Monday, 2 October 2017

Firing Ranges on Cannock Chase


Firing Ranges on Cannock Chase - An update from Historic England’s Aerial Investigation and Mapping team

Walking east from the Sherbrook Valley towards Rugeley Quarry you are likely to come across the large banked earthworks of a number of First World War firing ranges. Located between the Brocton and Rugeley training camps, these ranges served the 40,000 men who passed through the camps at any one time, and were variously designed to be used for rifle, machine gun and pistol target practice. Whilst the First World War training remains on Cannock Chase are extensive, it was not the first instance of military training in the area. Away from the First World War complex, there is a Victorian firing range located in Etchinghill. The stop butt (high bank or wall behind the target functioning as a backstop screen to intercept the ammunition) for the Victorian range and two of the yard markers (firing points) are still visible as earthworks today. It is interesting to compare the U-shaped stop butts of ranges dating to this period with the straight broad banks typical of the First World War ranges.


Figure 1: Lidar showing the U-shaped stop butt at Etching Hill Range (left) and the long linear stop butt bank of First World War firing range ‘D’ (right). Chase Through Time 2016 lidar. Source Staffordshire CC/Fugro Geospatial BV 2016 © Historic England


Many of the First World War ranges are difficult to identify from aerial photography because the majority are situated within dense woodland. In these cases the lidar - with its ability to ‘see’ through the trees (to a certain extent) - has allowed us to identify and confidently attribute more features to the ranges than had previously been recognised. Some of the more subtle features may be masked on the ground by the dense under growth and so have, until now, been difficult to associate with the earthwork butts up to 600 yards away.


Figure 2: Mapping produced by the Historic England aerial investigation team, depicting the First World War ranges identified from lidar. © Historic England


The historic aerial photography has been particularly useful. It was assumed that, as they were such massive constructions, the extant earthworks of the butts were in their original form. So, we were really surprised to see that range ‘E’, which was used up until the 1990s, has been significantly altered. If you look closely at the lidar in Figure 3, you can see the slightest traces of the original layout.


Figure 3: Firing Range ‘E’ through time (clockwise from top left): RAF/58/1386 F21 0055 12-MAR-1954 Historic England RAF Photography; MAL 70062 067 11-AUG-1970 © Crown copyright. (DTI); OS/89374 024 11-JUL-1989 © Crown copyright. Ordnance Survey; extract from the Chase Through Time 2016 lidar. Source Staffordshire CC/Fugro Geospatial BV 2016 © Historic England


When one of the analytical field survey training weeks was hampered by Storm Doris in February 2017, we spent a profitable (though wild and windy!) morning carrying out a walkover of the rifle ranges area with project volunteers, hoping to investigate some of the complex sites which had been identified through the aerial mapping. That morning we spent time looking at the topography and how the features sat within the landscape in order to better understand how they functioned. One of the firing ranges (‘F’) we found particularly difficult to decipher from an aerial perspective because its layout was dramatically different to the rest of the ranges. Being able to walk around the site enabled us to begin to recognise how the range had developed over time, and the expert knowledge of our local volunteers pointed us towards documentary references and helped shape our interpretation of how the site functioned.


Figure 4: Volunteers puzzling out some of the features for Range ‘F’ © Historic England


We want your feedback! If you have a particular interest in First World War (or earlier) training landscapes and can help by adding further information, interpretations or examples similar to the site mentioned in this post, please leave a comment below.


Cara Pearce,

Aerial Investigator, Historic England


Find out more about Historic England’s contributions to the wider project here: