Prefabricated Military Accommodation of the Early 20th Century

The image above is a 1918 photograph of a Dechets barrack hut constructed by the Tarrant Company in France utilising recycled wood from boxes and crates (IWM Q6769 A hut made of old boxes and crates by women carpenters working at the Tarrant Hut Workshops, June 1918).

The purpose of this article is to give a technical overview of the development of the prefabricated or ready-made military accommodation block in the late C19 and early C20. My definition of ready-made also loosely includes those structures constructed from standard military plans, and not made out of brick. With information gleaned from contemporary instructional pamphlets from my personal collection, I have been able to give an overview and include technical documents and instructions for the range of huts used. I will take this development up to the inter-war period, and for the purposes of this article the Nissen Hut is not included.

With British soldiers deployed across the Empire, there was a growing need for affordable and more permanent billeting arrangements. Traditionally soldiers would have constructed their own hutting using locally sourced materials, but this is time consuming and requires a higher degree of engineering ability than was often available. Wooden huts offered a uniform design of block to be delivered around the world with all the materials, tools and instructions for their erection upon arrival. The majority were also designed to be dismantled and redeployed if necessary, earning them the term “portable.” This was an important move from the traditionally canvas tents of short-term deployments that offered little weather protection, and reflected the long term commitments of the armed forces around the world.

Doctrine in the mid-late C19 and early C20 appeared to place the onus of barrack design and construction on deployed Royal Engineers, most likely due to the logistical expense of shipping and transporting pre-made accommodation around the Empire and then across the destination Country. Detailed guidelines were provided in various military technical manuals, and some materials were made available for shipping from Great Britain, such as roofing, while the majority of timber was procured locally. To give an example of the range of materials available, here are the listed roofing preferences in 1914:

  • Boarding covered with tarred paper, canvas, felt or zinc.
  • Wire woven material, canvas, corrugated iron or zinc laid without boarding.

American Hut

An American design of hut which can be rapidly erected in six hours and designed for troop accommodation. An allocation of 40 huts per Battalion was allowed. Ventilation was provided under the ridge, and the canvas covering the gables was soaked in oil to provide light inside. It could have been constructed with rudimentary tools such as axes and shovels, screwdrivers, saws, chisels, mallets and hammers.

An American Hut from the 1885 Instruction in Military Engineering training manual. This design of hut had no windows, but the gable ends were covered with an oiled canvas, the translucency of which permitted light to enter but offered a form of weather proofing. They can’t have been terribly warm, and must have had a very distinctive smell.
Capacity26 – 30 (quote “rather crowded”)
MaterialsWood, oiled canvas
Dimensions (ext)32′ 10″ (L) x 16′ 6″ (W)
Weight / Volume2.5 tons / 150 cubic feet (when packed)
ConstructionApprox. 6 hours. 1x NCO, 2x Engineers, 12x Infantry
Reference/sInstruction in Military Engineering (Volume I, Part V) 1885

Crimean (Gloucester) Hut

Designed and produced by William Eassie following a British Government requirement in 1854 for soldier accommodation to support the Crimean War. These huts pioneered timber frame “portable barracks” and were packaged in manageable sizes, complete with a box containing “hinges, lock, bolt, tools, screws and plans.”

“The hut, or barrack, is entered by a single door (…) with a window above, and two sliding windows at the other end of ventilation. The roof, sides, and ends are made water-tight by a system if close boarding, and the nailing of strips of wood over the joints; in addition to which it is proposed to cover the roof with felt. Two rows of shelves are placed along the room for the purpose of holding the men’s accoutrements.”

Illustrated London News, 9 December 1854
A contemporary sketch of a Gloucester Hut as advertised in the Illustrated London News, 9 December 1854, p 575 from the British Newspaper Archive.
A rare photograph of a Gloucester Hut from the Crimean War taken by James Robertson and now hosted by the Imperial Museum. IWM Q71117 – Group of officers outside hut, 1854 – 1856.
A Crimean or Gloucester Hut from the 1885 Instruction in Military Engineering training manual. Each hut is packed into a portable package for the convenience of stowage in the ship’s hold, banded together with iron and lettered. The letters and numbers on each package match up with the plan to ease construction.
Capacity28 men (20 – 30 men, reported in the Illustrated London News)
MaterialsWood
Dimensions (ext)28′ (L) x 16′ (W)
Weight / Volume2 tons / 120 cubic feet
Reference/s1. Illustrated London News, 9 December 1854, p 575
2. Instruction in Military Engineering (Volume I, Part V) 1885

Crimean Hospital Hut

Hospital huts were designed to one more comfortable than ordinary barrack blocks; they were warmer and better ventilated. It was advised that the proportion of hospital accommodation to normal barracks should not exceed 25% of the total force. This pattern of hospital hut was approved by the Sanitary Commission.

