“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)

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“The men always say we move on a Sunday”

Sydney was on the move again.

Sunday 16 June 1918

And so, my dear diary, once more we make a move on a Sunday! The men always say we move on a Sunday, although I have not specially noticed it.

Got up at 6.45. Went to Holy Communion at ‘Gaspers’ entertainment barn at 7.30. Took church parade for Dillon. An old French peasant kicked up a row. My knowledge of French led me into the task of getting rid of him!

At 12 noon we knew nothing about moving. At 1.45 Dillon & I were playing double patience. At 2 pm we marched off for a camp between F-c-v-e & H-d-v-e. Arrived there at 4.30 pm. Men under ‘Arab’ bivouacs in a corn field at edge of trench system, ourselves, 4 of us in a tent near road. A rest & bed by 10 pm. EA [enemy aeroplanes] heard overhead but no shelling except of V-ns.

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

“The line is a very different country now to what it was when I was here in September 1916”

Percy Spencer, as a single man, relied heavily on his sister Florence for the supply of toiletries and other things, and even asked her to do his mending. He was pleased to hear that former art student brother Stanley had been asked to join the War Artists scheme. As Percy proudly predicted, it was to be the first step in a starry career.

June 5, 1918

My dear WF

Thank you for the long letter, battery, key ring and tinder ‘lighter’, the lighter however does everything but light and the battery is the wrong shape. I think I said tubular. However I’m trying to get one here.

I got the last parcel – in fact all you have sent I think, dear. But letters do seem scarce when one’s only correspondents are a dear sister and one’s mother and father.

Can I give you another wants list –

6 eyelets for field boots
1 pair long laces (field boots)
2 pairs mohair laces (ankle boots)
Cake Wrights coal tar soap
Tube Kolynos tooth paste
Socks

3 or 4 pairs of socks I have, want mending. May I send them back to you on receipt of some from you?

I can’t remember whether I left any at my diggings. If you have none I’ll write to Mrs Curtis.

I’m having a lovely time camped in a wood by a stream. Worked pretty hard, as the orderly room has run downhill badly and I’m applying ginger.

We generally get a few hours bombing each night and occasional shelling and gas shelling, but nothing very near. Had a lucky escape further back a week or so ago. The Huns shelled our camp and dropped a shell close to the tent the doctor and I were in and between 2 bivouacs. Luckily we were all sleeping at the time and the force of the explosion and another from the shell went over us.

Last night I went for a walk up the line as I was feeling rather bilious. It was about 8 miles up from here. A very different country now to what it was when I was here in September 1916. It was a very quiet trip, no shelling or machine gunning. Arrived back at 2.30 am and feel all the better for my walk this morning.

Have you seen that Gen. K has got a CMG?

Your news about Stanley is the best that has reached me for many a day. Of course it’s a terrific compliment to his work and an appreciation which may be the making of his name.

I rather think that Sydney is north of me.

Yours ever
Percy


Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/41-44)

“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)

“It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed”

Sydney Spencer had been unable to take his diary with him to the front line, so he wrote up his experiences on 28 May 1918. He was able to delight in the glories of nature even there, despite the horrors of war.

I propose filling in these pages, my dear Mr Diary, by giving you a broad idea of what happened in the line during these days from Whit Sunday [19 May] until Thursday 23, as I am not certain as to details from day to day.

The normal day’s work consisted of short ‘patches’ of sleep at any odd time, sometimes only twice during the 9 days tour 6 hours sleep in the 24 hours, on an average between 2 & 3 hours. Meals were at 4.30 after stand down. Lunch at 12.30 or 1. Tea at 4 pm & dinner (so its name went & for trench life well deserved it too) at 7. For 4 days from 7.45-8.45 we had to wear small box respirators for practice.

Nights were spent on trench duty, wiring, digging, & for me on one evening a calling party. Also patrols. I only took one, a listening post, although I was detailed for 4 of them. The first three were cancelled as the entire regiment did them instead. After three days in my part of the line I was shunted into immediate support just behind 8 & 5 Platoons, about 25 yards behind the front line. This meant that I became a sort of ‘fatigue dance of death’ in the evenings. I had, while in actual front line, a Lewis gun post, and a rifleman’s post. This new position of mine was not the most comfortable as master Fritz was very fond of playing attention to that quarter twice a day, but we got used to that. On our last day we had the biggest strafe, which included an aeroplane at a very low height.

The weather while we were up the line was glorious from the day we went up until we came out, without a cloud with the exception of one day which rained soft, rained on us & made the soil beastly.

