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)

The chemistry of the gas helmet

After a period training at Kinmel Park in Wales, studying such matters as the workings of the gas helmet issued to troops, Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence Image with good news.

Aug 10, 1917
My dear WF

Thanks to John my address is
Cadet P J Spencer
B Company
No. 5 Officer Cadet Battalion
Trinity College
Cambridge

All the bad men from Kinmel are here too, so at any rate I feel I shall have a moral advantage.

I’ve just been trying to get the rules and regulations into my head. Luckily I realised early that it couldn’t be done and gave it up….

You are quite right about Kinmel. I was awfully well and jolly there, and look and feel very fit. Even the lectures were entertaining, no matter how dry. For instance one lecturer (a schoolmaster before the war) taking us in musketry, and looking very brainy, explained (in fact he was so pleased with the idea, he explained it twice) that “an explosion is the immediate or spontaneous transition of a solid into a gas. Q.E.D., which those of you who have studied Euclid will know means Quod erat dictum!!!”

We also had some very interesting lectures on the gas or PH ‘Elmet. Really they were not so much lectures on the helmet as they were upon methods of dodging learned recruits. If I am unlucky enough to get hold of some recruit who evinces a knowledge of chemistry, I am to switch off on to the mechanism of the helmet, of which he’ll probably be ignorant, and vice versa. Presumably if one is unlucky enough to be landed with a recruit who knows both the mechanism & the chemistry of the helmet there is nothing to be done but to lead him gently to the gas chamber….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/62-64)

“All right, now mind all you – will attend the next – parade”

Back in the UK as he undertook officer training, Percy Spencer was amused by a sergeant particularly keen on ensuring religious observance.

July 29, 1917
My dear WF

Sunday, and if there could have been any doubt about it, this was settled by the burly orderly sergeant who appeared in our hut at 9.50 am and in stentorian tones demanded all Nonconformists on parade. Nobody moving, he added. “All right, now mind all of you – will attend the next – parade, C of E. Doesn’t matter a – what you are. Understand?” and I’ve no doubt he sings hymns beautifully.

There are strong rumours that we should be away from here by Friday next at latest. But I have nothing definite to go upon.

If I get 3 or 4 days I shall run up to London and get my kit together. Here I have nothing but army clothes. At the cadet school I shall want quite a lot of civilian things I have.

I am writing on the front at Abergele, a very quiet little place, charmingly situated north of St Ormes Head. On Tuesdays we come here to bathe – a great privilege but rather spoilt by the march here which the officer who takes us tries to do at 150 paces a minute, a frightful step.

I’ve heard from Will this week. He seems very well and still deep in the heights of mountains and size of lakes.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/58-61)

The “Scroungers’ Retreat”

Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence to tell her about his experiences in officer training. His fellow trainees were mainly NCOs with experience of the worst of the war, and were not easily corraled by their superiors.

Attd C Company
58th TRB
Sergeants Mess
No 9 Camp
Kinmel Park
Rhyl

July 26, 1917
My dear WF

I’m very fit indeed, working very hard and always hungry. We are exceptionally well fed, I think, and conditions are good.

It’s very difficult to write as several of the boys are telling their experiences, and every now and then they touch ground I know and I have to join in. One man has just been minutely describing the bundling and labelling of corpses for the fat factory as seen by him, and another the manacling of maritime gunners to their guns, also as seen by him. Both descriptions are so minute and definite as to be convincing. I’ve only to meet someone who has actually seen a corpse factory and I shall be a confirmed Kadaverite.

The battle of wits – the staff v. us continues with varying success. The routine is changed daily to put us off our stroke and get ahead of us, but the same crowd who lay themselves out to “dodge the column” successfully carry on just as usual, appearing on parade, answering the roll call and vanishing into the blue before any work is done with consistent ability. This rather large section of our number have a discipline of their own. Backsliders are dealt with by courtmartial. Absence from the “Scroungers Retreat” (a quiet marquee in the neighbourhood) seems to be the most seriously looked upon offence, and is dealt with very harshly, the punishment being I believe to attend next parade and answer for all the others from their hut who are not there.

Of course, being out of training, I find the work very hard indeed, quite apart from my ignorance of it which is another difficulty with me, but I can feel myself growing straighter and stronger every day and look forward to being a Samson soon.

By the way I’ve had 2 days trench digging. It’s extraordinary how difficult such a menial job as digging earth and throwing it out of the trench is. An experienced man will throw his shovel of earth intact 10-20 feet away in any direction. The novice finds it difficult to throw and direct and very hard to keep together.

