“If only Fritz would drop a bomb on it, it would save further argument”

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence to let her know how he was getting on. The following day he was to be wounded.

Aug 6, 1918
My dear WF

Almost I’ve forgotten how to write a letter. Lately I have been so busy picking up the threads and so on that I haven’t had time to write a line since July 14, I think it was – not even to write and wish you many happy returns of the 4th. However I’ll put the clock back a couple of days and do it now.

My diary has gone during the last few weeks and I’m racking my brain for news.

To go back, I finished my course on the 17th. My section, 4/7 of which was my Division, won the School cup. The runners up were also 4/7 my Division. So we set our caps at the Canadians, Australians & our friends from USA and swanked. Also individually my section scored highest marks in the examination. My own report read –
Qualifications Very good
Power of command Ditto
Keen

So there was much rejoicing and our [HLI?] instructor got very tipsy at our expense and insisted on singing all the Scotch songs ever written, and some which I believe had before scarcely escaped the boundaries of his “wee bit hoos ben” or some such foreign place.

After that I returned “here” – that’s interesting. From here I went up the line once or twice, and then went “there” and billeted the Battalion. With the aid of 200 men, made the area reasonably clean, and HQ habitable. There was even a piano and one evening we had our string trio over to play to us at mess, and afterwards the doctor (from USA) with a fine voice, sang to us and made us all homesick. And the adjutant begged for Raff’s [Cantina?] and got it, and wondered how I knew when I turned to him during the piece and said, “Your wife plays this”.

And then I came here again & the adjutant being inoculated & sick, I had to ride up the line and take over. And now I am here again (and it’s pouring with rain) in an abandoned cottage with an earth floor and leaky roof and really very comfortable. To a newcomer it would be startling to go round a battalion’s “billets” and hear our boys tell the visiting officer that they were quite comfortable in a tumbledown outhouse or barn. Someday again I expect we shall get luxurious again.

Had one very bad night here during an event I expect you are now reading about. Fritz bombed all night and generally played the devil. A few days before a billet of ours was gutted by fire due to another unit’s fault. Luckily overnight I had organised our people for such an event, and in 25 minutes we had it out and a large farm saved. The other unit having at last accepted liability, rebuilt the place. I remarked that if only Fritz would drop a bomb on it, it would save further argument. He did, but not till it had been rebuilt & occupied and the farmer was gloating over new buildings for old.

The CO has just turned up so I’ll close while I have the opportunity.
With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/58-60)

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A serious and urgent matter

The rush to join up had left many voluntary organisations short of staff, and churches were no exception, as Newbury discovered. Even women were in shorter supply than usual. But that did not stop the rector from encouraging still more to join up.

We need several more Sunday School Teachers for the Boys’ School and for the Infants School, and the Rector will be glad to receive the names of volunteers. We also need some more men in the Choir. Of course we know that a number of men have left to join the forces, and that a number of women are busily engaged during the week in work for their country and the soldiers: yet this is not the time to let things get slack at the Church and it ought to be a point of honour with the parishioners to keep everything connected with their Parish Church at a high pitch of excellence.

May we once more remind our readers and the parishioners generally of the duty of regularly attending the Parish Church during the War, and of taking part in the frequent intercessions which are used there. The special prayers at Evensong on Sunday are now said at the Altar after the Sermon – they are also used at all the daily services – and are there not a number of those who have relatives at the Front, and who therefore need much encouragement in their anxiety, who might try to come to either the Wednesday or Friday night choral evensong at 7.30pm, when they would be cheered by the bright service?

The Editor will be glad to receive any news from the Front, which relations of men may care to send to him for insertion in the Parish Magazine. There are now a large number of our young men in the forces, and we have a long list of names on the Intercession Board at the Church. It is a great pleasure to see our old boys at home on leave looking so fit and well, and it is clear that the training and discipline which they receive is a splendid thing for them. All honour be to them for their courage and self-sacrifice. We should like to congratulate Lieut. Mayers on his promotion to be Captain, and the two Messrs. Belcher, Mr. Masters and Mr. Swinley, on obtaining their commission.

