“Indignant that the Boshe should dare to shell when I was going away to be ill”

Sydney had gone down with the dreaded influenza, and suffered through a horrendous journey to get to hospital.

Written in Base Hospital, Rouen

No one could be more surprised than I am, my dear diary! It is now Saturday afternoon [22 June] & I am lying in a clean green tented ward with pretty chintz curtains at the windows suffering with PVO, this being the common or garden fever of unknown origin.

Here is the history of my movements from when I left off on Wednesday night. I had a curious night. Guns behind us very noisy owing to ‘Chinese Bombardment’ being put up. At 8 breakfast was brought in, & I could not eat it. Took a morning parade but felt mighty seedy.

After lunch lay on my valise & from then on till 7.30 when the doctor came it was one long nightmare. My temperature went up in leaps & bounds. My back ached, I shivered, my head was splitting, I had a hacking cough, & felt extraordinarily weak if I tried to walk. Doctor packed me off. Here is detail how one gets to base-hospital.

1. Doctor sent for stretcher bearers.
2. I was carted off to Battalion HQ.
3. Red X Ambulance car whisked me off to Hedanville.
4. Another car took me to Div. clearing station.
5. Another car took me to 3rd (Brit) Officers CCS at a place called Sezincourt. Here I spent the night between sheets in a massive old chateau looking out over great parklands.
6. At 9 am off in another ambulance car & planked onto an ambulance train.
7. Then 15 long long hours while the train tried its hardest not to get to Rouen.
8. At last the train stopped & a voice from the open called out peremptorily “Ere Bill let’s ‘ave them 21 officers!”

It was raining then. Car brought me here & when I tumbled into these sheets at 12.15 this morning I was not unthankful. I have had my temperature taken umpteen times. It was up to 102.8 when taken at Hedanville but it had commenced abating by then. We were stuck at Hedanville by heavy shelling. I got impatient being of course light headed & felt indignant that the Boshe should dare to shell when I was going away to be ill. However at last after a decidedly near & unpleasing zzzzz bong! our car gathered its legs well under & scuttled, & the next shell rounded far behind by the time it came along.

It is getting on for tea time & I have only just got hold of my kit, & you. I am reading a stupid book called “An Adventuress”! To sleep at about 9 at night. My temperature about normal. 99.

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

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“Days & nights in water and mud is very trying”

An army chaplain reported on his experiences with men just back from the front lines for a short break.

19 October 1917

Mother received a letter from the Sub-Warden on the 17th inst. from which the following are extracts:

“We have just emerged from a very uncomfortable and strenuous time, & are resting in a little French village. The men are splendid, but it was heart-breaking to see them all getting out of the train which brought them straight from the front…

With considerable difficulty we managed to have thin blankets for them all to get into and fall asleep. Already food and rest have changed them wonderfully, & their poor feet are better. Days & nights in water and mud is very trying.

I shall never forget a Mass in a crowded dugout the day before they went in. Halfway through the service, 2 officers managed to slip into the doorway; there was no other spot. I remember them so well crouching in a very uncomfortable position, and shutting out all of what little light could get in. Only the 2 candles on the altar. They made their Communion. It was their Viaticum. GOD rest their souls!”

Annals of the Community of St John Baptist, Clewer (D/EX1675/1/14/5)

Fine clothes for wounded officers

Wargrave Surgical Dressings Emergency Society had been very productive, sending masses of bandages, clothing and bedding for the uses of the wounded. Note the class-related distinctions, with officers given better quality items.

Wargrave Surgical Dressings Emergency Society
Feb 22nd, 1917.

Fifteen Bales have left the Wargrave workrooms since January 5th, 1917, in answer to the requisitions of the Director General of Voluntary Organisations.

Six Bales have gone direct for the use of the troops at the Front containing:
564 pairs of Knitted Mittens
277 Knitted Mufflers
148 Knitted Helmets
226 pairs of Socks (heavy hand-knitted)
12 heavy long sleeved Cardigans
12 pair of knitted Gloves
5 dozen pieces of Soap.
And oddments of knitted Comforts.

These all went addressed to the A.M.F.O., Le Havre, France, for immediate distribution.

The other Nine Bales contained:

228 Pneumonia Jackets
308 treasure Bags
156 Long heavy operation Stockings
58 pairs of fine pyjamas for Officers
16 fine Flannel Shirts for Officers
156 Surgical Boots and Slippers
13 Pillows
24 Pillow Cases
36 Handkerchiefs
108 Knitted Washcloths
6 double-lined fine twill Flannel Dressing Gowns for Officers
8 fine flannel dressing jackets for Officers
6 pairs of soft grey flannel ward suits for Officers

Hospitals sent to:

C.O 11 General Hospital, B.E.F., France
Sister-in-Charge, 8 Ambulance Train, B.E.F., France
Military Orthopaedic Hospital, Duncane Road, Shepherd’s Bush
The Stewart Norfolk War Hospital for Officers, Thorpe, Norwich
The Matron 17 Park Lane, London (for Officers)
The Highland Casualty Clearing Station, B.E.F., France
Military Hospital, Park Hall Camp, Owestry (Urgent).

Wargrave parish magazine, March 1917 (D/P145/28A/31)

The wounded keep pouring down from the front

The latest news from the Revd W S Bowdon, an army chaplain, saw him based at a hospital well back from the front line.

