“How wonderful are Nature’s work & how vile man’s work just now”

Birds sang through the gunfire.

Tuesday 9 July 1918

At 11 pm last night took a ration party to A Company & brought back salvage. Just got back by 1.15 as I wanted to.

Had a glorious sleep after nearly 48 hours, until about 8 am. Spent the remainder of the morning making my trench map & finding & settling trench fighting positions. This took all the morning.

While the strafe was going on yesterday morning, swallows were swinging in the air over the trees in no man’s land. Thrushes & robins singing sweetly in the thickets in front & behind, & an old man mole was busy throwing up his castle in the chalk parapet in front of me. How wonderful are Nature’s work & how vile man’s work just now.

We got relieved and away to ’10 trees’ on S-H Road. Company then joined up & marched off.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (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 chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace”

Sydney enjoyed a pleasant day off.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 7 June 1918

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

We are now going into Hesdin.

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

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

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

Will Spencer
7 June 1918

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 5 June 1918

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

4.30 am. Still stuck fast!

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

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

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

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

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

“We might have to go back to the front line”

Sydney’s baptism of fire came to an end.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 27 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

At 12.15 this morning No 8 platoon of E Y relieved my platoon in immediate support. Lance Corporal [Denness?] brought them up like a steam engine & before one could say knife we were out on the top & [retreating?] for Ocheux. We went over the New B-t Rd via old HQ, M- My, the track to A—r.

We arrived in the woods at 2.10. Delightful to see woods in leaf again & on the outskirts of the wood we found the clear song of the nightingale. At two twenty the ‘war’ started again on a two divisional front. We got wind that we might have to go back to the front line. No 8 platoon got caught in yellow cross shell gas. No one gassed. Sleep rent & breakfast in woods at 5 am.

Arrived A-ques at 9. Washed, shaved, second breakfasted, bathed, slept, paid out at 1, saw CO at 1.30, slept, walked. Paraded platoon at 4. Conference 4.50. Dinner 7.15 & then bed.

Percy Spencer
27 May 1918

A quiet day followed by noisy night. Bombed as usual. 12 tanks observed in Hun lines. Warned against attack.

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

The air is rent now & then by the zip zip of machine gun fire!

Even now he was in the trenches, Sydney Spencer was able to note the resilience of the local wildlife.

Thursday 2 May 1918

10.30 am. In a CT trench long disused. It is almost impossible at the moment to believe that I am within 1000 yds of the front line! The banks are alive with dandelions. The villages or vills are bedecked with them. Larks sing high, the drowsy bumble [bee], pollen laden, blunders from one dandelion to another. In a pond below in the trench I have watched the quick water boatman & the dainty daddy long legs, & I have watched the bright yellow frog & teased him into an enforced immersion of over 80 seconds.

The air is rent now & then by the zip zip of machine gun fire! A perfectly glorious day. Butterflies scattered all over the landscape.

It is tea time & my man Fox is making me a scrambled egg tea at the bottom of my dugout! After stand to hour, I took out a party of men & duckboarded CT going down to White City Trenches. Had an hour’s sleep at 2.30.


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

“He sang a cheery song to me which for a wonder was not disturbed by the boom & shriek of shells”

Sydney Spencer could still delight in birdsong.

Saturday 27 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. Last night our goods came up, also drinks. Thank goodness the drinks came as everyone was getting very weary of waiting & I was wondering how long my popularity as MP would last! We had our usual parade at 9.45. Inspection of rifles… I got a lot more camouflage done. Wrote to Florence.

After lunch read a little. Went down to company, inspected ammunition, gave the men some cigarettes. Came back to orchard behind my platoon & read Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott” & a few others. Saw a blue butterfly & other butterflies. I saw also a lovely cock chaffinch. He sang a cheery song to me which for a wonder was not disturbed by the boom & shriek of shells.

After tea wrote to Florence. Then came post with rations, bringing me despatch case & lots of useful articles & a long letter from Florence. She pulled my leg by addressing me as Sir – yours to hand etc, & signed it Yours faithfully, Image & Co.

Went on working party Suffs with Peyton from 8-11 pm.

After tea officers of A Company called on us. Then went for a walk towards windmill on our left. At 8 I took a working party to Suffs. In orchard over way about 8 ten shells burst all round us, one slight casualty only. During work on CT Trench was [enfiladed?] by shell fire & luckily all shells landed on parapet.

Heard a nightingale singing in the orchard this morning.

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

“May blossoms and war seem as though they ought to be impossible in the same world”

The minister of Maidenhead Congregational Church tried to encourage members to look on the bright side of life despite all the horrors and losses of the war.

May blossoms and war seem as though they ought to be impossible in the same world. The dreadful mud in the midst of which our soldiers have been living is more congruous with the spirit of warfare than sweet grass and hawthorn buds. Many letters from the front have spoken of the start of surprise with which a lark’s song is heard over the trenches. We have all, when some sorrow is heavy upon us, felt a sort of astonishment that the sun should go on shining, and the birds twittering, and passers by smiling, as though nothing had happened. But the worst of sorrows cannot cover the whole sky. We want taking out of ourselves at times. Evils won’t bear brooding over, we only make them worse. We shall be able to bear “the strain of toil, the fret of care” better, if we make rich use of the ministry of the blossoms.

OUR SOLDIERS.

We are glad to hear that Reginald Hill is progressing, though slowly. He has had several operations, and probably must undergo two or three more. The doctors think he may have to be in bed for at least three months yet, but they hope he will make quite a good recovery.

We regret deeply to have to record that John Boyd, formerly the Caretaker of the Chapel, was killed in action on March 29th. He enlisted in the 2nd Berks. In June 1916, and was sent to France on Sept. 22nd. He was a most genial and kind-hearted man, and had a wide circle of friends among whom he was very popular. We offer our Christian sympathy to Mrs. Boyd and her family.

It is distressing too to hear that Stephen Harris is returned as “missing.” The Captain of his Company has written to Mr. and Mrs. Harris that he has made all possible inquiries and can gain no information. The best that can be hoped for is that he may be a prisoner in German hands. Robert Harris was killed in July last. May God grant His patience and consolation to the distressed parents.

Wallace Mattingly has been admitted to Sandhurst Military College for eight months’ training. G. Frampton is expecting to be called up immediately. We are glad to see Cyril Hews at home again on leave, looking in the pink of health. P.S. Eastman writes in good spirits from “somewhere in the East.”

He says, “I have not yet left for the special work for which I was sent out, but may do so any day now. In the meantime I have had quite a variety of work, until at present I find myself in the C.O.’s office. Yesterday I had a line from Frank Pigg, who is with the R.F.C in Salonica; may be one of these days I shall be able to pay him a visit.”

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, May 1917 (D/N33/12/1/5)