“The war is ending, it seems, but the misery of it cannot end with it”

More details of Sydney Spencer’s shell shock not long before his final days.

Oldbury House
Tewkesbury
9 Nov 1918

Dear Mrs Image

I was dreadfully sorry to hear of Sydney’s death, & it must have been a bitter shock to you, especially when you knew that there had been no real necessity for him to go back to duty when he did. You will be impatient to hear what Capt Dillon told me – though I fear it is as unsatisfactory as all such information must be.

The MC was given, not for any single piece of bravery, but for continued good work during the battallion’s [sic] attack at Morlanecourt (near Albert) on Aug 8-10 & during the previous period when the company had a difficult time owing to the German attack on the division immediately on its right. Sydney put in a tremendous amount of work – too much, Capt. Dillon says: he was too careless about himself, got quite insufficient sleep & really prepared the way for his break-down & shell-shock. While in this over-taxed state the company got shelled rather badly, & a shell fell pretty close with the result that Sydney succumbed to the trembling kind of shock & had to go to hospital on Aug 10th. He was not actually wounded, except for a tiny scratch on the upper arm, which they put some iodine & a dressing on. When he got to hospital he pretended, for fun, that he had a very bad wound & the nurse took extra care in unbinding it, but enjoyed the joke when the wound was revealed. He told Capt. Dillon on his return that he was only really ill for three days, but Capt. Dillon thought that he had come back too soon & in any case sooner than he need have done.

He was first of all in hospital at Rouen & then spent time at Trouville. On his return he seemed very well & cheerful: Dillon saw him again on Sept 10th. The battalion was then very busy preparing for the attack which was to be made on Sept 18th. On the 17th he & Dillon had a cheerful chat about prospects: & Sydney said they both would get nice Blighty wounds & go back together & be out of it comfortably; he seemed quite confident that he was coming out of the affair with his life. On the 18th Dillon was wounded, & Sydney took his place automatically. The company had a very bad time & almost everybody was knocked out. This accounts for the fact that there is so great difficulty in getting any particulars. The attack took place east of Epehy, & Dillon thinks that in all probability it was there that Sydney was killed. The line was being advanced at the time, & in those circumstances, it is some slight consolation to know, his body would probably be buried decently & the exact spot recorded. If you wished to make any enquiries on that point the Graves Registration people would be the ones to apply to. I am afraid I don’t know their address. Capt. Dillon suggests as possible sources of information Sydney’s batman, the chaplain or the company sergeant-major; but I think you have already tried those people. The other lieutenant who was with Sydney was also killed at the same time.

Capt. Dillon can’t say much about the time Sydney was in hospital, & he does not understand how it is that you have heard nothing about it: for he knew that Sydney was in the habit of writing very full letters about everything. The lack of news from the 5th to 10th was probably due to the amount of fighting that was taking place. Capt. Dillon suggests that you might get some particulars of what was happening from the “Times” of 8th-10th – which however he says is full of mistakes (it was their battalion who took Morlanecourt, & the Americans had no share in it). But I feel that what you want is more personal details, & though I managed to extract some from Capt. Dillon (which I have told you) there are doubtless others which might be pumped out by yourself but hardly could be by anyone else. Capt. Dillon is apparently a very good sort, but rather lacks the faculty of unbosoming himself to strangers. If you do ever meet him you may be able to do better than I have; as to actual historical details I think he gave me all he could. One point he mentioned which may interest you was that Sydney won his MC within a mile or so of the sport where Percy [his brother] was wounded; Percy’s division being the next but one in the line. You may already know this.

I do hope that Percy’s wrist is making good progress: I had no idea that it was so bad as you say, or that his nerves were so badly upset. The war is ending, it seems, but the misery of it cannot end with it.


Yours sincerely
R. Harold Compton

Letter from R Harold Compton to Mrs Florence Image regarding the death in action of her brother Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/24)

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“The world become more cheerless as we think we must go on to the end without them”

Three more bright young men had made the supreme sacrifice.

Memorial Service

Captain F.S. Brain.
Lieut. H.E. Aust.
Charles D. Freeman.