We had a large invasion of soldiers one week in May, and the resources of Newbury in the matter of billeting was severely taxed. There were over 20 men in S. Hilda’s mission room, and 95 in the Parish Room, and we all, who were privileged to entertain them in our houses, found them most quiet and well-behaved guests. The men in the Parish Room were well cared for by Mr. & Mrs. Stillman, and were very grateful for the attention which they received; they were all given, while there, an extra pair of socks, and thanks are due to all those who kindly provided powder for the men’s feet. They badly needed these things after their long marches in the wet. Before leaving the men contributed, as a thank-offering, to the Parish Nursing Work Box. May God watch over them all and bless them.

The Inns Of Court Officers Training Corps
The Rector has been appointed as one of the local representatives of the above, and is prepared to give forms containing the necessary information to suitable applicants. This Form states that “It is to be understood that all men joining this Corps are willing to take Commissions in the Special Reserve, the New Army, or the Territorial Force, as soon as they are sufficiently trained. No one is accepted without a personal interview with the Commanding Officer, and every candidate must be passed by the Medical Officer of the Corps.” The great and lamentable loss in officers that has taken place must make it clear that the provision of officers is a very serious and urgent matter for the prosecution of the war.

Newbury parish magazine, June 1915 (D/P89/28A/13)

Harrowing scenes with maddened mothers desperate to reach wounded sons abroad

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image wrote to the wife of his friend W F Smith, who was living abroad, with a report on the rush to get passports in order to attend a dying son’s hospital bed.

TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge]
Thursday 29 April 1915

My dear Mrs Smith

Here in England Passport Photographs are being turned out by the thousand – owing to the accursed War. A lady friend of mine whose son – his battalion (Rifle Brigade) will not go out till next month – has already had hers done, to enable her to start at the first moment’s notice for the French Hospital where she foresees the boy will be lying, directly after he has entered the deadly Trenches.

The Photographer at Harrods, who is being worked to death, describes to her the heart-rending interviews he has to undergo with maddened mothers imploring him to produce in a couple of hours the likeness without which the passport is unable to bring her to receive, perhaps, the dying words of the wounded son. The scenes are harrowing, he says.

The world was at peace – Germany itself (despite the wolf lurking secret under every German fleece) would have kept peace, but for these malign Prussian robber-savages.

Who, so prate our Prigs, must not be “humiliated”, or even penalized for their crime.

Leave Prussia unbroken, and let our children, half a century hence, be destroyed by a fresh and bloodier hurricane of these same villains, when maybe there are no France and Russia at their side.

How strange to you would seem Cambridge as an armed camp. We, by this time, are inured to it. Full term is on – yet the streets swarm with khaki only – massed Regiments in the Great Court two or three times a day – the streets blocked with Paddocks echoing to drill – and the River at the backs alive with canoes and punts of an afternoon.

Yesterday, for the first time since January 26, we were allowed electric light, instead of candles, to eat our dinner by: and this with only one half the regular number of burners.

No light in the Great Court (you’ve no conception of the grace and majesty of the buildings seen under the full moon).

St Mary’s Clock restarted its chimes on Easter Sunday, but by daylight only. Silent all the night. A week ago the Trinity Clock resumed striking the Hour, with both voices, but not the Quarters: and by day only.

At 1 pm for the last week a huge hooter has emitted its gigantic wailing, heard all over the Town: this is merely to teach the populace. When that hooter shall rouse us from slumber, it will imply a Zeppelin over Cambridge…

The German war book owns that there is no check save the fear of Reprisals – which they have no dread of from England, the flabby. Possibly France and Russia may be less squeamish.

The 2nd battalion of the Monmouths (how different from the first battalion!) evacuated Whewell’s Courts on the 21st – leaving such filth behind them – broken windows, smashed doors and electric fittings, scribbled walls, etc, that the Junior Bursar demanded over £100 damages before he would consent to admit another Regiment. That Regiment was only a couple of hours off, and the billeting officer was at his wits’ end to put them anywhere else – so the terms were granted.

