This particular article describing life at Isnage Farm at the start of the First World War
was written by Audrey Field and published some years ago.
In the long, hot Summer of 1911, when I was fifteen months old, my parents brought me from South Africa, my birthplace, to England, my home. The next year we installed ourselves in a place after my father's heart - a plain, well-proportioned farmhouse two miles out of Bentley in the gentle hills of north Hampshire.
The front portion was Queen Anne; the kitchen quarters, much older. It was very like several homes, still standing, of his farmer forbears two hundred years before. He did not rent the farm itself, but we kept the home paddock and some outbuildings and had room for a pig, chickens, a cob and a jersey cow. Apart from a few pylons striding over a neighbouring hill, and the ploughing up and fencing of every available inch of precious earth, little has changed there to this day.

Here my brother was born. Here, less than a year later, my baby cousin Tim from South Africa died of diphtheria. The cause of death was not known till my elder sister Silvia, then four years old, died also - on the dining-room table while the doctor was performing a tracheotomy. This was a terrible commonplace of those days before diphtheria immunisation.

In due time my mother became, to all outward appearances, the woman she had been before it happened; and another baby girl arrived the following year (four days after the outbreak of war) to fill, as far as such gaps ever can be filled, the empty place.

Bentley I begin to remember - especially the vivid highlights of a child’s-eye-view, which does not extend more than about three feet from the ground: periwinkles alongside the long, steep lawn (which turned out, when seen again in later life, to be neither steep nor long); little Quarenden apples, red all through, which hung so low above the tall orchard grass that a four-year-old could reach up and pick them; pale, tall cowslips in neighbouring valleys; solitaire marbles in old Mrs. Lilly white's drawing-room, as bright as crown jewels.

Other memorable things I could only see from the vantage point of obliging grown-up arms: my first bird's nest - I think it was a thrush in the apple espaliers - which was so wonderful that wild birds' eggs have been magic and delight to me ever since; the dapple-grey hind-quarters of Punch the cob, seen from the rallicart in which we bowled into Farnham to do the shopping; the distant hawk's-eye-view of that red and white bed spread on to which my father, from a dizzy height, hurled my brother and myself when it was time for bed.

That was when he was home on leave from Gateshead, (We went to the station to see him off; I cried, but the cows in a way side meadow looked so odd, distorted by my tears, that my attention wandered from the cause for grief.) For it did not take my father long to realise that this war was going to last a long time and take a lot of winning; and he told my mother that a man with a wife and children to fight for had a special obligation to do his share. This he did, with a sober, middle-aged comprehension of all that was involved; he was then forty-one and said, “These young men don't know what war means.” But, as he saw it, nations, no less than men, must stand by their pledged word as far as in them lay, for if they, ever stopped trying, the world would fall apart. So, for him, the war was a just war. And England, that had not known invasion for eight and a half centuries, must not suffer it now.

I think that there must have been many men and women like my parents in the England of 1914, although one will not find them in the sort of plays and films where everyone is distributing white feathers or going with songs to the battle or driving the proletariat to slaughter from a safe place behind the lines. They could not see the future then, any more than we can now; and if they had been able to, it would probably have made no difference, for there are no short cuts in history, no quick and easy way to the stars. The most that they could do was the most that any man can do-their duty as they saw it, regardless of the cost to themselves.

In April, 1915, my father found himself in France, a subaltern with the Ninth Durhams, where he had arrived via the Inns of Court O.T.C., having been dissuaded from just calling at the nearest recruiting office by his friend ‘Plum' Warner, who thought that ‘war veterans’ (of whom my father was one, having campaigned in South Africa) had an obligation to lead. My father had seldom met any Durham men and I doubt whether he had ever been North before the journey to Gateshead, unless perhaps on a cricketing tour. However, if he had to go to the wars at all, he was well content to be with the Gateshead Rifles, whom he described to my mother as ‘little men, astonishingly foul - mouthed and astonishingly brave.’ He was with them at Second Ypres, so he knew what he was talking about.

For three months he wrote regularly to his small daughter as well as to his wife; the last letter he wrote to me is dated 15th July and says that he is coming home on leave soon. I do not know whether it reached us before or after that day when my mother went to the door to meet an unexpected visitor, her sister-in-law. From the nursery I heard her voice, sharp with apprehension, “Is it Oliver?” and then the moaning. My heart heard the unspoken answer; but I put the knowledge away from me and, as that seemed to be the way they wanted it, let them tell me in due course.

I have a photo of my father in uniform: it looked old then, but now, as the years lay their weight upon my own shoulders, it looks touchingly young. I also have his letters still, along with some little French china horses with their legs and ears broken off; there were some Belgian lace handkerchiefs as well, but those got lost, of course. My mother took care that his letters to her - and quite a fat packet of hers to him, which came back with his personal effects- were destroyed before her own death. A true Victorian, she would as soon have undressed in public as have exposed the intimacies of her love for him to a third party; and to divulge his secrets would have been worse - a breach of faith.

All that remains to suggest how his death disrupted the fabric of her own life is a significant omission. Her household accounts keep on doggedly all through the sad year of 1913 - rent £45, rates £4.18.7., Silvia's funeral expenses £3.2.6., her gravestone (a little marble cross) £4. 16. 0. - a human document, by turns humdrum and tragic, not only of one little girl who did not grow up, but, of a whole world which vanished forever only a year later. But in July 1915 the accounts stop, and are not resumed till the spring of the following year.

Many years later, I went to the communal cemetery at Chapelle d’Armentières to see my father’s grave. All around is the funereal pomp of French tombstones, the pallid angels, the black iron spikes; then the eye is drawn to the reticent cluster of British war headstones huddled together in one corner like guests that have come to the wrong house on the wrong day.

My mother's brief, happy, tragic married life was over; the long years of her widow - hood began. Nine years earlier she had not even met my father. Now, with three children under six years old to bring up, she could not spare time to nurse her grief. The next year, with our rather lugubrious nanny and the family cat, we set out for our new home.

Good-bye, Isnage farmhouse. I can hardly believe that you sheltered us for such a short time, spanning as it did so much of life and death. I have seen you since, now and then, sometimes desolate and neglected, sometimes stockbroker-rich, but preserving through it all your sturdy simplicity, your clean and comely lines.

The shoulder of the next hill shows pale here and there through the young barley, as it did through grass when the sheep grazed there in my childhood. And ever since then, walking on the chalk lands anywhere in England is like coming home.