I can see I shall very soon be nailed down to drill and books – that is, as soon as I get to a cadet unit. Until then I’m not taking this business too seriously, and simply concentrate upon breaking myself in physically. You’d scacrcely credit how absurdly soft my hands and feet were. They are hardening up rapidly, but I’m still a pretty blistered object.

Well my dear girl, I feel this is a very uninteresting letter, but conditions are very trying for letter writing so you’ll have to please excuse it.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/53-57)

Aeroplanes flying about

Over the county border at Swindon, William Hallam was entertained by the sight of trainee pilots practicing their newfangled art.

23rd July 1917
Another hot day. 13 aeroplanes flying about here at dinnertime.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/25)

“There are some very tough and rough customers among us”

Percy Spencer thought his old boss might be able to pull a few strings for him. Meanwhile, he was enjoying training with other NCOs selected for promotion.

July 22, 1917
My dear WF

Captain Holliday has just written to tell me he has got a job at Whitehall – a rather private & special job apparently, and he asked me if he could do anything for me. I’ve asked him to try & get me sent to Trinity. I don’t think it is desirable to bother Col Ready any further, do you?

I’m having quite a good time here: the place is very healthy and well organised.

If it’s a question of breeding and education, I shall be all right as there are some very tough and rough customers among us, and very few of them would pull muster in the drawing room.

My room mates are respectively a collier boy, a student for the Baptist Ministry, an accountant, a jeweller, a regular soldier. The last is a fine fellow. Very badly educated and terribly worried by his inclination to swear. Nevertheless he’s a man’s man.

There’s a lot of ragging here. You see we are all pretty senior in rank and a Sergeant Instructor on parade has to stand an awful lot of quiet impudence. However we shall no doubt settle down when we get to our Cadet units.

With my love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/50-52)

“Their language is of the bluest, but their hearts are sound enough”

Percy Spencer reported on his experience in officer training. Most of his fellows had, like himself, been at the front in the other ranks, and been selected for promotion based on merit, rather than the traditional pre-war gentlemen only.

July 17, 1917
My dear WF

My address is No. S/4/087268 Sgt P J Spencer, ASC, Attd C Company, 58th TRB, Sergeants Mess, No 9 Camp, Kinmel Park, Rhyl. That’s all.
And really I think that sums up the horror of this place.

From my very short experience, it seems to be an exceedingly well organised place – the staff are pretty stiff on parade, but jolly good fellows off it.

Just how long I shall be here it is difficult to say. It depends apparently on the needs of Cadet units. Probably I shall not be here more than 2 ½ weeks. But I may be here 6 weeks.

I am told the War Office issues orders as to when and where men are to be sent. So I may possibly still go to Cambridge. Application to the GOC 13th Training Reserve Brigade from Col Ready might possibly be useful, but I don’t think so, as rumour hath it that we ASC people do a special course somewhere in this part of the world. There is also a rumour that some men get 4 days leave from here before joining their Cadet School.

There is an extraordinary mixture of men here. Their language is of the bluest, but their hearts are sound enough….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/46-49)

The Open Air mission to the troops of all nations

The Open Air Mission was an evangelical initiative reaching out to men in training, the wounded, and enemy PoWs.

OPEN-AIR MISSION
There will be a meeting on behalf of this Mission on St John’s Lawn on Tuesday, July 3rd, at 3 pm, when the Rev. P. Rose and Walter Goff, esq, will describe the work of the Open-Air Mission amongst British and French troops in the war, and among German Prisoners… If wet, the meeting will be held in Princes Street Mission Room.

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

“Battles are nothing to what I have had to endure the last 4 days”

At last Percy Spencer was on his way back home, to undergo training as an officer in North Wales.

July 2, 1917
My dear WF

At last my soul is my own.

Battles are nothing to what I have had to endure the last 4 days.

Anyhow, here I am, just arrived from Southport with 15 days leave and orders to report on July 16 to GOC 13th Training Reserve Brigade, Kinmel Park, near Rhyl.

I did not receive your letter saying Col Ready had applied for me.

My programme is to go to Cookham for 3 or 4 days or perhaps a week & then I should like to come to you, supposing you’ll have me, and I am not coming to Trinity….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/42)

Remarkably happy & conversational

Percy’s transfer to a commission was now well on rack. Better still, it looked as if he might get to do his training at Trinity College, Cambridge, where brother in law John Maxwell Image was a don.

June 23, 1917
My dear WF

My orders have just come in.

