“Sometimes it’s a piece of shell – next day it will be a piece of bone”

Percy was clearly feeling a little better, and was able to observe life in his ward with his customary wry humour.

Bed 8, Florence Ward
St Thomas Hosp[ital]
SE1

Sep 1, 1918

My dear WF

Since Thursday morning I’ve lived – my arm went to sleep and has remained so. This morning the muck from it was much diminished and I am actually beginning to sleep without drugs and to walk a few paces. Two nights ago I indulged in the luxury of a bath and was strong enough to balance on one leg when necessary. In a few days time I am to be operated upon again to get at odds and ends of bone not wanted again. Of course I’m no end pleased at the prospect.

The fellow opposite is a perfect [illegible – source?] of wealth. They get something fresh out of him every day. He affords the sisters all the excitement of a bran pie insamuch as all the things are different – sometimes it’s a piece of shell – next day it will be a piece of bone, followed by a chunk of glass or a cork. I’ve got a small wager that inside a week they’ll find a bottle of whiskey in him somewhere.

I’ve asked No 9 (of Oriel College Oxford) what a “stunt” is and he confirms my opinion that today it has reached the stage when it means anything one likes to make it. Still I look back to the day when it was only applied to an out of the ordinary military minor enterprise. Nowadays, tricks in the air are stunts – so are raids – so is a disagreeable field practice or a route march – or the attendance at a court martial – and to go to big things, I remember that huge affair the battle of Messines being described as a “splendid stunt”. So carry on – make it mean what you like & look confident about it, you’ll worry through all right. I’m quite sure that will not satisfy John’s accurate mind.

No. 17 IBD “L” depot Calais means the “L” depot of the 17th Infantry Base Depot situated at Calais. It also means that Sydney having got beyond the point on the lines of communication from which officers are sent to rejoin their Battalion, has been sent back to the base depot, from there to be sent back to his Battalion when required or elsewhere possibly. Alternatively, assuming he is not yet fit, it means either that he is being sent to his base depot to convalesce, or being considered worn out he is there is do a few months tour of duty. Now I feel sure you must know exactly what it means.

This morning was very lovely. After I had been bathed, I lay and watched the Mother of Parliaments shyly move away from the night, down to the water’s edge and then silently and soberly await the first kiss and warm embrace of her other love. (It’s quite all right, I had some medicine yesterday.)

Just there I had to suspend operations for lunch – cold beef salad & potatoes: plum pie & custard. Unfortunately I had to refuse second helpings. However, as I lay here in the sunshine I feel that comfortable replete feeling stealing over me and presently I shall stretch forth my hand for John’s cigar and dissolve in smoke.

With my dear love to you both

Yrs ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/85-88)

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“I am deeply in love with the world & the inhabitants thereof”

Sydney had emerged from his post-illness depression in high spirits.

Tuesday 2 July 1918

Got up at 4 am feeling cross with myself for feeling cross at having to get up so early! Got breakfast at 11.45. Took over my draft of 29 at 5.30. Drew an iron ration! Marched to station. Tucked my men away & saw they had their rations. Train started about 1 hour late, 8 am.

Got to Etaples at 12. Bagged a tent (& put up a bed!). Got a bath, shave, shampoo & wave at Fichet. Lunch & a talk with a long [serving?] [other?] ranker who was with Col. Harris in India. Have just had a bath & went busking with no things at all on.

I spent the rest of the day writing letters to Florence, OB & Col. Harris. This day’s rest is doing me untold good. After dinner for a long walk with an ASC chap. A most interesting conversation.

EFC Officers Rest House and Mess
June[mistake for July] 2nd 1918

My Dearest Florence

Yet another rest house & yet another place. I am gradually getting back to my B[attalio]n. I expect I shall be back by tomorrow night or Thursday morning at the latest. I went into hospital on Thursday 20th June, came out on Tuesday 25th & here is July 2nd & I am still wending my way back.