The Regiment in question is the 4th Royal Surrey – a very different set of men. The finest and best drilled Territorials I ever saw. Their Colonel, Campion (Unionist MP for Lewes, New College, Oxon) – sat next me in Hall, and is as nice a fellow as his Regiment are “smart and snappy”….

I respect the autocratic eraser too much to give you any of the hundred thrilling rumours (or canards) hovering around us. Will he suffer me to say that we lie under a rotten ministry?

Love to both
Affectionately

Bild [nickname]

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don (D/EX801/1)

We are nothing better than worms – but mustn’t grumble!

Sunday 4 April 1915 was Easter Day. The parishioners of Reading St John (now the Polish Catholic Church) had sent Easter greetings to their young men at the Front. It resulted in a number of letters from the recipients describing their experiences.

Letters from the Front: replies to our Easter letters and cards.

Cards similar to those recently seen on the Church notice boards were sent with covering letters for Easter to some fifty men at the front at the request of their relatives. The following are extracts from some of the replies received by the Vicar:-

A Terrible War.
Here is a much-needed reminder of the seriousness of our task:
‘Two of my men I laid to rest yesterday, just put their heads too far over the parapet; of course killed instantly. It is a terrible business and we are nothing better than worms, dug in and stop there, but hope that happier times are in store and very soon. We all hope and pray for it every day. I don’t think the people at home quite realise what a gigantic task we have; but we mustn’t grumble, but do it.’- GILES AYRES.

Valued Cards.
‘I wish to thank you very much for the good thoughts and wishes of yourself and everyone who remembered us on Easter Day. Thank you very much for the card. I am sending it home to-day so that I shall not lose it.’- A. L. BLAKE.

‘The card you sent me I have hung on to the wall and it shall go where I go. I shall always remember Good Friday, the day I received it.’- D. CAMPBELL.

Neuve Chapelle.
Speaking of the welcome letter just received, the writer adds: ‘Just lately we have been engaged in a big battle at Neuve Chapelle, and it was something awful and also a terrible loss on the German side.’- L.H. CROOK. (more…)

“Moderate” peace terms would allow an unweakened Germany “to begin afresh the utter destruction of England”

John Maxwell Image continued his letter from yesterday with more details of the war’s impact in Cambridge. he was unimpressed by pacifists’ suggestions of a generous peace treaty.

Thursday [18 March 1915], 11.30 am

Yesterday I sauntered as far as 2nd stone on the Barton Road – troops of cavalry or infantry on every road now! …

We are in the military gripe altogether. Officers are billeted in your College and in others. Whewells Courts hold privates by the hundreds: who believe the building to be a Board School! Their officers are in Caius new Court lining Rose Crescent – and the General in Caius proper (I haven’t set eyes on him).

King’s entertains the female Nurses. I see them … “swanking” down King’s Avenue and opening the garden Gate to pass to their labours in “the 1st Eastern Hospital”.

At the last Union debate — moved that “this House would welcome an offer by the Allies of moderate Terms of Peace”. He was good enough to explain these. “Moderate Terms exclude the hanging, shooting, or deportation of the German Emperor, the dismemberment of Germany and the interference from outside with the internal German Constitution. The handing over of the German fleet and the payment of an indemnity to the allies except Belgium, and the retention of the German colonies conquered by England would be excluded.” He wishes her to be left, practically unweakened, and with yet more unvenomed hatred, to begin afresh the utter destruction of England, having chosen a time when she is bereft of allies.

Is he merely a “superior person”?

And “the House adjourned without a division”!!

The Fellows of Trinity, who are of military age, nearly all are wearing khaki – Capstick, Cornford, Lucas, Stuart, Tatham, Littlewood, Holland, Robertson, Taylor, Hill, Woolf, Nicholas, Butler, Bragg, etc, etc.

I see the armed sentry at Whewell’s gate standing statuesque, growing gradually whitened with falling snow….

“Numbers only can annihilate”. That Nelsonian maxim is steadily carried out by Fisher, and, as the Dresden, the Falkland Isles, the Bluecher and her gang evince, it means an almost bloodless success to the crushers. What on earth did they risk the flimsy Amethyst in the narrows for?

