Waves of invaders
Gordon Bray of Nursted Farm recalls that the village was taken over by a series of invaders during the war: “evacuees at the beginning, many branches of the Army including the Royal Artillery and the Tank Corps, the Admiralty up Kiln Lane and then Canadians and Americans. They just took over your premises – officers slept in our farmhouse, other ranks in the barns.”
In the weeks leading up to the Normandy landings, troops were encamped along all the roads for miles around. The school was taken over and was full of English soldiers who would cross the road for a drink in the Five Bells. When American troops also came to the village the pub’s garage was turned into a kitchen for them all. The landlady, Mary Carter, remembered the day that two American Officers came into the pub to tell her that they were taking it over. Mrs Carter, whose husband was away working on the airfields, apparently replied “Oh no you’re not” and sent them away. In due course, however, the Americans returned with a local policeman who explained that they had to take over the pub, “that’s the law”. They took over three bedrooms, the private sitting room and the lounge bar (which they used for their officers’ mess). Mrs Carter and her family were left with one bedroom, the kitchen and the public bar. What really rubbed salt into the wounds as far as Mrs Carter was concerned was that the Americans “hardly spent a penny in the pub” !
And when they departed, the American troops told Mrs Carter and her family not to go near one of the cupboards in a bedroom until the weekend. “We could hardly sleep at night for fearing what we might find in this cupboard” Mrs Carter explained years later. “When we opened it there were blankets, sheets, pillowcases, a whole ham and lots of tins of food – a very welcome extra given the rationing during the war. Our son Tony felt like Christmas had come round early – in July !”
But there were sad times too. The Dieppe raid of August 1942 had also brought servicemen to the village. Prior to the raid Canadian troops had stayed in some railway carriages in the local sidings for a few days. Naturally they used the pub but on their last night a couple of the young lads, wanting to buy drinks for themselves and some local girl friends, found that they had run out of money. “Lend me a pound and I’ll leave my wallet with you” asked one, “I’ll collect it when I come back”. Sadly, not one of them ever came back from that raid. Over forty years later Mrs Carter still had that wallet with the photos it contained of one of the young soldiers holding a young child. Mrs Carter had tried every way she could think of to try to get the wallet back to the relatives of the young Canadian soldier but without any success. Villagers remembered the period after the Dieppe raids as a very sad time, “we all felt it terribly because we had had such a nice evening with some very nice young lads; and nobody came back”.
Unexploded bombs in Kiln Lane
During the second world war the limeworks and chalk pits up Kiln Lane/Halls Hill were used as a location for experts to steam explosives out of unexploded enemy mines. The Admiralty probably needed somewhere with rail as well as road access, somewhere with suitable buildings, and somewhere reasonably safe in case there ever was a big explosion. The chalk pits provided an ideal location as, if there had ever been a ‘big bang’, the blast could only go upwards and come down again – nothing could spread out. The Admiralty commissioned the site and it became HMS Mirtle.
Unexploded mines, often dropped by parachute, were brought to Buriton from many parts of the south of England – by car, by lorry and by rail. HMS Mirtle had a Petty Officer, Dick Salter, and about four ratings who were billeted in the area. Commander Bird, who was the Mining Trials Officer at HMS Vernon and who occasionally visited the Buriton site, explains that the primer and detonator would have been taken out elsewhere but you would then be left with a lot of explosives in each mine.
The buildings at the limeworks were all fairly decrepit at this time and the outsides were not altered by the Admiralty, but inside they were “like an operating theatre”. And they housed one of the biggest X-ray tubes in the country.
“Mines would often come into Buriton sidings by train and would be shunted straight into the buildings to be X-rayed. Each mine would be brought in on a trolley. It would be X-rayed all the way down and if there was a secret booby-trap that hadn’t already been spotted, the operators would see it. Once a mine was known to be safe it would be taken further back into the chalk pits and the explosives would be steamed out. The steam was produced by a wonderful old thing called a Merryweather fire engine which was stoked up to produce boiling water. Steam would be directed into the mines through one of the holes and the explosives would bubble out and dribble onto the ground underneath to solidify. This could then be burned off quite safely afterwards.” At the end of the war, the site was cleaned up although Mary Kelsey can recall that local children would still find the occasional bit of material on the ground and would have great fun setting fire to it and seeing it burn vigorously.