I have just had, here at the Club, a delicious hot bath, a hair cut, a shave & a shampoo. Small talk did I hear you say? Really Florence I am surprised at you. Why, these things are red letter days in our career out here. One gloats over it for days. There one does not get a shave every day, one gets a bath of sorts quite occasionally, but all on one day & done by a professional man, why, one feels frightfully clean & composed in mind & spirit.

I suppose a reaction is setting in after my depression. I am full of high spirits, nothing annoys me, I am deeply in love with the world & the inhabitants thereof, & the sun is shining “as hard as he knows how” for me. …

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/50)

Steel helmets were donned & many were for fleeing to dugouts

The fighting came closer to Sydney Spencer.

Sunday 30 June 1918

My dear diary! Rejoice with me for at last I have stopped mentally crying & railing on the world & saying ‘The world? Why the world’s a hoss’.

Last night the Huns raided some ten miles away. General wind up in our camp. Steel helmets were donned & many were for fleeing to dugouts. Their noise & excitement bored me as I wished to be left at peace to sleep.

Spent a delightfully lazy morning studying the phrase ‘dolce far niente’ lying on my back most of time. Am now writing letters in Grand Hotel Club. Hope to see Cubitt today.

Had my bath. A dog who craftily escaped waves when fetching a stick was very amusing. Had dinner at Club & an amazingly interesting talk with a Scots officer. He had no religion & was full of it without knowing it!

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

French holding fairly, lost in some parts, but fighting very hard

It was the last day of Sydney Spencer’s gas training course.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 10 June 1918

Got up at 7.15. After breakfast, I wrote up some of my notes. Then to lecture given by chemical adviser Major Edwardes-Ker, on Responsibilities of Officers.

Then the usual last day of course lectures by students. Very droll, some of them, too. Major Knights was asked about Green X shells & spoke lengthily about what his CO had said concerning yellow X shells. Jones the Welsh man had a fit of spoonerisms, talking of ‘belastic lands’ for elastic bands! Poor Bin – he was dumb! Hardwick knew nothing but was so droll as to pass it all off. Graham was very good indeed. I had to speak on ‘Reliefs’ & gassed areas, etc. Major Ker promised to send my notes down to Broadbent in England. Wore SBB for an hour. After lunch a short lecture by Ash. Then break up of school.

After tea to Hesdin shopping & a bath at common dark place. Dinner, a short walk with Major Knights and then the completion of note writing up to 12.30 am. Wrote letter to Major Ker, reference notes & to bed & read Tartarin de Tarascon.

Florence Vansittart Neale
10 June 1918

Canadians left 9.45…

Disturbed siesta. Soldiers came early – nice set of men. Boats, bowls, croquet & tennis. Left 6.30.

French holding fairly. Lost in some parts, but fighting very hard.

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

One long delicious 24 hours of dolce far niente, carefully mapped out by me into periods of rest, sleep, reading, letter writing, hot bathing, shampooing & all those other little etceteras which make life glorious for a while

Sydney took advantage of his quiet day to write to his sister and her husband.

June 7th 1918
My Dearest Florence & Mr I

Turmoil is nearly always followed by peace, & the peace of this present is well worth the turmoil of that past. No Florence, it was not a case of stormed at by shot & shell bravely he fought & well, the turmoil herein referred to, is merely that of a 24 hour journey – nay a 36 hour journey in a truck on a railway line over a distance of 108 miles to get from somewhere to here (thus does the censor hamper & roil our English!) a distance of 33 miles.

My last letter [does not appear to survive] told you of my going to a gas school. Well, I am here. We arrived yesterday afternoon & the course does not start till tomorrow morning, so that today is just one long delicious 24 hours of dolce far niente, carefully mapped out by me into periods of rest, sleep, reading, letter writing, hot bathing, shampooing & all those other little etceteras which make life glorious for a while.

