An air of sadness as nature reclaims the countryside

Percy Spencer shared his sense of an abandoned countryside with expat brother Will.

15 December 1917

A letter from Percy to us both, which I read to Johanna in the verandah after breakfast. After telling us about his rowing experiences [in Cambridge while training as an officer there], he continues:

“At the moment I am on [sic] a loose end, but expect to be in France or elsewhere by the middle of January. Cookham is very empty & silent. There is some compensation in the re-asserted claims of nature in the quiet corners of the earth as man’s claims have slackened, but altogether there is an air of sadness about the countryside, very depressing. I feel the water rat would much prefer to plop hastily into the water at your approach & the moorhen to scuttle jerkily into the reeds, than to feed unmolested & fearless of disturbance.”

So Percy feels that the water rat & the moorhen wish too, that the old times were back. In this feeling that the wild creatures must feel the same as he does, Percy not only shows a deep love of nature & of man, but also something of the imagination of a poet.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

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Sleeping accommodation for the soldiers in the winter months

Groups associated with an Earley church were homeless after their premises were taken over for soldiers to sleep at.

The Military Authorities have taken over the use of the Mission Room, Cumberland Road. This means that the Sunday School, Mothers’ Meeting, Clothing Club and Scouts have to find a home elsewhere. Their purpose is to provide sleeping accommodation for the soldiers in the winter months who have been bivouacking in the College grounds on Whitley Hill, and so far we are glad that they should be undercover. But for ourselves it is not very convenient. Application has been made to the Education Authority for the loan of a hall or classroom in the New Town school and if this is granted our trouble will be ended.

Earley St Nicolas parish magazine December 1917 (D/P192/28A/14)

The beginning of the end for one regiment

Sydney Spencer resumed his diary after a long break, busy training in the north of England. New recruits would change the regiment he was attached to.

1917
December 11th

Large draft detailed in orders. The beginning of the end of the 2/5th Norfolk Regiment.

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

Shot at dawn for “cowardice” caused by shell shock

John Maxwell Image wrote to his friend W F Smith, who was staying at Hindhead in south west Surrey, not far from the big army camp at Aldershot. Normally very gung-ho in support of the war, Image’s compassion had been aroused by stories of court martials and teenagers shot at dawn. The Revd Thomas Pym (1885-1945), in peacetime the chaplain at Image’s college, was serving as an army chaplain.

29 Barton Rd
6 Dec. ‘17
My very dear old man

The military cars to and fro Aldershot must surely be more or less an interesting sight.

The poor Tommy comes under this [?not clear] penalty quite frequently. Not often from cowardice, poor boy. Most often (I believe) it is from slinking off to some girl in the rear which is called “desertion”, tho’ he would have returned right enough.

Just before I was married there was shown to me a letter from a young Trin. Officer at the Front, describing a visit from one of our Trin. Chaplains, begging this young friend of his to “pray for him”, for he had to pass the night with a boy of 18 who was to be shot at dawn. Pym spoke then of a night with another poor child (of 17!) who had been shot the previous week, for what the CM was pleased to style Cowardice – though he had twice behaved with exceptional bravery, and it was only after seeing his two brothers killed at his side that on this occasion his nerve broke down. In an officer it would have been called “shell-shock”, and the interesting sufferer sent home to a cushy job in England. I know of 2 thus treated. Pym’s words brought the tears to my eyes. I see that he has told the story (slightly altered) in a book that has recently come out by him, Characteristics of the Army in Flanders.

Sir Arthur Yapp at the Guildhall last Friday. The Signora went (non ego) and returned enthusiastic – she and her Cook – over the great man’s dignity and sweetness. That evening he lectured the students (and I believe also them of Girton) in Newnham College – and left by the 9.9 for London.

One remark of his: “The vessels sunk by the U-boats during the week ending Nov. 24 (I forget how many that was) might have carried enough bread to feed Cambridge for nearly 7 years, or enough meat for 8 ½ years, or enough sugar for 64 years.”

He said that Food Tickets have changed Germany to a nation of forgers. He dreaded the like fate for England.

Yours ever
Bild

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

“The only way interest has been maintained, has been by wagers”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was enjoying his officer training – although he seems to have more out of the camaraderie and sports than the boring lectures on naval and military history. The German warship Emden was sunk by the British in autumn 1914.

Thursday Nov 22, 1917
My dear WF

These few lines to let you know how cheery we all feel in spite of a plague of lectures and the shadow of our final.

