“Far away from my battalion and the plague of khaki”

Percy had gone on ahead of his unit to arrange billets in the French countryside.

June 19 [1918]
My dear WF

I like this place. Far away from my battalion and the plague of khaki, here I am billeting – at least I was yesterday.

Today I’m just waiting for my people to turn up.

I like the chateau with its monster lime trees – one, the largest I have ever seen. And I like the big farmer who took me into a direct current from his styes and there held me in lengthy conversation – and the old ladies apparently born in strait waistcoats who hold one spellbound for hours in a flood of patois out of which one thing only is clear – they require an exorbitant price for what they are pleased to call an officers’ mess.

The postman, fat & aged, is refreshing too. His cheerful announcement of letters & postcards with all details and contents of the letter is good to the heart. His cheery good day to me as I passed and request for a cigarette & explanation that tobacco is very scarce went straight to my cigarette case.

And then there is M. le Maire, schoolmaster & umpteen other things, who left his overalled charges to show me billeting matters and give me lengthy explanations only pausing to hurl corrections across the courtyard to the schoolroom, where one of the boys was reading aloud.

And then there is Madame at the estaminet where I have my temporary headquarters, who provides me with an interminable reserve of eggs and coffee, and constant shocks. The climax was reached when I asked for milk, and taking a homely bedroom utensil [a chamberpot!], she drew therein a supply from her little goat and served me liberally therefrom.

And that’s my village.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/47-49)

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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)

Battalion HQ in very deep dugout

Sydney had a sightly better journey today, and paid more attention to the controversial Billing case at home.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 6 June 1918

Rose at 5 am. Got breakfast, & into the train for Hesdin by 6.30. It is now 9.30 & we haven’t yet started. Another glorious morning, all sunshine.

Billing has been pronounced ‘not guilty’. Justice Darling makes use of the following expression, ‘I tell you now that I do not care a bit for you or anyone like you, or what you say about me’ seems ridiculously childish. A street boy would have pulled a face & said ‘yar ‘oo cares for you’ & would have called for more conviction with him!

Started for Hesdin (30 miles) at 9.30. Got there 11.30. Wonderful. Lorry jumped to Marronville, arriving at 12 noon. Graham & I billeted at the mead, a long low white cottage facing the church. Mess will be started tomorrow morning.

Had lunch at the Hotel de Commerce. Walked back to billets. Slept. Got some [illegible] out of the sergeant. Walked down with Graham & Barker to Hesdin. Had dinner at the Hotel de France. Back by 9.15 & to bed. Started reading Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet. A very droll book.

Percy Spencer
6 June 1918

17th relieved us and we went into support. Battalion HQ in very deep dugout.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 June 1918

Early church – dog walk – then fussed to find rooms for farm workers till lunch. Heard another officer coming today & one tomorrow. Captain Petcher AFC Maidenhead called on Miss Areson.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Looking more or less like an Englishman, instead of a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather”

Sydney and Percy Spencer both took the opportunity to write to their sister.

May 28th [1918]
My Darling Florence & Mr I.

Now it is really a time of rest & once more I can sit at a table again looking more or less like an Englishman & feeling very much like one too, instead of looking like a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather. Your parcel of toffy & chocolate was very much enjoyed

May 29th
I am simply bursting to tell you of a frightful row between my platoon & the villagers who possessed the little orchard in which they live. Suffice it to say that, broken bottles, language, shovels, dogs, tent mallets, myself, 4 sergeants & the town mayor (an aged full colonel) were chief actors in the scene, to say nothing of a goat which eats my men’s soap and children who steal their rifle oil to put on boots & other little etceteras! Happily we decamped before anything more than threatened warfare had taken place.

The cause of the quarrel? I was ordered to make my tent bombproof which meant digging up the floor of the tent & heaping up round it. This raised the ire of Monsieur et Madame et les petits!…

Your always affectionate

Brer
Sydney

May 29, 1918
My dear WF

Wants as usual.

6 pots of Properts MAHOGANY polish & invoice, please.

1 bottle of fountain pen ink. Boots have some Watermans boxes if you cannot get Swan. Everyone borrows mine & then complain that it’s bad ink!

The polish is for the CO so I hope Thrussells will come up to scratch. He can’t get it from his wife. Thrussells can pack it no doubt. Rather elliptic, but you’ll understand.

