Although the City of Salisbury gives its name to the Plain, Amesbury is the effective centre of the complex of military establishments that have had a major influence upon development in recent years.
The first areas of Salisbury Plain where purchased between 1897 and 1899. During the next 5 years the total area had risen to 42,000 acres costing over half a million pounds.
Today, the ranges extend for 27 miles, from Ludgershall in the east to Warminster in the west by 10 miles deep, in total over 92,000 acres. Originally, it was intended to use the land for manoeuvres only, camps being struck where and when required, but policy changes soon resulted in permanent buildings appearing, red brick at Tidworth, corrugated iron clad wooden huts at Bulford and in 1914 at Larkhill.
The one military activity that has had probably the most impact is that of aviation. In 1909 a civilian experimenter named Horatio Barber, obtained permission from the War Office (as it was called then) to use a piece of land on Knighton Down, known as Larkhill.
This improbable stretch of rough downland turf at Larkhill certainly would not be selected as a suitable flying ground for aircraft of today, even with advanced technology. Pilots of that era were incredibly brave but somewhat foolhardy as they did not know how to fly, let alone if their aircraft themselves were capable of flight.
In June 1910 the newly established British and Colonial Aeroplane Company gained permission to use the area to test their new Box kites and as a school to train pilots.
Sited to the south of the Government hangar the three unit shed had to be built so that it would not block the view of the sunrise during the Summer Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, the gap between the hangars became to be known as the ‘Sungap’.
Today the spot is marked by a small concrete plinth and a brass plaque. The location of the plaque is in Wood Road Larkhill at grid reference SU143436. The text reads as follows,
‘On this site the First Aerodrome for the Army was founded in 1910 by Capt J D B Fulton RFA and Mr G B Cockburn. This later became 2 Coy Air BN RE. The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company forerunners of the Bristol Aeroplane Company established their Flying School here in 1910. The First Military Air Trials were held here in 1912.’
Lack of expertise and, some times unreliable aircraft inevitably resulted in accidents two of which are commemorated on Salisbury Plain. On 5th July 1912, Captain E.B. Loraine and Staff-Sergeant R.H.V. Wilson were killed near the junction of the A344, A360 and B3086 grid reference SU098429. They were flying a Nieuport Monoplane and when making a tight turn the aeroplane plunged toward the ground and crashed. This was the first fatal aeroplane accident on Salisbury Plain, both pilot and passenger were members of the Air Battalion, Royal Engineers.
A memorial in the shape of a cross now stands on an island at the cross roads, known to the locals as ‘Airmen’s Cross’ The inscription on the memorial reads.
‘To the memory of Captain Loraine and Staff-Sergeant Wilson who whilst flying on duty, met with a fatal accident near this spot on July 5th 1912 Erected by their comrades’.
Almost twelve months later another accident occured when Major A.W. Hewetson, RFA crashed when taking part in a test to gain his licence or brevet, as it was known then. A memorial was erected in the south-east corner of Fargo Plantation on the A344 grid reference SU114426. The memorial bears the following inscription.
‘In memory of Major Alexander William Hewetson 66th battery Royal Field Artillery who was killed whilst flying on the 17th July 1913 near this spot’.
It is interesting to note that Major Hewetson belonged to the same brigade as Captain Fulton, namely the 8th Howitzer Brigade.