Vintage Week before it was Vintage! Military sports and spectacles at Birr Barracks in August 1919. By Stephen Callaghan

For the past 51 years Birr Vintage Week has commenced around the month of August, with only in recent years it taking in the August bank holiday weekend. While the festival is in its 51st year, 100 years ago on 4 August 1919 the army at Birr Barracks had organised a program of military sports and spectacles. An  antecedent of Birr Vintage Week perhaps?!

The events took place on the military training grounds adjacent to the barracks, the ‘Fourteen Acres’. The events kicked off at two o’clock. While the weather was not desirable it held dry until the events had finished up. The program was organised and promoted by Lieutenant Noel Edward Fasken, while Lieutenant Leslie M. Codner was responsible for the ground arrangements. Both officers were members of the Royal North Devon Hussars. The day’s program consisted of 26 events which lasted beyond six o’clock. While the barracks occasionally held large events and concerts, one of this scale was likely not seen before.

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Looking south-east from cemetery road towards Leinster Villas where the military air field was located. (Photo: Stephen Callaghan)

One of the main spectacles was the air display by Captain Brooks. ‘His daring feats in the air were witnessed with interest and admiration, and showed the possibilities of a flying machine in the hand of a capable pilot.’ Captain Brooks was likely piloting an Avro 504k, a two seat trainer biplane. The airfield in Birr had only been constructed in February and consisted of a detachment of six aircraft from 106 Squadron, Royal Air Force. The airfield was dismantled in October of that same year 1919..

Men under the command of Second Lieutenant E. A. Grainger and Sergeant W. A. J. Leonard enacted a battlefield play, entitled ‘The Sacrifice’. The demonstration was reminiscent of a scene from the Great War. It was apparently not without a sense of humour! The centre of the sports ground was chosen for this display, it had been mocked up to look like ‘anywhere on the battlefield’; there were sandbagged trenches, mines, and a ‘shattered’ house. The house had been temporarily erected for the event. It is quite likely that the sandbagged trenches were in fact the practice trenches dug to training men during the Great War. These trenches were excavated during August 2018.

Second Lieutenant Grainger took command of about twelve British soldiers, while Sergeant Leonard played the role of a German officer and took command of twelve ‘enemy’ soldiers. The battle was set as if it had taken place three hours after dawn. The idea was that at dawn that morning a line of trenches had been captured from the enemy.

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Aerial view of the ‘Fourteen Acres’, looking north-west, where the day long events would have taken place

The ‘shattered’ house was occupied by a ‘British’ gun team, they had defended against a ‘German’ attack which had attempted to recapture their old trenches. The attacked opened with the explosion of mines, the ascension of rockets and the crack of rifle and Lewis gun fire.  The outpost was supplied with ammunition by courageous runners.

The lone outpost held out until the very last man gave his life in its defence, thereby giving their comrades time to prepare for a counter attack. The display was well preformed and a stark reminder of the horror of the recent Great War.

Another item of interest was the physical training exhibition by a squad of the Royal North Devon Hussars under Corporal Snwothey.

Humour was provided in the form of Corporal Hatch and Private Ash acting as gentlemen the worse for ware, another soldier acting as a lady. Hatch and Ash both competed for the affection of ‘the lady’.

The day long events were reported in the King’s County Chronicle as a ‘splendid source of entertainment’, with the events being well attended by the people of Birr and the surrounding areas. The events themselves were also well patronised by competitors. Prizes for the sports were presented by Brigadier General James Graham Chaplin.

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