“The men always say we move on a Sunday”

Sydney was on the move again.

Sunday 16 June 1918

And so, my dear diary, once more we make a move on a Sunday! The men always say we move on a Sunday, although I have not specially noticed it.

Got up at 6.45. Went to Holy Communion at ‘Gaspers’ entertainment barn at 7.30. Took church parade for Dillon. An old French peasant kicked up a row. My knowledge of French led me into the task of getting rid of him!

At 12 noon we knew nothing about moving. At 1.45 Dillon & I were playing double patience. At 2 pm we marched off for a camp between F-c-v-e & H-d-v-e. Arrived there at 4.30 pm. Men under ‘Arab’ bivouacs in a corn field at edge of trench system, ourselves, 4 of us in a tent near road. A rest & bed by 10 pm. EA [enemy aeroplanes] heard overhead but no shelling except of V-ns.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

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A bolt from the blue

Aeroplanes overhead were becoming common both in France and on the home front.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 4 June 1918

I am seated in a waggon for 40 hommes or 8 chevaux at Candas! How do I come to be here? Well, hear my story with patience, my dear diary!

I rose at 6.30 as usual, on parade etc at 7 as usual, company training as usual till 10 am, & then a bolt from the blue! In other words a note from Mark Tapley to the effect that I would report Marronville for a gas course on the 7th, taking at least 36 hours to get there!

I promptly made up mess accounts. Came to P[u?]chvillers by mess cart with Fox, my batman. Caught a train at 4.30 & have now been waiting nearly 2 hours for this train to start!

The train started and we moved on in fits & starts. How many miles we moved I do not know, as I slept by fits and starts. Just before midnight, however, I woke to the tune of Fritz aeroplanes. He dropped sundry bombs starting a fire not far off to N. West.

William Hallam
4th June 1918

Last night I heard an aeroplane going over. I got up and looked out of the window and saw it drop a star light.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and William Hallam of Swindon (D/EX1415/25)

The German prince who refused to demobilise the British Navy

Prince Louis of Battenberg, the father of Earl Mountbatten and grandfather of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, lived at Lynden Manor in Holyport, Bray. Despite coming from a princely German family, he had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. His son is the inspiration behind the name for the new Prince Louis.

29 Barton Road
2 June ‘18

My very dear old man,

Before I forget, I must tell you of a thing that has happened in the last few days.

At Duxford (do you know it?) a village a few miles off, I have seen it – there is a large aerodrome. Its machines are eternally flying over our garden, more than a dozen a day. It is a training school for USA aeronauts.

Yesterday the Hon. LL.D. was conferred on President Wilson by proxy
(didn’t he write a most flattering letter of acceptance? Surely I read such a one), and also upon L. of B. [Prince Louis of Battenberg] – now called Louis Mountbatten, Marquis of Milford Haven: – who was immediately afterwards to deliver the Rede Lecture. Subject, the British Navy 1814 to 1914. You may guess that drew me… Such a tall majestic man – but so simple and kindly looking. It wasn’t an able lecture (me judice) – but, all through, I was reflecting the fact that this was the clear head which refused to demobilise the British Navy after the manoeuvres, as the Admiralty purposed, and the Hun had counted on: so that the outbreak of war found every ship fully manned and prepared.

Ever yours,
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“Looking more or less like an Englishman, instead of a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather”

Sydney and Percy Spencer both took the opportunity to write to their sister.

May 28th [1918]
My Darling Florence & Mr I.

Now it is really a time of rest & once more I can sit at a table again looking more or less like an Englishman & feeling very much like one too, instead of looking like a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather. Your parcel of toffy & chocolate was very much enjoyed

May 29th
I am simply bursting to tell you of a frightful row between my platoon & the villagers who possessed the little orchard in which they live. Suffice it to say that, broken bottles, language, shovels, dogs, tent mallets, myself, 4 sergeants & the town mayor (an aged full colonel) were chief actors in the scene, to say nothing of a goat which eats my men’s soap and children who steal their rifle oil to put on boots & other little etceteras! Happily we decamped before anything more than threatened warfare had taken place.

The cause of the quarrel? I was ordered to make my tent bombproof which meant digging up the floor of the tent & heaping up round it. This raised the ire of Monsieur et Madame et les petits!…

Your always affectionate

Brer
Sydney

May 29, 1918
My dear WF

Wants as usual.