Three more of those brave spirits to whose return into Church life and usefulness some of us were looking, have heard the call of God and have joined the throngs invading Heaven. Three more have cheerfully and bravely given their lives to make earth clean again, and keep it safe from those who regard honour among the highest and love peace. It is easy to write these words, but behind them our hearts ache with grief and yet rejoice with noble pride.

What then is their loss to those who loved them best? Ah! Theirs is a sorrow beyond human comfort. May the only True Comforter console and sustain all such!

Captain Francis Brain was well known to most of us. Although his College career prevented his active participation in our Church life, his interest in Trinity was very real and true. A quiet, unassuming manner hid intellectual powers of no mean order, and his future was bright with possibility when, at the call of duty all was laid aside. On February 26th, 1915, he obtained his commission in the Royal Berks, being later attached to the 1st Batt. Royal Dorset Regt. He saw much service in France, and had quite recently been promoted Captain. His military record is most fittingly recorded in a beautiful appreciation from which we quote:-

“He was of the type of ‘the happy warrior that every man in arms would wish to be.’ His sterling worth drew men to him in a remarkable degree. He was greatly beloved by the men of his Company and a great favourite with every single Officer. In the trenches he was splendid, absolutely fearless, and with never a thought of self. He has been tried to the uttermost and found worthy.”

Warm tributes of affection and high regard have been received.

His Major writes: – “His death has been a great blow to all who knew him. He was loved and esteemed by all ranks of the Battalion, particularly the men of his own company.”

A fellow Officer says: – “I served for a considerable time with your son, and I was very sincerely attached to him. We all loved him- his cheeriness and good fellowship – always ready with a bit of a song to cheer one up in the most cheerless circumstances; but above all the absolute honesty and straightforwardness of his character.”

His servant Wrote: – “It is impossible to tell you in words how awfully sorry everyone in my Company feels at having lost such a good Officer. I myself know that it will be impossible to get another such Officer to be a servant for.”

Lieutenant Harry Aust was equally well known. He was a member of the Institute and had been a willing worker in all its activities. In the School at Spencers Wood his work will belong remembered, and his memory cherished. He too answered duty’s call at the outbreak of war, and, on joining, at once received a commission. On one occasion he was gassed, and later was so severely wounded that he spent eleven months in hospital. But such was his indomitable spirit and high courage that, contrary to expectations, he forced his recovery and returned to France to make the supreme sacrifice that England might live.

Charlie Freeman had been abroad for the last five years in the service of the Eastern Telegraph Company. Yet many of us knew him well, having watched him grow up, and we loved his bright happy nature. He came home this summer on leave and spent a gloriously time joy which had its consummation in his marriage. It was on his way back to his duties that the vessel was torpedoed, and he lost his life in the service of his country equally with those who fall in battle.

So one by one the war takes toll of Trinity’s best, and the world become more cheerless as we think we must go on to the end without them.

Trinity Congregational Magazine, November 1918 (D/EX1237/1)

“When my enemy is dead then he is but a soul thrown into the boundless space of infinity, & he is no longer my enemy”

We have followed the story of Sydney Spencer from timid young man scared by the roughness of the army, but driven to join up; through his finally ariving at the front in 1918, to an experience with shell shock in August. Sadly, he would not survive the war. This is the last full letter written by Sydney to his beloved sister Florence; a couple of field postcards followed, before his death in action less than two months before the end of the war. Here he describes his current bivouac, and spares a thought for the enemy. His story epitomises the tragedy of the war, and his spirit shines through the years between us.

Sept 15th 1918
7th Norfolks
My Dearest Florence

My pillow is my haversack containing iron rations, my bedding, borrowed Burberrys eyc. (My kit – all of it – is still wandering about between here & Cox & Co’s London!) Now for the door which is the chef d’oeuvre! It is about 2 ½ feet square i.e. the opening of it! The door is a lid of a sugar box which just fits it! Hence when I go to bed, I lie down on the ground & pull myself into the bivouac by my hands. When I go out, I have to go feet first, & back out probably looking about as dignified in the action as does a dog over whose head some wretched boy has tied a paper bag! Dear old Dillon [his captain] chuckles with delight when he sees me getting in & out. My batman is about as big as I am [Sydney was rather small] & he & I are about the only two who can fit inside! Mind you I believe that he & Bodger (Dillon’s batman) made the entrance small on purpose, a covert pulling of my leg. Nevertheless it is so ‘cumfy’ [sic] & warm & dry I love the little spot. Its dimensions are 7 feet length, 4 feet breadth. Height 2 ½ to 3 feet high. Voila ma cherie. Vous avez une phantasie vraisemblable de ma maisonette qui doit vous donner a rire? [This rather bad piece of French translates as “there you are, my darling. You have a vision resembling my little house which will make you laugh”.] …