From your ever affectionate brother
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/41, 43)

“A chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace”

Sydney enjoyed a pleasant day off.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 7 June 1918

After a most beautiful night’s sleep I got up at eight o’clock. Took breakfast at my leisure & am now lying under an apple tree in an orchard with the four other men. We are sprawling on the grass in the warm sunshine & a chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace.

We are now going into Hesdin.

Went into Hesdin & bought some gloves. 22 francs. Also some cherries. Afterwards got my hair cut, & had a delicious bath in camp commandant’s enclosure. Returned to mess at 1 pm. After lunch wrote a long letter to Bertha Lamb & also to Florence.

After tea went over churchyard & church with Major Knights & Graham. Then a short walk. Finally we lay in orchard & read. I read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. Have got half way through it.

Now it is dinner time. The army chemical adviser & gas instructor has just rolled in. We start work tomorrow morning. After dinner, went to bed & read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. To sleep by about 10.30 pm. (After dinner a short walk to Barker’s billet.)

Will Spencer
7 June 1918

A letter … for me from Mother, from Florrie’s. …

Mother’s letter contained the news that Percy had received still further promotion, – that he and Horace and Sydney had not yet met in France, but hoped to do so later, – and that Stanley’s name had been suggested to undertake war pictures, & he had “accepted the offer”, & would be leaving his present position.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/29)

“Only 30 miles & we have taken 16 hours so far”

Sydney Spencer had a terrible journey behind the lines on his way to further training. No wonder he had a headache.

Wednesday 5 June 1918

3.45 am. Still seated in a motionless train. No nearer Abbeville, our destination. Eleven hours in the train & about 30 miles or less accomplished. I can hear the cookoo [sic] outside & thrushes singing, which sounds refreshing at any rate!

4.30 am. Still stuck fast!

8.30 am. We have moved a little! But we are not yet at Abbeville. Only 30 miles & we have taken 16 hours so far. Curious coincidence! The CO of chap going on curse with me sat on my right when I took my [illegible] in March! Major Monckton of Balliol!
Stoppage on line caused by Hun bombing line last night. 5 trains now in a long row!

We arrived at Abbeville at 11 o’clock. Changed & got to Etaples at 4.30 pm. Exactly 24 hours to go about 70 miles!

Etaples a glorious white splash of sunshine. The sea looked glorious from the Officers’ Club after dinner. After tea, a shampoo, shave & hot bath. This relieved a racking headache which I had developed. We went for a walk in Etaples & then to bed. Disturbed by a beast of a man who was absolutely blind drunk! He was sick in our tent! After that, peace.

Officers on our course from our corps, myself, Major Knights, [illegible], 2nd Lt Barker & a Welsh officer, Jones by name.

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

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)

Peaceful persuasion

Sydney Spencer moved to better quarters today, while Percy’s regiment was handing out food to starving locals.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 11 May 1918

Got up at 4 am. ‘Stand to’ and took men over to yet another new BP. Got back at 5.30 & slept till 9. Had breakfast brought to me in bivy. After breakfast a shave & wash & wrote long letters to Broadbent & Father & Mother. A note from the Padre re wine bills.

After lunch to change bivys with D Company. Completed by 3.45. Changed my socks & had tea. Wrote to the mother of one of my wounded men. During the ‘bivy’ [illegible] this afternoon saw a very comic fight between two men carrying petrol cans.

After dinner we all sat & waited to ‘scoot’ for A—s, which waiting lasted till 9.45, & then we took up our bed & walked. We arrived at midnight.

Found my platoon’s billet a very cosy one. Came here to our billet. Jolly comfortable. A small room each, and a mess room decked with French flags! Probably an old café’. To bed in my flea bag & valise with clothes off for first time for 15 days, with exception of taking them off for a bath!

Percy Spencer
11 May 1918

A good day. Had tea with my old chums of the 1&2. Called on Blofeld of the TMs, who was full of glee over his TM barrage which led to the 23rd killing 70 Bosch. Met Lynes whose company lost the bit of trench afterwards retaken. He told me trench was full of kit & pillows!