6 pots of Properts MAHOGANY polish & invoice, please.

1 bottle of fountain pen ink. Boots have some Watermans boxes if you cannot get Swan. Everyone borrows mine & then complain that it’s bad ink!

The polish is for the CO so I hope Thrussells will come up to scratch. He can’t get it from his wife. Thrussells can pack it no doubt. Rather elliptic, but you’ll understand.

Well dear, it’s a lovely day – the planes have been doing stunts over the line and all’s merry & bright. Our quarters are good shelter but no cover against fire so I wasn’t particularly happy last night when the Hun commenced shelling. We have also had a fairly consistent bombing stunt nightly – very pretty to watch but too near to be pleasant.

The other day – Sunday in fact – I went all over one of our tanks. Life inside one must be pretty cramped and unhappy [censored].

My quarters on Sunday were in the guest chamber of a ruined chateau. A shell had had an extraordinary career through the next room but except for windows my room was all right. We went there as our previous quarters were stiff with guns of all sizes firing into our back doors. When some 9 1/2s began to arrive we moved. The concussion of those beggars is terrific.

Yours ever
Percy

Letters from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/38-39); and Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/40)

“We had a sort of bet as to whether I should scream or not. I didn’t so I won!”

Sydney’s soldiers were not keeping up to the standard he wanted. To make matters worse, he had toothache.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 29 May 1918

Got up at 7.45 am. After breakfast on parade at 9 am. Inspected platoon. It was dirty.

At 9.30 to platoon & tried to get them ready for company inspection. The Gods were against me. Sergeant Leigh was Battalion Orderly Sergeant, & Corporal Wise was company orderly sergeant. Net result, inspection, despite my immortal efforts to get the men clean, a ‘fiasco’. Let down by one man with a dirty bayonet.

After lunch sat & waited for orders to come through about fires. There arrived at 3.30 & we all proceeded to write them out. I live in tents, mark you, & I have to hang up orders reference woodwork (being stoves) being inspected if orders about asbestos floorings etc [sic]!

After tea I took the bull by the horns, in other words I visited the American MO & he tugged out my bad tooth. He had two tries & got it out. We had a sort of bet as to whether I should scream or not. I didn’t so I won!

Percy Spencer
29 May 1918

A lovely day. Our planes very active over Bosch lines. We move today. Played bridge with Major P[arish] as partner until relieved. We won, altho’ I didn’t call but once.

Florence Vansittart Neale
29 May 1918

News not very reassuring – but line not broken.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“One slithered up & down the trenches & could keep nothing dry”

Sydney had his first experience of a patrol.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 24 May 1918
[written retrospectively on 28 May]

A very wet day after all the lovely weather. The trenches soon became muddy & one slithered up & down them & could keep nothing dry. But there are worse troubles than rain, & we have been very fortunate in the weather. Usual strafe in the morning & evening did not take place. No aeroplane work by either enemy or ourselves. During my patrol as seen below I mention dandelions. Effect of wiring made by squeak of leaves! Man seen = the head of a dandelion bud seen out of focus.

Started on on my patrol at 2 am, accompanied by Sergeant Ewing, my man Fox & two men from No 8 Platoon. I had mingled feelings at this my first experience of patrolling at first, a suppressed excitement, then a few minutes of unvoiced chuckling as I did my best ‘crawl’ as in the old days of studying nature. A listening patrol. Heard nothing, dandelion & a bush produced (!) sounds of wiring (!!), a man moving, bush & wind produced effect of men moving.

Percy Spencer
24 May 1918

Moved to camp of 8th E Surreys. Nasty quarters, surrounded with guns, & of course it rained. However we got under cover at last.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15) and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed”

Sydney Spencer had been unable to take his diary with him to the front line, so he wrote up his experiences on 28 May 1918. He was able to delight in the glories of nature even there, despite the horrors of war.

I propose filling in these pages, my dear Mr Diary, by giving you a broad idea of what happened in the line during these days from Whit Sunday [19 May] until Thursday 23, as I am not certain as to details from day to day.

The normal day’s work consisted of short ‘patches’ of sleep at any odd time, sometimes only twice during the 9 days tour 6 hours sleep in the 24 hours, on an average between 2 & 3 hours. Meals were at 4.30 after stand down. Lunch at 12.30 or 1. Tea at 4 pm & dinner (so its name went & for trench life well deserved it too) at 7. For 4 days from 7.45-8.45 we had to wear small box respirators for practice.

