Back in Camp – Saturday, 30th June (1917)

In the afternoon I formed one of the pall-bearers to a deceased Tommy.  We marched into a very squalid part of the town and carried the coffin out of a room full of sobbing femininity; then did slow march for about a half-mile beside the hearse, shouldering deceased to the graveside.  This evening I went into Oldham and visited the Market Place.  It was highly amusing – a regular Fair, with booths under canvas awnings in which were displayed wares, fruits, goods and cheap jackery of every description; and Merry-go-rounds of monstrous design braying out the most ear-splitting music; cock-shies; quack-doctors; in fact all of the motley you see in old prints of country fairs, except alas, the country.

At the Oldham Art Gallery to my astonishment I found a number of very good and even famous pictures, e.g. Turner’s “Phryne going to the Bath as Venus”, an Alfred East, several of Turner’s sketches, landscapes by men like Parsons.  Finished the evening with a supper of eggs and toast and walked 2 miles or so back to camp.  As payment for doing pall-bearer today will get a half-day off next week, and a pass to Manchester.  Three months since we sailed out of Wellington Harbour.

Saturday morning (30 June 1917)

Raining on Friday morning we could do no more than go over the church with the vicar (a chirpy ruddy-cheeked little chap) parts of it being about 600 years old.  There were splendid oak carvings of vast age, quaint inscriptions containing latin puns and long-winded panegyries, a very old pulpit and font, bearing coats-of-arms of local magnates of the middle ages; a fine oak “wagon” ceiling and beautiful stained glass.  After lunch got into the village taxi and drove through dripping lanes to Newton Abbot where said good-bye and set forth again, and luckily, by a new route, northwards.  All the rivers and streams in Devon were swollen and yellow or, rather, red with loam.  Through Severn tunnel which is about 6 miles long but could not see the river and then to my delight passed through a corner of Wales, hilly and picturesque to a degree, where the rivers and streams are rapid and stony and cottages, towers and mansions are perched up on perilous heights.  (That is a gross exaggeration).  We then passed into the fine country of Hereford where the cattle are reared and saw them in large numbers grazing in fields much larger than the neat little Devon meadows.  A great deal of Hereford is also hilly.  Saw Ludlow and got a glimpse of its old ruined castle; very prettily situated little city – then Hereford itself.  Next stop was the famous and picturesque city of Shrewsbury.  Eventually we reached Crewe and from thence to Manchester travelled before.  The train was travelling at about 70 miles per hour for long stretches yet far steadier and more silent than ours when crawling along at about 25.

Reached camp at 11 p.m. so timed it nicely, only to lose one hour of liberty and that in bed!

Wednesday night (27 June 1917)

In bed at Ipplepen, Devon, where sis Myrtle lives, 6 miles from a railway which is a long way in England.  My wire reached my sister Cora just in time to enable her to dash to the station in a taxi.  We went to Wimbleton where she is staying, thence back to London to her hotel “Berners”.  Thus settled we set about the great task of sight-seeing though it was then 6 o’clock.  Drove about some of the main thoroughfares in motor-buses and by taxi.  Had a look at the “Mall” and Pall Mall, and the Houses of Parliament.  Went into a quaint haunt of foreign shops and had late dinner at a French Cafe where the attendants could not speak English.  Walked in the twilight on the Thames Embankment and looked at the famous old muddy stream below.  This must sound terribly tame, but you can’t imagine what thrills it gave me.  Caught glimpses of St. Pauls, Nelson’s monument, and other famous buildings and finally found our way back through a maze of underground railways, down hundreds of feet beneath the streets, out of which I emerged like a man in one of H.G. Wells’ novels, on a revolving stairway.  When we went to bed close on midnight I couldn’t sleep but lay all night trying to rid my brain of fantastic distortions of the sights of the day.  Away next morning to St. Paul’s.  Explored the Crypt, went all round the Cathedral and then I climbed up and up into the Whispering Gallery where an attendant, hundreds of feet away whispers a short history of the Cathedral, of which every syllable is audible.  Then up again by innumerable steps and stairways to the top of the dome with a large portion of London lying beneath.  Peeped through a small opening in the top of the inner dome and saw the floor, 300 feet below, over which the people were crawling like the tiniest flies.  Then to Westminster Abbey and into every nook and cranny of it.  The wonderful tombs and sculpture and carving of the ceilings baffle description.  In the poets corner, seeing the tombs of Spencer, Milton, Dryden, Browning, Tennyson, Ben Jonson, Goldsmith, and reading the well known epitaphs in both English and Latin that I have so often read in books, can you realise what it meant?  And the great round stained glass windows – the thick stone steps worn right through.  Inscriptions dating back to Medieval times – Tombs of famous kings and forgotten knights – Henry VII chapel is alone worth crossing the world to see.  How I wish you were here.  We managed to rush off and look over the great new R.C. Cathedral and were well repaid.  It is unfinished and will be for many a long year, but the structural portions of the building are there and in many ways it almost rivals St Pauls.  The interior is I believe something like St. Peter’s in Rome and the acoustic properties (so bad in St Paul’s) are perfect.  We were lucky enough to hear the priests chanting in Latin – rich trained voices rolling out in the vast empty hall.