Well dear, it’s a lovely day – the planes have been doing stunts over the line and all’s merry & bright. Our quarters are good shelter but no cover against fire so I wasn’t particularly happy last night when the Hun commenced shelling. We have also had a fairly consistent bombing stunt nightly – very pretty to watch but too near to be pleasant.

The other day – Sunday in fact – I went all over one of our tanks. Life inside one must be pretty cramped and unhappy [censored].

My quarters on Sunday were in the guest chamber of a ruined chateau. A shell had had an extraordinary career through the next room but except for windows my room was all right. We went there as our previous quarters were stiff with guns of all sizes firing into our back doors. When some 9 1/2s began to arrive we moved. The concussion of those beggars is terrific.

Yours ever
Percy

Letters from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/38-39); and Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/40)

Pot shots over the parapet

Soldiers coped with the onslaught in different ways.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 26 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

I came on trench duty at 12.30 am till stand down (normally at 4.30, but as the mist was very strong & heavy we stood to till 7). I then went on strike & had breakfast after 5 ½ hours trench duty!

At 7.30 I found Rolfe & Peyton taking pot shots over the parapet with Mills bombs & rifle grenades. Just for the sake of old times I threw one through the crater. It fell in our wire. At 10 the Bosche started a strafe on the whole of our front. This lasted until 12.30. I & my platoon grovelled on the trench bottom & made accusative remarks about his bad shooting, & Corporal Bindey [?] & I studied an ants’ nest to while away the time!

After lunch I was on duty again from 2 till 4 pm. After tea for about 10 minutes I suffered complete demoralisation, goodness only knows why! I slept for 1 hour & then as no evening hate took place at 6 pm I went to company headquarters & rested till dinner time.

After dinner I got ready to hand over after 9 days in line! Then came orders to stand to as a raid was expected. Discovered a ground search light on our front at 2.35. It played all along our front.

Percy Spencer
26 May 1918

Communion service in grass avenue outside chateau. Went over a tank.

Moved up close to Lavieville. Not bad quarters but well bombed all around & no protection. Hartley joined us.

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

“Those lovely old 5.9 shells do make me feel skittish when they land near the parapet”

The Germans were shelling Sydney in the front lines, and Percy some way back.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 25 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

This night I had a certain amount of good sleep from 3 am, but stand down wet & rained until about 10 am, then we had the usual strafe on my platoon front. No casualties, although those lovely old 5.9 shells do make me feel skittish when they land near the parapet.

We had a quiet time then for the rest of the day & the mud dried up pretty well. Tours of duty during the day very exhausting owing to the heat & drying mud. Master Hun kept quiet until 6 pm when he sent over his usual short hate on our front. Mostly 4.2 & block shrapnels. This evening I had a quiet night. No working parties & no patrols to do. I managed to get to my bivy and get sleep from about 12 till 3. A clear morning.

Percy Spencer
25 May 1918

Some 9.2s turned up to help make me unhappy. Struck camp at 2 pm as Bosch began shelling & moved to Bazieux ruined chateau. [Spring?] in cellar. Slept in gorgeous chamber sans fenetres [without windows] on the sunny side of the house.

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

Glorious sunshine – good for the Bosch, worse luck

Sydney Spencer was poised to move up the line to the worst action.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 17 May 1918

After a very good night’s sleep I got up at 3.30 after smoking a cigarette & taking an infinite childish delight in watching the bewildering clouds of vapours curling along the narrow slant of the shaft of sunshine which came through the small attic window in my room.

After breakfast I took rifle inspection afterwards. Sat & worked at mess bills & got them settled thank goodness. After lunch I went round to B HQ, settled up wine bills & left 80 francs with Sergeant Green for buying stuff while we are up the line.

It is now 4 pm & at 8.30 we go up the line again. So, my dear diary, I close your pages for a few days, as although I have been very careful to tell you little or nothing that is compromising, I dare not take you near where you might be taken prisoner! So au-revoir!

By the way, last night the Buffs made a big raid. Killed about 300, took prisoners, & got off with less than 10 casualties. It is a scorching hot day. We started out for the front line at 8.30 & got there at 11.15 & took over the trench without further ado – had absolutely no excitement getting there either.

Percy Spencer
17 May 1918

6 pm report from QM re petrol tins.

The best day since I arrived, a glorious sunshine. But good for the Bosch, worse luck. Division to be relieved tonight. We endeavouring to stay in Warlos for a might at least. Got NCO promotions nearly up to date, & a letter register started.
Pushed out of Warlos by 58th. Went to camp on hillside. Close quarters but lovely day. CO went to command 141.

