“Swiss soldiers fired three times over the grave”

Severely wounded PoWs from both sides were given a more kindly environment in neutral Switzerland. Unfortunately, some of them did eventually succumb to their injuries. Will Spencer attended one dignified funeral, and observed the respectful treatment given by the Swiss army.

20 February 1917

In the afternoon an English soldier – or rather a Canadian soldier – who had died at the Victoria Sanatorium close by was buried in the Schlossholde cemetery a mile to the north east of the town. I did not attend the service in the sanatorium, but followed to the cemetery. A firing party of Swiss soldiers fired three times over the grave, after the coffin had been lowered & the service was ended. An elderly English officer of apparently high rank was present, & acknowledged the salute of the Swiss sergeant & his men after they had ceased firing.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

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Rattled nerves and sickly faces under heavy shelling

Percy Spencer had time for a long letter to sister Florence after some near escapes.

Feb 20, 1917
Dear WF

It’s a niggly drizzly day, but I haven’t seen much of it so far as I slept peacefully on till 9 am – and of course the whole office did the same. That’s the worst of being senior, no one moves till I move.

As soon as I came back to this part of the world I started cultivating a throat again, but apparently I’ve become hardened, for just as I began to have hopes of “home-sickness” I got better again.
This is evidently a “throat” area for half the world here has some throat trouble.

Garwood is due back from leave today. I expect he went to the Curtises and left them news of me – I’m afraid you’ll find it rather more shelly that you’d like. However we’re getting grand at dodging.
A short while ago our outfit was driving to a certain place, when I noticed a shrapnel burst ahead of us. I remarked to my brother Sergeant on the box of the lorry that that it appeared to be bursting at our destination. He disagreed and I therefore drove on. Just as I ordered the driver to stop at a road corner, the beggars burst a second shell almost overhead, but luckily beyond us, so I suddenly changed my [speed?] and drove on 50 yards. Before I’d got my men clear and off in small parties towards our ultimate destination, we’d had a dozen more shells over, and for a quarter of a mile of our progress, so very much on the lines of a game of musical chairs in which the gun report was the pause in the music and the ruined skeletons of houses the chairs. There’s a certain amount of sport in this shell dodging game, but on that occasion I could not get up any of the interest of my brother sergeant in the terrific bounds of red hot lumps of metal off the frozen surface of the road a few yards away.

However I think I’d always rather be in the open when there’s any heavy shelling on, unless your roof is absolutely safe. For instance, also a short time ago, when we had to endure the heaviest shelling in the worst cover that has so far been our misfortune, we all (including myself) awaited the climax with rattled nerves and sickly faces, but once I got into the open en route to my office I thoroughly enjoyed sliding across a frozen moat, scooting across a road into a ditch t’other side, and ducking along this as the shells came over until we reached home. Tyrrell went sprawling in the ditch but nevertheless was an easy first – a big burly fellow passed me like the wind on the final stretch – I couldn’t run for laughing at the humour of the situation – once the heavies got going, man is very much in the position of the rabbit when a ferret is dropped in his warren.

Last night we had your sausages for supper. Today, just now, in fact, I’ve had lunch – quite a swagger meal, so I’ll list it:

Roast beef
Boiled potatoes
Tinned beans
Suet pudding
Boiled pudding & treacle
Cheese

Come and join us! It’s bully beef tomorrow.

I’m gradually getting a little more time to myself and last night played a rubber of bridge in our mess – it’s a cosy little shanty, timbered roof & green canvas walls – once upon a time it was our office, until one afternoon in the midst of a hefty strafe the Huns dropped a 5.9 shell just behind it, so now we’re in a somewhat safer place, and next door to an almost safe place into which we all dodge if the weather gets too thick.

Believe me, this is a shell strewn part of the world, and just when I went up the line the other afternoon during a very heavy bombardment, we turned up first a hare, then a cock pheasant and then a brace of partridges that all the noise and thunder couldn’t disturb – only man is vile.

Did I ever thank you for the splendid socks you sent me, and for a thousand and one other things – I’m afraid not.

I believe I did tell you about our follies & their pantomime. There’s some excellent stuff in it, the best scene I think being one of the opposition trenches manned by their respective defenders. A system of reliefs has been inaugurated under which firing & trench guarding is done by turns and the scene opens with a row between the Britisher & the Hun, because the latter had during the night fired his rifle out of his turn and nearly hit someone. From that you go on to the idea of morning inspection of each other’s trenches with a good deal of friendly criticism and wind up with the arrival of tourists and souvenir hunters, the “ladies”, as I told you, being quite edible.