I am due to leave here (and, I expect, to arrive in England) on the 29th inst.

I am then entitled to 14 days leave, and after that, I may get longer leave still (some get months) or I may go straight to a Cadet Corps.

If dear John’s note to Col Ready is successful, I expect I shall go straight to Trinity after my leave.

By the way, I am No S/4/087268 Sgt PJS, 47th Div Train, in case you want this information.

I hope I’ll get thro’ my course all right, but I shall be starting from scratch, so shall have to work jolly hard.

Yesterday I went to a very jolly dinner – we were 16 & we all got remarkably happy & conversational.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/41)

‘I shall probably have to do the common or garden “over the bags” stunt one merry morning’

Percy Spencer’s hopes of a commission seemed to have been dashed, but now at last he was going to get the opportunity – although he would have to undergo extra training, and would probably not get the administrative job he was most suited for.

June 11, 1917
My dear WF

You’ll think I’m a dreadful correspondent, but you’ll have guessed the reason of my silence – I’ve been terribly busy.

My commission papers went up with an application for a direct commission to be granted to me from the OC of the Battalion I was and am wanted for. (By the way this CO is now a Brigadier.)

Well, there is a rule that no direct commissions are to be granted. So altho’ my application was recommended by the Divisional Corps & Army Commanders & a special application was made to the war Office, the WO has refused to allow me to hold commissioned rank, unless I first come home for a cadet course. The reason given being that it has been found undesirable to grant direct commissions whatever the circumstances to men who have been mainly engaged upon clerical work. Isn’t it funny – and isn’t it a nasty sort of reflection upon “clerks”?

Just then was not an opportune moment for going into such matters. So it was put on one side until today.

Tonight my papers have gone up again for a cadet course in England; and if I dodge the shells & the submarines I ought to be in England within 3 weeks for a cadet course somewhere.

The crab of the business is that it will only be by the veriest luck that I shall get an administrative appointment at the end of it, and shall probably have to do the common or garden “over the bags” stunt one merry morning.

Anyhow, I feel I ought to hold commissioned rank, whether as a fighting or an administrative officer – and this stigma upon clerks must be removed, what!

If and when I come home I shall have some long stories to tell, some of which I’m sure John will wholly approve….

Yours ever
Percy

The asparagus was great. Never was it eaten with such relish or in such extraordinary circumstances.

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/38-40)

Do the German hear our starlight singing in their distant trenches?

There was much news of soldiers from Maidenhead Congregational Church.

OUR SOLDIERS.

We are glad to be able to report that Reginald Hill is so far improving, that he has been able to sit up a little each day. Thomas S. Russell has been called up, and is in training with the Motor Transport Section of the A.S.C. G.C. Frampton after about two hours drill was considered advanced enough for foreign service, and left England for France on May 18th. He is gone into Military Canteen work.

An interesting letter has come to hand from Sidney Eastman, which may justly be described as lengthy, for it is written upon a piece of paper some seven or eight feet long, and covers both sides. It is mostly occupied with a description of his travels and of the sights he has seen, and we are glad to gather that he is in good health and spirits.

G.C. Frampton has been unpatriotic enough to take German measles, and is in Hospital at Etaples. We hope to learn very shortly that he is quite well again.

Alfred Vardy, after a severe bout of pneumonia, caught on his way to the Front in France, is now at a Convalescent Camp in Thetford, gaining strength before returning to duty.

Wilfrid Collins is in hospital at Reading, suffering from heart weakness following upon a severe attack of “Trench fever.”

Reginald Hill has been out of bed for an hour, and is going on satisfactorily, though slowly.

Cyril Hews had a somewhat narrow escape recently. He was out with his motor-bicycle upon a French road during a thunderstorm, when the lightning struck a tree by the road-side, and a large branch fell upon the handlebars of the machine, providentially leaving the rider untouched.

Alfred Lane, after more than a year’s training in the Home Counties’ Engineers at Maidenhead, has been sent over with a draft to France.

Harry Baldwin, having attained the age of 18, and being called up, has elected to enter the Navy, and will probably enter a Training School.

One of our young men, who took an active part in the Messines victory, writes:

“Rather a good sight yesterday. I attended with my men a very large open-air drum-head Church Parade Service, as a sort of Thanksgiving Service for our recent great victory. A large number of Welshmen were present, and it really was great to hear these fellows sing “Aberystwith” and “St. Mary,” accompanied by a band.”

