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.
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.
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.]
Went to Oldham again last night and ran around the central portion on a tram. To give an idea of the industry here – whilst we were grazing horses our corporal amused himself counting the factory chimneys; he reached 250 before he got tangled up; you can’t see more than a couple of miles for smoke.
Nine of our gunners as well as all our drivers are going straight over to France. The sky is never free from smoke and there is an acrid smell in the air which seems to be bad for the throat. Yesterday we heard a distant explosion and from today’s paper see there was a munitions disaster a few miles away at Ashton Under Lyne. The beer here is very light and the supply much restricted. It was jolly getting all your letters. This is a small camp for N.Z. Artillery, and well appointed. Life in these towns has to my mind reached the limit of hopelessness. What will please you most is that I am happy in this camp, dismal as its situation; so if things progress in the same ratio, I shall in the firing line have reached a sort of apotheosis of hilarity. Have just had some fried eggs with W. at canteen (this is a true personal touch) and watched the sun setting over the smoke stacks (touch of nature). Tobacco is unfortunately dear here and proportionately horrible.
[Note – images below sourced from Oldham Historical Research Group]
Went into Oldham this evening for a couple of hours and was appalled at the appearance and conditions of life. You would go about in tears. The only men apart from Tommies on leave (dwarfs) are cripples and death-heads and the degradation of many of the women young and old, and the grime and filth of the poor street urchins, is horrible.
In camp again – Chadderton. When I thought this was a brighter place than Birmingham I hadn’t seen the miles and miles of factories, their chimneys threatening the skies. The camp is on the outskirts of working peoples’ quarters of a squalid description where we were cheeked by bold-faced factory girls. All these thousands of girls and women go about with heavy shawls or blankets thrown over their heads and shoulders and wooden clogs that clatter on the cobble stones. Have to hand in our gold and get notes. Get 4 days leave and pass to London shortly. Leave within 5 miles, every night not on duty. Just in bed in broad daylight, although the clock says 9.15. Am going to read over your letters again and then try to sleep for the first time for almost 40 hours. A lovely afternoon and the chimneys don’t look so bad in the sun. All the N.C.O.s lose one stripe – just to cheer them up. There is something almost terrifying in the size of these towns. Oldham close by has about 200,000 inhabitants and is only a sort of left wing to Manchester. However we have a glimpse of a pretty little valley with an old church in it and I think a river or canal – will explore later.