‘A “fine big man” in his officer’s uniform’

Percy Spencer’s visit home on leave impressed his parents.

24 March 1918

A letter for me from Mother, dated March 18th. Father had been spending the weekend with the Shackels & taking the organ at Dropmore. Percy had been home. Looked a “fine big man” in his officer’s uniform. It was a pity, Mother adds, that the weather was too cold for her to go out with him. Stanley had received the letter which I wrote to him on Jan. 8th.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)


“The doctor called it ‘Influenza’, but I called it things in much less mild language!”

Training in Yorkshire, Sydney Spencer contracted influenza, the scourge which would end up killing more people than the war. He gives a graphic description.

Warmsworth Hall
Sunday March 3rd 1918
My Dearest Sister

Do you imagine for a single moment what happened last Tuesday? I fell suddenly & grieviously sick! What of? I know not. The doctor called it ‘Influenza’, but I called it things in much less mild language! I had a fearful headache which nearly blinded me & a swollen throat which resulted when I ate in my having a fearfully exciting & incessant sort of steeplechase going on in my throat, ie the food ran along my tongue, paused in mute horror, took breath, gathered itself up carefully like a cat does before jumping, took a flying leap at the small breach left where my throat once was, landed gasping on the brink & then I did the rest by a spasmodic system of gulps. And that’s the only amusement I got out of it! Well, my sickness left me yesterday as suddenly as it came!

The joke of the matter is that a man in this house was discovered to be the proud possessor of a throat which for days past had been dip (no I dare not spell it!) – let us just call it dipth—ia! Furthermore since the aforesaid man was batman to Capt. Fitch who sleeps opposite me, well by the time Thursday came, when I was feeling much less alive than dead, I was having a fairly cheerful outlook on life.

I gargled with ‘lysol’ & that killed whatever germs had attacked my throat & I am as well as possible again.

What do you think of that for a bloodcurdling tale?

Dear old Rowell, commonly known as ‘Pongo’, is now writing his one letter a week to “his Muzzie” as he puts it. He is a sailor by profession, frank & open, but a very blasphemous young man (not really but he bluffs it). He can scarcely spell his own name but is a gentleman by birth & education. He has so far asked me how to spell Warmsworth, the date of the day, & ‘week’, in one minute I shall have to give him my undivided attention, bless him. (Yes, Pongo, UPSET does spell upset, & been spells been & not bean!)

All love to you both, & my humble respects to the kings among feline races.

Your affectionate Brer

Letter from Sydney Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/7)

“Orders have a way of descending from the blue and we may get ours at any moment”

Percy Spencer anticipated his return to the Front would come at any minute. The battle of Bourlon Wood had occurred at the end of 1917. Captain Walter Stone won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his heroics.

21st (Res) Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Feb 24. 1918

My dear WF

It seems ages since I wrote to or heard from you. So I’ve filled my pipe (my nicest & foulest one) with the fragrant Mr Fryers and sat myself down to write you a line.

My principal news is that I’m still here with no news of going. It occurs to me that the cadet course having been lengthened there should be a gap in home recruits which we may stay at home to fill for a few weeks. On the other hand orders have a way of descending from the blue and we may get ours at any moment, and incidentally a few days leave.

Did you read of the 47th at Bourlon Wood and the gallant fight put up by Capt. Stone & Lieut. Burgeery? The man next door to me was Capt. Stone’s CSM. I think he almost wishes he was with him, altho’ he would now be dead.

Well, I suppose we shall soon have another chance of doing real things, and none of us will be really sorry. Life here is frightfully destructive and only endurable by fighting for reforms. So far as I can see the main return a grateful country has obtained from me to date is the issue of overalls for mess orderlies.

We’re having pretty mixed weather. Thursday was glorious and I thoroughly enjoyed our route march – once away from the camp, the country is delicious.

I’ve had a letter from the red haired Australian (No. 6) and the cox; what’s happened to the rest, I don’t know.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/14-16)

The pinch will come after the war

The Spencer paterfamilias in Cookham was optimistic, while Florence Vansittart Neale despaired at the situation in Russia.

Will Spencer
23 February 1918

By this morning’s post we received a cheerful letter from Father… Sydney has taken his BA at Oxford. Has received splendid reports from his commanding officers. Was just getting into train at Paddington to come down to Cookham on a Saturday afternoon when he saw Percy on the next platform, whom he hadn’t seen for 2 years. He quickly fetched his luggage out, & stayed the night with Percy, who had just come up from Swindon for a few days, on business.

I was glad to learn from Father that they suffer no privation. The pinch will come after the war, he says, but what can be is being done to provide against that.

Florence Vansittart Neale
23 February 1918

Russians utter degradation, under the heel of Germany.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Some “Johnny Turk” thought it was time I had one”

A Reading man who had been wounded was back in the fray, fighting in the Middle East.

