Site Visit Part I – Randalstown Forest, First World War Rifle Range

One of many Forest Service forests across Northern Ireland, Randalstown Forest was gifted by the Shanes Castle Estate in 1934. It is open to the public and can be openly visited and explored. What many of the visitors to the forest may not appreciate, is that hiding among the relatively young forest is a number of interesting military relics spanning both world wars.

I first became aware of the role Randalstown played in the First World War a few years ago, and subsequently wrote a short article on what I could find out. And that, I thought, was it. Fast forward to December 2021, and after seeing an image of one of the later Second World War pillboxes from the forest, I thought I would take a trip to see it for myself. It was while looking for a pillbox that I noticed a large earth bank about 75m from the path. A bank that to me meant only one thing – rifle range. And then the penny dropped.

In the first part of this two-part report, I will locate remains of an extensive first world war firing range. Part II will examine a series of three Second World War pillboxes in the forest.

Background

Fifty acres of the Shanes Park estate was given over to the War Department in 1914 for the construction of a military camp. With a capacity of over 5,000, this was a vast complex of timber and corrugated iron huts that must almost have appeared overnight. As with many of these First World War training camps, they were temporary and often little remains over 100 years later.

Below is a collection of real photographic postcards of Randalstown (Shanes Park) Camp that I have managed to collect over the last couple of years. Postcards like this have proven to be a key source of information on First World War camps.

By December 1914 the first troops had arrived in the newly established camp to undergo the initial stages of their training in trench warfare before being deployed to advanced camps in England and then on to Continental Europe. The final units of soldiers arrived in January 1915 before the role of the hospital changed from that of a training camp to that of a Command Depot and Military Convalescent Hospital. Casualties started arriving at Shanes Park Camp in 1916 where they would have spent many months convalescing. The hospital was finally decommissioned in December 1919 and it is fair to assume that even before this stage the process of dismantling the camp had already begun.

The ranges established in Randalstown Forest may only have been active between December 1914 and 1916.

Discovering the ranges

“It was sighting an earth bank through the trees that made me realise more of the ranges existed than had previously been known.”

There is little to no online reference to ranges at Randalstown (or Shanes Park Camp) on official sources, other than a single hand-drawn plan of the ranges drawn over a Second Edition 1904 Ordnance Survey map. The map has been digitised and is available for download from the Defence Forces Ireland Military Archives Maps, Plans and Drawings Collection.

The map tells us a great deal about not only the position of the ranges but also their capability. A number of ancillary buildings are also marked on the map. I have taken the following information from the map above:

  • 200 yard range with 8 targets. An underground telephone cable was laid between the 100 yard firing point and the targets. A target store was attached to this range.
  • 500 yard range with 24 targets. An underground telephone cable was laid between the 100 yard firing point and the targets. A target store was attached to this range, along with a shelter between the 200 yard and 300 yard firing points, and a latrine behind the 500 yard firing point.
  • 600 yard range with 24 targets. An underground telephone cable was laid between the 100 yard firing point and the targets. A target store was attached to this range, along with two latrine buildings and a shelter either side of the 400 yard firing point.
  • A workshop was located between the 500 yard and 600 yard ranges.

While much of the landscape has changed in the previous 100 years, it is possible to overlay this plan with modern aerial imagery in order to place the range into the landscape.

A comparison between the modern Google Earth imagery and a georeferenced annotated map of the First World War ranges that now lie under the modern forestry.

The only other subtle hint to remains of the ranges can be found on an Ordnance Survey 4th Edition map accessed on the Department for Communities Historic Map Viewer. Three linear banked features, seemingly randomly placed inside the deer park align with the position of the targets from the range plan. Can you spot them? There are two of them in the centre of the map (left) and they look like drawn eyebrows. The third bank is below and left of these.1Map image © Crown Copyright & Database Right 2020, © Ordnance Survey Ireland – SpatialNI is a service provided by Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland® | © Crown Copyright & Database Right 2020 – SpatialNI – A service provided by Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland®

What would the ranges have looked like?