This morning we “did” the Tower of London – a grim old fortress brightened up by beautiful little cottages planted about in its curves and corners.  Here the funny old beef-eaters live and big trees sprout up from the stone pavements to brightly relieve the grey stone turrets.  Here are the Crown Jewels – very magnificent.  Collections of old armour, old guns and weapons of every description.  But the MAIN interest is in the terrible dungeons where the wretched victims of tyranny and oppression languished and were tortured and murdered in the bad old times.  Pathetic little legends, coats of arms, etc. are carved on the walls by prisoners; one by Lady Jane Grey.  To look out of the window, whence she saw her husband led to execution; to stand in the dungeon where the Princes were suffocated – these are the things that leave a profound and lasting impression on the Tower.  You must understand that we also visited innumerable objects of historical interest en route, numerous beautiful churches wedged in amongst modern buildings – many of which you have seen etchings and paintings – such well known buildings as the British Museum (now closed), the Royal Exchange, Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Monument, Cleopatra’s Needle, Marble Arch, streets such as the Strand, Regent St., Piccadilly, Oxford Circus etc.  Also we found time to go through the National Gallery (Tate Gallery is closed) and saw many famous and beautiful pictures – Hogarth, Romney, etc. many of the famous Dutch painters etc.  Visited Chelsea – saw the houses that Whistler, Carlyle and other famous persons lived in, and so on.  A very interesting train ride down here – Windsor Castle with the sun shining on its turrets – Bath (where “Mum” springs from), Bristol, Exeter, and Teignmouth.  I had an interesting travelling companion from London as far as Bristol – a pleasant gentleman of between 50 and 60; and Oxonian, who had been in N.Z. about 27 years ago and still had a very clear memory of our country.  He told me the names of the various places and objects of interest which we passed.  It was a pleasure to talk to him.  Here in Devon the lanes run most of the way between old overgrown stone or brick walls with huge oaks, elms and chestnuts almost meeting overhead; long winding tunnels of greenery.  Ipplepen is the quietest little place imaginable, all amongst the green and fertile hills, with old old cottages, a funny little inn, and pretty square-towered church which is next door to this cottage.

25th June (on the train) (1917)

After Stafford we went through some very beautiful country, low rolling hills dotted with glorious trees in full green, all washed clean by the recent rain; pretty country roads and winding rivers, old houses, square towers poking above hill-top woods and tall church spires.  Now Lichfield, Dr. Johnson’s birthplace.  Now Tamworth – “Tam worth tower and town”.  Now Atherstone, where saw old loop-holed tower and lovely woods.  Now at Rugby, now at Northampton.  Everywhere green pastures set around with trim hawthorne hedge-fields of bearded wheat, romantic lanes, pretty old cottages, many of them thatched and covered with ivy and roses – everything settled, established and permanent; and a network of canals and bridges, farms, hamlets and towns.  The flatness is not tiresome because it is never quite flat, most of the land gently rising and falling in long undulations, admitting of little dells and valleys each with its pond or its slow-winding stream or river.  Have now passed Wolverhampton [sic Wolverton] and Bletchley and cannot be far from the “Big Village”.

Sunday, 24th (1917)

Yesterday attended a Military funeral for a N.Z. chap who died in hospital near by.  Afterwards went to Oldham and had a Turkish Bath.  Talk about perspiration and dirt.  We all weighed ourselves naked then dressed and found that without overcoats our clothes weighed 14 lbs.  I am 11 stone stripped and 12 stone dressed.

