Memories collected by the family of Ellen Hall. Thanks to David Marklew and family.
I was seven year old when war was declared against Germany. I was taken to Egham Station to see the first troop train of local lads pull out. Although I was so young I sensed the tragedy of it all despite the cheering and flag waving. At that time everybody was sure the war would be over by Christmas. Instead it dragged on for four weary years.
We were all very patriotic, especially Miss Marcham, the headmistress of Englefield Green Girls School. On one occasion when a regiment of soldiers were marching from Aldershot to Windsor they stopped to rest on the village green, and water the horses pulling the supply carts and gun carriages. Miss Marcham went to an ambulance and pulled out bandages to bind up the blistered and bleeding feet of many of the marchers. They were all young men who had received very little training for long route marches carrying heavy loads. No young officer was going to tell Miss Marcham what to do and what not to do. We girls felt sorry for the horses. Some of them were suitable for pulling heavy guns but many were not. In the Donners’ stable were Mr Donner’s hunter, Robin, Mrs Donner’s riding horse, Revel, (a beautiful grey), Exmoor the pony, and the pride of the stable, Raven and Rook, a lovely jet black carriage pair. When the officer commandeering horses came round he took one of the carriage pair. He probably wanted it for himself, as officers rode, while men marched. Robin, Raven and Rook would have been much more suitable. We all wept, including the coachman and groom to see such a lovely horse go off to battle. Princess Christiana’s Red Cross Hospital was built on the outskirts of the village. The ambulances were small trucks with red crosses painted on the tops. When the first convoy of ambulances drove through Englefield Green I could not understand why my mother was crying. Of course I realised later that they were all badly wounded men in their late teens or early twenties. We were very short of food at one time, and once a week the hospital sold their surplus dripping, so we children were sent with basins to get some of this valuable commodity. A great treat was bread and dripping with a little sugar sprinkled on it. Our school became involved with the hospital. Miss Marcham would take two girls on Sunday afternoons to visit the wards. Of course we tried to collect all the goodies for the wounded that we could, but this was not an easy task as we were so short of this sort of thing ourselves, however we did what we could, collecting eggs, cigarettes, and sweets. One soldier had his 21st birthday in hospital, so Miss Marcham somehow or other managed a cake and a few little luxuries for him. I well remember my father saying, “I bet the rest will be having a 21st birthday now”. He was right! You could not blame them for trying it on, but it became more and more difficult to get little extras, and finally, impossible.
Another of Miss Marcham’s bright ideas was that we should do the hospital’s mending in school. Oh! The clothes baskets full of socks that we waded through! I think we all thought that if we did not darn nicely we would lose the war! One thing we could all do when we left school was darn. In later life I saw some mending by my old school friends and we all darned alike. To this day if I try to skimp something I feel Miss Marcham looking over my shoulder and saying, “If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well”!
I remember lying in bed listening to Percy Connolly playing his mouth organ on his way home along Armstrong Road. I thought the music beautiful. As soon as he was 18 Percy joined the navy. He was lost at sea. This was one of the first of many village tragedies. Very soon many of the young men we knew were joining up, including many of my cousins. I well remember a recruiting officer standing on the school lawn one summer evening calling on men to join up. The slogan was “Kitchener Needs You”. Unfortunately Kitchener was lost at sea when on HMS Hampshire. We had no radio in those days.
Apart from the daily newspapers news was carried mouth to mouth. So I raced home to tell my mother that Lord Kitchener had drowned, not at all realising the serious effect it could have on the war. My great great uncle and aunt Knibbs of Old Windsor had six sons, all in the navy. They had a letter of congratulation from King George V. I do not know if they all survived the war. Two of my first cousins were killed; Bill Huggins in the Marines, (Aunt Betty’s oldest son). He was killed on HMS Vindictive when they were blocking Zebrugge harbour. Her second son, Bert, was badly wounded and lame for the rest of his life. Uncle Jack’s son Bert was reported missing, believed killed.