Now something about the nature I was able to study during my tour of ‘Narrow streets’. We had times, occasionally we had moments when peace seemed to reign supreme. One day I was able to stand in the W- C- trenches for fully five minutes without hearing guns either near or distant, nor the clack of L. Guns or Machine guns, nor the hum of aeroplanes. It was wonderful that smooth quiet moment or two when the month of summer was allowed to hold full sway. It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed.

Now to talk of the life I saw in ‘Narrow Street’. First of all the butterflies. They were beautiful. Dear old Peyton used to laugh at me and say “Spencer has a lot of little boxes in his bivy filled with butterflies”, but that wasn’t true. I wrote to Florence one morning & just when I was in the middle of a list of butterflies which I had seen, master Boche started and gave us 3 /12 hours of the worst I have tasted, but I finished my letter all the same for that. Here is a list of butterflies.

1. Small white.
2. Green veined white.
3. Tortoiseshell.
4. Red admiral.
5. Peacock.
6. Small fritillary.
7. Large fritillary.
8. Small Heath.
9. Meadow brown.
10. Small blue.
11. Swallow Tail.
& I think but am not certain
12. The Painted Lady.

I did not see the large white nor orange tip, nor brimstone, which is passing strange, don’t you think, master diary? Of other insects, the handsomest was a glorious heavily built yellow gold & black bodied dragon fly. One morning, in the cool of the hour after stand down, I found one asleep & he went about contentedly on my [illegible] sleeve until the warm sun kissed him into life again. This seemed to highly amuse the men, especially when I shewed them his huge maw, which he opened when I blew on him gently: they also thought me very intrepid, as they thought all dragon flies stung! Frogs there were in abundance, & myriads of dusty coloured running spiders. Also many beautiful beetles. I saw one black & red fly busily hauling off the dead body of a spider! Had he killed it, I wondered? A turning of the tables. Also I found a beautiful emerald green ladybird, who when turned on its back opened its wing casts, prised itself onto its head, turned a somersault & landed on its feet in a tick! That is about all I have to relate.

For the rest, the usual round of wiring parties, water carrying, etc.

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

Shelled at dawn

It was a dramatic day for Percy Spencer.

22 May 1918

Shelled at dawn. Doe & I dressed hurriedly as we were getting a lot of backwash. Marvellous escape of 2 bivouacs due I think to AP shell. Horses moved. Bankes hit & died of wounds. All officers out except me. Went down to Bd. and was strafed re claims.

Went to Follies in evening with Davis.

Diary of Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

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)

Temporary apparent chaos

The Spencer brothers were both subject to a temporary reprieve.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 8 May 1918

After a good sleep from 4.30 till 9.30 I was called to go with Dillon to BHQ, to speak for 2 lance corporals (vide April 29). This was postponed so I washed, shaved & had a thorough good clean up after yesterday night’s escapade. Felt much lighter round the nether regions after I had removed the mud from trousers & boots. Had a short snooze after lunch. Then viewed scene for new bivys.

At 3 pm this afternoon we were informed that the company would move up a bit – consequence temporary apparent chaos while everyone ‘scrounged’ bits of wood & corrugated iron, old doors etc lying about for making new bivys. Finally we got the men fairly settled in by about 7 pm. Had dinner at 6.30 so as to give the men a chance of getting mess stuff away. While cutting ‘broom’ for our bivy, men from D Company passing by, not knowing me: “Hullo George, what yer doing… [remainder illegible but seems to be vulgar].

Percy Spencer
8 May 1918

A lovely day. Huns didn’t come up to time. Field cashier who had no cash – aide to contrary. Walk up to Hunancourt. Saw 1st shell hole for 10 months. Haven’t heard them shell again yet.

A jolly evening. Col. Parish gloating over leave & going down walks in various parts of London. Me le Maire [the local mayor] again dined with us & collared lots of bread. Fitzclarence lunched with us & told good stories of 3rd degree trial re loss of 5000 francs. Also of Mrs R- of Rouen.

Hun attack reported postponed 3 days.

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

Don’t imagine tanks mean the end of the war

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence to describe his current quarters (a cowhouse in a devastated village), and the impact of our newest weapon: tanks.

3.10.16
My dear WF

It sounds paradoxical, but the nearer to the enemy we get, the more peace we get. In other words, action replaces preparation.

