out, on each of the three extremely hot days spent at Derby, as the main part of our programme.

The men were then transported to Harpenden for military training and embarked for France in February 1915. Their first major engagement came almost straight away at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March. The battalion was heavily engaged in action throughout the war. It saw great losses on the first day of the Somme during the diversionary attack at Gommecourt;  Captain Weetman wrote as follows about the attack on July 1st 1916, We cannot look back with anything but regret on that awful battle when so many lives were sacrificed apparently to no purpose … Practically every officer of the attacking Battalion was killed or wounded, and a large proportion of the men, and but an insignificant proportion fell into the hands of the enemy. Following the Battle of the Somme the Battalion saw action at the Ancre, the Battle of Saint Quentin, the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line and, in the final days, the Battle of the Sambre.

After the Armistice the battalion left Boulogne-sur-Helpe for Landrecies where it remained with the rest of the 139th Brigade until returning to England the following spring. Captain Weetman reports that the men’s  time was divided between clearing battlefields, training and recreation. In December 1918 the Battalion was visited by King George V, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Portland, who was President of the Notts. Territorial Force Association, and the Bishop of Southwell. Just before Christmas a Colour Party, sent from Newark for the purpose, arrived with the Colours where they remained with the Battalion until everyone had departed for England. On June 23rd 1919, the men of the 1st/8th were given an official welcome home in Newark and the Colours were returned once more to the drill hall.

It is unlikely that any of the Newark Muster horses, represented by the four in the painting, returned home. Eight million serving horses were to lose their lives in the war. Most of those remaining with the 1st/8th Sherwood Foresters when the war was over were auctioned to local inhabitants at Prisches in February 1919, prior to the majority of the battalion embarking for England.

Michael Lees’s painting shows soldiers marching away from sunshine into the shadows cast over the town square. The ambulance in the picture with its symbolic red cross is a visual reminder that some would be killed and others would be wounded. Captain Weetman’s 1st/8th Battalion history includes a long Roll of Honour listing casualties from the 193 officers and 2650 other ranks who served with the 1st/8th in France and Flanders.  Almost five hundred men (498) lost their lives, including twenty six officers. Sixty four officers and 1400 other ranks were wounded. Four men on the Radcliffe on Trent Roll of Honour are listed by Weetman: Samuel Oliver, killed July 1915, Battle of Hooge; Ernest Hale, killed by enemy shell fire, October 1915; John William Young, died of wounds inflicted June 1916 prior to the Battle of the Somme and John Vellam Stafford, killed in action January 1917. Ernest Hale and John Young, both from the Carlton Detachment of the 1/8th, would have been present at the Newark Muster. Lieutenant Colonel Birkin, who welcomed the Battalion in Radcliffe on Trent on the afternoon of the  Muster, suffered shrapnel wounds to the head at the Battle of Hooge and had to spend the rest of the war in England.

Newark on Trent is proud of its historical association with the Sherwood Foresters as reflected in its tradition of keeping the Colours. On April 30th 1977 Princess Anne presented the Colours to the 3rd Worcestershires and Sherwoods in Newark. In April 1999 the Colours were laid up in Newark Parish Church but were later taken to Mansfield where they were displayed in the 4th Mercian drill hall. July 2014 saw the permanent return of the Colours when they were laid up in St. George’s Chapel, Newark Parish Church. The town further reinforced its association with the 1st/8th in August 2014 when the Newark muster of 1914 was re-enacted. Following a service in the town square, 150 people marched from Newark to Radcliffe on Trent. Click here to read more about the re-enactment.

Michael Lees’ painting encapsulates the historic moment when dedicated volunteer soldiers set off for the First World War, the service of local territorial soldiers over the last hundred years and the strong association between town and battalion. His collection of paintings can be viewed at Prints of his paintings are available for sale from the website, including Territorials go to War. The website states that ‘as well as being published commercially his prints have raised tens of thousands of pounds for charities including the RNLI, the Clovelly lifeboat, the Southwest Hospice, the Landmark Trust, the Provident Appeal Group, the Maritime Trust and the Island Cruising Club’. Michael was awarded an MBE in 2014 for his vigourous campaigns against the use of asbestos in schools and other public buildings.

Territorials go to War is displayed on this website with kind permission of Michael Lees. We have endeavoured to reproduce the colours in the painting as accurately as possible; however the colours may not be a perfect representation of the original and might vary slightly according to the devices viewers are using.