We now have to allow the military authorities to enter the story. It seems that parts of Salisbury Plain were being used for training before the end of the nineteenth century, but a major development took place in 1902, when the War Office acquired 40,000 acres of land. The amount of training increased after the start of World War I. The people of Imber were especially affected by the opening of an artillery school on Clapperton Down between Imber and Tilshead and by the requirement that a large contingent of troops and their batmen should be billeted at Imber Court. Because of the risk of coming under fire villagers were only permitted to travel to Warminster for their shopping three times a week.
After the war military training continued on Salisbury Plain. Developments in the techniques of warfare required much larger areas for testing weapons and providing training. The War Office began to purchase land around Imber itself and then to acquire properties within the village. Between 1928 and 1932 all the farmers of Imber were persuaded to sell their land. In return they were permitted to go on farming, but as tenants with a lease that had to be renewed annually. By 1932 the only properties not in the hands of the War Office were the Baptist chapel, the Bell Inn, and the church, vicarage, and school managed by the Church of England.
Military training on Salisbury Plain intensified again after World War II began. It caused enormous inconvenience to the people of Imber. Then as preparations began for the Allied landings on mainland Europe a division of the United States army moved into areas in the north west of Salisbury Plain in September 1943. The military authorities decided that the time had come to close Imber and remove its inhabitants. A meeting was arranged in the school hall on 1 November, when it was announced that everyone would have to leave by 17 December. The safety of the villagers could no longer be guaranteed and Imber would be convenient for training in methods of urban warfare. The system of compensation was outlined.
The general reaction was shock and confusion. Yet the villagers, realising that opposition would be futile, began to seek alternative accommodation and prepare to move their belongings.
Rex Sawyer in Little Imber on the Down has recorded the emotional responses of several villagers and the action they took to leave their homes and begin a new life elsewhere. Francis Carpenter, otherwise known as Tredoodle because of his fondness for impromptu singing, and his wife had difficulty finding accommodation, but eventually his brother helped them to find a cottage. According to their daughter Audrey Streeting the experience was very distressing for them, and her father never really settled, dying six years later.
Gladys and Fred Mitchell lost their jobs and were very anxious about the future. Gladys summarised her feelings by saying “It was a big upheaval for everyone, but we had to do the best we could. We had to find new jobs and a new home. There was no compensation. We got a few pounds for the vegetables in our garden, but that was all. It was awful. My youngest girl was so upset she refused to go to her new school. People even left their belongings in their cupboards because they were so sure they were coming back. I know it sounds silly now to think that we left so willingly, but then we thought we might be helping with the War.”
Gladys Mitchell’s father, Albert Nash, had been the village blacksmith for 44 years. A few days after the meeting in the school hall his wife Martha went to look for him. She found him in the forge, slumped over the anvil and “crying like a child”. He became ill and died a few weeks later. On the death certificate his doctor wrote that Albert died from a broken heart.
The people of Imber believed that a pledge had been given that they would be allowed to return to their homes at the end of the war or even after the American troops had left to join the Allied landings in France. If so, it is not clear what form the pledge took. There may well have been spoken assurances, but it appears that no written promise was made. In the epilogue to his book Rex Sawyer has reproduced one of the letters sent to each cottage tenant in November 1943 with a formal notice to quit. At one point the letter states that if tenants should have to put their furniture into storage “the Department will refund the cost of removal to store and reasonable storage charges until you can find another home, or until the Imber area is again open for occupation, whichever is the earlier”. The authorities were willing to give the impression that Imber might again become “open for occupation”, but this letter does not amount to a promise that it would happen.