The main variation of the hospital hut is the inclusion of plentiful windows, more space per man and external struts to strengthen the structure. Instruction in Military Engineering (Volume I, Part V) 1885.
Another great photograph from the Imperial War Museum collection by James Robertson. This image shows what appears to be a group of soldiers outside a hospital hut. Note the rough board and tarred felt roof and struts reinforcing the walls. There is also a flue from an internal stove visible. IWM Q71080 Crimean War – Group of soldiers outside hut, 1854 – 1856

Canadian Hut

Designed for situations where soldiers would be exposed to extreme cold, the Canadian Hut was a larger insulated hut with porches and stoves to alleviate the effects of the weather. The huts were designed with internal toilets in either end porch, but it was found that keeping these serviceable in extreme cold weather was not possible. This hut may have had what is close to central heating; the stove was placed at one end, and the flues routed through the block rising to the roof in the centre of the hut.

A Canadian Hut from the 1885 Instruction in Military Engineering training manual.
CapacityApprox 40-48 men and 4 NCOs
MaterialsTwo layers of wood with sawdust insulation
Dimensions (ext)115′ (L) (excluding end porch) x 20′ (W) x 8’4″ (H) (to the eaves)
Reference/sInstruction in Military Engineering (Volume I, Part V) 1885

Curragh Camp Hut

“Early in 1855 when, in consequence of the operations then taking place in the Crimea, it was found necessary to afford facilities for training men in large bodies, and when also the embodiment of the militia necessitated a large amount of barrack accommodation, orders were issued by general Sir John Burgoyne, Inspector-General of Fortifications, for the construction of a hut encampment on the Curragh to accommodate 10,000 Infantry.” (Curragh Camp and District, Illustrated & Described, 1910)

“The work was completed (in 1855); the huts, each measuring 40ft x 20ft, being arranged in 10 separate squares, 30 yards apart, each square accommodating 1,000 men. The Officers’ Quarters were placed on a line 120 yards in front; the general lie of the Camp being from East to West, facing the North, and having in front a fine general parade ground, nearly level, and about a mile in length.” (Curragh Camp and District, Illustrated & Described, 1910)

An 1868 plan of the Curragh Camp post-1855 expansion. Eight of the original ten separate squares still remain, with the two on the left flank having been replaced with two storey brick barrack blocks. Defence Forces Ireland, military Archives.

The huts were constructed in a number of different materials, most likely due to cost. They were predominantly wood framed and wood clad, but corrugated iron clad huts were placed at intervals to reduce the spread of fire.

Capacity25 men
MaterialsWooden frames, wood and corrugated iron cladding, brick walls, corrugated iron and wood roofing.
Dimensions (ext)40′ (L) x 20′ (W)
CostWood – £86.00
Iron – £157.00
Brick with iron roof – £118.00
Wood with iron rood – £136.00
Reference/s1. Instruction in Military Engineering (Volume I, Part V) 1885
2. Curragh Camp and District, Illustrated & Described. Published by Eason, Dublin, circa 1910.

Doecker’s Hut-tent

A Danish design, this hut consisted of a hinged, light wooden frame held together with hook-and-eye fasteners, and covered in a canvas lined felt. There were an expensive option sold as lasting up to 25 years, but were available in varying sizes, with various options such as double lined canvas for insulation, stoves, gutters and ventilation. Uniquely, the wooden packaging was used to furnish the huts once assembled.

Plans for a Doecker’s Hut-tent from the 1885 Instruction in Military Engineering training manual.
A photograph again from the Imperial War Museum by James Robertson that appears to show an example of Doeckers Hut Tent. The wooden frame was covered with wither one or two layers of canvas and could have been fitted with windows, ventilators and stoves. IWM Q71079 Crimean – Group of British soldiers outside hut, 1854 – 1856.
Capacity14 men
MaterialsWood, canvas
Dimensions (ext)13′ 9″ (L) x 13′ 9″ (W) x 6′ 6″ (H)
Weight / VolumeSoldiers’ hut-tent – 646 lbs
Officers’ hut-tent – 1,100 lbs
CostSoldiers’ hut-tent, square, single covering – £25.00
Officers’ hut-tent, square, single covering – £50.00
Construction3 men, 30 minutes per square hut
Reference/sInstruction in Military Engineering (Volume I, Part V) 1885

Armstrong Hut

Produced from August 1914 onwards, the Armstrong Hut is synonymous with First World War camps. Major Bertie Armstrong, a Canadian in the Royal Engineers had been tasked with finding a solution to accommodate the thousands of soldiers forming Kitcheners New Army. Armstrong and his team of draughtsmen designed a range of seventeen buildings to fully accommodate and administer these troops.

