Chapter 7 Home frae home
At last ‘H’ company was in entrained down to the South where they pitched close to Newhaven, Sussex. Jack continued writing his diary. Not that he made entries every day — it was more like note-taking, reflections on his life in the army.
“Heighton village is my ‘home frae home’ for the next seven weeks. My ‘family’ comprises U. J. Fox, C. D. Smith, G. H. Weatherley, T. J. O’Connor, and A. G. Parker. Peter Conroy is aide-de-camp to Sergeant Playfer so I couldn’t include him, to my regret.”
“Willers general shop is the shopping centre and a great victim to trust. Here we have our dinner cooked and where we eat it. The Willers are very easy-going people and we have the run of the house. Every day, after dinner, we sing. Miss Willer, a shy girl of about eighteen, pretty but pasty-faced with coral lips, is very much favoured with O’Connor’s attentions. This causes him much teasing, sometimes to the point of fierceness.”
“My team’s main responsibility is to look after food supplies for the Company. The food is exceedingly good. Every two days the supply arrives on the 10.05 a.m. train at Newhaven town station. My fatigues party carries the goods to our tent. Let me picture our little army Service Corps. On the shoulders of two men, ‘creeping like a snail’ along Heighton Road, is a sack which contains, at the bottom, meat, next potatoes and carrots, with bread on top. The other two men will carry the sundries, such as bacon, butter, condensed milk, apricots, in an oil sheet. The ‘spuds’, vegetables and meat, and a huge block of frozen beef, twice as much as we could eat, are straightaway taken to Mrs Willer to prepare for dinner. We stow the rest away in our larder, which is a hole dug in the ground just outside the tent. We fitted in a box and covered it with a lid of wood and spread an oil sheet on top. It makes a grand store-place. It is cool and moist, and saves room in the tent. Out of this pantry we keep rain, heat and dirt, but the wasps we cannot keep out. These beggars simply make a rendezvous. They are like Dicken’s London fog. There are wasps in the milk, jam, tinned fruit, wasps on the cake, wasps on the butter, in fact, wasps everywhere. However well we cover the larder, on bringing out the jam for our next meal, we invariably find these infernal wasps trying to extricate themselves. They would get an inch or two down into the preserve so it necessitated us spreading the stuff out on our bread to make sure we did not go in for wasp jam.”
Jack was Patrol Commander and organised his team such that they worked for two-hour shifts day and night. On shift they were on guard to watch for any strange activity near the camp. In the evenings, by candlelight, they would write letters to their families back home, have a smoke or maybe even a sing-song.
He enjoyed being in the army, savouring walks or marches through the countryside with its beautiful scenery. Walking with O’Connor one day he said, “The countryside reminds me of when I was a little boy and our visits to Grandmother in Doddington. We walked over Clee Hill and I enjoyed the panoramic views to all sides.”
“Where’s that?” O’Connor asked.
“In Shropshire, buried in the countryside, far from the busy towns. Shrewsbury was the nearest big place and we lived there before moving to Liverpool. At the end of our road there was a lovely open space with grass fields, trees and a weir on the River Severn. I went swimming in the river, was a way to escape my parents’ attention. I loved strolling along the green tunnels of overhanging branches, so heavily covered in moss and climbers they bent to the ground. The light played through the trees to giving m a sense of freedom.”
Jack continued, “My mother warned me not to go close to the river but I went anyway, just to be on my own. She was always in her chandler’s shop, so she wasn’t home when Annie and I came back from school. We were supposed to go to the neighbours where the missus gave us tea, but I often wandered off to the river. Life was there – the air was fresh, the light was bright and there were creatures amongst the shrubs and in the water. How I missed that in dirty, busy Liverpool.”
When his thoughts came back to the present, patrolling to make sure no German scouts were entering the country, he realised that soon he would miss the pleasures of Sussex when war inevitably broke out and the Company moved into action.
The men, now being away from home, corresponded with their loved ones back home. Jack wrote as often as he could as he knew they were worried about him.
“Thanks for yours that arrived yesterday, it took 5 days to get here. I hope this letter finds you all well.
