25

Misery Hill

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ’is country” when the guns begin to shoot;

An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees!

RUDYARD KIPLING, “Tommy”

You’re not seeing it at its best,” said Wilf, my guide.

Shoving frozen hands into the pockets of my waterproof jacket, I pulled my ears deeper into the collar and turned away from the wind. Sleet rattled on my back like birdshot. As I shook my head, more water flew off my hair and eyebrows than one would expect from a good-sized Airedale.

“Really?” I tried not to sound sarcastic.

Back in the 1970s, I’d lived three years in East Anglia. Our front yard was the North Sea, our nearest neighbor Norway. Wind and rain of dismaying intensity and persistence swept across Suffolk and in particular Norfolk, the most prominent attribute of which was immortalized by Noël Coward in his play Private Lives.

Elyot (of new wife): I met her at a house party in Norfolk.

Amanda (ex-wife): Very flat, Norfolk.

Elyot: There’s no need to be nasty.

Wiltshire, in which we stood, was on the far side of Britain from Norfolk. Naïvely, I’d expected it to be as I remembered it: a county of stately mansions; a disciplined eighteenth-century landscape, rational and discreet, dotted with faux-Greek follies in white marble. But I’d visited here only in summer. In winter, Wiltshire’s weather gave Norfolk a run for its money.

How had it looked to Archie when he arrived here in November 1916?

Perhaps the flat winter landscape, gray and wet, with its leafless trees and pale diffused light, so different from the blistering blue-white of Australian sunshine, aroused in him the same mingled excitement and dismay as when, more than sixty years later, I walked, shivering in my too-thin clothes, into the center of Southampton, where our ship had docked the night before. But how much worse for him and the other volunteers to learn, as they came ashore, of the Battle of the Somme, which had ended just the week before—a four-month campaign by the Allies that gained almost nothing but, on the British side alone, left 420,000 men dead.

Wilf steered me into the shelter of a large oak. From around the massive trunk, I peered into the murk, across the little one could see of the featureless plain. Cold had numbed my face like Novocain.

“What’s over there?” I asked, looking west.

“Artillery range.”

“And there?” Looking east.

“Same.” A sweep of his eyes took in most of the horizon. “It’s almost all army. Has been for more than a century.”

“No farms?”

For an answer, he hacked at the sodden grass with the heel of his Wellington boot. A divot of turf peeled away, revealing, an inch beneath the surface, the gleam of white.

“Chalk. The whole plain’s the same. Nothing grows here but grass. Army got it cheap. Anyway, the amount of unexploded ordnance buried in this piece of country . . .” He grimaced. “Even if they let you plow it, you’d probably blow your leg off at the first furrow.”

We drove back to Codford in Wilf’s mud-spattered SUV, bumping along a track that was mostly a set of parallel ruts brimming with muddy water. In peacetime, a pretty enough village of five hundred people, a single main street, its gray stone church of Saint Mary the oldest and largest building within miles, Codford had been transformed by the time Archie arrived. Three thousand Australians and New Zealanders were quartered across a shallow valley on the edge of town, living in wooden huts and rows of conical white tents.

I could see why the army chose it. Plenty of open country, a railway spur, and the river Wylye nearby. Not much agriculture, so fewer civilians to be upset by a mob of bored and unruly soldiers on the doorstep. Not many big towns to distract the troops: fewer places for them to get into mischief. During both wars, Salisbury Plain was dotted with camps. Their names turned up repeatedly in memoirs of Australians in Britain—Fovant, Hurdcott, Codford, all within fifty miles of where we stood.

Wilf led me on a squelching tour of the former campsite. I was glad of my borrowed Wellington boots. Pictures from 1917 showed horse-drawn carts bogged to their axles in mud. It wasn’t any dryer now.

“Why didn’t they put it up on the chalk?”

His deadpan look with raised eyebrows, an expression as typical of the British as the French shrug, signaled that I’d asked something a true countryman would have known from simple observation.

“Too far from the railway and the river.” He nodded in the direction of the Wylye and the bridge over it. “There wasn’t enough mains water, so they used the river for washing—and . . .”