It’s 9 am and I’ve just had brekker after a fairly good night – turned in at 10 pm, called at 1 am, up till 4 am, put Garwood in then, and turned in till 7.30 am. Turning in consists of rolling myself up in my blankets on the bench where I am sitting, and falling straight off to sleep in spite of constant traffic and telephoning within a few feet of me. I’m writing from a spacious cellar in which there is a telephone exchange, officers’ mess and sleeping accommodation, our office, officers’ kitchen and men’s sleeping accommodation. In peace times it was an underground cowhouse. The whole system of accommodation here is most interesting and I should love to show you over it – after the war. The village where it is is a complete ruin – scarcely a vestige of the place remains and none at all of the church – a couple of crosses of before the war-date stand in the little churchyard, and standing there before brekker this morning I saw the bodies of a couple of Huns who had been buried there and been concealed by a shell.

[Censored section]

Outside at this moment is a very pale Hun – you could only tell he was a Hun by his tin hat (a very useful and artistic design), for he’s been in a shell hole for 3 days and is thickly muddied khaki from head to foot. He like all the others we get is very thankful to be cotched [sic].

The “tanks” are of course very funny, but the boundless faith of the folk at home in them is even funnier. Our native concert in our ideas is apt to run away with us. With enough of them they may go a long way to winning the war for us. But don’t imagine “tanks” mean the end of the war. (more…)

Guns as thick as blackberries in September

Army chaplain T Guy Rogers reported his latest experiences to his old friends in Reading.

LETTER FROM T. GUY ROGERS.

August 15th, 1916.
My Dear Friends,

I wish I could give you some idea of all the wonderful sights one see on the march. It is true one only sees under difficulties. Great clouds of dust half blind and choke us as we go. The blazing sun makes even the hardiest warrior droop his head a little as we traverse the rolling hills. Sometimes we become too preoccupied with mopping our faces to do any justice to the landscape. But when the ten minutes’ halt comes- ten minutes to the hour – when ranks are broken, and we lie down on the bank, or in the ditch, or on the heap of stones by the road, we find ourselves in more observant mood. Perhaps we have halted near some bivouacs and see hundreds of naked forms bathing in some tiny stream which would have been utterly despised in days of peace. The British soldier is not proud like Naaman! If he cannot find Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, he is content with any trickling or shallow Jordan which come his way.

Perhaps we have halted near some batteries and admire the cleverness with which they have been screened from aeroplane observation. The whole country is stiff with guns. Though there may be good reason to smile at some statements made by politicians, believe all that you hear about the guns. They are as thick as ‘leaves in Vallombrosa’ or blackberries in September. Whole batteries of – spring up like mushrooms in a night; our old eighteen pounders are, like silver in the days of the great King Solomon, ‘nothing accounted of’ for their number.

I wish too, I could repeat for you some of the stories I have heard of the tremendous fighting of the last six weeks. All honour to the armies we call by the name of the great Kitchener. To-day I hear of a boy under age for military service, who, with a handful of men, has held a position for three days against German attacks, when the rest of their Company was killed. The deeds of heroism are without number. Alas we say for those who have fallen. Such sad news comes to me from home of our brave fellows from S. John’s who have laid down their lives in the great advance. But our last word must not be ‘Alas.’ I like that custom of the French Government which consists in congratulating as well as commiserating with the relatives of the fallen. And even though from constant reiteration those fine phrases ‘The Last Debt,’ ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’ may have lost something of their pristine glory, the simple testimony still remains, ‘Greater love hath no man than this- that a man lay down his life for his friend.’

My own life is full of the kaleidoscopic changes of an army in motion. This evening I am in a chateau with ample grounds. I lunched (is the word permissible?) to the roar of a 9-inch gun. Last night I slept in a cellar, full of empty wine bottles, and most inconveniently damp; another night a little farther back in a dug-out in the front line, after burying some poor bodies lying out upon a recent battlefield.

Nearly all my services of late have been in the open air. I can recall so many which could not but touch the least sentimental, and which leave behind unforgettable memories – memories of men kneeling on the slopes of a hillside in the early morning to receive the sacrament, memories of services held between long aisles of waving pines, and on the tops of downs swept by the evening breeze.
Amidst all the sadness – and there is much – when friends (and one has so many now) are struck down by shot or shell, there is an uplifting sense of God’s presence, and we can feel it even in the valley of the shadow. And even if called upon to face sterner ordeals in the immediate future, ‘out of the depths’ shall we still praise our God.

Your sincere friend,

T. GUY ROGERS.

Reading St. John parish magazine, September 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)