“If the X-ray tube had showed a booby trap” Commander Bird explained “then the mine was probably taken further back into the chalk pits to be dealt with. Sometimes blowing a little piece off was designed to provide access to the ‘nasty bit’. This small charge could be quite safely detonated once all the explosives had been steamed out.” Records were probably kept of things that the men did and lessons learned by the unit in Buriton may well have been important to others elsewhere trying to disarm mines which could not easily be moved. Stella Legg can, however, remember one big explosion at the pits, “it brought down our ceiling in North Lane! But it was probably a controlled explosion as no-one at the chalk pits was hurt.”
On occasions, a few experiments were undertaken. Commander Bird can remember one time when he was asked to try to blow a small piece of steel off a mine (after all the explosives had been taken out) “because the boffins wanted to have an easy way of cutting a hole. Unfortunately, the piece disappeared over the trees in the direction of Buriton. We rushed round the corner to the two cottages just by the railway bridge and we found the piece of steel in the garden where it had demolished a very nice Brussel sprout plant. We always wondered what the man who lived there thought when he went out into his garden to get some sprouts and found that someone had chopped his plant down”. What Commander Bird only added afterwards was that, only a few yards away, was a little baby asleep in a pram! That was, however, the only accident of which he was ever aware.
Farming, Forestry and Prisoners of War
It was important for farming and forestry to continue during the war years and Buriton played its full part – with local women enrolled in the Land Army and prisoners of war helping in the fields, farms and forests.
Cultivation and harvesting had to carry on during wartime but arrangements had to be made to make sure that the workers were safe from enemy planes. When corn was being cut, for example, using a tractor and binder in those days, there would be one person on the tractor and another on the binder. If there was a raid nearby, somebody would have to tell these workers as they could not hear aeroplanes because of the noise of the machinery. They would stop work in case a plane might come over machine-gunning.
A number of our local farms grew hops, and the cultivation and picking operations continued throughout the war. Sonner and Stella Legg can recall at least one air raid in the hop gardens – “at the end of the day, just when all the hops were being measured!” They can also recall another occasion when a landmine was dropped one night during the hop-picking season. “It came down in a small ten-acre meadow between Buriton House and the hangars. It made a large noise when it exploded and it made a big hole. There had been about forty cows in the meadow that night, but amazingly none of them were hurt.”
Roy Barrow can recall another incident during hop-picking time in the war years: “a big Navy balloon came drifting along the top of the downs. A spitfire shot at it and it started to come down above the Clays. Lots of us schoolboys chased it and tried to catch on to some of the dangling ropes. Mr Johns from Weston organised everyone to pull it down and then removed a bung to deflate it.” Mr Barrow can also recall the occasion when “the sky was black with gliders at the time of the Arnhem raid, planes were towing up to two or three gliders.”
There was a prisoner of war camp at Bramdean and many German and Italian prisoners were brought to Buriton to work on the farms and in the forests. Many of the larch trees which had been planted since the Forestry Commission had taken over land in 1927 were felled to be used as pit props. Prisoners of war would carry them to the side of the roads so that vehicles could collect them. Lorry loads of prisoners were also taken into the forests to clear sites after felling so that more planting could begin.
Fire patrol was another responsibility of local men working in the forests, and in wartime there was a risk of fires starting in the night-time as well as in daylight. Fire patrol was a bit of a precarious job with men clambering up a wooden tower sixty feet high, scrambling up an open ladder between four uprights and then pushing up a trapdoor at the top, struggling through it with their equipment and emerging onto the look-out platform. As well as looking for smoke and fires, the men would telephone the police to report where they thought any bomb had been dropped without going off (they could be heard ‘plopping down’) and telling them about any planes that came down. There were reports of German planes being chased by British ones and of planes going over on fire before disappearing to lower ground out of sight.
Gordon Bray can remember some of the night-time skies of 1940 as viewed from Nursted Farm: “a great glow in the sky above Portsmouth and ac-ac shells exploding in the sky during air raids on the city. A very dramatic spectacle.” He can also recall a German plane being shot down in a dogfight over Sunwood Farm in September 1940.