Two nights ago German aeroplanes (note I say German, I hate ‘Hun’, ‘boche’ etc, it is petty!) came over on bombing intent. A low moon sickly behind a cloud hung (it could not do much else by the way!) in the sky! Planes over. Lights out! The usual boredom. Then about 14 search lights crisscrossed in the sky. Hallo, they have got one in the ray. I had my strong field glasses & there sure enough in the focus of about a dozen searchlights I could see him. He glowed against the deep blue green of the sky, like those lovely flies of May which have transparent emerald green wings. The usual rat-a-tan of machine guns & the muffled boom of shells bursting round him followed. Then high above him appeared a speck of light like a star which winked & glowed & winked again. Machine gun fire stopped. This was one of our men after him. A moment of waiting, a dull spark of light like a shooting star (a tracer bullet) sped by the enemy plane, another one, a momentary pause then a sheet of flame curved gracefully to earth followed by a brilliant stream of coloured lights – some mystic comet from a Miltonian chaos & dark night it looked – & the soul of an enemy passed into the infinite. Over lonely wooden crosses in shell holes one sees in German characters a name & above it the one word ‘Ruhe’ [rest]. I felt that for him. Through all this I cannot help preserving the thought that when my enemy is dead then he is but a soul thrown into the boundless space of infinity, & he is no longer my enemy. Another enemy plane came, another fight took place & he sped to earth at a sickly pace, his signal rockets all colours bursting out behind him in reckless profusion. I suppose he crashed to earth too somewhere, but he did not set on fire.

This afternoon I was in my nothings & a very smart sergeant came up to me & said, “Are you Sydney Spencer”? Well I thought “Yes I am Sydney Spencer as it happens but anyway what the – is it to do with you”, & then “My word, it is Frank Godfrey!” My dear, I was so overwhelmed at meeting someone from Cookham, that I nearly fell on his neck in front of the whole company – all with their nothings on – & wept. I had not seen him since Aug 1914. Thus does anyone from home stir one!

Percy. How is he? I hoped he would be held in bed for months to prevent his coming out soon….

Leave. Think, Florence, I have been out here 6 months & possibly before Christmas I may get leave! And then a rug in front of a warm fire, your sweet selves to charm me to laziness and – oh well – let’s wait till it comes off. I might get impatient if I wrote more on that score. …

Cigarettes. By the way, you said in one of your letters that you had sent Dillon 500 cigarettes. I think from a business point of view you should know that the parcel contained 200. He did not tell me for a long time, but when he did, I thought you ought to know in case Coln Lunn [the merchant] made a mistake & only packed 200, charging you with 500.

The men were delighted with the share they got of them. Dillon, dear old chap, was almost pathetically grateful….

My kit & cheque book are wandering about somewhere in France or England & have been doing so for the last about 40 days, & at present I sit twiddling my thumbs & waiting! When I came out of hospital, lo! I had no hat, no belt, no change of linen, no nothing except for a pair of Tommy’s slacks & a tunic! I managed to go to Le Havre where I spent fabulous sums on making myself look like an officer, having managed to borrow a cheque, which I changed at Cox & Co’s…

By the way, darling, you may send that kit for which I asked although probably by the time I get it all my other kit will come tumbling back & then I shall be once more told I possess too much.

All love to you my sweet sister & to John, of whose approbation – told me through your letters – I am more proud than I can say

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/3/79-82)

“I keeps my pecker up”

Sydney Spencer greatly admired his commanding officer, Captain Dillon.

July 31st [1918]
My Dearest Florence

My clothes are literally falling to pieces & my batman is going on strike if I don’t soon do something about it. So here goes. Will you be sweet & send me my trousers & best tunic keeping the brass buttons on it as these brown buttons are an “anathema” in the regiment. Also the tunic will need Norfolk badges put on it if I remember. Don’t send the old trousers but the new ones (they are of the same material as the tunic is barathia)!!!