Nights were spent on trench duty, wiring, digging, & for me on one evening a calling party. Also patrols. I only took one, a listening post, although I was detailed for 4 of them. The first three were cancelled as the entire regiment did them instead. After three days in my part of the line I was shunted into immediate support just behind 8 & 5 Platoons, about 25 yards behind the front line. This meant that I became a sort of ‘fatigue dance of death’ in the evenings. I had, while in actual front line, a Lewis gun post, and a rifleman’s post. This new position of mine was not the most comfortable as master Fritz was very fond of playing attention to that quarter twice a day, but we got used to that. On our last day we had the biggest strafe, which included an aeroplane at a very low height.

The weather while we were up the line was glorious from the day we went up until we came out, without a cloud with the exception of one day which rained soft, rained on us & made the soil beastly.

Now something about the nature I was able to study during my tour of ‘Narrow streets’. We had times, occasionally we had moments when peace seemed to reign supreme. One day I was able to stand in the W- C- trenches for fully five minutes without hearing guns either near or distant, nor the clack of L. Guns or Machine guns, nor the hum of aeroplanes. It was wonderful that smooth quiet moment or two when the month of summer was allowed to hold full sway. It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed.

Now to talk of the life I saw in ‘Narrow Street’. First of all the butterflies. They were beautiful. Dear old Peyton used to laugh at me and say “Spencer has a lot of little boxes in his bivy filled with butterflies”, but that wasn’t true. I wrote to Florence one morning & just when I was in the middle of a list of butterflies which I had seen, master Boche started and gave us 3 /12 hours of the worst I have tasted, but I finished my letter all the same for that. Here is a list of butterflies.

1. Small white.
2. Green veined white.
3. Tortoiseshell.
4. Red admiral.
5. Peacock.
6. Small fritillary.
7. Large fritillary.
8. Small Heath.
9. Meadow brown.
10. Small blue.
11. Swallow Tail.
& I think but am not certain
12. The Painted Lady.

I did not see the large white nor orange tip, nor brimstone, which is passing strange, don’t you think, master diary? Of other insects, the handsomest was a glorious heavily built yellow gold & black bodied dragon fly. One morning, in the cool of the hour after stand down, I found one asleep & he went about contentedly on my [illegible] sleeve until the warm sun kissed him into life again. This seemed to highly amuse the men, especially when I shewed them his huge maw, which he opened when I blew on him gently: they also thought me very intrepid, as they thought all dragon flies stung! Frogs there were in abundance, & myriads of dusty coloured running spiders. Also many beautiful beetles. I saw one black & red fly busily hauling off the dead body of a spider! Had he killed it, I wondered? A turning of the tables. Also I found a beautiful emerald green ladybird, who when turned on its back opened its wing casts, prised itself onto its head, turned a somersault & landed on its feet in a tick! That is about all I have to relate.

For the rest, the usual round of wiring parties, water carrying, etc.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

“I’m getting sick of living on tiptoe”

German aeroplanes were bombing both in air raids and at the front.

Joan Daniels
May 21st Tuesday

We heard today that there were seven Gothas at least brought down in Sunday night’s raid which is splendid, let us hope that it will put them off coming a bit.

Percy Spencer
21 May 1918

Frightful row at 3.40 am by us, but Huns again failed to come up to scratch. I’m getting sick of living on tiptoe. A glorious day closing with a heavy storm. Bosch planes active bombing La Boie Hautvilliers.

Diaries of Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“Even here aeroplanes are more ubiquitous than motor cars and went droning thro the blue at a great height like beetles”

On an antiquarian trip to his home region in the Vale of White Horse, William Hallam took the time to pay his respects at a war shrine.

18th May 1918

Got up at 7. Went to Challow sta. at 20 past 9. Walked thro’ Goosey across the fields – then onto Charney. Here I looked in the church as a young woman was cleaning it and getting ready for a wedding she told me. Notice that queer carving in chapel. Then I copied down all the Inscriptions I could decipher. The I went to a cottage and enquired the way to Cherbury Camp but the old man said I meant Chawberry. He told me the nearest way but I mistook it and went a devil of a way round. However I enquired again and got there alright about 1 o’clock. I was surprised to find such a perfect camp still existing in the midst of agricultural land. I sat on the bank and ate my lunch of bread and butter and a hard boiled egg and revelled in the sun. The cuckoo had been on all day long. The first day I’ve heard him this spring. There was not a cloud in the sky and even here aeroplanes are more ubiquitous than motor cars and went droning thro the blue at a great height like beetles. I sat here and thought for an hour. I looked over the ploughed field in the encampment and found one flint chip.