Feb 21st

You will be pleased to hear that I have quite recovered from my wound and that I am now back up the line once again amongst the boys, feeling absolutely in the best of health. We were in some very hot fighting about nine miles north of Jerusalem, on the 21st November, when some “Johnny Turk” thought it was time I had one. I was wounded in the left thigh and right hip, and was very fortunate to have no bones broken. I spent Xmas in hospital at Alexandria having a top-hole time, and went to a Convalescent Home just outside Alexandria the first day of this year….

We are some miles behind our new line doing some very hard training, but you can guess we do not mind that after the hard and rough times we had in the great advance…

W. Palmer (OS)

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, June 1918 (D/N11/12/1/14)

A German recruit

Johanna Spencer’s German nephew had been called up, and would be fighting on the opposite side to her husband’s British brothers. He would be training at Kulmsee (now Chelmza), which was in Pomerania, a detached part of Prussia which was to be incorporated into Poland after the war.

11 February 1918

J. read to me letter from Agnes. Kurt has been examined. Will probably receive his officer’s training in the neighbourhood of Kulmsee.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Women tip the Tommies to shop for them as they can get ham & cheese where the women can’t

Still training in Wiltshire, Percy Spencer wanted a special lamp to take back to the Front. He had also had a surprise reunion with younger brother Sydney – and was unimpressed with their other brother Harold’s attempts to sponge on good-natured Sydney.

21st Res Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Feb 11, 1918

My dear WF

I’ve just returned from 48 hours leave, a frightful scramble, but the break is worth it.

Luckily I was able to catch Dot in town and we went together to “General Pat” at the Haymarket, after trying without success to get into the Albert Hall to hear Carrie Tubb, Ivor Foster & Harry Dearth. She is very much better I’m glad to say.

As I was seeing her off at Paddington, Sydney turned up, and I persuaded him to take his luggage out of the train and stay with me the night in my digs. We hadn’t met for over a year so I was very glad to see him again. He doesn’t seem to have altered a scrap.

We had a talk about Harold, and Sydney is sending me a letter about him. Apparently Harold looks on Sydney as an investment from which he is entitled to expect an income. It’s too preposterous.

I expect my embarkation leave pretty soon now – probably about the time Sydney will be with you. I suppose I may come too if I have a ration card, but please let me know dear, as I don’t wish to crowd you, or add to your food expenditure. In London though the women tip the Tommies to shop for them as they can get ham & cheese where the women can’t.

All last week I was upon battalion duties and lost touch with my boys, and it was very disheartening this morning to find that they had started off badly. However I’ll soon get them going again I hope.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Percy to Florence
Feb 11, 1918
My dear WF

The lamp is an ORILUX, made by J. H. STEWARD Ltd, 406, STRAND, LONDON. The price including spare bulb 25/- (probably more now).

It is a first rate long life lamp, well protected from weather, most suited for wearing on a belt, military fashion, but quite suitable for carrying by hand. I think, however, Stewards could show more suitable hand lamps.

Yours ever

Letters from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/11-13)

A marvellous escape from an airship crash

Broad Street Church kept in contact with all its men who had joined up.

News has now been received from Air-Mechanic Fred W. Warman to the effect that he is interned at Croningen in Holland. He was acting as wireless-operator in the air-ship which came down there, and had a marvellous escape. We are glad to know that he writes in a bright and cheerful strain, and that he is trying to make the best of things.

Flight Sub-Lieut W. R. Taper of the RNAS has been appointed for duty in Malta. It has been a pleasure to see him frequently in our midst in recent weeks. The good wishes of many friends at Broad Street will go with him as he takes up his new duties.


Brother Woolley has consented to continue his good services by acting as correspondent with our members on service. This [is] a quiet piece of work which is bound to have its good results when things are normal again.


The list of our men who have responded to the call of God and King and Country. (more…)

Stanley Spencer “thinks the training has made him fit”

Art student Stanley Spencer had served for some time in the Royal Army Medical Corps before transferring to the Royal Berkshire Regiment.

Will Spencer
6 February 1918

A letter for me from Mother. Enjoyed reading how we spent Christmas Day. Stanley is still at the base. Thinks the training has made him fit.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 Feb 1918

Dot Mole & I had our rendezvous at the Bull Inn, Wargrave. Discussion on Ireland & Home Rule.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

A strenuous time with tanks

There was news of several soldiers associated with Broad Street Church in Reading, while the men’s group was trying to help displaced civilians in France.


Captain L. Victor Smith, MC, has many friends and well-wishers at Broad Street, and they were all delighted to see him once more when he was recently home on furlough. Captain Smith had been having a most strenuous time with his tanks, and we were all glad to know that he had come safely through many perils “without a scratch”. We pray that God’s protecting care may continually be about him. During his stay he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive his Military Cross at the hands of the King.

News has been received that Air-Mechanic Fred W. Warman, of the RNAS (eldest son of our friends Mr and Mrs Warman) is interned in Holland. He was in an air-ship which “came down” there a few days ago. Whilst we deeply regret this misfortune, we rejoice to know that our young friend’s life has been spared, and we trust he may be as happy as circumstances permit. We all sympathise with his parents in their anxiety.