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

Moving from billet to barn, from barn to billet

Sydney Spencer hosted a big dinner.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 16 May 1918

I was orderly officer today so that today’s diary means: Reporting B HQ at 8.45, inspecting billets from 9.30-11.30, censoring letters from 11.30 till 12.30, inspecting dinners. After lunch a lie down, a short read, mounting guard at 3.30. Dismounting old guard. 4 pm tea.

After tea preparation for dinner guest night. Dinner a huge success. Consisted of soup, choufleur au gratin [cauliflower cheese], salmon mayonaize (don’t know how to spell it!), pork with baked potatoes & cauliflower, and sweet of plum pudding & custard – savouries of hard boiled egg etc on toast, coffee, biscuits, chocolate & cheese, port, sherry, whiskey & lime juice, & smokes. Do not think, my dear old diary, that I am a gourmand! I hate remembering what I have eaten. But I just put it down as a curiosity in this year of the war 1918!

Took staff parade, visited guard. Mess crowded with officers & all company & when I got to bed they had a jolly time.

Percy Spencer
16 May 1918

Cash. I went to Beaucourt to draw cash. Met Anderson who asked to be remembered to WF [Percy’s sister Florence Image]. Spent day in moving from billet to barn, from barn to billet.

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

“A bicycle made for two”

More from the Spencer brothers.

Will Spencer
15 May 1918

Some French soldiers were resting on the benches on the paved platform between the two buildings of the Blumlisalp Hotel. For the first time I had the feeling that the [interned] soldiers at this hotel were in some respects better off than those at the Waldpark. The hotel has more the unpretentious character of an Inn – is more rustic & more cheerful, with its water trough by the road & its tree-planted space between the two buildings. One of the soldiers was whistling the tune of “A bicycle made for two”, & I was surprised & amused to find that J. knew the words to almost the whole of the tune – which was more than I did.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 15 May 1918

3.30 pm. I am seated now, guess where, my dear diary? At Major Bracey’s working table at his billet! Only 3 kilos from where I at present live. I have just ridden over on Capt. Rolfe’s gee. Major Bracey is out however & won’t be back till 5, so I shall stick here to see him & having the football match I half promised to play in. I hope there won’t be a dust up about it though. It will be splendid to see old Bracey again, it is 14 months since I last saw him. Had a day off today. Dear old Rolfe, he did the straight by me after my two rather thorny days on Monday & Tuesday. Have just written to Father & Mother.

At 5.30 pm.
Major Bracey did not turn up. I waited till nearly 6 pm. Rode back. Watched football match between officers & men – a drawn game. After dinner walked over, saw dear old Bracey who cheered me up immensely. He walked back part of the way with me. To bed at 10.30 & read more of my book.

Percy Spencer
15 May 1918

A glorious sunshiny day. A good deal of trouble over billets. Trying to hang on in Warlos for a night at least. Division to be relieved tonight. Up half the night sorting details. Eventually turned in at 3 am after champagne supper & slept on floor in a company mess. Fritz bombed outskirts of village.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

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)

“We all had to doss down in the Officers’ Mess bivy as thick as sardines”

Sydney was now out of the trenches again, but found himself in sub-standard accommodation.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 6 May 1918

Although we all had to doss down in the Officers’ Mess bivy as thick as sardines, I got a good night’s sleep & got up at 8 am. It has been a glorious day throughout, warm, sunny & really like May weather. We did little all day except clean up after our four days in the trenches. At noon the Div[ision] General came round our line. He had a few things to say but seemed quite pleasant.

After lunch got my shave which I needed so badly, & then took Sergeant Leigh & section commanders over to shew them their battle positions. Then drew my range chart.

After tea letters came on from Florence. Her letters make landmarks, always welcome when they appear.

Went over my platoon front again, & drew a sketch of main features. Stand to at 8.30. Men dug fire steps or rather dug positions for themselves. Dinner at 9.15.

After dinner beds warm & cosy at first, & then it rained & rained & I look up to find little streams falling on my eyes.

Percy Spencer
6 May 1918

Another wet day. M. le Maire [the local mayor] dined with us & confessed to 4 Hun & 4 British rifles buried as souvenirs.

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

A most queer looking article: first sight of a tank

Percy Spencer was struggling with morale in France, while a tank visited Swindon.