Well my dear girl I’m now going to do a little work by way of a change,

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/15-20)

Wounded soldiers enjoy themselves

It was a busy afternoon at Bisham Abbey.

19 February 1917
Went with Henry to Maidenhead while he had massage…
Meanwhile 15 wounded arrived before 3, till past 7. Quite enjoyed themselves. E Farrer & Polly & May came too. Very exhausting.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

What can we substitute for bread?

The Superintendent of the county Lunatic Asylum at Cholsey was unable to restrict bread consumption by patients as much as the Food Controller demanded.

(Letter)

The Berkshire Asylum, Wallingford [sic].
February 19th 1917.

Sir,

Your circular letter of the 13th instant was read to the Committee of Visitors at their meeting on Friday last. I was instructed to reply that in the matter of the patient’s dietary only the bread allowance exceeded that set down by the Food Controller, and considering the great demand for additional supply of bread made by the patients in certain wards during the past few weeks, the Committee did not think it would be desirable to further restrict the supply of bread in the meantime.

As to the staff the matter will be further considered at the next meeting when I hope a reduction will be arranged. The difficulty, however, presents itself as to what substitutes can be given without further hampering the sea transport.

It was suggested that a lead might be given by your board to Asylums generally which would support any action taken by Committees in respect of a reduction, as they understand will be done by the L.G.B. regarding institutions under their control.

I am, Your obedient Servant.

D/H10/A6/6/1/3

Remember the men who by air and sea and land, are enduring great hardships for our sakes

A Maidenhead church urged prayer for those serving abroad.

The Vicar’s Letter

Dear Friends and Parishioners,-

This will be a very brief letter. Lent will soon be here. Let us make good use of it! I propose to have the usual services, save only that I shall not have more than four or five Men’s Services, as so few men are left with us.…

Lastly, may I ask you all to make of this Lent a second time of National Mission, and above all to remember before God on Friday nights and Sunday evenings, and at other times, the men who by air and sea and land, are enduring great hardships for our sakes.

I remain,

Your faithful friend and Vicar

C.E.M. FRY

Maidenhead St Luke parish magazine, February 1917 (D/P181/28A/26)

“The Polish people have suffered terribly during the war, especially the Polish Jews”

A missionary speaker in Reading told his hearers about the war in Poland, which had been split between the Austrian, German and Russian empires for a century, and was right on the front line between Russia and the enemy, resulting in fierce fighting and a major impact on the civilian populace, including the large Jewish minority.

MEN’S SERVICE

The speaker at the St Stephen’s Men’s Service on Sunday, February 18th, will be the Rev. H. C. Carpenter, British Chaplain at Warsaw, and we hope there will be a really large congregation of men to hear him. He will speak on behalf of the London Jews’ Society, and he is sure to have much that is interesting to tell us, for Warsaw, as our readers know, is the ancient capital of Poland, and the tide of war in the East has passed right through and beyond the city, while the future of Poland is one of the most difficult problems to solve after the war is over. The Polish people have suffered terribly during the war, especially the Polish Jews.

Reading St. John parish magazine, February 1917 (D/P172/28A/24)

On food rations

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer found that food shortages at home were mirrored by those in Switzerland. His mother Anna, meanwhile, expressed her sympathies to the German family of missing soldier Max Ohler.

17 February 1917

Read in the paper that the hotels, etc, are to give no meat on two days of the week, & never more than one meat course at a meal. Further, land is to be put under cultivation to the extent required to meet the needs of the situation now in prospect….

A letter from Mother…. Mother tells me they are “on food rations” now, but the amount allowed is exactly what “they have of meat & bread, but not so much sugar”. Mr Sandalls, aged 85, saws wood, & says “if anybody wants a boy to saw wood & bring coal, he can do it”. Mother is very sorry for Max Ohler’s parents.

After tea, together to the Hauptpost, from whence I sent money home.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

Pray and pray again yet more earnestly for the triumph of right over wrong

Warfield men were grateful for their Christmas gifts. Those serving in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) were treated to plum puddings, while those in France got tobacco.

