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)

‘I got a revolver in my tummy for not “giving right password”’

Sydney Spencer’s platoon worked hard behind the lines.

Monday 29 July 1918

I liked today’s programme of work very much. We had from 8.30 to 10.30 out by the wood for platoon training. Took my men in close order drill, & did some communication drill with the NCOs, also PT. Got back to billets at 11. Found that all officers & NCOs from each platoon were to be on range at 2.20 for a demonstration. Tracer bullets were employed on targets. Also phosphorous bombs from discharge cups. Also the New T. Bombs. They seem very effective.

After tea a rest & some games of patience. Late dinner & then night operations. An outpost scheme. We were not informed that there was to be an enemy. This caused lots of “fun”. Major Gethen was captured. I got a revolver in my tummy for not “giving right password”.

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

“News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids”

Sydney Spencer, who oped to train for the Anglican priesthood, disapproved of vulgar songs.

Thursday 18 July 1918

Got up fairly early. News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids. This we did & gave my platoon a talk about maps & did musketry & gas drill in the billet. The men were very pleased with the talk about maps.

After lunch little or nothing doing. I helped Plant with his Battalion dinner for tonight. It was not very successful, I thought. I hate big messes. There were 33 of us there. I rather deplored the songs which were sung after dinner.

I walked home with Kemp & Sergeant told us great news of a big French victory. Some 20,000 prisoners & 300 guns in all, south of us.

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

A good example of a good defensive position

Sydney Spencer and his men practiced tactics before meeting the locals.

Tuesday 16 July 1918

All the servants were very late this morning & we were not called until 7.55. It meant a rush! At nine on parade. Did a good morning’s work consisting of platoon drill, a very thorough inspection, I took the rifle bombers in cup discharge work, then we did a scheme from 11-1. Hervey took out his platoon to a hill with trenches. Kemp attacked. I was in reserve. A good example of how [sic] a good defensive position.

After lunch censored letters. Then went down to Kemp’s billet & played on an atrocious piano. A mademoiselle charmante [charming young lady] spoke pretty broken English, & prettier French. Madame gave me some flowers. Spent a pleasant evening – a really decent one. Acted as interpreter for a photographer who took our drums. The village crier, a pale looking youth with plaintive voice demanded after beating his drum that we should declare the boites de foin [haystacks] gathered in during the [illegible] in the morning.

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

A horrible plague of flies

Sydney Spencer was busy preparing for a return to the trenches.

Monday 15 July 1918

Flies – a scourge of them – woke me up at 5 am & gave me beaucoup d’ennui until 7.30. On parade by 9 am. Had a platoon inspection which lasted an hour. PT for ½ an hour, then got new SBRs, anti [dumming?] composition etc. Had a talk about men’s rations etc. [Illegible] cleared up. Arranged for hair cutting. Got shoulder [illegible], water bottles covered etc, caps changed etc ad infinitum!

Returned to billet. Mended breeches. Got my surplus kit ready to send to Florence. Saw the men’s dinners which were really bad today. We had lots of difficulties in getting water for cooking. Sanitary arrangements in village filthy. Result a horrible plague of flies. The French here seem pleased with us & treat us more courteously than those further north.

Looked round my platoon in afternoon & rested most of evening. There was a fear of our being turned out by N. Hants but this did not come off.


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

A city of silence

Sydney Spencer was cautious about revealing place names in his diary in case of capture by the enemy, but it is clear that he was now at Arras, whose cathedral was severely damaged by German bombs.

Sunday 14 July 1918

Got up at 6.15. Breakfast 6.45. Am orderly officer today. We move at 9. Parade at 8.30. Marched off at 9. Got to busses [sic] (carrying 23 & 2 drivers) & embussed at 11.20 on RVS Road. Started at 11.35…

12.45 A..s a ruined city from the point of view of inhabitants. A fine cathedral. A city of silence. Left A-s at 1.15. D-y at 1.20. Now lying on road between D & St- awaiting orders. It is now 4.15 pm.

Got into village of “Holy Refuge” at 5.30. Saw men into billets. Found officers’ mess no. 38 ‘La Route de Paris’. Dawkins & I found a bed at no. 39. Mounted guard at 7 pm. Conference at 7.30 pm. Had dinner at 8.15. Saw staff parade at 9.30.

Lights out at 10. Turned guard out at 10.45, & then to bed. Had a bed to sleep on but flies were a great nuisance. Dawkins & I in same bed.

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

“Saw poor old Miles’ grave in the cemetery extension”

Sydney Spencer rejoined his unit – and found an old friend’s grave.

Saturday 6 July 1918

Got up after a delightful night’s sleep at 7.45. Dressed in a leisurely fashion as befitted the atmosphere of the charming village & the fact that we did not move till 9.30. A lorry took us through Longvillers to Domleger. 11 a, started for Raincheval for Hedanville. A glorious morning.

Landed at Candas at 11.30. Had an omelette [sic] & tea at Estaminet. Got on board train at 1.30. Started for Raincheval at 2.45. There I found a French go cart waiting for me. I got here through Toutencourt to Harponville. It is now 12 weeks ago that I left there for Maillet-Mailly!

I am resting here at billet no. 102. Hervey, Slater & Bradley here. Saw poor old Miles’ grave in the cemetery extension. Also saw Pte Brooker’s grave, an old 2/5th Norfolk Regt.

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

“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)

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)