There is a white cat overhead which has taken a huge fancy to me. It is mutual. Tell the Missis that she presented the staircase with two absolute little snowy angels two days ago. I was taken to admire them just 3 hours after their first appearance. Anything so tiny I should not have deemed possible. A rat’s litter must be bigger. Mary Ann was very affectionate – insisted on licking my hands and purring loudly as I hauled up the prodigies for inspection. She herself (they tell me) was scarcely bigger than her offspring last September. The owner, a young 2nd Lieut. Of Engineers, brought the basket down to my rooms for goodbye that evening: and yesterday at 8 am they all left for Devonshire.

Did you see that Keith Caldwell is wounded? I wrote to poor Mrs Hutchinson, but have received no reply. I hope this doesn’t imply a serious hurt.

Love to both.

Affettuosamenta

Bild [nickname]

Always keep me posted as to any Censorial interference.

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/1)

“Friends” home on leave

A Maidenhead school found its buildings used for the troops, while teachers in Cookham were allowed time off to see friends: (boyfriends?) home on leave.

Gordon Road Boys’ School, January 22nd 1915
The school is being used a good deal both in and out of school hours, by the troops billeted in the town for lectures, payment of soldiers, and billets.

Alwyn Road School, January 22nd 1915
A bad fall of snow this morning caused the already low attendance to fall further. Several children are absent with influenza.

Miss Pounds and Miss Smallbone absent today with Headmaster’s permission to see “friends” home from the War on short leave.

Maidenhead Gordon Road Boys School log book (C/El/107/1, p. 81); Cookham Alwyn Road School log book (88/SCH/18/1, p. 244)

They should use a vacant factory to billet troops – not a camp in Drayton

Berkshire-born William Hallam, living over the county boundary in Swindon, had some thoughts about billeting, which he confided to his diary:

2nd January 1915
After dinner washed shaved and changed and went out for a walk with wife, down Drive Road and along Plymouth St. where I had never been before. Saw that new Rope factory for the first time – finished last August and never been used yet on account of the war, no raw material being obtainable. Thought it would have been much better for the men and country to have billeted our new soldiers in places like this than in such wet sites as Draycott and other outside camps.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/23)

Nearly every home in Clewer requisitioned

By the end of the year, the parish of Clewer St Andrew, which already had strong military links, had almost been taken over by the army.  The incumbent of Clewer exhorted in the parish magazine:

We are to have 500 soldiers as our guests for a considerable period, and nearly every home has been requisitioned to afford the hospitality. No doubt we shall give them a very cordial welcome, and be very glad to do what we can to help the country to bear its many burdens at this critical time. To us clergy the duty of providing for their spiritual wants will present itself as a welcome opportunity – and as far as we are permitted to do so, we hope to provide them with special services and classes, while no doubt many will be eager to entertain them in different ways. We earnestly hope that this great influx of strangers into our midst will be for the mutual benefit both of them and ourselves, and that we shall have no reason to regret their visit amongst us, except as a pleasant memory.

Clewer parish magazine, December 1914 (D/P39/28A/9)

Deprived of the opportunity to serve

The head teacher of Sonning Boys’ School was among those who felt called to join up. But his path to arms was denied when his employers refused to release him. He used the school log book to record his position for posterity:

4th December 1914

Having been accepted by the Sportsman’s Battalion (Lord Kitchener’s Army) I made application to the School Managers for leave of absence to join the Army for the period of the war. The Managers decided that they could not sanction my leaving unless I could find a substitute who would have to be approved by them and the Berkshire Education Committee. By a special favour I was granted by the Adjutant a fortnight in which to join the Battalion in training at Hornchurch. The Managers’ decision has consequently deprived me of an opportunity to serve as a soldier.

In reply to a further inquiry of mine asking whether, in the event of my leaving without giving the legal three months notice, the Managers would re-instate me if I returned, the School Correspondent, Mr Mathews wrote to the effect that my position as Head Master could not be kept open for me. He further stated that the Managers thought my patriotism could be better expressed by “remaining at my post”.

I cannot but here record my keen regret and disappointment at the Managers decision.