VICAR’S LETTER

MY DEAR FRIENDS AND PARISHIONERS,

I have received most grateful letters from nearly all our Warfield Soldiers and Sailors for the Christmas presents sent them by the parishioners, most of them reflecting great credit on the packers, as the cake appears to have arrived in a perfect condition, although no tins or boxes were used. I am giving you this issue a statement of accounts given to me by our treasurer, Miss Hardcastle. Only one parcel seems to have missed its destination and found its way back to me. They all seem to be looking forward to spending their next Christmas at home.

This makes me think of the national mission, and is result on the nation. What are its results on each of us personally? How far may each one of us be hindering its great accomplishment by lack of self consecration? How far is each one wilfully tying the hands of a loving God? Think of this, and pray and pray again yet more earnestly for the triumph of right over wrong, but let us all see to it that our hearts are right with God.

Yours affectionately in Christ,

WALTER THACKERAY

CHRISTMAS FUND FOR OUR SOLDIERS AND SAILORS.

At a public meeting on November 13th the following Committee was elected to make arrangements for the above: the Vicar, Messrs. H. Crocker, H. Lawrence, Mrs. Crailsham, Mrs. Dyer, Mrs. Thackeray and Miss Hardcastle (Treasurer). The total sum subscribed amounted to £25 3s. 7d., made up as follows:-

Balance from 1915 £3 2 0
Whist Drive 2 7 3
Dance 1 1 2
Subscriptions 17 4 8
Balance from Sir C. Brownlow’s
Testimonial 0 8 6

The total number of parcels sent was 107; Mesopotamia, Salonika, Egypt and India, 21; France, 42; Home Camps, 33; Navy, 11.

Contents of parcels for Mesopotamia etc: Socks and plum pudding and Warfield picture card.

For France and Navy: socks, cake, cocoa, chocolate, handkerchief, Warfield picture card and tobacco.

For Home camps: same as for France, except mittens instead of socks.

Total spent on parcels £19 5 5½
Postage 4 6 1½
Balance in hand 1 10 0
───────────
£25 3 7

Warfield section of Winkfield District Magazine, February 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/2)

In all respects excellent

Schoolchildren in Ascot put on a concert to raise money for gifts to send servicemen.

ENTERTAINMENT.

A miscellaneous programme of songs, drills and tableaux was given by the girls and infants of our Schools at the Parish Room on Friday, February 16th, under the direction of Miss Clark and Miss Durrant. The performance was in all respects excellent, and was most pleasing to the large audience present. At the conclusion a collection was taken for or “Sailors and Soldiers Parcel Fund,” which realised £1 16s., after the hire of the room was paid for.

Ascot section of Winkfield District Magazine, March 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/3)

All classes should help the allies to win the War

The vicar of St Mary’s in Reading urged parishioners to contribute to the war effort with their savings.

The Vicars Notes

Everybody of all classes, I hope, means to subscribe to the War loan, and so help the allies to win the War. I should like it to be generally known that the rooms have been secured at 6 Broad Street by the Reading War Savings’ Committee, and they will be open each day up till Feb. 16th from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Every effort will be made to explain the intricacies of the loan to those who wish to apply. A big public meeting will also be held to stimulate interest in the loan, and this will be followed by a house-to-house visitation.

Reading St Mary parish magazine, February 1917 (D/P98/28A/15)

The advantages of joining a War Savings Association

Newbury parents were encouraged to place their savings in government hands.

16th February 1917
On that afternoon, too, several parents came, by invitation, to hear of the advantages of joining a War Savings Association. An association has been formed for the school & so far is very successful.

Newbury St Nicolas CE (Girls) School log look(90/SCH/5/5, p. 218)

Switzerland is still neutral

British/German expat couple Will and Johanna Spencer found their Swiss hosts were keen to remain neutral.

16 February 1917
Found J[ohanna] waiting for me in the shop on leaving [probably a music shop where Will practiced his piano daily]. The young lady in the shop had expressed the opinion that the new government regulations in Switzerland were out of place in a neutral country. When Johanna spoke of Switzerland being so dependent on foreign countries for supplies, she replied “Die Schweiz is eben ein neutrals Land”.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

16 Feb 1917
War Savings Association started at Bisham. Edie secretary, Mr Gray treasurer.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Only those who have lived amongst the Boche can fully appreciate what it means to be at the mercy of a brutal bully”

A man educated at Reading School reveals the horrors of being a prisoner of the Germans.

THE UNSPEAKABLE HUN.
A True Story.

