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Flashback – June 1986

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

1986

In two world wars, Copthorne Barracks in Shrewsbury recruited and trained tens of thousands of rookie soldiers for the county's regiment, the King's Shropshire Light Infantry.

And after the KSLI was swallowed up by the new Light Infantry regiment in 1968, the barracks continued to be a key light infantry base.

But on June 28, 1986, all that tradition and heritage was ceremoniously marched into the history books.

With a fanfare of trumpets, a royal accolade and the cheers of thousands of Old Comrades, Shrewsbury said its farewell to the Light Infantry Depot in the town.

Fifteen hundred former fighting men drew up on the sports field at the Sir John Moore Barracks, as the barracks was officially called at that time, their medals gleaming and memories stirred afresh of two world wars and numerous other conflicts.

They were there to parade proudly in front of the Light Infantry's Colonel-in-Chief, the Queen Mother, after the final passing out that morning of 181 new soldiers marked the end of recruit training at the barracks after over 100 years.

The Queen Mother showed no signs of tiring in 80 degree heat which left many of the crowd wilting. By the time she arrived the young recruits had been standing in the heat for nearly an hour and five bandsmen had to be helped off parade after partially collapsing.

After a morning with the young soldiers, taking the royal salute and inspecting the five platoons drawn up on the parade ground, she moved on in the afternoon to the sports field.

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There she took another salute – this time of a march past by Old Comrades from all parts of Britain, with medals on their chests ranging from the First World War to Aden and Korea.

One of the war heroes presented to the Queen Mother was Captain Richard Wallis Annand who received the first Victoria Cross in the Second World War when he was a Second Lieutenant with the Second Battalion Durham Light Infantry.

Another old soldier who met the Colonel-in-Chief was 87-year-old Francis Ashment who fought at the Somme with the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry.

The Queen Mother also spared time to talk with cadets from Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester.

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The Light Infantry and the Light Division had been associated with the barracks at Copthorne for 107 years.

Many thousands of soldiers of the Light Infantry began their Army service at the depot in Shrewsbury, and for many years the depot had been regarded as the family home of the Light Infantry.

Since 1983 it had also been the first home in the Army for many junior soldiers of the Royal Green Jackets.

The closure of the depot at Shrewsbury came as part of reorganisation of training in the Army, meaning the two depots of the Light Division at Shrewsbury and Winchester were amalgamating.

A brand new training headquarters of the Light Infantry Division was officially opened at Flowerdown, Winchester, in November 1986, and inherited the historic title of the Sir John Barracks from Shrewsbury, which reverted to its previous name of Copthorne Barracks.

While the Shrewsbury closure marked the end of over 100 years of basic recruit training for regular soldiers of the Light Division, there remained a Light Infantry connection with the barracks with the presence of A Company, of the 5th Battalion Light Infantry, a Territorial Army unit.

The barracks had been built between 1877 and 1879 at a cost of £65,000. In the 1960s it became home not only to the KSLI, but also of the Light Infantry Brigade of the British Army, so in 1963 it was decided to rename the barracks "Sir John Moore Barracks."

Then on July 10, 1968, the King's Shropshire Light Infantry passed into history, with the creation of a new regiment, The Light Infantry, formed by the amalgamation of various light infantry regiments including the KSLI. The barrack blocks at Copthorne bore the names of the regimental counties – Durham, Cornwall, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Somerset & Yorkshire.

After the departure of the light infantry in 1986, Copthorne Barracks was not left without a role for long, becoming the headquarters of the Army's Western District, with Army personnel and civilian staff moving in from the previous HQ in Belle Vue Road.

Copthorne Barracks was sold for housing in May 2018 – it was first put up for sale by the Ministry of Defence in 2014, but was withdrawn for a time as the MOD sought planning permission for housing there to increase the site's value.

The barracks was demolished beginning in January 2019, although part of the historic keep was retained.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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