Another Berkshire school was affected by the war when it was briefly taken over by the army in December 1914. The log book of Gordon Road Boys’ School in Maidenhead records, on 4 December:

School used by Captain Carey (Durham Light Infantry) in the morning to pay his men, and in the afternoon to pay his billets.

Sonning Boys’ School log book (89/SCH/1/2, pp. 23-24); Maidenhead Gordon Road Boys School log book (C/El/107/1, p. 80)

Billetted in a lousy rat-infested hole

William Hallam was shocked to hear from family members how Lockinge and Wantage were billetting soldiers. It might perhaps have been fair preparation for the trenches, but it shows that not everyone was responding to the war with a generous spirit.

A bitterly cold east wind enough to shave any one as the saying is. I got up at ¼ past 8 and by time we had got breakfast and I had done my work it was too late for church. So we lit a fire, and George and I sat talking, in the front room till 1 then we went up to Old Town station and met my bro & wife and we did not have dinner till nearly 2. None of us went out, it was so cold. So we made up a good fire in the sitting room and sat there talking – hearing all the gossip of Lockinge & Wantage and all about the soldiers who had been billeted in Lockinge mostly the H.A.Co. [Honorable Artillery Company] from London, and the Dorset Yeomanry. These soldiers were put in the old tithe barn at Betterton, up at the Bothy, in Kitford Hotel, the golf pavilion, as well as the people’s cottages. The headquarters were in the Rectory. Old Eady as usual acted like a pig, and instead of letting the soldiers be quartered in the clean and warm farm buildings at his house – the Manor Farm, he made the officers take them up to that lousey [sic], rat infested hole at Chalkhill by the Hine Kiln, and down at Goddard barn and in that old Malthouse at East Lockinge.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22)

More life in Wantage than since the Civil War

William Hallam, originally from Lockinge but now residing in Swindon, kept in close contact with family and friends back home. His diary reports:

29 October 1914

Had a letter from Wantage to-day. Troops are now billeted all around Wantage. Never so much life in that district since the Parliamentarian War.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22)

Death by haystacks

William Hallam of Swindon (formerly of Lockinge in Berkshire) found himself host to three young soldiers:

10 August 1914
A lot of the troops were brought into the town early this morning or last night and some of our fellows were awakened between 3 & 4 o clock this morning to put up their billetts. Amongst them the Bedford Yeomanry & the Berks, Bucks, & Oxon Terriers. These were put up down Rodbourne Lane and Gorse Hill. At 8 o clock to-night the Worcestershire Regiment of Terriers were brought in up this part of town. The D. Company were quartered in this road. We had 3 young Evesham chaps put with us and made them most comfortable & turned out of our front room for them and we got them a good supper. They went down to roll call at 10 o clock at bottom of the street, then came in and to bed.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22)

Meanwhile in Bisham, Florence Vansittart Neale was hunting down materials for the war hospital due to be opened in Bisham Abbey:

10 August 1914
Awful description of siege of Liege. Forts still holding out. Death by haystacks!…

Edith & I drove up to Pinkneys Green. Saw Mrs Thornber & Mrs Kersey: found her arranging a work party. Had tea there. Got a good haul, bedding, old rags, etc. Mrs Hunt to be nurse.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Rain greets troops in Swindon, while Bisham Abbey goes vegetarian

William Hallam reports on the arrival of newly mobilised troops in Swindon:

9 August 1914
We all went to St. Paul’s this morning. When going to Church we saw a sergeant and a man labelling the street for billeting purposes, writing the name of the Regiment & Company on each end house. Marj [his daughter?] and wife and I went up to Old Town Station to-night at 9 o clock to see the troop trains come in. About a 1000 we saw come through the streets. A wretched wet night, most depressing weather for the poor fellows.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22)

Meanwhile in Bisham, Florence Vansittart Neale was making Bisham Abbey ready to host wounded soldiers, while her husband Henry had a dietary dictate for the duration of the war.

9 August 1914
We finished emptying bookshelves in Red Room. It is to be a storeroom & shelves to be used. After prayers H. gave out he wished all to do without meat at supper.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)