It had been the strangest August any of them could remember.
William Penny looked reflectively out of the window that morning at Egbury Castle Farm, which he had put his back into since marrying Harriet Mundy and coming here in the late 1860s. He was now seventy-five years old, and had passed most of the farming work on to his two surviving sons, Reginald and Ernest. But you could be sure he kept a pretty close eye on what they were up to, and there was little that escaped his gaze.
Egbury ‘Castle’ was so called after the prehistoric camp (Castrum) which had been discovered nearby, where Roman coins had been found. It pleased William to ponder that this land had been farmed, probably continuously, for thousands of years.
The month had begun unusually enough with the declaration of war, no one was quite sure why. Well, yes, someone had to stick up for the Belgians and the French weren’t much good at defending themselves against the Germans, so it was inevitable really. But since then, nothing. Well, almost nothing. It was always a quiet time of year when time seemed to stand still, the ‘Dog Days‘ from 16th July to 24th August. Some mammals hibernated, but personally he was all for aestivating.
The newspapers were still delivered, and he was well aware that the war was indeed up and running – the British Expeditionary Force had been defeated at Mons and had had to retreat. Not a glorious start. But so far the effect on the day to day life of the village was nil, it seemed to him.
Five of the village lads had set off to re-join their regiment but, until last week, they had been marching up to the top of a Winchester hill and down again to a Harrow plain, so far as he could make out. They had finally arrived at the front in time for the fighting at Le Cateau, so from now on it would begin to have real resonance for St Mary Bourne.
Mind you, they had got some City clerks in to help with the harvest, that was a significant result of the war – pasty-faced and puny to a man, it took about three of them to do what a Hampshire man could do in a trice, and they kept complaining they were tired and needed a rest. If Britain ended up having to rely on physical specimens like that, heaven help us all!
William Penny did not know it, but there was to be a similar atmosphere twenty five years later, in 1939, when this period was described as ‘the phoney war‘.
Mobilising a whole country, not just the armed services, for war is rather like asking a tanker to do a 180° turn – it takes a while to put into effect.
Although, as we shall see, St Mary Bourne was indeed insulated from some of the effects of the war, it would come to seem very real as time went on.