25-0 band conducted by a private (my old friend at Chiseldon – [Henry?] Doe & varsity man – deputy organist of St Paul’s) played outside my orderly room.

A good deal of misery in village owing to a shortage of food, army fed these poor folk. Have an idea this is part of peaceful persuasion scheme. Col. Parish on leave – a great loss to the mess. I prosecuted in SIW case for Col. P. & man was convicted.

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

A strange looking man who looked ill, got into a trench & started making charts

Sydney Spencer was obviously a suspicious looking character! Halma is a strategy board game involving constantly moving pieces across the board.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 10 May 1918

Got up at 7 am and went over to my platoon front to make out my range charts. I was taken for a spy and questioned by an Essex officer. The sentry had described me rather comically. I was to him a strange looking man who looked ill (!!) & wandered about, & finally got into a trench & started making charts!

At 9.45 gave evidence in a case at the orderly room & then had a bath at old brewery. Met Forster & another chap with whom I walked back.

Found that once made, our battle positions were to be changed! We seem to be sort of playing at Halma! After lunch I had a long sleep from 2.15 pm till 4.30 & much I enjoyed it too. Now I am writing to dear old Jumbo [Kenneth] Oliphant who wrote me last night. His address is St Margaret’s, Fern Hill Park, Woking.

Stand to tonight is at 8.15 pm. I took out a carrying party. Two journeys down a road you wot of, master diary. We had one casualty from machine gun fire. A C Company man. Got back at 11.30.

Letters from Florence, Broadbent & Father. Wrote a long letter to Florence.

Percy Spencer
10 May 1918

A glorious day. Paterson lunched with us. The Lance Corporal who was no good – only offence apparently that he plastered tracts on latrine seats.

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

Sweet memories of past summers & bold promises of future ones

Sydney had a day’s rest before venturing into No Man’s Land to set some barbed wire.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 7 May 1918

After a rather damp night I woke up at 6.30. ‘Stand to’ was off owing to rain (stand to in this back area being a sort of eyewash). Just going to put on my steel helmet when I found it full of water! Did not get very wet considering the streams of water I heard running through the roof in different places. I seem to have dodged them, thank goodness!

A freezing day and rained almost incessantly till about 2 pm. Still we had little else to do but snooze & eat all day long. Had a delicious bath at old brewery despite the rain! A swallow got among a pile of tangled hops the while & preened himself & murmured sweet memories of past summers & bold promises of future ones in my ear. After lunch slept.

After tea informed that I was in charge of a wiring party for no man’s land. Started out at 9 pm. Landed at spot at 11.45. Wire etc arrived at 1.45. Worked till 2.45. Got back at 3.45. Saw that men had some tea.

Percy Spencer
7 May 1918

Another wet day. Clearing towards evening. Hun attack expected tomorrow. CO Bar to DSO. Col. Parish DSO. Both dined with General [Mildren?]. Brown Wilkinson came in after mess & talked politics & economics till 11.20 pm. Good stories of parsons – “The first prayer ever addressed to a Boston audience”, & “Oh thou simplest of all beings – I wasna addressing my remarks to the congregation”.

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

“At last I am going to the wars”

There was time for baths all round before Sydney Spencer’s platoon headed to the front line.

Wednesday 1 May 1918

Got up at 8 am. At 9 took the company down to bath at brewery. Had a delicious bath. Men had a huge brewery vat & enjoyed themselves immensely. Baths lasted from 9 am-11.30. Had a long sleep from 12 to 1.

After lunch we had a company conference, I have to take my platoon to south of B-w-y. It seems strange to me that I am going up the line tonight. Proud I am sure, my dear Diary, that at last I am going to the wars.

