‘May 8 1916. Peeling Taters,’ wrote Bandsman Erskine Williams of 11th Division, British Expeditionary Force, on his postcard home from Brocton Camp.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
‘This takes place before breakfast. I generally do some. Observe cascade of peelings -‘ and there he is in a funny little self-penned sketch, producing dutiful curls of potato rind. ‘Am well in health bodily,’ he goes on, ‘if not mentally … weather still very cold & wet.’
Bandsman Williams was one of half a million fledgling soldiers of the First World War who endured the hardships, boredoms and barracks humour of Brocton Camp as they trained for active service on the Western Front. Up to 40,000 at a time, mostly Britons or new Zealanders, were crudely housed and stodgily fed in the vast camp on Cannock Chase, a few miles north of Birmingham, as they learned the arts of marching, musketry, signalling and scouting, gas warfare and the use of the bayonet. Erskine Williams and his delightful little cartoons survived the war, but tens of thousands of those who passed through Brocton did not.
From the well-signposted grave of Freda, canine mascot of the New Zealand Rifles, we walked south along sandy paths over the broad heath of the Chase, a patchwork of heather, moor grass, bilberry, cowberry and crowberry with dark green leathery leaves. Sunk in the ground as hummocks and ridges were the remnants of Brocton Camp’s enormous infrastructure – trenches and rifle ranges, huts and stores and the little railway that everyone knew as ‘Tackeroo’.
Young roe bucks with prick-sharp antlers went bounding away with a flash of their white rumps as we approached the Katyn Memorial. The monument commemorates the 25,000 Polish soldiers, policemen and ‘intelligentsia’ murdered by the Russian secret police in 1940 on Stalin’s orders, many of them unearthed three years later in mass graves in Katyn Forest. Further south we found two peaceful, silent war cemeteries, one for Allied servicemen, the other for Germans who died in Britain during the two World Wars, neatly laid rank upon rank and side by side.
These were powerful places to stand and surmise, with sunlight slanting across the graves and blackbirds fluttering in the cemetery hedges. Walking back north up the hidden cleft of Sherbrook Valley, with the stream chuckling quietly under its bridges and slopes of birch and pine closing off the valley from the outside world, the mud, blood and slaughter that waited for the young trainees of Brocton Camps seemed utterly inconceivable.
Start: Coppice Hill car park, near Brocton, Staffs, ST17 0SS approx. (OS ref SJ 979191)
Getting there: From A34 (Stafford-Cannock), minor road to Brocton; right at village green, left uphill past Quarry car park entrance; in another 400m, left along lane (‘Coppice Hill’) to car park at end.
Walk (6 miles, easy, OS Explorer 244): Back along lane; in 50m pass ‘Heart of England Way’/HEW fingerpost on left; in 30m, left past parking space and on (‘Freda’s Grave’/FG) along grass path. At T-junction, right (FG); in 150m, pass FG on right (979189). At road, left. In 600m, at ‘Glacial Boulder’ parking space on right (980182), left past boulder and trig pillar; right along broad stony HEW. In 200m fork right; in 250m, right at path crossing (982177, ‘Two Saints Way’/2SW). Just before road, left (980176, 2SW, HEW) on pebbly path, straight ahead for ⅔ mile to road at Springslade Lodge tearoom (979165).
Left along tarmac lane (‘Katyn Memorial’) to memorial (980165). Return towards road; just before, left past posts along rising track for ⅔ mile, passing through car park (983159) and on along clear track to tarmac lane (985156). Right to Commonwealth War Cemetery (983155); return and pass German War Cemetery (986157). Follow roadway, then stony track (yellow arrows/YAs) ignoring side tracks through gates, for ½ mile to reach HEW (990166). Dogleg left/right across it and on (white arrows/WA) north up Sherbrook Valley. In ¾ mile, cross track to Pepper Slade (988178) and keep on (WA, ‘Long Route’). In ⅔ mile pass bridge with 2 pipes on right (985186). Pass WA, then YA on left; in another 50m, opposite WA, bear left – not sharp left, but following rising track (unwaymarked) leading back to car park.
NB Directions: download excellent directions for extended version of this walk at walkingbritain.co.uk
Lunch: Picnic, or Springslade Lodge tearoom (01785-715091)
Accommodation: Moat House Hotel, Acton Trussell, (01785-712217; moathouse.co.uk)
Brocton Camp Website: staffspasttrack.org.uk/exhibit/chasecamps
‘Bullets and Bandsmen’ : biography of Erskine Williams by his daughter Daphne Jones, illustrated with EW’s sketches (Owl Press)
National Trust WW1 commemorative Silent Walks: nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355842842744/