Sketched a turnip field, trees and cottages and arrived at Runnymeade, joined by friend R. We reached Pilcot late afternoon, looked round church which was plain and solid-looking, but of no particular interest or antiquity.
[Sketch by Lincoln Lee, Turnip Field, 15 September 1917]
One of our officers has set up an ingenious panorama of a sector of the Front. You give him what you consider the right directions and corrections for shelling a given point in the miniature landscape and by means of certain apparatus and an electric battery he makes a little puff of smoke show up where you have aimed your imaginary gun.
Night: Out alone. Rabbits and hares were running around and pheasants and pigeons flying about; it seems to be a game preserve. The noise the crows and rooks make roosting in the trees is simply deafening – similar in effect to the croaking of innumerable frogs. I walked on to Crondall afterwards with its old cottages and great looming trees overhanging the narrow roads, and the dim lights coming through the latticed windows from the tiny low-ceilinged rooms.
R. and I sallied forth and found a new and delightful cross-country track through meadow-lands and a great alley-way of trees, over numerous stiles and finally through part of what appeared to be a gentleman’s estate. We are given quite a lot of “Gas Drill” now and the smell of disinfectants on the masks hangs about our hair and clothes for hours. Today when we all had the helmets on some goat discovered that, by pinching the exhaling valve and blowing through it, he could make a weird bleating noise, whereupon all the others took it up in various keys – imagine yourself with your head in a vile-smelling bag of damp flannelette with a tin tube in your mouth peering out through glass goggles at a roomful of monstrosities emitting uncanny wheezes. However, the Box Respirator is almost more forbidding in appearance – making it appear that the wearer is devouring a portion of his own “innards”. Some of the fellows at times say amusing things. Today one chap who has an extraordinary cognomen informed us that Sergt. Bland had “got him properly snouted”, because, quoth he, “He has got my monicker off pat, and whenever anyone gets hold of my monicker they like to use it because it sounds funny”. “Monicker” means name, or signature, but whence it is derived I can’t make out unless from Monogram. The returned men have a smattering of Tommy French. They keep in little cliques and treat us new chums with aloofness and condescension.
An approaching thunder-storm has created a dead hush in which the smoke from the cream-coloured chimneys of the hamlet is rising straight up in light-blue plumes against the dark background of pines. The buildings with their grey walls and red roofs are outlined against the green of the surrounding fields, sprinkled with trees, haystacks, grazing horses and goats nibbling at the black-berry bushes.
Whenever we go out we find that there are other villages within reach. Every here and there are hop kilns, with tall conical attachments in which hops are or used to be dried; for the industry has, I understand, considerably subsided in Hants of recent years. On the way is a waterworks from which water is forced by steam pressure all over the district. It has a bottle-shaped chimney covered with ivy – that is a great feature in England, people and corporations are not afraid to let creepers climb over their houses and buildings. They have a love of beautifying their structures and threes are not commercially sacrificed.
One of the interesting types we have in camp is the “old soldier”. There is one in this hut – a R.N.Z.A. bombardier, the hardest faced chap imaginable, who has been in the game for about 20 years – no brains, no nothing – but up to all the tricks of the trade and what he doesn’t know about beer, women and barracks isn’t worth knowing. Since leaving N.Z. he hasn’t written a single letter, not even a P.C. – his troubles! His vocabulary is limited almost to monosyllables with a generous assortment of oaths.
I could rave about the trees hereabouts; like Watteau’s trees. The hawthorns are beginning to glow dull-red with berries and, where whole hedges of them have never been clipped, are fine trees 20 or 30 feet high. I have spoken of the mountain ashes with their brilliant berries. Every here and there one comes upon the imposing entrance to some “big gun’s” country seat, the lodge being often of quaint appearance, but the mansion itself usually hidden behind tall trees lining a long winding drive. One feels tempted to walk in and say “Please I’ve come”. Can you imagine cakes being made almost without sugar? That is the only kind procurable in England for many a day. If you think you are going to beat them by ordering “sweet” cakes you find yourself with something smaller, a little softer and almost as sweet as currant loaf. In one of your letters you mention the morning gargle – haven’t indulged in one since leaving N.Z., in fact have found that every camp and every Commander and doctor has its and his own peculiarities and foibles and am constantly undergoing changes of routine, discipline, sanitary precautions and what not; there is no uniformity in the British Armies.
10. p.m. Some geniuses next door are creating a rough-house and tipping one another out of bed. We are a fairly orderly mob despite the recent addition of a surprisingly foul-mouthed moustached Mackenzie Country squatter, who is always skiting about his fabulous wealth – probably mortgaged to his eyes. He told me he would get an aeroplane after the war. I said it would cost him a thousand – he didn’t care a blank if it cost him blank two blank thousand.
R. and I got away at about 11 a.m. through “Paradise” – we had a feed at the same old place supplemented by two tiny chops from the local butcher for 9d. (2/- per lb). Had another look round Odiham and of course gravitated towards the old inn with the village pump, where we got bread and cheese and beer – and another cigar. On the way back we deviated via villages called Pilcot (a quaint little place with a pretty old church and cottages), Crookham-Street and Crookham itself, which latter is about a mile from camp. R. has acquired a small flute on which he tootles as we walk through the lanes. Sounds quite arcadian.
Enormous numbers of rooks and crows all over England, big ungainly scraggy-looking birds that gorge all day. There is a water-cress bed nearby. Where a stream widens out the cress has been planted over an area of about ½ an acre and is cut systematically as it grows – the whole thing being surmounted by a lifelike scare-crow armed with a dummy gun. A big battle plane flew over us, quite near, at a terrific rate, then returning at a higher altitude, did a corkscrew dive, turning over and over like a shot bird; eventually righting itself and roaring away home to its roost.