“If it’s war, I shall have to go”: news of the war reaches Cookham

Almost all of the documents we are including in this project are contemporary ones, but we are making an exception for this vivid recollection of the day war was declared. Florence Spencer, elder sister of artist Stanley Spencer, writing in 1940 under the shadows of another world war, recalled the dreadful day and her conversation with another brother, Percy (also known as PJ), who will make a frequent appearance on these pages in the weeks, months and years to come.

On the afternoon of August 4th, my birthday, 1914, I was pacing the Causeway of Cookham Moor sometime during the day with my brother PJ, gravely discussing with him the family scene, when he suddenly said quietly, “Of course dear, if it’s war, I shall have to go.”

Then for the first time were brought home to me with a sickening shock the full implications of war which had hitherto seemed so remote, and peculiar to the splendidly arrayed professional battalions of Lady Butler’s inspiriting conceptions, whose main function it was nowadays to enliven our flower-shows and regattas with a jolly band.

“Not you!” I cried sharply.

A family of seven sons, he said sadly, could not stand aside, and it might be that if he went, the younger sons might not have to go.

I listened dumb-stricken, and thereafter stood by him according to his heart and conscience as in the months which followed I was called on again and again in his absence to stand by those younger ones, as one by one, letting their little invalid Mother down as gently as anyhow possible, they took up their Cross and went.

That night the hour of the expiry of the Ultimatum found us again pacing silently together up and down the empty village street we loved so dearly. There was a light in the post-office.

With leisured accents the church clock struck as usual, and directly PJ went across the road and called softly through the letter-box to the Postmaster within, “What is it, Mr Cooper?”

As mildly as possible after a brief pause fell the last accentuated stroke of that strange midnight – “War”, and we went thoughtfully away.

(Florence Spencer, ‘Cookham And All That’ memoir, 1940 (D/EX801/30)

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