22nd June (1917)

The camp is so depleted of men that we are very often on fatigues, chiefly “stables” and grazing horses.  You might like to know what tucker we get – breakfast, porridge and perhaps boiled bacon (good), bully stew (ornary), kippers on Friday (nice but hubbly), bread (war), and margarine (a la suet) – chops this morning.  Dinner – meat of some sort, dried beans and peas (mashey), bread (dry) and usually either stewed prunes, figs, or dried apples and sago and rice – Tea: bread and margarine; cheese and jam on alternate nights.  Tea at every meal – no potatoes, they are too scarce – no milk or sugar except in tea.  Not half bad though.  We get leave from Monday morning till Friday night.

Thursday, June 21st (1917)

The longest day and incidentally the wettest and coldest.  We have moved into other huts.  They are similar to those in N.Z. camps but have stoves in the centre.  You would hardly credit the fact that in choosing the drafts for France they allow men to stay behind because they play cricket or play in the orchestra or band.  It passeth all understanding.  There are here a number of men who have been drafted out of hospitals, so we hear something at first hand of conditions at the front.

Wednesday (20 June 1917)

About half the men in camp went off to France today and if you saw what a load the army equipment is you would see how futile it is giving us a lot of things to take with us.  An enormous roll of 2 blankets, oil sheet, change of underwear, socks etc., over one shoulder – water bottle, stuffed haversack over the other, mess-tin tied to bandoleer, overcoat and as many clothes as you can crawl into on your back – a camel isn’t in it.

Tuesday 19th (19 June 1917)

Last evening, three of us went off for a stroll.  First we rowed a skiff about a small artificial lake near the camp in the grounds of what was once a country house but is now used as a Golf House.  We then walked a mile or so to “The Brown Cow Inn” where we had some beer and proceeded on through country lanes to another hamlet, thence round and back via the “Rose Inn” which being dry we did not patronise, to the Cow again; another beer or two and back to camp.  It was enjoyable but it is sad to see all the trees and fences blackened with smoke and fumes and many of the trees and hedges dying from the effects of it.  We had a yarn at the pub with half a dozen hayseeds who were enjoying their pints – one of them was an intelligent man of about 45 who had travelled about the country and gave us some interesting information.  Even in this smoky old place the country girls have the pink and white English complexions and most are very fair-haired.  The men on leave came back full of their impressions of London, though most of them have misused their time and opportunities.  One of them displayed a chest covered with weals where he had been bitten by a sadist inamorata. The number of trains that pass is astonishing, some of them being about ¼ mile long.  Plenty of crows (or rooks) about – ugly tattered fellows and skylarks sing in spite of the smoke.  The blades of grass by the wayside are dotted with little dollops of white froth called “Cuckoo Spit”.  The slate roofing on the old buildings is quite an inch thick and the roofs have sagged with the weight.  Most of the buildings are of brick, but some, the most picturesque, are of stone or slate slabs.

Sunday, 17th June (1917)

Got leave from 2 to 10 p.m. so went off with two bombardiers to Ashton Under Lyne to the scene of explosion.  The distance (about 6 miles) was covered by tram, one town joining another in an indistinguishable manner.  Around the destroyed factory the windows of houses and factories had been blown out of their frames and disclosed miserable-looking front parlours where you couldn’t swing a cat.  A thunder-storm came up and it rained cats and dogs.  After perching in various porches, we squeezed into a returning tram and got back to Oldham where with great difficulty we found an eating house open (unlike towns where there is a larger upper class) and had a good feed of ham and eggs, toast and fruit, 2/3.  Returned to camp about 7.30 and then strolled off into the country.  What a difference! – although probably the least typical of English country one could find.  Still, the rain had cleared the air, the fields were a soft green in the sunset and the distance was all aglow with colour.

[Note – the Ashton-under-Lyne munitions explosion was caused by a fire at the Hooley Hill Rubber and Chemical Works.  Forty-three people were killed, including 23 employees of the plant, and nine children from the surrounding area who were returning home from school.  Over 120 people were hospitalised.  The explosion devastated most of the surrounding area.  A crater of approximately 90 feet by 36 feet across and 5 feet deep was left where 5 tons of TNT had been stored.  Today a sculpture in memory of those who died can be found in Henry Square, Ashton-under-Lyne, near the swimming pool were a child was killed from falling glass when the roof was blown in.  The image below is sourced from a website dedicated to Greater Manchester in the First World War.]

Ashton Under Lyne munitions disaster