With a simple but functional design “each (hut) was heated by at least one small stove, with front and rear entry points and six-light windows along the length of each hut, the top panels opening on a louver to allow fresh air.”

A camp under construction (IWM Q 53364) Workers are erecting huts in Woodcote Park, 1914.
An Armstrong Hut at Ballykinlar Camp (demolished 2008). It was rumoured that these huts were moved from the Curragh Camp to Ballykinlar, which is feasible due to the redevelopment of the Curragh at the turn of the C20. The slightly rough edges on the gable cladding may also be a clue that the hut had been dismantled.
Capacity24 men (by design, often housing many more)
MaterialsTimber frame, corrugated iron cladding, asbestos sheet lining
Dimensions (ext)60′ (L) x 20′ (W) x 10′ (H)
24 feet by 15 feet and 12 feet by 9 ft 3 inches
Cost£375.00 per 60′ x 20′ hut
Reference/sArmstrong Huts in the Great War (1914-1918), Karey L. Draper and James W. P. Campbell, Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

Adams Hut

A simple design of barrack hut, of which I have not seen an existing example, but for it to have been included in the 1934 Accommodation and Installations manual must have indicted that it was a recognised design and that construction must have taken place at some stage in the inter-war years. This is very similar in design to the Tarrant Hut included in the variations section below.

Adams hut end elevation drawing from Military Engineering (Vol VII) Accommodation and Installations, 1934.
Inside a Adams Hut. It is very distinctive due to the canted side walls and low angle roof.

Standard War Hut

From the 1934 Military Engineering, Accommodation and Installations manual, there were three general types of war hutting “available to facilitate the rapid production of accommodation required in an overseas theatre of war.” These were (i) living accommodation, (ii) store sheds and (iii) workshop sheds. Their construction was flexible and they could be steel or timber framed with corrugated iron cladding. Three sizes were available: 24ft span, 28ft span and 36ft span, and multiple spans could be joined together to achieve larger work spaces.

Plans for 24 ft span war hutting from Military Engineering (Vol. VII) Accommodation and Installations, 1934.
MaterialsSteel / wood frame, corrugated iron cladding
Dimensions (ext)24′ (W) x (H)
28′ (H) x 12′ (H)
36′ (W) x 14′ 6″ (H)
Reference/sMilitary Engineering (Vol. VII) Accommodation and Installations, 1934

Variations

Through this research I have established that there are many more designs of huts than were recorded; either through local design and construction or the production of small scale contracts. Below are a selection of photographs for which I have not yet sourced design information, or designs for which I can find little other information.

Adrian Hut

Exterior of an YMCA hut at the Toronto Camp, May 1917. A large design of hut used in France during the First World War and patented in the United States in April 1918 (IWM Q5395).

Amiens Hut

Based on the description of a canvas covered, timber framed shelter, I have identified this as a probably Amiens Hut. IWM Q 29232 Type of wood framed and canvas covered hut, ANZAC station, Buire, 15th January, 1917.

Tarrant Hut

Tarrant Huts in which the women carpenters, who made the huts, lived. The camp was 3 miles from Calais, 30th June 1917 (IWM Q2465). Approximately 37,000 of these huts had been built by the end of 1918.

Tarrant Manufactured Hut

IWM Q6769 A hut made of old boxes and crates by women carpenters working at the Tarrant Hut Workshops (located 3 miles outside Calais), June 1918.

Asbestos Hut

WM Q29151 Exterior of asbestos hut, No. 8. Stationary Hospital, Wimereux, 6th October, 1916. Similar in design to the Armstrong Huts of the war period, this design has been clad in asbestos sheet as opposed to corrugated iron. The hospital variant also has four stove pipes, as well as a higher internal ceiling and opening windows for greater ventilation.

Willesden Paper Hut

A design of hut made with a wooden frame and covered in Willesden Paper, a light, durable and waterproof roofing material, from the 1914 manual of Military Engineering, Part V.

Roofing Felt Hut

What appears to be a variation on the Willesden Paper hut above, this variant uses less timber in the frame and is covered on tarred roofing felt. The image is from a post of Great War Huts forum, I am unable to ascertain the original source.

Hut for Forces Abroad (Type A)

Another variation of hut briefly outlined in the manual of military Engineering, Volume V, 1914. Designed with greater use of ventilation in the roof and above the main windows, the roof extends beyond the walls and “arrangements for surface gutters” are specified to ensure integrity during tropical rain storms.

Improvised Hut

IWM 1414 Men of an Army Service Corps (ASC) supply column constructing an improvised hut on the Albert-Amiens road, September 1916.