I have sent so much kit home that things are getting almost to an indecent stage! And I simply refuse to continue this existence in breeches any longer! Also my pyjamas (the one pair I have have parted company in the middle, almost. In a day or two I am expecting to put them on one leg at a time! I have to do that always, but you know what I mean! It won’t be funny much longer however. Also (patience darling, I hang on as long as possible & then ask for lots of things at once so as not to be continually worrying you), I need about 1 dozen dark collars size 14 ½, 6 handkerchiefs, 2 pairs of thin short pants & another thin shirt. Also (!!) my batman orders me to get at once some Proberts mahogany brown polish for my belt & boots. He nearly ticked me off yesterday because I hadn’t written before!

Now to be pleasant & chatty. Since I wrote you I have moved about 30 miles. The best of it is that the flies here are about 75 % less than down where we were. Moving in this broiling weather is very fatiguing. But I keeps my pecker up & there is always something funny or incongruous to be amused or puzzled over. I wish I had time to write you sketches of French life as seen in these funny little villages. Some would amuse, some would make you sad, others not bearing the repeating, being of a nature that although highly amusing, are so essentially ‘not done’ in England, that they would leave you breathless.

When I tell you that there are practically no sanitary arrangements, & that all French cottages possess manure heaps (of which even Job himself could not complain) in their front gardens, you can imagine that [there are] times when life is not only embarrassing but precipitate.

I told you about my platoon being the winner of competitions in my last letter. My skipper – Capt. Dillon to boot – was very pleased as it brought credit on his company. By the way, he has a great love for Gold Flake cigarettes. Would you like just to please me to send him a tin, only putting your name on it, as sending them. He would be delighted & I could tell him they came from you afterwards.

He is such a splendid chap & I would like him to feel that I appreciated him & a tin of 100 gold flakes would please him immensely.

His address is the same as mine. Captain G Dillon MC, 7th Norfolks, BEF.


All love to you both from your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Diary
Wednesday 31 July 1918

Got up at 6.30 & went down to the stream at the bottom of the garden, & had a splash in the cool cold water. On parade at 8 am & did an hour’s march [in] full marching order. Then half an hour’s PT & ½ hour’s gas drill. Cut my foot slightly when bathing this morning. Having a rest surreptitiously on Dillon’s bed. Feel very tired after yesterday.

Letter and diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/59-66; D/EZ177/8/15)

A good billet

Sydney was on the move.

Tuesday 30 July 1918

Was awakened at 6.30 by Home, Dawkins’ batman, with the news that we were moving! So had to get a move on. Paid billets, got packed & ready to march off by nine. Got mess kit packed up & sent off too. At 9.30 inspected billets. At 8.45 am ready to march off. Moved off about 10. Marched to a place called P-z!

Entrained & travelled for about 3 hours north, & slightly west; unloaded & marched here to this pretty village, whose name would make a man turn round if one called it out behind his back! Found the men, then billet after much trouble. A good billet too. Our mess & sleeping quarters as at 44A. A beautiful garden at back & a stream in which I had a bath at bottom of garden. To bed at 10 pm. Feeling very tired after this very hot day!

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

“My dear old platoon”

We last saw Sydney marching back from the trenches through the night.

Wednesday 10 July 1918

We were marching still when Wednesday came in. Arrived at our first long resting place between W & V at about 3 am. We had a cup of tea & a biscuit on the wet ground for which I am very grateful. Slept with my head on my pack after discovering that my batman had left my burbury behind & brought with him an old one!

Started off again at 5.30 & got here to H…t at 7. Saw men into tents. Then wandered about rather unhappily not knowing whether I belonged to C Company or not, at last orderly room let me come back to B Company at 11.30 on parade. Saw my dear old platoon again.

After lunch took my clothes off & got into my valise in the sunshine. Slept until rain caught me. Slept till 5. Dressed & tea. Spent evening lolling etc.

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

“No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist”

Percy told sister Florence about a day off – visiting friends in the trenches.

June 17, 1918
My dear WF

I must have written you a pippy letter – a poor return for all you do for me. I’m sorry.

