It’s World War II and your narrator, Captain Charles Ryder of the British army, along with the rest of the troops, is leaving his camp of three months and moving to a new location. It’s just becoming spring.
Charles remarks that he has no pleasant memories of the place – that here "love [has] died between [him] and the army."
Ryder’s troops are somewhere in the United Kingdom and, though Charles speaks of trams coming in from Glasgow, we can’t be sure of exactly where they are. The camp stands at the outset of a city, around a farmhouse which would have been destroyed had the army not come to it.
Not too far from the camp is a lunatic asylum, which gets its fair share of jokes from the passing soldiers. Charles mentions his newest platoon commander, named Hooper, thinks the madmen should be gassed.
Charles explains that when they marched in during the Winter, the men were hopeful; rumor had it they were finally going to the Middle East. But, as time passed, it became clear that, once again, they weren’t going anywhere.
Charles couldn’t help them, he says, couldn’t cheer them up when couldn’t even help himself. He’s thirty-nine, and beginning to feel old. He goes to bed early, drinks a lot, and never wants to go out and party.
He reiterates that his last love died here – his love for the army. He simply woke one morning and realized that their relationship was like a stale marriage. He had no more affection or interest holding him to the army, only duty and regret at having bound himself to her "in a moment of folly."
That’s why, on this spring morning, as the troops ready to move away from this camp of three months, Charles doesn’t really give a hoot where they’re going. Not that they’re told anyway, since the army is all about tactical secrecy.
Ryder imagines what an archeologist might some day say upon finding their remains, stripped of all adornments, like badges, again for purposes of secrecy: this was a primitive society with no identifying markers, etc.
The sergeant-major points out to Captain Ryder a broken window which, like all other destruction in the camp, is attributed to the wind in the night.
Hooper, the new platoon commander, shows up. Charles explains that most of the troops don’t like Hooper, but that he himself holds a feeling of near-affection for the man, having to do with a very cute anecdote and a forced haircut.
Hooper "holds no illusions about the army." He has simply accepted it. He has no romantic notions, which Charles imagines has to do with a very unromantic childhood, devoid of all bedtime stories and heroes’ myths. He’s just a logical, ‘only the facts’ kind of guy. He sleeps soundly, Charles concludes, while Charles himself lies awake "fretting."
In Ryder’s mind, Hooper is the symbol of Young England. He uses Hooper to test any generalized statements about "youth" he hears in the news or cocktail chatter.
Anyway, as Hooper comes shuffling up, Ryder chastises him for being late and sends him to inspect the lines. After he’s gone, Charles’s superior, the commanding officer, arrives and gives Charles a hard time for the broken window and for a store of buried bric-a-brac, belonging to a soldier, which he finds in the ground.
Ryder marches along with Hooper and the men discuss how they don’t know where they’re going, but that it’s probably not "the real thing." (Meaning no fighting, just more traveling and camping and getting yelled at for broken windows.)
On the train, Charles sits in a private carriage with three other officers. Partway through the day they are summoned to the C.O.’s train, reprimanded for their attire, and chided for the state in which their camp was left. Charles pauses to wonder if the man really uttered such phrases as are repeated here, or if in his recollection he has made them up.
What follows is a lovely, satirical rendering of the way the army does things. The C.O. talks of moving "between location A and location B" with a series of halting, titled announcements. The gist is that Charles’s troops – also known as Company C – will be unloading and setting up a new camp at their new (undisclosed) destination.
During the night, Charles writes a useless and fictional report about the train being sprayed with mustard gas, in order to make the commanding officer happy.
By four in the morning the men have reached their new location, at the outset of a large estate with a big house and a few lakes, set up a perimeter, and readied the camp.
The next morning, after he wakes, Charles asks his second-in-command what the name of this place is. When he hears, he’s shocked. Charles walks outside and observes the scenery, a man-made landscape with which he is intimately familiar. A stream named the Bride leads to a farm a few miles away called Bridesprings, where Charles used to have tea. (Curious…) The nearby Avon river has been dammed to form three lakes, surrounded by woods and other picturesque nature stuff.
The house is there, Charles knows, but hidden by the woods. He wonders what is real, in this environment, and what is a mirage.
Hooper comes along and tells Charles of a Roman Catholic church on the estate where a very small (as in, two people) service is taking place. Charles knows about the church, and the great fountain next to it. As he tells Hooper, he has been here before, and he knows all about it.