I came back into Charney the way I should have come – much nearer- and went into the Pub and had a pint and a ½ of ale. This landlady Shepherd knew me by seeing me regularly at St. Paul’s as they lived at Swindon until 3 years ago when they took this Pub. Her husband a smith now working she told me at Cheltenham in aeroplane works and rides on a bike to & from every week end- 45 miles. I asked about this old house near the Church. She told me a lady had bought it 2 or 3 years ago and spent a lot of money on it – then before she had finished it got tired of it and sold it to a Col. Colmes for 1800£ and now he is spending as much as he gave for it in restoring it. Fortunately in antiquarian lines the chapel & all being put back as it should be. When I started back I sat on the Oak bridge and saw the wedding – not a khaki one – party came out – quite a village wedding – all walking.

It was a scalding hot day and as I sat on a heap of stones resting and having a smoke 2 Swindon men passed by and had a chat on their way to Longworth. Further along the road I turned off and went to Denchworth & looked over the Church & churchyard and here I saw the first war shrine. A frame with a crucifix and list of the names of all the young men gone from the village with a prayer for the passer by to offer up for them so took off my hat and said it. Before it on a ledge were 2 brass vases of fresh flowers. I got back to Challow St. at 6 o’clock and got up home here at ½ past 7. The Country is at its best now especially the Vale.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/25)

An air-ship passing over

Our new diarist Joan Daniels, aged 15, lived at 2 Southern Hill, Reading, where the family had moved from London to get away from the bombs. She was a pupil at the private Wilton House School.

Joan Daniels
1918
May 14th Tuesday

Had a postcard from [family friend] Mrs McKenzie saying that Cyril had been awarded the DSO. We were all ever so delighted as he has done so well altogether, going out as a 2nd Lieutenant & is now a Captain. All accounts of his deeds which earned him his medal on Thursday when she comes for the day.

William Hallam
14th May 1918

I heard a great noise of aeroplanes going over in the night but this morning I hear it was an air-ship passing over – following the Rly. so I wish I had got up and looked out of window as I had a good mind to but felt too lazy.

Diaries of Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1); and William Hallam (D/EX1415/25)

“I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding”

Poor Sydney Spencer felt discouraged.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 14 May 1918

Got up at 7 am. Took charge of company out beyond wood & railway for digging trench. Started work at 9 am. Went on till 3.30. CO not pleased! I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding. But still I shall win through alright you see, my dear diary.

When I got back from working party at 4 pm, to find that Major Bracey had been over here to see me. He is at V-rs and I wanted this chance of going over to see him after lunch & tea which were welded into one meal. I mucked about, acted OC to company for a time, while Rolfe & Peyton were out temporarily riding, then dinner & bed, with very strict instructions from Rolfe that there were no orders for me & that I was to go to bed & rest long in the morning. I took a book to bed with me to read. It is called The Courtship of Mollie somebody or other, and is by A E W Mason. The ordinary sort of stuff, but good reading for me at the moment.

Percy Spencer
14 May 1918

A very fine day. Bosch shelled a bit. Enemy plane got over a balloon here and caused both observers to parachute down. Plane flew low and was well shot at but got away. Sent a bottle of whiskey to the boys of the 14th & bought 3 bottles of Hock and Chandon for Davis’s party coming out tomorrow.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

A manly sermon and modern religion

Sydney attended to the practical needs of his men while thinking about God.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 12 May 1918

After a delicious night’s sleep in pyjamas on a semblance of a bed, I got up at 10 am! Wrote sundry letters. Made up my accounts. Went down & saw my platoon. They seemed very happy. Also to HQ Mess, settled wine account. After lunch got QM to change a cheque for 300 francs. Hence we have money again. Examined kits of platoon. Took them to a bath where they got change of clothes. Got their clothes and boots examined.

Tea & more letter writing. Heard from OB, Major Bracey, Field & Ruscoe. Got some money out of officers. Spent 47 francs on food for mess.