During the war years, local farmers were not allowed to cut their hedges, so as to provide plenty of cover from the skies above. And, of course, rationing arrangements meant that a proportion of every pig or chicken slaughtered had to be given to the Government.
Socks, Grommets and Jam
Mary Kelsey can recall some of the other activities that the women of the parish undertook during the war years. “Womenfolk were given hanks of wool to knit long socks for the forces. Those with sewing machines sewed up little frocks, boys trousers and shirts for the families who had lost everything in bombing raids on London. The government provided all the materials, with everything already roughly cut out. They called to collect the finished garments some time later.”
Mary can remember one of the little jobs she was given, as a child, to get some pocket money. “I would go round the village collecting ‘grommets’. The village ladies were paid to wind lots of long strips of canvass round a rod and then sew them up. They used to get one shilling for every hundred that they produced. I was never sure what they were used for, something to do with lifebelts I believe.” Mary can also recall that, after air raids over Portsmouth, “we would all go over the Clays and collect strips of silver paper which had been dropped by the German planes to confuse the radar in the area. We all used it for our Christmas decorations!”
And, of course, jam ! The WI gained its reputation for jam-making in the war years and Buriton WI was no exception. “The womenfolk would use every bit of fruit that they could gather. As well as collecting berries, they would collect acorns to feed to the pigs.”
Recollections of D-Day and VE Day
A number of Army convoys were routed through the village, particularly on the lead up to D-Day, using the tree-shaded lanes instead of the A3 so that they would not be detected. Jill Brooker, then a very young Jill Passingham, can remember that “The heavy roar of the tanks could be heard long before they reached the village. This terrified me and I would shelter behind the chapel wall. The convoys often camped in a field opposite the drive to Buriton House, where large oaks provided cover.” In the weeks leading up to D-Day, many British tanks lined up in the fields along North Lane and Petersfield Road. Villagers were not allowed to move near D-Day itself and people can remember that all the tanks were there at ten o’clock one night – and all gone by four o’clock the next morning.
The minutes of the Women’s Institute indicate the anticipation of VE day. On a number of occasions it was reported that the WI would not be able to hold one of its meetings because the hall would be needed for a children’s party. When VE day did come there was great jubilation in the village. People were told in the morning that there would be a dance in the evening and there was also a concert in the afternoon when everyone sang all their favourite wartime songs. The church bells rang out to celebrate victory but young Jill Passingham, having been taught that the church bells would be sounded as a warning of invasion, thought that this was the dreaded invasion “and instead of rejoicing I ran home terrified.”
Although many of the local menfolk were away, there were still lots of troops stationed locally and so there was a big party in the Club Room (now the restaurant) at The Five Bells, a dance in the village hall and “all sorts of parties elsewhere”.
The First World War
There were about 780 people living in the parish at the outbreak of the first world war. With almost 200 men from the parish taking part in the war (the roll of honour records 197), this suggests that about one in four of the residents that you might normally have seen around the village were away from home at some time – all of them men. Of those who went away, one in five (39 out of 197) did not return. With the casualties all being from the younger and fitter end of the age-range (all were under 40 when they died) their loss would undoubtedly be felt in the parish in many ways for many years.
There are obviously many fewer personal recollections of local life during the First World War than there are of the Second. Extracts from the local newspapers of the time can, however, provide a good flavour of some of the activities, and of the stresses and strains.
On the 21st February 1917, the Hants & Sussex News, the weekly local newspaper published in Petersfield, expressed sympathy on page 5 for Mr and Mrs Strugnell of Buriton “who only last week learnt officially that their fifth son was killed in action on the 24th November last (1916). Their second son was killed last June. Two other sons and two sons-in-law are at present on the front.” This vignette, repeated all over the country, illustrates the decimation that occurred in some families and villages as the men-folk took their place in the front line.
The men may have been sent to the Front but for the women the war was no less demanding. In March 1916, it was reported that Buriton topped the local villages in the number of skilled and unskilled women who had volunteered for war-work (81 women of which 71 were described as skilled, compared with the 77 who volunteered from Petersfield, of whom 23 were skilled.) A year later the paper carried adverts calling for 10,000 women to volunteer for National Service (11.4.17 p6). For the first few months of the conflict the paper regularly published a Roll of Honour citing those who had answered their country’s call.
