Life at Morn Hill camp

During November and December 1914 Herbert Halliday was stationed with the 27th Division at Morn Hill camp, Winchester. Life at the camp during this period can probably best be described by quoting the Hampshire Observer which, on the 26th December, published an article on the division entitled "From Winchester to the Front - Departure of an Army Division". Although the article perhaps paints too rosy a picture of events, it does provide a useful insight into attitudes at the time. The author's name was unfortunately not published.


Tent camp at Morn Hill, Winchester.
(Postcard probably printed sometime after mid 1917)

'Scenes such as no other town, with the exception of Southampton, has witnessed during the present war engaged Wintonians during the week-end, when what the Court Circular described as the 27th Division of the British Expeditionary Force left their canvas town on Morn-Hill and marched to Southampton to embark for an unknown destination. Few were sorry to leave the camp, but most regretted parting with Winchester, where all agreed they had been well looked after and catered for. Their stay on Morn-Hill was a period during which the British climate proved its versatility. Every sample of weather, with the exception of the heat of the dog days and the snow of mid-winter was displayed for the benefit of the brave men who had returned from the tropics and were therefore unaccustomed to these differences. Our readers will remember that they arrived in Winchester during the bitterest weather we have experienced since the autumn set in. Clad in the thin khaki drill which they wore in the tropics, the men shivered and turned blue with the cold as the biting north-east wind nipped them with its icy tooth. For the first days they suffered the rigour of this grip of real winter, for adequate stores had not arrived, and they found it impossible to keep warm. They awoke in the morning to find the country all round them white with frost, but this they did not mind, for exercise could make them warm, and there was an abundance of food.

In a few days, as if by a magician's wand, they were all clad in the warm khaki clothing served out for field service, and as time went on many of them were served out with goat-skin coats, while all had an abundance of woollies. It is not a little remarkable that appeals to Winchester and Hampshire people for troops who had no territorial connection with Hampshire met with a very ready response - comforts were given for all units, as well as to the Rifle Brigade and the K.R.R.'s, who are more our own. The reason for the response was the need which was prominent before everyone's eyes day after day. As one of the --shires remarked to the writer, "Hampshire always looks after the soldiers, and the people of the neighbourhood have done us well. We have had more from them than from our own county." After the spell of cold dry weather, with bright sunshine, there came a long succession of wet, and for nearly a month it rained every day and poured every night. The heavy and continual traffic to and from the camp turned the roads into a quagmire, and the lines of each camp were speedily churned into thick, clinging mud. That was not so bad as the rain, which leaked through the sodden tents and prevented the men from sleeping. Some of them never knew what it was, after the rain began, to wear a dry uniform or to sleep on a dry mattress beneath a dry blanket. There were no means for drying their things. Of sickness there was a good deal, mostly pneumonia and the effects of malarial fever, but considering that there were 30,000 encamped under canvas the death rate was low, and the bill of health remarkably good.

Huts on Morn Hill, Winchester.
(Postcard probably printed sometime after mid 1917)

The "hardening process," as an officer described it, which the men underwent was rigorous, but it made them as hard as nails and as fit as a prize-fighter scientifically trained. No one could look at these men without being filled with admiration, for they were the flower of the British Army. Their behaviour, with very few exceptions, was magnificent. They bore themselves like gentlemen. And that fact was brought to the surface more and more as one conversed with them. One could fill a volume with the stories one had been told of exploits abroad. For instance, the -- claimed to have a larger percentage of swimmers in their regiment than any of the others, and one listened to yarn after yarn in which was related how trophies were snatched by these Westerners from the grasp of other less accomplished units. When reminded that they ought not to complain about the wet weather they invariably smiled, and retorted that that was a different kind of wet to the rivers and seas of India and China. When the K.R.R.'s arrived at the camp one of them stopped short, and turned to his comrade remarked, "Why, George, this looks exactly like the Delhi Durbar!" And then he spun a yarn describing how the regiment was encamped in tents like these for the famous occasion when King George and Queen Mary went to receive the homage of the rulers of India. The Highlanders were among the most interesting of our recent visitors. It was not always that one could understand the broad Scotch brogue, but that lent a piquancy to the situation. The most amusing talk one had was with an Argyle and Sutherland Highlander, who described how he dressed himself in his kilts. "No woman," he said in his broad Scotch, "has so much to put on as we have," and the toilet he described was both fearful and wonderful. Apparently the Scotsman reaches the rock-bottom depths of despair when he loses the long pin with which he pins his kilt around him. It was also a revelation to discover that the tartan stockings which they wear are footless, and that they are merely drawn over their ordinary socks, the deception being aided by the spats they wear. The Irishmen were rich in flavour, and at times as difficult to understand as the Scotch. They had no stories to tell concerning their wearing apparel, but one of the Irish Fusiliers explained why it is that a French eagle is their badge. In one of the wars against the French they fought like savages and succeeded in wresting a French eagle from one of the enemy's standard bearers, and thus gained their distinction, just as the Glousters achieved the right to wear a badge on both the front and the back of their hats through fighting back to back in the Egyptian war. Much regimental lore could be learnt in conversation with these men, who had seen so much of the world.