Percy Spencer
29 April 1918

Letter to COs re deficiencies. Battalion moved by lorry to [Warlos?]. Rotten trip. Feeling wretched myself. Had to bolt for it during a check, close to French troops playing games & using [untrailleuse?]. Splendid troops. Long hopped till I caught column. A bad move – billets not fixed up.

William Hallam
29th April 1918

This morning bitterly cold – enough for snow – the wind still N or N.E. I cam home at ½ past 5 to-night and rushed over my tea and washed and dressed and with wife went over Hay Lane into Victoria Rd to see the Tank Julian come down from the Square to the Public Offices. A most queer looking article. I never saw such a crowd in Swindon before. Could hardly move out of the crowd all round the Town Hall when once we got in. The kids and hooligans swarmed up those lime trees round the space at the back and broke them about something scandalous.

Florence Vansittart Neale
29 April 1918
Modeste left. George Harding came to say goodbye. Going depot at Dover. Soldiers came [and] cleared later. Some out on boat, bowls, billiards.

Diaries of Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); William Hallam (D/EX1415/25); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war”

Sydney Spencer was now very close to the action, as he confided in both his diary and a letter to sister Florence (written in pencil on a scrap of paper). His fluency in French meant he was the recipient of the sorrows of an elderly Frenchwoman.

Diary
Wednesday 24 April 1918

After a very peaceful night I got up at 7.30. after breakfast had a rifle inspection. Made up mess acocount. Wrote to OB. Sent cheque to W H Smith & Sons. We march off & dig in at 2 pm. We go to M-M. We arrived here at 8.45 pm. Our platoons dug in & made cubby holes. Before one could say knife they had scrounged any mount of loot & made cubby houses! One was named Norfolk Villa, another “Tumbledown Nest”. Another “Home sweet home”.

Two pathetic incidents, an old lady horribly crippled finished her plaint weeping, “Vous me donnerez, M’sieur, [meme?] grand service si vous tirez a moi”! [You will give me great service, sir, if you will shoot me.]

Another, outside our cellar here in the yard lies a cross with grave number & the legend ‘A British soldier’. Tonight Frost found some flour someone else went to move. Brought back some sort of [lime?]. The two were mixed before I discovered the mistake. Result chaos!

Guns are behind us now firing considerably in “crashes on suitable targets”!


Letter

24.4.18
My dearest Florence

A cellar in a ruined village, straw on the floor, 4 candles, a brazier, a table ‘scrounged’ from somewhere with glasses, table cover & supper in preparation. Artillery getting ever louder & nearer. And that is how I approach nearer the real thing. It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war. I suppose it is a case of fools & angels again!

Only twice have I been made to feel the effect of war. Outside leaning against the wall is a small wooden cross torn up from goodness knows where & on it the legend “A British Soldier” and a grave number. An old lady, very crippled, who wept & spoke patois, poured her troubles into my ears, seated on a pile of wood & earth. I was the only one who could understand her so I had to bear the brunt of all her troubles. I will not tell you all she said, but when I told her gently that there was nothing I could do, she wept and pathetically asked me whether I would do her the kindness of shooting her! My captain, who says that he is a well seasoned soldier, was quite touched by the incident, so you can imagine that I had to take very great care to preserve an outward calm.

But still my darling Florence I am as I have repeatedly said, very perky & as well & vigorous as ever I have been. My tootsies are just a little weary after much walking about today, but otherwise c’est une bagatelle.

All love to you my darling sister &
Cheer Ho

Your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Same address
I am Mess President of my Company. Tonight my [illegible] discovered some flour in a disused mill, another went for more & brought back some lime, both were mixed before I discovered mistake. Result chaos!!!

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/22)

“All of a tremble: I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire”

Sydney Spencer and his battalion were on the move, and getting ever closer to the action.

Tuesday 23 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. Got kit packed & mess kit packed. No parades today. Went for short walk in woods. A lovely morning. The young trees looked their lovely ‘shrill green’. Violets & cowslips everywhere. After lunch we had a mess meeting. Drink bills were settled up, thank goodness. I paid in for B company 160 francs. It is now time to get ready for our route march to Lillevillers, so we is off [sic] 5.45 pm.

10.15 pm. Arrived at Lealv-s at 8 pm. Have had supper. Papers have arrived. We move on tomorrow & dig in behind Mailly-Maillet by daylight. So I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire. I am all of a ‘thremble’ [sic] at the idea and as Aunt L would say, here’s a nice kettle of fish. Hervey and I are billeted at No. 75. Artillery is making some row just at present.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (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)