Page updated 18th November 2015
Consisting of infantry, artillery, engineer and medical units, the Volunteer Force largely drew manpower from the rural areas. In December 1851, Louis Napoleon's coup, in France, drew attention to Britain's lack of defence against invasion. On 27th January 1852, Dr John Charles Bucknill, Superintendent of the Devon County Asylum called some like minded friends to a meeting with the aim of forming a corps of Rifle Volunteers to counter such a threat. The resulting Exeter and South Devon Rifle Volunteers, was the first of many local units throughout the UK to be formed. They initially drilled in the Castle Yard in civilian clothes; Mr Henry Shaw of Baring Crescent tried on the first specially designed uniform, having been chosen by Major Percival Brown as the fittest in the corp. At the general muster of 6th October 1852, the Oath of Allegiance was first taken. Surprisingly, Dr Bucknill was initially enlisted as a private.
Early in their history, the force was often criticised for their incompetence, and in 1861 some of Exeter's force were 'horribly disfigured' because 'by some strange oversight ..... (they) forgot to keep their sponge wet''.
The Volunteer Force was used as mounted infantry during the Boer War. In 1908, they became the Territorial Force, and were known as Saturday Night Soldiers. They were organised in county forces whose principal use was for home defence. During the First World War, they were divided into units for home defence and units of men who had volunteered for overseas duties. Many ended up in the trenches of the western front.
The ceremony to unveil the memorial was organised to coincide with Queen Victoria's birthday on 24 May 1895. The Duke of Cambridge, arrived at Queen Street Station at 12.30 to a large reception that included the Mayor Alfred S Perkins, the Lord-Lieutenant of the County Lord Clinton, the Sheriff of Exeter, General Sir Redvers Buller and Sir Charles Bucknill, the only survivor of those who formed the Volunteers. The Duke inspected the guard of honour, a detachment of the 1st Royal Devon Volunteers, The Rifles, in their new head-dress and twelve troopers of the Yeomanry. The party then proceeded to the memorial where the Duke of Cambridge performed the unveiling when he "touched an electric bell and the covering of the memorial fell away."
The monument was designed by Sidney Greenslade and made by Harry Hems' workshop in Longbrook Street, with a base of Dartmoor granite and top of fluted Portland stone. A panel states that Queen Victoria knighted Sir John Charles Bucknill in 1894 for his part in founding the force.
One of the panels has the following inscription:
"Erected to commemorate the formation in Devonshire in 1852 of the Volunteer Force of Great Britain as a consequence of communications from John Charles Bucknill MD FRCP FRS to the Right Honourable Hugh Fortescue KG, Lord Lieutenant of the County of Devon and the County of the City of Exeter, In recognition of his services to the Volunteer Movement, the honour of Knighthood was conferred upon Sir Charles Bucknill by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1894"
After the ceremony, the Duke of Cambridge and guests journeyed to the Rougemont Hotel for lunch, where the inevitable round of speeches and toasts were made to the Queen on the occasion of her birthday and the rest of the Royal Family.
Sources: An article by Arthur Rodway in the Devon Family Historian and the Flying Post. With thanks to Richard Holladay for providing three of the images.
The first Grand Field Day of the Exeter and South Devon Volunteer Rifle Battalion on the 25 July 1855.
A cigarette card depicting the uniform of the newly formed Volunteer Force. The soldier is standing in the grounds of Exeter Castle.
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