Many thanks for the splendid tinder lighter and the other items in the parcel. I think I must have left several pairs of socks at 27 Tattray Road, as I do not recognise those you have sent. You are quite right, it wasn’t eyelets but “the things you twist the laces round” I wanted.

I’m still here amongst the strange insects. Never have I seen such a variety of dragonflies, and just now a pair of very large gaudy yellow birds I can’t give a name to came & had a battle outside this bivouac.

Yesterday I had a rather hard but jolly holiday. I got up about 6 am, nightingales singing gloriously, had brekker, and started off up the line with my batman. Just as I started the Huns commenced to shell the village nearby I was going through, which I thought was very thoughtful of them as it gave me an opportunity to go by another route and avoid the place. After a couple of hours walk through charming scenery and peaceful valleys I arrived at my destination. I had only intended stopping an hour, but eventually stopped all day. To lunch so that I could first go round the trenches and see the boys. To tea so that I could play bridge with the CO. Walking across country, taking short cuts and dodging unhealthy places is awfully tiring so I slept gloriously last night and got up late.

Enclosed for John’s edification I send you a note from my rough diamond No. 6 [not found in the archive]. No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/45-46)

A new star

Always interested in the natural world, Sydney Spencer was excited by news of a newly discovered nova.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 15 June 1918

I was orderly officer today & got up at 5.45, & saw the men’s breakfasts. Came back to mess, washed & dressed. After breakfast I wrote to some Scotch firm about shortbread. Looked round billets, then gathered up officers’ advance pay books & orders for pay for Battalion. Dillon let me have his horse ‘Charlie Chaplin’ & I rode to Acheux & got the money. A glorious morning. Saw Barker’s batman & sent message to him. Got back at 12.30. Dished money out.

After lunch took drummers up to range & picked up clips & ‘empties’. After tea wrote letters. After dinner a staff parade. Capt. Weave is back with Battalion. Dillon taught me double patience & we played a game, up till 11 pm. I used my new field glasses to try & find the new star in Aquila but I couldn’t find it.

End of 10th week [at the front].

Florence Vansittart Neale
15 June 1918

Expected 2 officers but they did not come.

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

“Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X – a lamentable sight.”

Civilians were among the victims of German poison gas.

Tuesday 11 June 1918

Got up at 7.45 am. Got my kit packed by Fox [his batman]. Had breakfast, & then Jones stropped my razor & got a really good shave. After breakfast got down to Hesdin station. Train was due to leave at 10.15 so Graham & I bought biscuits, strawberries & bananas to eat if no food was available. Started at 11.45. Got to St Pol at 1.15. Lunch at the EFC canteen. Town has been fairly well shelled & bombed. Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X. ‘De profundis’ a lamentable sight.

7.30 pm Candas. We stay the night here at Candas as we cannot go further until tomorrow morning at 7.30. Tea at Café’ [illegible] Henly. Then kits to RTO office, a walk and dinner at same café’. Just discovered that I have left my advance pay book & my cheque book, ‘horribili dictu’, at Marronville!

After dinner I made paper frogs for French officers who thought them ‘tres gentils’. To bed at rest camp at 10 pm.

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

A bolt from the blue

Aeroplanes overhead were becoming common both in France and on the home front.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 4 June 1918

I am seated in a waggon for 40 hommes or 8 chevaux at Candas! How do I come to be here? Well, hear my story with patience, my dear diary!

I rose at 6.30 as usual, on parade etc at 7 as usual, company training as usual till 10 am, & then a bolt from the blue! In other words a note from Mark Tapley to the effect that I would report Marronville for a gas course on the 7th, taking at least 36 hours to get there!

I promptly made up mess accounts. Came to P[u?]chvillers by mess cart with Fox, my batman. Caught a train at 4.30 & have now been waiting nearly 2 hours for this train to start!

The train started and we moved on in fits & starts. How many miles we moved I do not know, as I slept by fits and starts. Just before midnight, however, I woke to the tune of Fritz aeroplanes. He dropped sundry bombs starting a fire not far off to N. West.

William Hallam
4th June 1918

Last night I heard an aeroplane going over. I got up and looked out of the window and saw it drop a star light.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and William Hallam of Swindon (D/EX1415/25)

“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
Doncaster
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
Sydney

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