Main road through Morn Hill camp, Winchester.
(Picture date unknown)

It was strange to hear on these heights around Winchester the wild sound of the pibroch echoing among the hills. The fuller-bodied music of a full regimental band was hardly in accord with the surroundings, for one only thinks of the stretch of country between the top of Magdalen-hill and Alresford as lonely, deserted country, echoing only occasionally to the toot-toot of the motor horn, and the sky-line never broken by the moving figures of human beings. Of late the click of the golf club against the ball has broken a little of the stillness which always seemed to brood over these rolling downs, with their short springy turf and their suggestion of distance, and one was apt to contrast their loneliness with the days when St. Giles's Fair called travellers from north, south, east, and west, and merchants, pedlars, pilgrims, mediaeval tramps, and all sorts and conditions of men tramped over this lonely country to the greatest temporary mart in England. Then these downs were busy, but with the passing of the Fair the silence of space settled down and brooded over them, and no one could have foretold that the spell would be broken. But the breakage was "made in Germany." Here, indeed, was the very fringe of the war. With its outbreak mobilisation camps had to be established, and Winchester was selected as being near to Southampton, the port of embarkation.

Main Road through where Morn Hill camp used to be.
The tent camp was up on the right. All that now remains
of the whole camp are the ruins of a water tower.
(Picture taken in 1999)

The War Office came, saw, and conquered, for no obstacle could be put in its way. Suddenly, these downs blossomed with tents as a mushroom field grows white with mushrooms in the space of a warm autumn night. And then came the tramp of thousands of feet, with music cleaving the air, and bugles splitting the silence like a double-edged sword. The bees had come to take possession of their hives, and the downs suddenly became alive with human beings. The Hessian Camp near Winchester at the end of the 18th century was but a parody of this wonderful organisation. And wonderful is the only word which can be applied to it. When one looks back over the past six weeks and thinks of all the equipment which has rolled from the station through the streets of Winchester and up the hill to the camp, one marvels at the organisation involved. Day and night traction engines, motor waggons, horses and carts have toiled to and fro bringing together those vast stores which form the equipment of an Army Division in the field. Guns rumbled up the hill and were emparked in mud almost to their axles, and there they underwent a metamorphosis which was puzzling to the average man. Why, one wondered, did Artillerymen, with pots of paint all colours of the rainbow, daub guns, waggons, water carts, baggage vans, etc., wheels and all, with patches of blue, yellow, green, red, brown, khaki, and other coloured paints until they rivalled Joseph's coat of many colours? The answer was speedily forthcoming; it was to render them unobservable in the field to aeroplanes. This is one of the tricks of war, and there are millions more. Then came the flying corps with their flying machines, and another kind of sound - the humming and buzzing of the aeroplane motor - broke the stillness of the Downs and sent conveys of birds scurrying across the horizon. The New Inn on the side of the road took on a new lease of prosperity, and the number of barrels consigned per week in peace time was multiplied by at least six in this season of war, even though the military authorities put it out of bounds. Then came another sound to break the disturbed peace of the Downs. A horde of carpenters invaded the area, and the loud tap-tap of nail driving, and the swish-swish of wood sawing accompanied the growth of wooden huts which sprang up on all sides. Wafted from every quarter on the Downs day by day was the pungent and appetising smell of roasting meat, of mysterious stews, and of the other operations of the open-air cook-houses. The field kitchens afforded an amazing study of the multum in parvo, and one readily paid a tribute to their inventor. But it is impossible to detail the equipment of this canvas city, as wonderful and as diverse as that of any town of long-standing. Here was human ingenuity at its best - the very brains of the Army, which provide the details with which successful battles are won, even though they may be as long drawn out as the futile battle for Calais.