Yesterday we rowed a great race. Unprejudiced opinion is that we won: the verdict was a dead heat, and we have to row again. We did enjoy it.

Today we attended our 3rd Naval History lecture. Mr Dykes was there. It’s a terribly slow affair. At the conclusion of tonight’s lecture we had only got to the destruction of the Emden – or rather, to be exact, it was at 6.39 pm. I know, as the only way interest has been maintained, has been by wagers as to the lecture and at what time in that lecture she would be put out of action. Betting was about 6-4 in favour of 6 pm tonight. I think the lecturer must have had a lot of money on the other way.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/72)

Soldiers get very rough and ready, but are grateful to the churches for hospitality

One of the soldiers who had attended the social evenings run by Broad Street Church wrote to say how much he appreciated it. The “pioneers” in the British Army were engaged in construction and engineering, and also leading assaults on major fortifications.

APPRECIATION OF HOSPITALITY

The friends who are helping in connection with our work amongst the soldiers are constantly hearing expressions of appreciation and thanks. But the following letter is perhaps the best evidence of the feeling which has been called forth. It was sent to Mr Rawlinson by Corporal Hill of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and it speaks for itself:

Litherland
Near Liverpool

November 20th, 1917

Dear Sir,

I am writing to thank you for all you did for me during my stay in Reading.

I was attached to the Pioneer School, and took advantage of your hospitality, and appreciate it very much; and I must say I appreciate it more now that I have left Reading. I was too “nervous” or I should have thanked you personally on behalf of the fellows of the School, for the good time you gave us. So please convey my gratitude to those who entertained us on Sunday evenings, and also yourself for allowing us there. I know soldiers get very rough and ready, but I have heard some of them speak in glowing terms of the efforts made by the Congregationalists all over the country to help cheer up all those who were away from home, and wanted somewhere where they could spend a quiet and contemplative evening.

I have a very good impression of Reading, and am looking forward to the time when I shall be able to visit it again.

I shall be very pleased to receive a letter from you.

Again thanking you for what you have done for me amomgst many.

Yours sincerely
A J Hill.

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, December 1917 (D/N11/12/1/14)

“It was a sickly experience being gassed!”

Part of the officer training experience involved practising dealing with a gas attack.

Nov 16, 1917
My dear WF

I was lucky enough to see John on the way back from being gassed on Wednesday. It was a sickly experience being gassed!…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/71)

“We are soldiers”: German prisoners refuse to work beside the Conscientious Objectors

German society was even more strongly opposed to pacifists than their English counterparts.

29 Barton Road
13 Nov. ‘17
Desideratissimo

Today she [Florence] has had [visitors including] … one Oldham, a B.A. engaged in war work for aeroplanes.

A General from the Front was lunching in our Combination-room the other day, and said to us that in his section the German prisoners refuse to work beside the Conscientious O.’s “We are soldiers”, they say.

Ten days or so ago, at one of the dinners which the College gives to Cadets on receiving their Commissions, we had a couple of officers of Zouaves as guests. Mumbo (whose health is much improved) proposed their toast in French. Capt. Marcel (he looked a handsome Englishman) responded in his own tongue, and ended with a shout which sent the Cadets wild, “England for ever”!!

What think you of Ll. George’s speech in today’s paper? It is depressing but not depressed. I personally have no fear of any harm except what the English baser natures can induce our Government to do. Surely Russia teaches what must be the result to a nation of slaves who are suddenly emancipated from control. So will it be in Germany until they have settled down. Meanwhile it’s the present English people worth dying for?

Our love to you both.

Always affect. yours Bild.

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

Nowhere to go but their billets

A church hall in Reading became the off-duty home for men training to be Pioneers (military engineers).

The Parish Hall has been taken over by the military authorities who intend to use it as a reading room and recreation room for the Pioneer School of Instruction which numbers 400 NCOs and men who on a wet day have no-where to go but their billets. In consequence the Hall will not be available for any other purpose, parochial or otherwise.

The Vicar has heard from Mr Hepple who asks to be remembered to his many friends. Mr Hepple is Chaplain to a West Country regiment in Mesopotamia. He writes in excellent spirits and is enjoying temperature of between 86 and 110 degrees in the shade. When the cold winter days come we will warm ourselves by thinking of Mr Hepple.