For those of us who have never experienced war close at home, it is difficult to imagine how it must have felt, having so many kith and kin imperilled, and to know so little of what was going on that news of a death might take months to cross the Channel – even though an easterly wind might bring the sound of the artillery guns all the way from France almost instantaneously. Or to have abandoned one’s daily life to assume an alien role devoted solely to the survival of the nation.
The early days
When, in August 1914, the H&SN announced that the “events of the last few most fateful days in European history have moved rapidly in the direction of a catastrophe of appalling magnitude” (5.8.14 p5), few reading this in Buriton could have anticipated what was to come, or how the war would touch the village, nor indeed how prescient those words would become.
By the following week’s edition (12.8.14) a Royal Proclamation had ordered general mobilisation and Weston dignitary, Capt. Percy Seward, Executive Officer in the National Reserve, was calling for local ex-servicemen to re-enlist. Many did, among them Arthur Strugnell, second son of Mr and Mrs Strugnell, who had previously served for twelve years in India and South Africa. He was to die of wounds in June 1915.
Patriotism abounded. Alice Evans from Buriton was to submit a number of poems to the local paper of which this was the first, attracting much favourable comment in the following week’s edition:
Our Brave Boys of Buriton
Hurrah! for our brave boys of Buriton,
We will give them a lusty cheer,
They’ve joined for the sake of their country,
And the kindred they hold so dear.
We are proud of our of Buriton,
We’ve many a ‘Tommy’ and ‘Jack’
Serving at home and in distant lands
And each one doing his whack.
They are doing their duty bravely
And they never will turn aside
We know they will never look backward
Whatever their course may bestride.
They are fighting for right and freedom,
‘Gainst destruction, murder and sin.
Suffering hardships and facing death,
For their King, their country and kin.
They thought not of hardship and danger
‘Twas the women and little ones
So they’ve gone forth to keep us in safety
Our brave husbands, fathers and sons.
And we that are left, how we miss them,
We hope soon to welcome them back.
We will honour them, thank them and pray
“God bless every ‘Tommy’ and ‘Jack’”.
The Hurrah! shall sound through our valley
And our hills shall ring with the strain.
Hurrah! For our brave boys of Buriton
Then Hurrah! again and again.
Alice Evans, St. Mary’s, Buriton
By December 1914 Belgian refugees were billeted in the district along with soldiers from Kitchener’s Army (25.11.14 p.4 & 2.12.14 p.4) assembling for transportation to France. As old familiar faces departed for war, so they were replaced by new faces in the district.
Demands on local resources
In August 1914 horse owners in the district were summoned to Dark Hollow or Petersfield Police Station with their mounts and cart-horses for inspection and requisition into war-service. Such was the demand for horses that in the edition for the 9th August 1916, it was necessary to place the following advertisement in the paper (p4): “Owing to the difficulty in obtaining horses, persons in the country requiring the attendance of the [Fire] Brigade and appliances should give earliest indication and, if possible, send horses.” The diversion of resources to the war-effort led to increased risks for those who remained at home. The impracticality of arranging to have your house burn down only by appointment and then to supply your own transport for the Fire Brigade to enable them to extinguish the blaze indicates the desperate situation into which the country has descended as a result of the war. The real message of this advertisement was of course, that if you were unfortunate enough to suffer a fire, you were effectively on your own. For the harvest that year, the army loaned horses back to farmers at a price of four shillings a day (26.7.16 p.5). Soldiers too, under exceptional circumstances, were released for harvest work (10.1.17 p.2).
Buriton men sent to India and the Near East
Local men already serving with the Territorials, in the 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, who volunteered for overseas service were deployed to India (to release regular troops protecting the colony). Godfrey Harfield, Henry Rogers and Harold Chitty from Buriton were among those who joined up and found themselves travelling further afield than they can possibly have imagined whilst growing up in the village. The men who went to India were promised that they would “be brought back again before the labour market was flooded with the regular troops disbanded after the war.” (30.9.14 p.5). Of these three, Godfrey Harfield was demobbed in 1916, re-enlisted in the regulars and was killed in action on the Western Front; Henry Rogers was attached to the 1/4 Hampshire Regt., and died of fever in Mesopotamia; which similar fate befell Harold Chitty.