Winchester from St. Giles' Hill. Morn Hill is about
a mile to the right of where the photographer stood.
(Postcard probably printed in 1918)

All this rapidly changed the character of Winchester. From a quiet, sleepy Cathedral city it suddenly jumped into the aspect of a second Aldershot, with khaki, khaki everywhere, and everyone catering for its wearers. Night after night the streets, and especially the High-street, resembled a colony of ants, where khaki jostled khaki and very little of anything else. Through the mud day and night motor transports, motor cars labelled "W.D." and "O.H.M.S.," flying motor-cycle despatch riders, and ambulance cars bearing the red cross swished and bespattered everyone with it. Clubs for soldiers sprang up on every hand, and restaurants of all descriptions blossomed forth like daffodils in spring. All the shops catered for the khaki men, and all who could displayed khaki goods. Among other efforts, during the past week members of the Church of England, including some of its dignitaries, clad in their vestments, have taken part in the torchlight procession which was used to attract soldiers to the mission for their benefit at the Cathedral. Here were some of the methods which the late "General" Booth made popular for reaching the masses, and one could not help thinking that it was one of the many signs and portents of the war which is going to change the face and character of the British nation. Winchester has changed wonderfully during the last three months, and it will never be the same again, especially if what we hear on every hand be true - that Winchester is to be made a large military centre after the war. We have readily adapted ourselves to the new condition of things, and the present is giving us an excellent training.

Winchester High Street.
(Postcard printed in the early 1900s)

The War Office has emulated the famous Duke of York. Having marched all these men and their equipment up the hill, it has marched them down again. The operation began on Saturday (19th December) and continued until Monday under conditions that might well have broken the hearts of a less sturdy race than the British soldier. From early on Saturday morning until mid-day on Monday unit after unit marched out of the camp, down the hill, through the historic High-street of Winchester, and along Southgate-street towards Southampton, where the transports were lying in readiness to convey them to some port from which they will by this time have marched to meet the enemy. Fifteen hundred years ago the Roman cohorts marched along this very High-street - the via of their own Venta Belgarum - and one could not help allowing one's imagination to traverse back over the flight of years and picture the Roman legions marching from the city to some place where they were needed - Old Sarum, or Calleva, or Portus Magnus, or, it might be, to Clausentum, near which the transports were riding at anchor to receive the fighting blood of to-day which rivals that of the Roman stalwarts. Not all the rain which had fallen with relentless persistence for days, and was falling pitilessly at the time when the troops marched through the city, could damp the spirit of these men. To the sound of stirring music and to the shrill piping of the pibroch, they swung through the mud and the slush, singing and laughing, waving their farewells as groups of citizens, macintoshed and under dripping umbrellas gave them diluted cheers, and declared in unmistakable fashion that they were not the least bit downhearted. Some of them were playing tin whistles and mouth-organs, and the "Marseillaise" was a favourite to march to. A tramp of over ten miles lay ahead of them, but their equanimity was undisturbed. No other town in England, excepting Southampton, has witnessed a part of the British Army - a complete Division - on its way to the front. The sight brought us into touch with some of the realities of war. Unit after unit, each one complete in itself, with all its bag and baggage marched by at intervals of about half an hour, during the whole of the time traffic in the streets was stopped. It was remarkable to see how the Artillerymen and the drivers manipulated their horses and waggons. The horses presented a pitiable sight, drenched and steaming, with mud up to their very haunches. But mud was everywhere, and it may safely be asserted that the 27th Division have taken with them a fair acreage of Hampshire soil to transfer it to France or whatever country they have disembarked at.

George Hotel, Winchester where General Snow stayed.
The hotel closed in 1939 and was knocked down in 1956.
(Picture date unknown)

The organisation of the whole procession - for it was nothing but an endless pageant until Monday noon - was a thing to compel admiration. The great pontoons on waggons drawn by teams of sight and eight horses were strange sights in the city. The Engineers were all men of Wessex, like the A.S.C. and A.O.C. and the R.A.M.C., and they were all Territorials, going out voluntarily to do their "bit" for King and country. The whole thing was directed by Gen. T.O'D. Snow, the stalwart commander of the Division, and his chief of staff, Col. Reed, who stood by the George Hotel corner and gave their directions as each unit went by. There were no accidents, and not a single hitch of any moment. By the time this article is read the calvacade will have been landed at its destination, and probably on its way to take its place in the field. With it have gone the Canadians - the P.P.C.L.I. - the first from the Dominions to take part in this war. All the men, English, Scotch, Irish, and Canadians, have left many friends behind them in the old city, where, perchance, they spent their last sojourn on English soil. By and bye the bread cast upon the waters will return in the casualty lists, and it may be that some of those will be the very men - nameless to him - with whom the writer conversed so pleasantly on the breezy heights of Morn-hill. Such is war, and such are its vicissitudes. But we know they will meet death and danger with that fortitude as strength which is the personal equipment of every British soldier, and whether they fall or come through unscathed they will each contribute their quota to the ultimate victory of right over might and for the freedom of the world from the snare which Prussian militaries set for it. The thoughts, the Christmas wishes, yes, and the prayer of Wintonians go on with the men of the 27th Division, as to any other brave soldiers in the field, on their entry from Winchester into the actual theatre of operations.'