Thankfully much of what was constructed during the First World War period was done so by military Royal Engineers. In fact, an excerpt from Musketry Regulations, Part II, 1910 (revised 1914) states “All War Department ranges will be in charge of the Royal Engineers: the provision and maintenance of all appliances, including all targets the use of which is contemplated by the Regulations, will be an Engineer Service.” Day-to-day running and general care and maintenance tasks were carried out by civilians employed in a Range Warden role.

There are generally two types of large outdoor range of which Randalstown would have been one; Classification or Field Practice.2Terminology in accordance with Musketry Regulations 1909 The first type is the standard image of a range we think of; cut grass, firing points every 100 yards and a row of targets at the other end. On this range, firers will adopt a position at a single distance and fire a proscribed practice at the targets before receiving a score. A Field Practice range does not have static targets like the Classification range, but a series of target pits throughout a much greater distance in order to simulate multiple targets at different distances along the course of an advance. Randalstown was most certainly a Classification Range.

Range Workshops

As well as being marked on the range plan, Musketry Regulations stated that “a workshop will be required for the manufacture and repair of targets. A corrugated iron building shown in Plate 10 (below) is suitable for a classification range …” A surviving example remains at Magilligan Ranges and this is what is likely to have been at Randalstown Ranges.

Firing Point

Fixed firing points are a characteristic of Classification Ranges. Soldiers need a firm and stable platform from which to work on their firing position and fire; at distances up to 600 yards at Randalstown.

The image to the right shows soldiers from the Scots Guards on a musketry range near the Western Front (IWM Q17632). They are lying on a prepared firing point; a low earth platform similar to that found at Randalstown on the 500-yard range.

Gallery / Butts

Randalstown Range was equipped with telephones from the target gallery to the firing point, confirming that soldiers would have been present in the gallery during firing for the purpose of scoring targets. Well established ranges of this period (and beyond) have complex galleries and target frames for the raising and lowering of large targets. An example of this type of gallery is shown below.

The above image is from the Musketry Regulations Volume II and shows a cross-section of a standard target gallery with what is known as a Hythe target frame.

While I think it is unlikely that the resources would have been available to construct a complete markers gallery with Hythe frames, nor does the evidence on the ground suggest this was in existence, a similar but more economical target frame may have been used. The examples below were taken in 1915 at Bordon Ranges, England, and depict soldiers from the Black Watch in the butts holding targets. These targets were mounted on what appeared to be wooden cantilever frames that allowed the targets to be raised above the earth bank. I have not seen this type of target mechanism before, but it may be of a type also constructed at Randalstown.

Classification target designs from the Musketry Regulations Part II (1910) – The First Class Figure target, of the type used in the right image above, was a 6 feet square timber frame and faced with a two-tone paper target and two concentric rings for scoring. The Second Class Figure target could also be marked with a black circle centre, as shown in the left image above.

Guidance for target spacing was that “under normal circumstances, the distance from centre to centre of targets should be 12 feet.” On a 24 target range, this would measure 288 feet; or 88 metres. Almost exactly the width of the Randalstown gallery banks.

I don’t believe Randalstown Range had a stop butt. The placement of the range danger area allowed bullets to pass through the target and continue out over Lough Neagh where they would fall. In both maps of the area only a single earth bank is shown; likely to be the gallery and not a stop butt. Two banks would be required, a minimum of 20 feet apart if both a gallery and butt were present.

So what is there to see?

The landscape has changed considerably between 1914 and 2021. The majority of the evergreen forest has been planted since 19353Randalstown Forest – NIdirect website and even the level of the lough has been altered since then. It’s likely that the landscape at the time would have been relatively open grassland, bounded to the east by Deepark Forest and to the west by farmland. The land on which the range has been constructed is relatively high, but today is very wet. It is unlikely that it would have been as sodden when the range was in use.

