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Kinmel Park Camp

The present Kinmel Park Hall is the fourth version that has existed on this spot since the 17th century.  The remains of the 17th century house can still be seen in the walled garden to the south east of the present hall.

Early in the First World War (1914-18), the Army requisitioned a huge area of the parkland associated with Kinmel House for the construction of what was at the time the largest camp in Wales, Kinmel Park Camp.  Drawings acquired by the author, Julian Putkowski show the extent of the camp, which stretches from beside Bodelwyddan Castle north of what is now the A55 Expressway (which tears through what would have been the northern part of the camp), and in structure lend themselves to comparisons, albeit on a much larger scale to the Roman camps that existed throughout North Wales and Britain during their occupation of these Islands (43 - c.410 AD).  The order and planning of the camp would not look out of place to Roman engineers.

The camp consisted of 20 sub-camps each constructed with their own accommodation, mess halls and training facilities, all built of timber.  We know that there was a cinema on site, as well a headquarters, stores, a Post Office, bakery and even churches.  Extensive areas for bayonet and trench warfare training also existed.  The camp also had its own railway that ran the length of the camp and linked to Rhyl on the north coast.  Just as Roman camps attracted a semi-permanent encampment about the forts they built, so Kinmel Park Camp attracted a shanty-like collection of shops and services, in an area which is now a small green space between Ronaldsway and the old Abergele Road.  This ‘tin town’ would have sprung up to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the arrival of thousands of soldiers to the area.

In 2011, the Clwyd and Powys Archaeology Trust (CPAT) discovered a series of earthworks and even structures connected to the camp.  These were probably part of an extensive series of trench training areas, just as in the grounds of Bodelwyddan Castle.  These trenches show elaborate design including support trenches, and although much has now been backfilled, aerial photography shows clear signs of their existence and thus the considerable planning that went into their creation.

Though there is some confusion as to its exact location, there was known to have been an 890-bed military hospital on the site.  By 1918, the hospital was specialising in treating venereal diseases, but it is clear from the graves in St Margaret’s Church, some 80 in number, that its priorities would have changed with the onset of the Spanish Influenza, which so devastated the world towards the end of the First World War, and took its toll of the Camp personnel.  It would also explain the presence of the two graves of female nurses which can be seen in the graveyard, who also died of the Spanish Flu that they would have called upon to treat.

Kinmel Park Camp received a certain amount of notoriety after the War, due to the disturbances that broke out there on the 4th and 5th of March 1919.  The reasons have been much debated, but were likely to have been due to a number of factors which coalesced into a sudden explosion of violence.  The Canadian troops stationed at Kinmel Park after the War, were awaiting repatriation, and it seems reports of delays to the ships allocated to their transport home fell onto an already smouldering frustration with the conditions in which they were forced to live.  Overcrowded living quarters, poor heating suffered through the winter, easy access to alcohol, possibly due to the nearness of the ‘Tin Town’, a lack of strict discipline after a War of intense stress and no doubt fear of the deadly Spanish Flu, all led to the outbreak of rioting.  Five Canadian soldiers died in the riots, four of whom are buried in St Margaret’s Churchyard, including William Tarasevich, who was thought to be the ringleader.

Perhaps the reasons for the riots can be best understood by the targets of the soldiers involved.  The canteen was raided as were the stores on the camp, which would suggest that indeed, food and fuel were more important than simple wanton destruction.  The ‘Tin Town’ was also ransacked, possibly due to anger at what was considered inflated prices charged for food, fuel, tobacco and alcohol.

There are a number of interesting personal stories from the camp.  Private Carlyle D. Chamberlain, an American who had enlisted in the Canadian Army was fascinated with the local history of the area, and would visit sites of interest, including nearby Penycloddiau hillfort.  During excavations of the hillfort in 2008, graffiti was found on a stone bearing Chamberlain’s name and regiment.  We also know that the poet Robert Graves was in command of an officers cadet battalion at Kinmel Park in 1917, while he recovered from wounds sustained in action.  The Canadian war artist, David Milne painted scenes of life at Kinmel Park Camp during his service.

The camp was cleared in 1920, possibly as a result of the damage done by the rioting of the previous year.  It is known that much material from the camp was auctioned off, including a hut which was recently found in Rhyl and now being used as a boxing club.  Yet it is a testimony to the continued violence of the 20th century, that despite being cleared soon after the War, the camp was rebuilt at the beginning of the 1930s, perhaps as a result of increased tensions in Europe.  It was occupied, briefly by the United States Army and more permanently by the British Army during the Second World War.  A cadet force still uses part of the site.

The camp is now an Industrial Estate, though it is still possible to trace the layout of much of the camp.  The roads that now lead past retail units, once felt the boot of rioting, homesick Canadians and calm woods would once have witnessed the training of men with bayonet.  Kinmel Park Camp is a witness to a time when the World was busy tearing itself apart, and yet it is good to remember individuals such as Carlyle D. Chamberlain, who at some point during his time at Kinmel Park found himself atop 2000 year old Penycloddiau hillfort, scratching his name onto a rock.

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