To evening service of YMCA. Christopherson, padre of Buffs, preached a manly sermon. Stayed to communion. About 60 men stopped. Had a talk with C afterwards. After dinner sat & talked ‘modern religion’ to Hervey & Rolfe.

Percy Spencer
12 May 1918

A wet day. But an eventful one because I have just heard my first shell since June last year. No connection, but the villagers are moving out in anticipation of Fritz’s attack, due originally on the 8th, next yesterday, & now fixed for the 14th.

Had a long chat with CO in the evening. CO told me forward HQ found my presence at Dept very useful. Major Woolley also wrote from England saying nice things about me. Another bad night owing to Bosch shelling & aircraft activity.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

Watching ships in camouflage

HMS Vindictive was deliberately sunk to block the port of Ostend.

9 May 1918

Eastchurch… Lay out on cliffs. Watched ships, camouflaged & others. Also “Archies” in the sky & aeroplanes. After tea to see [illegible] & trenches.

Blocked Ostend by the old “Vindictive”, most successful.

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

Too exciting to enjoy

Patriotic enthusiasm in Swindon was aroused by the public exhibition of a tank and a flying dispay.

4th May 1918

An ideal day. After dinner I chopped up fire wood for a week then shaved and washed and dressed and with wife and Mur & Marj. went down to the Public Offices. Great crowds there. Wife & I went into the Pub. Off. and each got a W.S.C., then down into the enclosure where the Tank was and had a tank stamp put on it and poked in our heads and looked round it. Not much room for the poor devils who worked them…

After tea I went to Bath Rd reading room, then hearing a lot of flying going on I went down the Town, and was glad I did, for an aviator was giving a most marvellous display of flying at the Town Hall. He seemed capable of doing anything with his machine. Looping the loop and flying down under the telephone wires and round the clock and coming up over the roof and round the corners enough to frighten one to death. Expected him to come a crash on the ground or into the walls every minute. It was too exciting to enjoy it. Men like this I should think too valuable to risk losing.

I heard 120,000£ has been invested this week in Swindon in the War Loan.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/25)

Peppered all along our line

Sydney Spencer was under fire and trying to catch some sleep, while brother Percy was behind the lines and Will’s wife was trying to get permission to visit her sister in Germany.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 4 May 1918

I started tour of duty at 10 pm [last] Saturday night. Finished at 4.30 this morning. Took on again at 5.30-7.30 so as to get a long morning’s sleep.

Was on Tour duty till 4.30 this morning. At 2.45 enemy sent over a few shells into village behind us. Rain set in at 2.15 am & continued to drizzle until 4 am. Had a half hour ‘kip’ till 4.30, then ‘stand to’ till 5.30 & I took tour duty till 7.30. Examined rifles & feet. Saw gun sections issued & [tried?], then sleep till 8 am. After breakfast more sleep till 10.

Brigadier came along at 10.30 just when I was rubbing my feet & getting my boots cleaned. He had a good deal to say, looked severe, but it struck me he had very kindly eyes. Got some more sleep in after lunch.

On duty 3.30-5.30. Many enemy aeroplanes came over. A glorious day with a little rain early in the day. At stand to the Neuglanders did a strafe & bombing raid, & we were peppered all along our line, particularly my platoon front. No casualties however. No 7 had one slight one.

Took a wiring party along New Broad & put up a tangle barrier on road & obstacle on right.

Percy Spencer
4 May 1918

Another hard day. Got some useful work done. Office in a chaotic state still. Col. Parrish’s band played at mess. Col. P constant anxiety about “Paddy” the Irish Terrier.

Will Spencer
4 May 1918

I was playing in the library after breakfast when the taller of the two Canadian ladies [staying at the same hotel] (their name, by the way, is Thompson) came in. … She left at 10.30 to meet a tall young Belgian soldier on the hotel terrace. She distributes Bible reading cards among the soldiers.

[It seems that the hotel was used partly for the accommodation of interned soldiers from foreign nations.]

By the morning post letters for Johanna from her Engeloch (enclosing form of application for her to travel into Germany for her to fill up), & from Agnes…

Before dinner J. wrote to Agnes asking for medical testimony that her mother was ill, & after dinner she filled up the above mentioned form of application.

[She eventually got permission to go in August.]

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)