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.
After dawn evident we were getting into manufacturing country. At about 4 a.m. found ourselves under the immense covered-in grimy station of Birmingham. We were then marched out through some of the main streets of this great, grim city, a contrast to what we saw of Glorious Devon. All was cold, imposing, formal – treeless – the sky seems to be sun-proof – the air has a peculiar mustiness about it that I think is best described as gassey. There were stately buildings, great shops, factories, statues etc., the streets well-paved – everything solid looking efficient and unappealing. Of course the streets were deserted at that hour but the sight of women driving newspaper carts etc. and women porters at the station, told of the effects of war. The bread in England is now only partly flour. On one shop I saw the sign “Horse Flesh”. What men you see in mufti are shocking specimens.
Great heavens! We have travelled about 20 miles through Birmingham – black – black – black – miles of blackened houses all built in terraces and forests of chimneys towering into the smoking sky towards the glimmering shilling which I suppose is the sun – a mass of weird retorts, overhead cranes – intersecting canals of muddy water ploughed by endless horse-drawn barges. One inextricable tangle of works, ways and dismal dwelling places. By the way, I cannot get it out of my head that we are running down-hill all the time, the trains go so fast and so smoothly.
Now at Stafford. A noteworthy feature of this part of the country, besides the absence of large hills, is the red soil. It was so in Devon, “Rich red loam for the plough”. I find I am not so well versed in the English trees as I could wish. If one could only get a month’s roaming with someone to explain everything! For many miles now the country has been gently rolling land, rich in pasture with slow grassy-banked steams so unlike our shingly little brawlers; with cattle about and peaceful-looking old homes, some of them thatched and all askew with eld. Alderley & Wilmslow – lovely little places with fine churches. The fields are studded over with oaks, copper beaches, etc. – country flattish – at least some hills in the distance; we are in Cheshire. You look out of one window and see some enormous modern contrivance, then out of the other you see “Bulls Head Inn” or the like. The English houses are equipped with a surprising number of chimney. They must have small rooms and a fireplace for each. We are nearing a large town heralded by a chimney about a mile high. “Woodrow’s Hat Factory”, Stockport.
Manchester: Seas of slates, colossal railway station.
Alas, the camp is near!
Detrained at Manchester and marched about a mile, then the N.W. & Midland, which is largely manned (or womaned) by Lancashire lasses in blue dungaree overalls and long trousers. They all have the broad dialect. Now moving off to camp about 12 miles.
After dark we passed through Bridgewater, Taunton, Bristol, Gloucester. We are in 3rd class carriages which are almost as comfortable as 1st class in N.Z. The food problem seems to be acute enough seeing that stuff is dearer than in N.Z., even beer and cigarettes formerly so cheap here. Have noticed women acting in male capacities – tram conductors etc. There are soldiers and sailors everywhere. Just stopped at Cheltenham – the names recall English history; but the confounded darkness!
Great Western Railway. So many new sights and impressions. Got ashore 6 p.m. given 1½ hours leave to look around for a meal. W. and I and another went to a hotel where we had to pay 2/6 for 2 ounces of meat, 2 of bread and a little pie. Food must be scarce. At about 8 we were aboard the train and on our way. Nothing can describe the rich beauty of the country – the wonderful green of grass, hedges and trees all in full foliage – the peaceful hamlets and old stone-built towns, towers, churches and mossy farm houses – All the country a patchwork of little fields of a few acres each, with their sheep and cows and encircling hedgerows – lanes, some of them sunken deep beneath the fields, and winding grassy-banked rivers, gleaming in the twilight. We passed through Newton-Abbot and then onto Teignmouth where we met the sea again – a most picturesque place, then Exeter. It is now almost dark being 20 minutes to 10 actual time but an hour later by the clock. The towns and villages are all so clearly defined – they begin and end, not straggling about like ours. As far as we know we (artillery) go to Chadderton Camp near Manchester. What the glory of these woods must be in Autumn it is almost impossible to imagine. I am beginning to understand how England produced Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and the wealth of English poetry.
Not a cloud in the sky. When I went on watch at 4.a.m. a large convoy of ships was visible on the starboard side, apparently crossing over to France. How circumscribed one’s view is at sea! Land or passing ships soon get below the bulge, giving on a feeling of isolation. I forgot all about dinner. Wonderful England! After packing and donning full regalia, I emerged just in time to see Eddystone Lighthouse springing sheer out of the sea and the shores of old England coming nearer through the haze. Close to the lighthouse is a kind of stump which I suppose is the base of the one that was blown down. As we drew near to Plymouth Hoe the beauty of the green land began to manifest itself and the old city to show out in the sweeping bend of the bay. I cannot describe my feelings – I felt as if I could cry, and at once realised how much I had missed by not having lived in the Old World, or at least, travelled here years ago. But never say die, although I am beginning to realise that almost anyone should be ready to die for England. I cannot explain but you sympathetic ones will understand. Old castles, thick clusters of grey slated roofs, intensely cultivated farms dotted along the sunny Southern coast – everything breathing history – old four-deckers that have fought at Trafalgar lying anchored, everything making up a tout ensemble that spells England in unmistakable symbols. My first intention was not to make any note because it would be so tame and inadequate, but I thought that I would write something with my first glimpse of “Peaceful England” actually before me, knowing that your bright and sympathetic imagination would in a great measure supply what was wanting. I can see little sea-side resorts dotted about; with people, pleasure boats, launches, etc. The hill-side fields are all defined with hedges and lanes and everything is as green as it can be. All this while a group of men has sat on deck below the gunwhale gambling. One or two of them popped their heads up for a moment, and grunted, “Oh that’s Blighty is it?” and promptly resumed their game.
Our Ships were heading almost South, but they soon resumed Eastern course, presume it was only a manoeuvre. The torpedo boats prowling about on either side bring it home to one there is a War going on hereabouts. The boats are steering an uneven course in a long line with the swift businesslike mosquitos guarding their flanks and every now and then making a dash at possible dangers; like sheep dogs. One can hardly, in spite of them, realise the presence of danger. I think this must be why so many merchant Captains have run inexcusable risks: “out of sight out of mind”. The sea is beginning to take on that greenish look that I have noticed whenever we near land.
Passed some distance away a warship convoying another vessel. The infantry now have to wear boots to get their feet used to them again. A few sea-birds are re-turning, but not regular followers like those we had in the South. The warm regions of the earth seem to have no attraction for the sea-birds. The whistle blew like thunder 3 times one morning, but none of us know why. We get war news by wireless daily. Have seen in the distance a school of whales spouting and splashing. It is quite evident that they do not spout water but that the plume is simply their hot breath condensing in the cooler air. Bullen points out that in the Cachalot. (I am trying to rewrite this page as the original has just been blown overboard). At about 3.30 p.m. the long expected destroyers swooped down upon us like a flight of birds. They whizzed up alongside and after some signalling our ships took up a new alignment and proceeded under their escort. Even in a calm sea they roll about in a surprising manner and one realises what they must be during the long winters in the cruel North Sea.