From time to time, the exploits and experiences of the Territorials posted to India were reported on. In April 1915 two photos were posted in the windows of the H&SN offices in Petersfield showing local men from Buriton and Petersfield visiting the Taj Mahal (21.4.15 p.5). The following month, however, there were signs that life was not all that comfortable for those posted to India. The House of Lords debated the lack of rations being supplied to those in India and the government conceded that “the Territorials were worse off as regards their total emoluments in India under peace conditions than at home under active service conditions”, (12.5.15 p.5).
Two months later the newspaper carried a pitiful plea for socks to be sent to the local men serving in India to ease the pain of blistered feet brought about by continuous marching in hot weather (7.7.15 p.5). A subsequent gift of shirts and socks went astray, but eventually arrived at the Battalion, albeit with the parcels opened and some of the contents missing (3.5.16 p.5).
Those who stayed behind
Not everyone rushed to join up and for a variety of reasons. The paper regularly reported on those who appeared before the local tribunal seeking exemption from military service. Lothian Bonham-Carter sat on the tribunal which covered Buriton. He will have known personally those who appeared before him, and although the reports did not cite the names of applicants, few will have failed to recognise the “Buriton gamekeeper, aged 40” whose application for exemption until August 1916 was refused by Bonham-Carter (31.5.16 p.5). Others from Buriton who sought exemption included: an assistant dairyman, 19, who was granted conditional exemption because one family member had already been killed and three others were now at the front (the maths point once more to the Strugnell family); an 18-yr old milkman and carter was granted temporary exemption until October 1916; and a 49-yr old stockman, thatcher and rick builder, apparently medically rejected, who was granted conditional exemption (5.7.16 p.5). Temporary exemption was also granted to a man from Sheet who operated a portable steam engine that was required for drying hops in Buriton (26.7.16 p5).
Economic considerations also appear to have been the basis upon which a later tribunal (27.9.16 p.5) granted conditional exemptions to a game-keeper, sexton, parish clerk and gardener, married and aged 40 who had been passed fit C1 for active service (it is unclear whether this was the same game-keeper whose application had been rejected in May); a married stockman who was deaf but also had been passed fit C1 for active service; an engine driver blind in one eye who was considered fit B2 for active service; and a married 32-yr old carter/ploughman, C1, all of whom worked on a Buriton estate from which 22 men had left to enlist since the beginning of the war. (Men classified as B2 and C2 were called up in February 1917, and all men under 50 in 1918.) The economic rhythm of village life was changed forever as the workforce haemorrhaged into military service. The shortage of labour forced the auction of the dairy herd on Bray’s farm which comprised 44 short-horn milking cows, one pedigree 2-yr old short-horn bull, 23 milk churns and a cooler (14.2.17 p.4). At an average price of £43 per head, the sale was announced a huge success (28.2.17 p1).
Economies at home
The economies hit home in the cottages as well. Folks were asked to donate eggs for the war effort and in a regional collection that amassed 1,696 eggs, Buriton Church gathered 75, whilst the Methodist Chapel congregation collected 21 (18.4.17 p5 – one of the eggs collected in Buriton found its way onto the plate of a wounded Buriton soldier recovering in an East Anglian hospital). From the pulpit in May 1917 the Rector read out the Royal Proclamation calling for more economy in food consumption (9.5.17 p.5). (The following week the Rector learnt that his son had lost his arm in action.) By the end of 1917 butter, margarine and tea were in very short supply (26.12.17 p.1). A chronic meat shortage in the district was reported at the beginning of 1918 (9.1.18 p.1) with local butchers selling out of meat by midday Saturday and being unable to open the following Monday. The Petersfield Food Control Committee, chaired by W.C. Seward from Weston, complained that Hampshire beef could be sold out of the county but was not available for purchase within the county.
The Defence of the Realm Regulations restricted the use of wheat, rye, rice and barley to human consumption only (23.1.18 p.2). Shop opening hours were reduced so that shops closed at 6.00 pm for three nights, remaining open until 7.00 pm on Fridays and 8.00 pm on Saturdays (9.10.18 p.2). Rationing was announced in February 1918 (13.2.18 p.3) and came into force in relation to butter, margarine and meat on 25th March. (20.2.18 p.2). Local MP, W.G. Nicholson tabled a question in the House of Commons highlighting the fact that German POWs camped in the district received the same meat ration as agricultural workers, an iniquity in the eyes of many that was causing ill-will.