Rev. W. S. Bowdon, C.F. – The most recent news from Mr. Bowdon includes the following:-

No. 1 General Hospital,
Etretat – Havre Base.

I have left the front and come to work at this base where nothing very exciting ever happens. At a base there is regular work every day, and at a time like the present when the wounded keep pouring down from the front the work is endless. Also to my mind the opportunities are greater and results more satisfactory.

Since my arrival here we have had about a trainload of wounded per week, i.e., some 400 men, half of whom are generally stretcher cases. Such a supply keeps everyone as hard at it as it is possible to be. While the ‘great push’ continues so, I suppose, will this state of things, but when winter begins we hope to be rather freer and to get more time to ourselves.

We have some 1000 beds here. Once, I believe, they had over 1200 cases in the hospital, but we have not had more than 600 cases at once since I arrived. There are four building for men and one for officers. We occupy nearly all the hotels and a good many private houses besides; but it is a small place and very compact, so not difficult to work.

Besides the hospital here I also have 600 men working at the docks at Fécamp to look after. So have to run over there periodically for services and Bible classes, and as it is ten miles away it is difficult to fit things in. Havre is 20 miles in the other direction.

With all best wishes to friends at Mortimer.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, December 1916 (D/P120/28A/14)

“Most all my friends have been killed in this ghastly war” – and the peace will be worse

A lady acquaintance of Ralph Glyn was deeply depressed by the losses of the war and the prospects for the future. Ralph was not to marry until some years after the war (1921), when he married a war widow, Sibell Long, nee Van den Bempde-Johnson, whose husband was killed in January 1917.

Hotel Brighton
218, rue du Rivoli – Paris

Your two notes were muchly enjoyed, dear old fellow, even if I have been so silent.

At the above address I have been with my offspring and her governess since the end of November. Why? I came over to join my family at The Riviera, got this far and decided my mood required work rather than idleness, so have been here ever since and shall remain here in all probability until about end of May before crossing over to England again – so, if you receive this before seeing the “[illegible] poplars” try to stop off here a few days and tell me the exciting news in detail about your contemplation of matrimony: who is she, etc. You don’t sound terribly elated over this idea; the reason being dislike of work-house! Better keep it a secret from [Mor?]; the idea would not flatter her conceit much. Are you in earnest, or has the war & heat gone to the canny Scotchman’s head?

Of news, doubtless I must leave lots for the days fly by and I manage to accomplish nothing or at least very little that I intend, which annoys me intensely – but really they all seem alike, remarkably monotonous – life is an existence one must “carry on” and it is a borne – you see I, too, am depressed – for like you, most all my friends have been killed in this ghastly war. And one’s friends gone, of what good is it all, even when peace does come – in fact, I think it will almost be worse – re-construction is always the hardest period.

Your brothers-in-law, they are safe I hope! Remember me to your [illegible – little?] sisters when you write. I like specially Mrs Meade. She has an unusual amount of charm. “Sister Maude” is playing golf daily at Monte Carlo, etc. It sounds so nice & peaceful I wish I could do it, but it only makes me more restless and gives me furiously to think.

I have been offered a job on a sanitary train (ambulance), French, to be an auxiliarer [sic]. It goes up to the front & brings the men back to the different bases. That means working on it one month & resting one month & so on. But it also means binding myself to remain here for a definite number of months – so I must give it thought on account of my daughter, who, by the way, goes to school each morning as well as having a governess, and just think, she will be seven next week, the 15th. How aged I must be, also to return to the topic of my work, I don’t think my nursing abilities are very strong – do you? I can see you now giving way to shrieks of merriment over my entering Charing X Hospital. How long ago that seems!

Have you read the First Hundred Thousand by Ian Hay? It is about IE’s (1) and very amusing as well as interesting. Cyprian Bridge sent it over to me with a couple of others – get it, if you can.

Now good-night, it’s nearly eleven & I have a strong inclination to snuggle down in the cushions & go to dreamland – for I must confess to scribbling this in bed.

Write me soon again.

Good-luck!

Ethel [Furtlingham?]
10 March 1916

PS You ask me for future plans. I confess to none, I live for the day – maybe one day, tomorrow will look less grey – in the meantime I still laugh, because I was so made – at my christening the fairly godmother gave me two invaluable possessions, a sense of humour and a “joie de vivre” – and even with most of my friends dead I still have those traits – tho’ they are a bit dim at times. Sorry to have written you such a cheerless letter – promise not to again! And now, really, “au revoir” until I get your next letter.

Letter to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C32/16)

“Rather too much” for a hero

A chance encounter at church with a soldier friend on leave gave Florence Vansittart Neale more news of life at the Front. The man awarded the VC was probably Sergeant Oliver Brooks from Midsomer Norton, Somerset. By coincidence, though, there is a Berkshire connection, because he moved to Windsor after the war, where he worked at the White Hart Hotel, and is buried there. (See the link for more about him.)

31 October 1915

Church early… Church again… Harry Paine there, back for 4 days. Not moving much in his part, only keeping the line while the French move on. Michael came – amusing experiences of fellow officers!…
King decorated VC man in ambulance train. Rather too much for him.

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