At the time of writing, 2nd Lieut. Leslie Pocock is on his way to India, and the thoughts and prayers of many at Broad Street go with him. We trust he may have a safe journey, that he may come safely through every experience, and that some day in the not distant future we may have the joy of welcoming him home. He will be missed in many branches of our church work.

Quite a number of our “men in training” have been home recently for a short furlough. We refrain from mentioning names for fear lest some should be overlooked. It is always a pleasure to see them at the services, and we take this opportunity of telling them so. The Minister is not always able, as he would wish, to speak to them. They get away too soon. He wishes they would “stay behind” for a few moments at the close of the service so that he might have opportunity for a word of greeting.

We should like to join our Brotherhood Correspondent in his appreciation of the generosity of Mr Tyrrell. At the conclusion of the Brotherhood meeting at the Palace Theatre, Mr Tyrrell promised £40 to provide one of the huts which the Brotherhood National Council propose to erect for destitute families in the devastated districts of France. Mr Tyrrell requested that his name should not be publicly mentioned in the matter. He wished the money to go from Broad Street Brotherhood. But seeing that someone “gave away the secret” to the local press, there is no reason now why the name should be withheld. We hope this generous lead will inspire the Brotherhood Committee to renewed efforts on behalf of their distressed brethren in Northern France.

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, January 1918 (D/N11/12/1/14)

“It’s entirely up to you whether you have an easy or hard time”

Percy Spencer had a few more trenchant comments on his experiences as a trainee officer.

21st (Res) Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Jan 27th, 1918

My dear WF

I’m still here and finding life pretty strenuous, it’s entirely up to you whether you have an easy or hard time, but the man who can sit down and let things rip isn’t much account.

Today I held the finals of my platoon boxing competition. They were gory affairs but fought out in good spirit and with plenty of spirit. For the moment I’m frightfully popular. Tomorrow at inspection time they won’t like me a little bit.

Tonight I’ve again been to the little church of Lyddington. It is so restful to get away to real village life and the walk back again in the moonlight through scattered groups of white rubble, thatched cottages and farmsteads a happy recollection.

Yesterday the subalterns were instructed by the senior subaltern in mess etiquette. The meeting was too funny, as, without prejudice, the boot is on the other leg, and a good many of us weren’t afraid to say so. Altogether I think the meeting did good inasmuch as it cleared the air.

And now I’m smoking my pipe and writing a few letters – and don’t I wish it was in the cosy drawing room at 29 [Florence’s house]. Der Tag!

With all my love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/9-10)

A lecture on aerial photography

The new technology of flight was used in the war not just for battles and bombing – it was an intelligence tool.

Jan 25th

Battalion order 136. A lecture on aerial photography to be given by Captain H Lejeune, MC, RFC Feb 4th. Extremely interesting.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

A draft to France

Sydney Spencer was set to go overseas at last.

Jan 22nd [1918]

Battalion order 108. I am released from quarterly board at Brigade Headquarters. About 3.40 took a draft to France with Cubitt.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

A boastful Bosch killer

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about his current situation.

21st Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Jan 20, 1918

My dear WF

Did I tell you I’m now in quarters – that is a narrow room with curtained window, carpeted floor and a stove. Well, I am, anyway, and feeling more dignified and comfortable, you’ll be glad to hear.
A large draft of our fellows have gone on embarkation leave today, and I just missed it by a few hours’ seniority so I expect to be here a little longer anyway. But I may not get quite such a nice long leave as they are having.

Yesterday I met two Australians (officers) who knew my No. 6 [in his rowing crew] very well and spoke very highly of him as a Bosch killer. He was a very boastful fellow, but sound enough and never bragged about his battle exploits, but apparently he has many scalps to his credit. So I think John ought to forgive his inclusion in my eight altho’ he was an Australian.

Did I tell you I fired a revolver course during the awful weather last week? Anyway I [censored] passed out a first class shot.

My application for leave has been turned down for the moment on grounds which have not applied to others. However, I’m old enough to be philosophical and shan’t worry if I can’t get my way.

I have asked Thrussell to send my boots here, thanks dear. Thanks too for … the wool and for the ammunition boots.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/7-8)

“My Colt revolver is much too heavy for me”

Webley revolvers were the standard small firearm issued to officers, but there were not enough to go around, as Percy Spencer, suffering toothache, told his sister Florence.

21st (Res) Battalion Lon[don] Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Jan 15, 1918

My dear WF

We are still having vile weather. Today it has been snowing incessantly.

Yesterday I saw the dentist who said he would not pass me GR and gave me a chit to the effect that I was urgently in need of dental treatment. So today I have applied for ten days leave. I don’t suppose for a moment I shall get it, though short periods of leave are given very freely.

I should very much like some khaki wool for mending. One pair of socks has been mended with a whitish wool which looks unsightly.

I’m now on a revolver course, but don’t expect to do any good as my Colt revolver is much too heavy for me and I am endeavouring to change it for a Webley.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/5-6)