The papers, by the way, have been recently telling us that in all the Welsh regiments there are “glee parties,” who sing under the stars, until the Germans must hear and perhaps wonder, in their more or less distant trenches.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, June 1917 (D/N33/12/1/5)

“May blossoms and war seem as though they ought to be impossible in the same world”

The minister of Maidenhead Congregational Church tried to encourage members to look on the bright side of life despite all the horrors and losses of the war.

May blossoms and war seem as though they ought to be impossible in the same world. The dreadful mud in the midst of which our soldiers have been living is more congruous with the spirit of warfare than sweet grass and hawthorn buds. Many letters from the front have spoken of the start of surprise with which a lark’s song is heard over the trenches. We have all, when some sorrow is heavy upon us, felt a sort of astonishment that the sun should go on shining, and the birds twittering, and passers by smiling, as though nothing had happened. But the worst of sorrows cannot cover the whole sky. We want taking out of ourselves at times. Evils won’t bear brooding over, we only make them worse. We shall be able to bear “the strain of toil, the fret of care” better, if we make rich use of the ministry of the blossoms.

OUR SOLDIERS.

We are glad to hear that Reginald Hill is progressing, though slowly. He has had several operations, and probably must undergo two or three more. The doctors think he may have to be in bed for at least three months yet, but they hope he will make quite a good recovery.

We regret deeply to have to record that John Boyd, formerly the Caretaker of the Chapel, was killed in action on March 29th. He enlisted in the 2nd Berks. In June 1916, and was sent to France on Sept. 22nd. He was a most genial and kind-hearted man, and had a wide circle of friends among whom he was very popular. We offer our Christian sympathy to Mrs. Boyd and her family.

It is distressing too to hear that Stephen Harris is returned as “missing.” The Captain of his Company has written to Mr. and Mrs. Harris that he has made all possible inquiries and can gain no information. The best that can be hoped for is that he may be a prisoner in German hands. Robert Harris was killed in July last. May God grant His patience and consolation to the distressed parents.

Wallace Mattingly has been admitted to Sandhurst Military College for eight months’ training. G. Frampton is expecting to be called up immediately. We are glad to see Cyril Hews at home again on leave, looking in the pink of health. P.S. Eastman writes in good spirits from “somewhere in the East.”

He says, “I have not yet left for the special work for which I was sent out, but may do so any day now. In the meantime I have had quite a variety of work, until at present I find myself in the C.O.’s office. Yesterday I had a line from Frank Pigg, who is with the R.F.C in Salonica; may be one of these days I shall be able to pay him a visit.”

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, May 1917 (D/N33/12/1/5)

Cambridge is crammed with cadets

The Image cats’ joy at the effect of food restrictions on their own diet, mentioned by John Maxwell Image on 13 February, inspired his wife Florence to write a comic article. It became her first publication when it appeared in Punch. Dr Image also noted sadly that all the new undergraduates were international students, all the British school leavers having joined up.

6 May 1917
My dearest old man

Cambridge is crammed with cadets. There are also youths in caps and gowns. I saw some in the Great Court when I dined last in Hall – alas not one English face above the white collars.

Your kind congratters on “Rations” pleased the Signora greatly. This morning she had a letter from her brother at the Front containing the compliments of the Mess to whom he had, dutifully, read it – and about three day ago another brother, in another part of France, vowed that the Punch so stuck out his pocket that he went about gingerly, fearing a reprimand for the misfit of his tunic. How fond the brothers are of her!

Tuissimus
JMI

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

Lonely and sad

Putting the clocks forward or back by an hour is one of the ongoing legacies of the First World War. First introduced in 1916, 1917 saw the experiment repeated.

Soldiers’ Club

The lighter evenings, with their out-door attractions, and the Daylight Saving Bill, caused the committee to decide on closing the rooms to the soldiers, and this was done on Wednesday, April 4th. The evening was marked by a most enjoyable concert, after which our Pastor made a short speech assuring the men of the welcome they would still find at Trinity. Second A.M. Rose then voiced the thanks of the men. Until they knew Trinity they had been lonely and sad, but the hand-shake and kindly welcome had done much to dissipate the loneliness. Second A.M. Morgan then spoke of the men’s great appreciation of all our Pastor had done for them, causing amusement by his remark that Mr Harrison was unlike many ministers of his acquaintance, who were invisible all the week and incomprehensible on Sunday!

The evening closed by singing! Auld Lang Syne, after which our guests sadly and reluctantly dispersed.

The committee gladly recorded that all expenses, including the gas and coal, have been met, and a complete balance sheet is printed elsewhere.

Trinity Congregational Magazine, May 1917 (D/EX1237/1/12)