Christ Church parish magazine, Noveber 1917 (D/P170/28A/24)

“A couple of hares which ran across our line added a good deal of vim to a bayonet charge”

Percy Spencer reported on his activities in officer training.

Wednesday Nov 7, 1917

My dear WF

Tomorrow evening we do a night march by compass bearing, tonight and Friday night we have lectures. So I am sorry I shall not be able to come up before Saturday evening.

To my surprise I have passed my topography examination with a margin of twenty points.

Today we played the final of the soccer against a very cocksure team. We won 2-0 altho we lost our best forward in the first few minutes through a wrenched knee. So we’ve started on the way to winning the platoon cup.

…Today on the range, a couple of hares which ran across our line added a good deal of vim to a bayonet charge – no casualties, however.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/70)

A double military wedding

A soldier on leave got married to his sweetheart.

TILEHURST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH

Miss Florence Savory was married at our church on Saturday, October 27th, to Mr Arthur Jacob Hailstone of Tilehurst, the service being conducted by the Pastor, Rev. E J Perry….

An interesting feature was the presence at the marriage of the bride’s brother-in-law, Mr Heath, who is back again in England for training as a Commissioned Officer. Mr Hailstone has been serving with the forces also for about 18 months, so that in a double sense it was a military wedding.…

We take this opportunity of wishing Mr and Mrs Hailstone all happiness in the years ahead, and trust that the husband’s military duties will soon cease.

Tilehurst section of Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, December 1917 (D/N11/12/1/14)

“The musketry results are out”

Percy Spencer was fairly happy with his progress training to become a officer, he told his sister Florence.

Oct 17, 1917
My dear Florence

The musketry results are out. 14 of our platoon failed. Tubbs was top with 77. I am marked V. Fair with 60. Below 50 failed.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/69)

“Hold your hand out naughty boy”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about his experiences training to be an officer in Cambridge, and getting ticked off.

Oct 9, 1917
My dear WF

Our examination tomorrow is at 5.30 pm, so I am sorry I shall not be able to come up to tea….

Captain Louis has been talking “rowing” to me. He proposes making me Company stroke. I hope to get out of it, but may not as he very flatteringly describes my boat as easily the best, and the best they have seen here for a long time. Goodness knows what the others were like!

Today my platoon talked when marching to attention, so it was punished by being ordered to march a quarter of a mile really at attention. When ordered by the officer at the end of our punishment to “march at ease”, half the platoon immediately sang, “Hold your hand out naughty boy”, and the remainder, “And I don’t suppose we’ll do it again for months and months and months”.

With love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/67)

“I wish I had a hundred like him”

It was good luck that Percy Spencer’s officer training was taking place in Cambridge, at the very college where his brother in law was a don.

29 Barton Road
30 Sept. ‘17

My very dear Old Man

Your school friend, Whitworth, came with two daughters to call upon me the other day. They seemed to take to the Signora – but oh for me! quite casually for he made sure I knew, during tea he mentioned that dear Willy Dobbs [later note by Florence – ‘Brother of Sir Henry Dobbs – son of my husband’s beloved friend’] was dead – killed in action on July 31st. He had in his pocket a letter from the mother, quoting kind phrases – “The best officer in the Regiment” was how they spoke of him. Poor dear Willy! I was mentioning how he had given me the tea-tray on my wedding: and had caused it to be made specially to his pattern – and then Whitworth told me!!!

Florence has a brother of hers [Percy] in No. 5 cadet battalion – quartered in Trinity. You can guess what it is to her – and I love him. The Colonel said to me, “I wish I had a hundred like him” – so modest, so clearheaded – how his men will rely on him! The Company had boatraces last week (they have use of TBC boat house and slips) and Percy Spencer stroked his platoon’s Eight, and won the final.

JMI

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

Living at an awful rate

Percy Spencer told his sister Florence about his experiences training as an officer.

No 5 OCB
Room G8
New Court
Trinity College
Cambridge

Aug 18
My dear WF

We’re living at an awful rate and feel very used up at the end of the week. No doubt as soon as we have the rough edges taken off, it won’t be such a physical strain and we shall all be as fit as fiddles.

At the Cadet Club my first cup of coffee was handed to me by the girl you introduced me to. I can’t think of her name.

A wounded soldier has recognised me. I couldn’t remember his name, but being reminded by him that he belonged to the 4th Welsh Fusiliers of our Division, I plunged desperately, addressed him as Sergeant Jones and won….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/65-66)