I still have a vivid picture in my mind of Uncle Jack coming to our door wearing a black tie and my father instantly saying “Good God, Jack! Which Boy?” To her dying day Aunt Mary held on to the hope that Bert would turn up one day. She must have been a great trial to my poor uncle. If she heard a car at night she would be out of bed to see if her son was returning home. Uncle Bill’s eldest son was also wounded and his son was killed in the Second World War, flying with the RAF. His name is on Runnymede War Memorial, (as is Squadron Leader Leslie Cooper, a friend of mine.) My Father’s youngest brother, who was in the artillery, and his eldest son, Fred, who was in the Navy, had charmed lives. When on leave together they stayed one night with us. Some of their stories were hilarious. Fred referred to his father’s guns as mere peashooters. We had three lots of soldiers billeted with us, two at a time. Where we slept them I cannot think as we only had two bedrooms. I remember the first two best; Jack Travers (a bit of a rough diamond) and Sidney Young, (one of nature’s gentlemen). I believe he was eventually promoted to officer rank. My mother must have made them too comfortable. They tried to get us to take their friend Sergeant Stag in. It was impossible to sleep him, but we used to find him in our front room doing his paperwork. I don’t remember much about the other boys, except two were mere boys and my mother shed more tears when they went off to France.
At the top of Armstrong Road was a small hall, afterwards known as the Drill Hall. This was the training ground for the Royal Corp of Signals. It was a common sight to see them cycling around the village carrying their semaphore flags on their backs.
In the early days of the war Boy Scouts would cycle round blowing whistles as an air raid warning. We did not have any bombs dropped near us, but I remember being taken to see German planes flying over the village. Whenever there was a raid, crowds of people would come out of London. One night we had a family of four standing on our doorstep asking for refuge; Mr and Mrs Frost, May and Gerald. They stayed for many weeks, Mr Frost going every day to his London office. Again I cannot think where we all slept. I remember disliking the children, chiefly jealousy I’m afraid. They had so many things my brother and I went without.
At another period in the war my father was asked to look after Hector, a beautiful black retriever. I think Dad’s sister Mary was housekeeper to a Lady Henderson. Lady Henderson decided that Hector ought to be out of London during the war, and my father was recommended as being very suitable to look after him. Hector arrived with a travelling basket full of blankets, an eiderdown, and all sorts of shampoos, brushes and combs. We had Hector for a long time. Now and again my father would take him to see Lady Henderson. Unfortunately Captain Henderson, the real owner, was killed and at one time there was talk of Hector being given to us, however another brother wanted him so Hector went back to a life of luxury. All the same I think he was very happy with us in the country.
In those days we all had open fires and during the war, of course, fuel was scarce, so as soon as we got home from school we would go off with old prams, trucks, in fact anything on wheels, to Virginia Water. The Canadian Army Forestry Corps had a light railway round the lake itself and a saw-mill by the Wheatsheaf Hotel. We would collect the brush-wood and small branches not needed for the army. Our day would be made if a kindly soldier gave us some chips of wood when they axed the bottom of the trees before the saw went in. They were often kind enough to let the axe slip to our advantage. A picture was once published in a London newspaper of children and adults pushing our weird assortment of trolleys empty up one side of the turnpike to Portsmouth and returning, loaded, down the other side. School children also got permission to go to the big estates around Englefield Green to collect horse chestnuts to be used in the making of charcoal filters for gas masks. We also collected acorns to feed pigs.
I vividly remember my father being called up with the forty-fives. It was felt that the War Office was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and we would never win the war having to rely on such old men, but win we did. Having passed A1 physically, Dad was soon in the Essex Regiment being trained for service in France. He spent most of his army days on the east coast near Yarmouth. Their food was appalling. On one occasion the magazine “Punch” asked the question where were the worst fed men in the British Army. The answer was Great Yarmouth. On Christmas Day there was not enough food to go round and the colonel gave the troops money from his own pocket to buy a meal, but there was nowhere to spend it. At one time my father was sent to guard an isolated beach. He said you could hear the guard crunching along the shingle for miles. One night Dad cooked a great supper for the men – rabbit stew. After that he was taken off guard and made cook. I don’t suppose he was asked where the meat and vegetables to supplement their rations came from: (pilfered, no doubt). When they got back to barracks he was recommended for the cook house, but he was soon back to route marching and bayonet charging.
We children could hardly remember what chocolate was like so you can imagine our delight when we got a parcel of chocolate bars from Dad. He had saved up his ration, and sent it packed between dog biscuits. Yes! Dog biscuits. They looked, and probably tasted exactly as big dogs like Hector would have. Army emergency rations.
Dad was on the point of embarkation for France when the Armistice was signed at 11 o’clock on the 11th November 1918.