They were builders, farmers and artists – but they were also soldiers.
Men who signed up to protect their homes from foreign invaders and fight forces abroad is the theme of a new exhibition at the Gordon Highlanders Museum.
Citizen Soldiers launched today at the Viewfield Road museum and will tell the stories of North-east volunteers from the latter half of the 19th Century into the early 20th Century.
Curator Ruth Duncan said: “Citizens of towns and cities were responsible for the own defence.
“Men were expected to come forward whenever there was an external threat.
“At the time there was the spectre of French invasion.”
Around 21,000 British men had died by the time the Crimean War was brought to a close in 1856.
More than 400,000 on all sides had lost their lives when the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia.
During the two-and-a-half year conflict the War Office had to use militia and yeomanry to make up for a shortfall of soldiers.
Now over, but with half of the army spread across the Empire, its forces were too thin to fight in new campaigns – unless home defences were cut.
When France and the Austrian Empire went head-to-head in 1859, there were fears Blighty might get sucked in.
Ruth added: “In the 1860s the potential threat of French expansionism was a problem.
“This gave rise to the volunteer movement’s popularity.”
For many, the thought of serving away from home never entered their minds.
At the start, being a volunteer was seen as a sociable pastime, with rifle clubs and sports teams making up much of what they did.
The groups were largely self-controlled.
W S Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan was among those who volunteered in the North-east, which he did in between writing and other work.
Ruth said: “It was the social equivalent of the Officers’ Training Corps and golfing.”
In 1884 the 1st Volunteer Battalion Gordon Highlanders was formed. But it wasn’t until the Boer War broke out in 1899 that any volunteer would see service.
As the campaign stretched out, it forced a need to boost British numbers in South Africa.
Volunteers joined the regular battalions of their local regiments, meaning North-east loons would fight with the Gordons.
The only qualifications for candidates was they had to be aged between 20 and 35 and be of good character.
One battle which resulted in casualties was Rooikopjes, Transvaal in 1900.
Colonel W A Scott, 2nd Gordon Highlanders, wrote: “I am sure it will please the volunteer battalions of the regiment to know that the volunteer company received their baptism of fire on Tuesday, July 24, at the attack on Rooikopjes.
“I placed them in the firing line, and they behaved magnificently, showing the greatest dash and coolness under fire.
“They carried out my orders perfectly and the only fault I had to find was that they were so keen they pressed on rather too quickly. I am sorry to say one of them was killed and the captain and four others wounded.”
Each man received a £5 reward at the end of his service in the Boer, which ended in 1902.
By 1907 the country’s pockets were beginning to empty, making the volunteers even more vital to its defence.
The battalion was merged into the Territorial Force in 1908. Seen as a home defence force for service during wartime, units could be made to serve anywhere within the United Kingdom. They couldn’t be compelled to serve outside the country.
More than 70 battalions volunteered at the outbreak of World War 1.
Four North-east battalions fought during the conflict, including in the last chapter of the Somme – the Battle of Ancre, where 22,000 Brits died.
The exhibition is split into two – volunteers at home and volunteers abroad.
Items, outfits and stories of the men will be showcased.
Ruth added: “We’ve never really had the opportunity to put this stuff on display.”