Even the newspaper itself was not immune: paper shortages forced a reduction in pages in September 1917 and by 1918 it had reduced from 8 pages to 4 (5.9.17 p.5). By the time the paper came to report the Armistice, with fatigued relief rather than the heroic optimism with which it began its coverage of the war, those living in the village will have been experiencing very real hardships as a result of the war. 26 households were reduced to using a street stand-pipe for their water during 1918 although this was primarily due to a dispute between Mr Bennion and the local council about the wells which the council closed down on health grounds and which Mr Bennion relied upon for supplying water to his tenants. This on-going story was reported in many editions of the paper.
Surprisingly, given the shortages, Buriton residents appear to have been a wasteful and untidy lot. The amount of litter cast aside all over the parish was the subject of Parish Council initiative to organise litter-scavenging twice a week in an effort to keep the village roads clean (30.5.17 p.5). It was with some satisfaction that the paper reported that the habit of Buriton residents in throwing old tins etc into the highway appeared to have ceased since May’s Parish Council meeting (27.6.17 p.1).
The villagers continued to find ways of helping the war effort despite the shortages. In War Weapons Week (July 1918) there was a campaign to raise money to pay for arms production. The Petersfield District raised £42,391.7.0, of which Buriton villagers raised £330.3.0.
Those who waited for news
The H&SN, besides reporting on the deaths and wounding of local men, reveals much of what life was like on the home front during WW1. There were moments of light relief, such as the reporting of the wedding of Hester Annie Harfield and Harry Alcone Smith, the latter being a Royal Engineer allowed home from the Front to marry (2.12.14 p.5). Hester must have spent much of the first four years of her marriage worrying about the fate of her husband. When Private Caleb Chitty was reported missing in September 1916, his family went to extraordinary lengths to find out news about him. His brother-in-law, Private Pretty, was astonished, whilst serving on the Western Front, to read about his brother-in-law’s disappearance in the weekly edition of the Daily Mirror which also published a photograph of the missing man. The report requested that any news of Private Chitty be passed onto his sister, Mrs Pretty at Myrtle Cottage, Buriton. From the battlefield, her husband could do little more than cut out the story and send the clipping home as proof that his wife’s efforts had at least reach the front-line (14.3.17 p5). Caleb was officially declared dead in July, nine months after being reported missing in action (15.7.17 p.5).
For those who did not receive the dreaded news of the death of a loved one, there was sometimes consolation in the discovery that a missing relative had been located in a POW camp. On the 12.12.17 (p.3) the paper published a letter from an unnamed Buriton man taken as a POW (references in the letter and other sources suggest that the man was William Fisher):
“I still keep on smiling, and always smoke myself happy and cheerful. I always look on the bright side of things hoping to see you all again some day and I am receiving all you letters regularly … I have been a prisoner one year today, how the time does fly! … I am getting plenty of parcels, and I am getting my tobacco regularly … I am glad to hear all my brothers are safe. Don’t you think yourselves proud having five sons in the Army? What a glad day it will be when we all return. I am sending you my photograph, do you think I look down-hearted … Tell the dog to keep wagging his tail, and the cat to keep on purring, then all will be well. I will now close trusting in God to comfort us for He only rules.”
In October 1918 the war occupied very few column inches in the H&SN. Indeed, there was no mention of it at all in the editions for the 16th, 23rd and 30th October, so the sudden optimism expressed in the MP’s parliamentary column on the 6th November appears almost out of context given the gloom that had prevailed throughout the year.
The following week, whilst a the fatal shooting of a pupil at Bedales School occupied the front page, the Armistice – “The Great Deliverance” – was reported on page 3. The “Triumphant end of the world war” was not something that was about to pre-empt local events.
This information was written in 2002 but we now have more information about WW1 (and about D-Day) in the ‘Projects’ section of this website.
Do you know any more about wartime in Buriton ?
Do you have any photographs of the parish or people here at that time ?