When we consider how people have interacted with the countryside through the centuries, we often think about where they lived, how they used the land for farming, hunting, foraging or fishing, and countryside pursuits like walking, climbing, and sailing.
Cannock Chase has another string to its bow – it’s been used through the last century or so by the military. We’ve provided a lot of info about the Brindley Heath Military Hospital over on the Brindley Village History page, but this was just one element in the wider context of the military’s relationship with Cannock Chase.
Although there was some military use of the area in the nineteenth century, it was when WWI broke out in 1914 that large-scale military habitation of Cannock Chase began, as two army training camps were built to train troops for warfare on the Western Front. Both the Brocton camp and the Rugeley camp at Penkridge Bank contained dozens of huts and other buildings where up to 40,000 soldiers from all over the UK lived and trained at one time. The camps included shops, places of worship and leisure areas as well as training and living quarters. Prisoners of War were also sent to the camps to do manual work such as road building and looking after horses.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB) was a band of New Zealand soldiers who fought under the British Empire in WWI. By 1917 they’d seen heavy fighting all over Europe and North Africa, and were deployed to the Brocton camp to assist in training recruits. In 2007, an archaeological survey revealed a 35 square metre model of the Belgian village of Messines, which had been captured by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade before they arrived in England. It is thought it was built by the NZRB to demonstrate the tactics used to win the battle as part of training. The NZRB also had a mascot – a Harlequin Great Dane named Freda. When she died in 1918, she was honoured with a headstone on Cannock Chase.
After the war, the training camps were no longer used, and the landowner, Lord Lichfield, began to sell off the huts. Some were kept locally, even being used as village halls at Brocton and Gayton. When the latter was replaced in 2007, the hut was moved to Marquis Drive Visitor Centre – itself the site of the RAF Hednesford base, which was opened in 1939. At first, the base was used to train RAF mechanics, until 1950, when it became a ‘School of Recruit Training’, where many people trained as part of their National Service.
Today, there aren’t many overt signs of military use of Cannock Chase. The Army Cadets have a training centre on the site of the old Rugeley camp and the German and Commonwealth cemeteries serve as a reminder of lives lost. Occasionally you can hear a chinook helicopter rumbling in the skies over the heath – perhaps dropping trainees off for an exercise. But the landscape of Cannock Chase is scarred by crumbled buildings, training trenches, and rifle ranges. Many thousands of men and women have lived on this land, contributing to greater war efforts, or suffering for it.
We’ve already seen some fantastic poems coming into our ‘In The Sticks’ project. Unsurprisingly, some of them evoke the military history of Cannock Chase. These two poems from Gordon Yapp and Michael W. Thomas contrast the hospital at Brindley Village with the natural surroundings of Cannock Chase.
Brindley Village Army Hospital, Cannock Chase
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est
Two young brothers were brought here to recuperate
after fighting in the trenches on Flanders Fields.
Enemy unleashed mustard gas in the summer of 1917;
poison that attacks the skin and blinds some.
Used to pollute the battlefield, harass and disable men,
causing them to need medical treatment and convalesce.
They enjoyed Cannock Chase because it was so much
like their home on the Clee. Fresh air aided recovery
with heather, bracken, rabbits, hares, and wild flowers.
And a big wide sky where skylarks flew ever higher.
A Brindley Soul
(Brindley Heath Military Hospital, 1916-1924;
West Cannock Colliery Village, 1924-1953)
Last night, closing my window,
I saw something white ride the first of the darkness
up from the lights at the garden gate.
Its path was too true for a top-out butterfly,
though it flitted and zagged a second or so
as if it knew it was being watched
and wanted to look a natural part
of the moment after the sun.
Then it was gone through the black-turning air
where the world of the house drops away.
Perhaps it was the shadow of a Brindley soul
from the vanished hospital across the heath,
which shook off its bones a week before the guns gave up
and, enchanted by all the high-collar chat
of a land at last fit for heroes,
set off to discover if that would be true
or just another flick in the legerdemain of empire.
I picture it roaming the years
through the ginnels of the Chase,
as hospital gave way to colliers’ keep,
as the Tackeroo mine in turn ceased fire
and the sealed land gave itself back
to its beginnings. Twitching and planing
as the hesitant kiss of a stonechat
threaded grass to grass and the fallow deer
paused irresolute where one sprouting lane
broke on another.
Coming after all upon my siltstone garden,
my house-end’s letterbox brick. Deciding that this,
then, must be the paradise the sepia cigars had promised —
and wheeling off in bewilderment
back to the cowberry halts of the Chase,
to the laurel-seized playground
where miners’ children once played ‘Queenie eye’
and thanked the King and the constable
for a world as pink as their faces.
Michael W. Thomas