Armed with an accurate handheld GNSS receiver4I am no longer calling a navigation system GPS but using the more accurate term GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receiver. GPS may be the original but is only one constellation of navigational satellites. Most receivers now receive signals from GPS along with GALILEO (the European network) and GLONASS (the Russian network). So technically speaking the more encompassing term GNSS is correct. Now you know! I was able to record a number of features, mainly concentrating on recording the ends of each bank. On this visit I used a Garmin GPSMap 66S, utilising its high gain antenna to give 3.5m accuracy, even under the dense tree cover.

The forest is difficult terrain to survey in, even at this very basic level. There have been numerous drainage ditches excavated, the forest floor is boggy and overlaid with branches and fallen trees, and it’s not possible to have a clear line of sight (that isn’t along the rows of artificially planted trees) for more than 50m or so. Once I had established the location of the earth banks or butts, I could then at least try to walk in a direction that would take me towards the firing points of the various ranges.

Having also looked for evidence of the ancillary structures such as the latrines, shelters or the workshop, I could not find any. These most likely had been removed when the forest was planted. The ground surface is also likely to be different now than it was at the time, any subtle remains having been covered by the later forest debris.

500 Yard Firing Point

A low, flat-topped earth bank remains at the site of the 500-yard firing point. It has since been planted with trees, but the distinctive shape is recognisable. It is both in line with the 500-yard butts and the same width. This firing point would have accommodated 24 firers at the same time.

500 Yard Gallery

It was this earth bank that first grabbed my attention while walking along one of the forest tracks. It is a substantial 90 metres long and would have once accommodated 24 targets. As with the other ranges here, there is no further surface evidence of the targets or range, but it is probable that the target frames and soldiers operating them would have been sheltered behind this earth bank. It is likely that the bank has lost its profile and it would have stood taller and slimmer, and may have had wooden revetment.

600 Yard Gallery

The second 24 target range, this time with firing points out to 600 yards. Much like the 500-yard gallery bank, I suspect this has lost its profile and would have been taller and thinner. It is also around 90 meters in length.

200 Yard Gallery

This smaller range with 8 targets would have operated the same as the 500-yard and 600-yard ranges.

Hare’s Burn Bridge

A bonus feature is what believe to be a cast concrete bridge over Hare’s Burn. The burn crosses under the main track to the ranges and a form of bridge would have been required. This small but wide bridge is constructed from cast concrete and I believe dates from the time the ranges were in use. It would be wide enough to accommodate three columns of marching troops from the nearby camp.

Conclusions

It took me longer to write and research this article than the time I had to spend in the forest before the winter daylight disappeared. Seemingly uninteresting sites like this interest me more than grand buildings or historic battle sites; they are often forgotten and in this instance perhaps have lain for nearly 100 years unidentified and their significance overlooked. It is likely that many hundreds of the soldiers who may have fired their first shots on this range were never to return home from the battlefields of the Western Front.

Randalstown Forest is open to the public and there are no restrictions on exploring these range remains, but if you do venture out make sure you are wearing sturdy and appropriate outdoor footwear with ankle support. The area is crisscrossed with drainage ditches, bogs and fallen trees. I can take no responsibility if you injure yourself.

Finally, it would be exciting to see an archaeological project to explore the ranges more. Perhaps cutting a cross-section through one of the banks to establish the construction of the gallery bank, and look for signs of steel or wooden frames. No doubt some metal detecting (only with explicit land owner permission) would discover stray bullets or cartridges and maybe the odd cap badge or button.

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  • 1
    Map image © Crown Copyright & Database Right 2020, © Ordnance Survey Ireland – SpatialNI is a service provided by Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland® | © Crown Copyright & Database Right 2020 – SpatialNI – A service provided by Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland®
  • 2
    Terminology in accordance with Musketry Regulations 1909
  • 3
    Randalstown Forest – NIdirect website
  • 4
    I am no longer calling a navigation system GPS but using the more accurate term GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receiver. GPS may be the original but is only one constellation of navigational satellites. Most receivers now receive signals from GPS along with GALILEO (the European network) and GLONASS (the Russian network). So technically speaking the more encompassing term GNSS is correct. Now you know!