It is now 9 pm, & I start off at 9.25 pm to Suffolk HQ, to pick up a guide for my platoon post. Arrived at my destination at 10.45. Took over left platoon of ‘C’ company Suffs, under Rowles. Found that there was another platoon of Suffs between myself & Peyton’s platoon. Net result temporary chaos, & a double journey to CHQ in the dark & mud! Got 20 mins sleep before stand to, & ½ an hour before inspection of men’s feet.

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

“At last, Sir, I’ve got my blighty”

One of Sydney Spencer’s men was quite pleased to receive a mild wound – it meant going home to England.

Monday 29 April 1918

Got up early and had a cup of tea & smoke in the cook house. Washed & shaved etc before breakfast, being the only one up! At 9.5 I took usual parade with my platoon. I also inspected No 7 platoon. At 12.30 shrapnel came over & a man in No. 8 platoon got a small wound in the back.

2.45 pm. Just going for a hot bath at the brewery. This did not come off as the rations came & I had to wait & send a note down to Sergeant Green. Had a letter from OB, & one from Cubitt.

After tea went over & had a chat with my men. Made a map of our position.

After dinner, Hervey & Peyton took out working party. My platoon got lost under an NCO who had not been out, and there were some casualties. Some arrived home & some went to dressing stations. I went down to them & saw the casualties. [Cheney?] was one of them and he beamed on me & said, “At last, Sir, I’ve got my blighty”.


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

“10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames”

Sydney Spencer revealed life behind the lines in France in his diary, and wrote to his sister with more details.

Diary
Sunday 21 April 1918

Men bathed today from 9-4. So ‘Beer’ company officers had a rest in bed. Got up at 8.30, had a cold bath. After breakfast wrote to Mother & Father & Florence. It is now 11.15 am. A sunny morn & I am in a bit of pretty woodland. We parade at 11.30 am so I must go.

We had our parade on some fields near to billets. Only a short inspection & a talk and organization of platoon. I take over No 6 Platoon. After lunch took out company for football. After tea went to church in ‘flying fox’ lecture hall. A good service with a band and some solos from Elijah. A lovely day with plenty of sunshine.

After dinner I tried on my field boots which came today. They fit well. To bed at 10. Read Tennyson.

Letter

7th Norfolk Regiment
BEF
France

Sunday
21.4.18

My Dearest Florence & Mr I

Just a short line to let you know that I am very well & quite happy. Nothing exciting has yet taken place. The great pleasure at present is coming across lots of men who used to be in our regiment, who shew in their slow Norfolk way a keen relish at meeting a man of the old (help! I nearly got within reach of the censor I believe!) regiment. Also I have come across two men who were up at Oxford with me, one yesterday & one last week. …

Yesterday night a man was ‘stunting’ in his plane just above us. One moment he was like a calm serene bird floating down the wind. 10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames. I only hope he escaped a horrible death!

All love to you both
Your affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to his sister and brother in law (D/EZ177/8/3/20)

Looking on the white cliffs of Old England

Sydney Spencer crossed over to France.

Monday 8 April 1918

Got to Folkestone at 10 am. Had a hot bath & lunch, & hair cut, am now on board the Victorian, & am up at fore part of vessel watching the loading of SAA ammunition & looking on the white cliffs of Old England, with just here & there a vivid green patch of grass. The whole atmosphere of the thing brings a quiet to my mind after these last few days which is exactly what I needed. 2.30 pm.

Boat started 4.30 pm. Landed. En avant pour la belle France enfin.
Instructions from AMLO office as follows. I go to 7th Norfolks, 12th Division. I dined and slept at the Officers’ Club, a very nice place. I went to RTO office at 8.30 pm & find that I go by train tomorrow at nine, but where I don’t know. At 8.15 pm I saw a nice Padre I met off to Italy via Paris. I have bought a copy of ‘Resurrection’ by Tolstoi [sic]. Tonight I wrote to Florence & Mother & wrote on my envelopes for the first time in my life “on active service”.

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