“We’re in a little village in Sussex. There’s nothing much to do here so we fill our days with a routine in-keeping with army customs.
“My day-time routine is to rise at 7am, prepare breakfast, and rouse the men at seven-thirty. By ten o’clock the meal is cleared, beds and equipment out of the tent, flaps rolled up and our abode given a good airing. Between one o’clock and three o’clock I’m occupied with dinner, going in relief vehicles to the shop. Two orderlies prepare tea for five-thirty. While it is light, two men are allowed away from the post, but as soon as dusk falls all must be in. Then we can be seen letter-writing by candlelight, reading and smoking or perhaps having a little sing-song. Time never hangs heavily. Meals take such a long time and our persons receive so much attention that the time remaining is not very much. Fox at such times is always writing letters. Weatherley is seen lying at ease, full length on the grass reading the Spectator sent from the Liverpool Y.M.C.A..
“We do patrolling at night, along the railway line. The monotony of it makes it very arduous, and in wet and windy weather very fatiguing. When wet, the sleepers are terribly slippy, entailing careful walking and getting a sure grip with the feet which soon tires one. The great anxiety is to keep an eye open for the oncoming trains. One has to look where to step and invariably, on looking up, one would step on the edge of a sleeper and slip off. The trains come so silently! You can hear them from a great distance and then lose the sound of them until they are right on you. A train windward will, (we have tested it), come to within a dozen yards in absolute silence.
“I can’t write about the details of what we do and why, we’re all bound to secrecy for fear information leaks out to the Germans.
“The countryside around here is beautiful with its rolling hills and views. I love the hours that I can get away for walks. On my way back, I pop in to the local shop to stock up with tobacco. The shop-owner, Mrs Willer, is very favourably inclined and cooks our dinner with the food we bring to her. We have nothing to wish for on that score.
“My love to all of you at home, Jack XX”
In the letter he left out his thoughts about how dangerous the nightly patrols were and that it was a wonder so few men were killed while on the job. After putting his letter in a special army envelope, Jack continued with notes in his diary.
“O’Connor most sincerely guards the line, and, out of the least sound, construes some felon plot. As he was patrolling at night, in a bush a few yards away, he heard a sound. He halted, and without a word, silently fixed his sword on the bayonet. His comrade, Fox, was alarmed to see him making for the hedge which he charged in grand style. The only outcome of this was that his bayonet got stuck fast in the bush’s trunk and only extricated with some difficulty. Fox was the victim of another delusion. One moonlight night he saw a man standing up against one of the plate-layers’ huts and so howled out “Halt – advance four paces”. There was no reply and no attempt to move on the part of the man. It turned out to be the shadow thrown by the chimneystack which ran up the side of the hut.”
“I cannot vouch for the truth of the following story, but it spread widely. Any incident is passed along from post to post and even the most outlying sentry post is fully up-to-date with all rumours and stories. This tale relates how a patrol got uneasy about a noise in a bush. He called his Sergeant. This worthy got somewhat jumpy and excitedly let off a few rounds into the bush. The noise ceased. Along the hedge something crept away. He fired at it. In the morning the place was examined and spots of blood were noticed. The Sergeant promptly concluded he had hit the supposed spy who had made good his escape. At first, we felt a shred of admiration for our worthy sergeant, for his prompt action and his accurate shooting; for his skill in being able to detect the noise made by a spy from out of all the weird, wonderful and witchlike noises heard at night. The key to the whole joke flashed down the line a day or two after. A sheep was seen in a butcher’s shop in Lewes with .303 bullet in it.”
“The other day I was blessed with time to walk alone over the Wolds of Sussex. It was a delight to see their charming curves, with mists in the angles and their sombre browns, yellows and greens. It vividly brought to mind a picture of the Wolds by Copley Fielding. His picture is most simple, so simple that if I tried to paint the same landscape, I would not deem it possible to make it. Away in the distance I saw the English Channel, a streak of light azure blue on the horizon. In vivid contrast to this dream of peace, twelve British warships swept along, silent and grim, on their mission of war, of death and destruction. They were visibly connected up by the smoke, and invisibly by signals and wireless telegraphy. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was part of that ghastly world.”