I got the dangling “and.” Three thousand men and not enough lavatories to go round: no fun for the people living downstream.

“Very little to do around here, back then,” I said.

“Not much to do here now.”

“Pubs?”

“A couple. Australians liked our dark bitter, a lot stronger than the lager you drink out there. If you wanted lighter beer, the camp canteen sold it in bottles.” He paused. “There was a tottie too, I’m told.”

“A prostitute? Just the one?”

“A place like this, the locals wouldn’t have tolerated more. In France, maybe, but not in England. Anyway, she gave everyone the clap, I’m told.”

More likely they gave it to her. Though Codford mainly existed to toughen up new arrivals from overseas and casualties returning to France, it was also a convalescent camp for gonorrhea and syphilis victims. Soldiers feared a “dose” more than a bullet wound, since any sufferer lost all pay and privileges while being treated. And the army made a point of telling your family what was wrong with you.

A shaft of watery sun lit the hill behind the camp. Patches of grass and earth had been cleared off the chalk to create a kind of picture. Such carvings cropped up all over the chalk downs. Locals had been making them since the Stone Age. Horses were a popular subject, though the most famous was the Cerne Abbas Giant, a huge man, club in hand, sprawled across a hillside, penis arrogantly erect. According to local custom, even the least fertile woman would conceive if she passed the night within the circle of one of his enormous testicles.

Rising Sun Badge, Misery Hill, Codford

“It’s not old,” Wilf said of the Codford design. “1917. Almost overgrown now. Can you make it out?”

Briefly, as the sun struck it, I recognized the rising sun of the Australian army badge. I nodded.

“Misery Hill,” he said.

“Pardon?”

“The squaddies called it Misery Hill. It was a punishment. Defaulters were sentenced to dig on it. There were so many brown beer bottles around the camp that the squaddies filled the trenches with them, bottom uppermost. When the sun hit, they made the badge look like it was made of bronze. But nobody can be bothered to keep it up now.”

A moment passed in silent contemplation. This had been no holiday camp. As much as anywhere in Flanders or on the Somme, it felt drenched in despair.

I thought about Archie. Leaving a bleak, flat, blisteringly hot and dry landscape, he’d landed in a bleak, flat, freezing cold and wet one. From the little I knew of him, he didn’t seem the kind of man to relish the irony. Particularly not if he was suffering from varicose veins. A chronic affliction of people who spend a lot of time on their feet, the condition occurs when poor circulation in the legs prevents blood from moving back up the body. As it pools in the calves, the veins swell and bulge, becoming knotted, blue, and twisting. Trudging Sydney streets every day, visiting clients to take their orders, Archie would have been a classic sufferer.

How could the medical examiner in Sydney have failed to notice something so obvious? According to historian Bill Gammage, the standards were demanding. One man “was told that his eyesight was defective and was twice turned away before a £2 tip facilitated his passage into the Australian Infantry Force. Rejected men stumbled in tears from the tables, unable to answer sons or mates left to the fortunes of war. They formed an Association, and wore a large badge to cover their civilian shame.”

Perhaps, as the flow of recruits dried up, doctors didn’t look too hard. Unlike poor eyesight, varicose veins wouldn’t stop you from firing a gun. Or possibly the weeks of drill, first in Sydney, then at Codford, brought it on. Either way, his arrival in England derailed Archie’s war.

After three hours, I’d seen everything Codford had to show. If it was boring to me, how much more so for the men stationed here? Particularly when the war ended and they wanted to go home.

“It was in ’18 that things got rough,” Wilf said. “Repatriation took forever, and the men just lost it. Their officers couldn’t control them. The MPs were sent in, but your mates just beat them up. Then they deserted. Stopped cars on the road and made them take them into Salisbury. Or women drove out here and camped in the woods. And remember that local prostitute?”

“What about her?”

“The chaps she infected . . . some say they dragged her out of her house and threw her down the town well.”

“Seriously?”

He stared up at a sky as gray as cement.

“Like I said—not much to do around here.”

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