It was Thursday morning, February 16th of last year [1917], and intensely cold, the thermometer registering 10 degrees below Zero. At 9 a German soldier came to tell me that I was wanted at the camp hospital. I was there met by the British doctor, Capt. Frank Park, C.A.M.C., who told me that their ere sixteen British Prisoners had just newly arrived from the station seven Kilometres away. With him I went into ward 2, and there saw 16 specimens of humanity. That is all you could call them, 16 frozen, hollow cheeked wrecks, the remnants of hundreds and hundreds of once strong, healthy men, who had been taken prisoners and kept to work behind the lines. Their comrades were dead.

Now these men were captured in September, October and November, 1916, and kept to work close to the front, working in preparation of the big German retreat then planned to take place in February and March, 1917. Their work was demolishing houses, bridges, felling trees, making roads and digging trenches, those called the Hindenburg line. This line and others were built by prisoners of war. We praised German engineering skill and paid silent tribute to the endurance and work of German working parties, but the work of prisoners, Russians and Rumanians in thousands and tens of thousands, and of British. They worked under appalling conditions, brutal treatment, blows, kicks, death if they refused, with housing and quarters not fit for pigs and food not enough to keep even body and soul together. What did it matter if they died, there were plenty more where they came from? Germany numbered her prisoners by millions. Prisoners they were, not prisoners of war; slaves, yea, worse than slaves.

These details these poor wretches told us with tears in their eyes when they spoke of some dear friend and pal who died beside them at his work, died of exposure, starvation, or our own shell fire. They told us of the clothes they had to wear. There was no need to tell, we saw it ourselves when we undressed them. Here is the list, and think of the temperature and cold as you read it:

Thin service tunic and trousers, old cotton shirt, socks and boots, and old cap. That was all, no warm under clothing, no great coat. All these the Boche had stolen under the plea they needed to be fumigated. But they were never returned.

And what did the outside world know of this or care? It may have cared, it must have cared, but it knew nothing. Germany took great care of that. These men were reported in British Casualty lists as “missing,” and missing they will remain till the end of time. But they were not missing; they were once strong healthy men, prisoners of war. They were not allowed to write to their relatives, Germany did not want the world to know where they were, or of their existence.

Amongst the sixteen who reached Minden were men who had been prisoners four or five months. This I found out as a fact when I wrote home to their relatives. They told me of pals who died beside them and I reported them to the Record Office of their Regiments and my letter never got home. It was always a mystery to us that these sixteen and other little parties later ever got back into Germany. They attributed it to the fact that, being men of fine physique and health, they didn’t succumb as quickly as their comrades went to hospital suffering chiefly from dysentery, recovered a little strength, and the Germans, seeing it was no good sending them back to the line. Put them on a train and back they came into Germany.

This is just one isolated instance of many that might be quoted. What one must realise in relation to these crimes is that while primarily they may be said to be the work of the system and spirit inculcated throughout the German Army by “Prussian Militarism,” yet nevertheless they were perpetrated by the Boche generally, and that right down to the very last German soldier this devilish brutality is to be expected and looked for. This is not generally realized, and only those who have lived amongst the Boche can fully appreciate what it means to be at the mercy of a brutal bully. You have no possible redress, no chance of even making your conditions known to the outside world, and you have only your own British spirit to carry you through.

If you can realise what this means, perhaps then you can appreciate what the ex-prisoner feels when he tells you that never again can he hold out his hand in friendship to a German.

CAPT. REV. A. GILLES WILKEN.
(Late British Prisoner of War).

Reading School magazine December 1918 (SCH3/14/34)

Thankofferings from the Christmas dinner table

Winkfield people continued to support our allies in beleagured Belgium, and more women were called to help making clothes and bandages for the wounded.

THE BELGIAN RELIEF FUND.

The envelopes for thankofferings from the Christmas dinner table, which were distributed throughout the parish, have been opened and the contents counted by the Vicar and Churchwarden. Ninety-two envelopes were returned and the total amounted to £12 2s. 5d., which was forwarded to the National Committee for Relief in Belgium.

Mrs. Maynard would be glad to receive the names of any from the Church end of the parish who would be willing to work for the Red Cross, either at home, if materials were provided, or at a Working Party at the Vicarage once a week.

Winkfield section of Winkfield District Magazine, February 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/2)

Muffler making in Cranbourne

Cranbourne children were knitting for the troops.

Mrs Asher has most kindly provided wool for the Day School children who are working for her weekly working party. The children since November have made 119 mufflers, 10 pairs of socks, and 2 pairs of mittens.

Cranbourne section of Winkfield District Magazine, February 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/2)