When news of the outbreak of the First World War broke several Boys’ Brigade Companies were on their annual summer camp. For the vast majority of these Companies their 1914 camping expedition would be their last until the resolution of hostilities. Despite the historiographical consensus maintaining that camping was a key attraction for young people joining youth movements, participation in this branch of Company work was severely reduced during the war years. Thus, this negated the possible influence this activity had on membership at the time. The loss of expertise and direction of group leaders who were required for the war effort, and military restrictions imposed on sites for camps, meant that few Companies were able to continue with a summer camp during the years of war. In fact, the Boys’ Brigade Gazette reported in June 1916 that it was aware of only three camps planned for that summer. Despite the multiple challenges, the port-side Companies from Bristol broke the mould as one of the few English localities that continued to camp on a large scale during the war.
Prior to the 1914 war, the Bristol Battalion of the Boys’ Brigade had a proud tradition of camping. The first camp of the Battalion was held in 1891 and activities were focused on drill-based pursuits, with the expedition arranged under the influence of strict military discipline. Crucial to the organisation of these camps were H. J. Usher – President of the Battalion from 1896 to 1920 – and Mark Whitwill, who was the convenor of the Battalion Drill Committee. These men were keen advocates of good drill and maintaining firm discipline on their camps. The methods of these men set a standard for camps that would continue during the war years. Moreover, their emphasis on drill, discipline, and military-styled pursuits through the pre-war years would suit the atmosphere of the war, where leisure pursuits for British youth were marked by the notions of duty and discipline.
For Bristol boys the difference to the camping experience in the war years was immediately noticeable even before arriving on site. The usual mode of transport to the campsite for Bristol campers in the pre-war years was by train. However, as railway facilities were unavailable for this purpose during the war, the camping party marched from the city to its temporary summer destination. For the 1915 camp – the first after the outbreak of war – the trek was a distance of twenty two miles, involving an overnight stop at a school for a period of rest, before setting off at 06:30 the following morning. The contrast to the pre-war expeditions was also noticeable by the nature of the accommodation. During the war years Bristol boys resided in billets rather than the usual canvas tents. Such a compromise was deemed necessary by the organisers, who valued proximity to the sea over any disadvantages of the temporary lodgings, despite recognising that “there is not the same grip and spirit of comradeship that there is in an ordinary camp”. During the week away some sense of normality was evident through the activities undertaken, with sports and physical training exercises continued from pre-war camps. However, the atmosphere of the war had an influence on the nature of the drill manoeuvres, with the 1916 camp witnessing attack and defence movements by boys which “brought home to many the danger to which many of our comrades are exposed in France”. Therefore, for campers from Bristol, the experience of camping during the war years deviated from the pre-war experience in many ways, with military restrictions altering the appearance of a camp, and the prevailing atmosphere changing the character of some activities undertaken.
The historiographical consensus has maintained that camping was the greatest pull youth movements held in order to attract new members. However, for the Boys’ Brigade during the First World War, access to camping was significantly reduced, thus markedly limiting the draw of a summer camp to the overall appeal of a youth movement. Although the character of Bristol camps were altered, and came to reflect the prevailing influence of the military in all aspects of life, the example of the Bristol Boys’ Brigade continuing to camp during the war reflects the regional variances in approach to youth work under the wider remit of the national organisation. Therefore, for the leaders of the Boys’ Brigade in Bristol, camping was an important tool for engaging boys from its city with the object of the organisation during the challenging years of the First World War.