Sorry to hear about Rupert Brooke’s death

Rupert Brooke was one of the most famous of the early war poets. He died on 23 April 1915 while on active service in Greece as a naval lieutenant. Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence on hearing of Brooke’s death, revealing that his own brother the artist Stanley Spencer was a Brooke fan.

May 17, 1915
Dear Florrie

Thank you for all your parcels and faithful correspondence. You must think me awfully slack, but I’m not. “My King and country” is needing an alarming number of the days & hours just at present, and I have no time to write even a field postcard sometimes.

I stand the racket of the long hours very well, I think, and beyond that I am not hard worked – in fact I sometimes wonder whether I shall ever get my old speed back again.

I was sorry to hear about Rupert Brooke’s death – Stan will be sorry too, I expect, as I believe he and you both admired his poetry, and Stan liked the man. Personally I don’t think his work will be more than that of the [illegible] of the best man’s in a bad time.

We had a rare old dust-up last Sunday week – and next spring in our room at Lyme you and I will listen to the history of it all. Meanwhile if you haven’t already heard all details, read the description of our two attacks on May 9th in The Daily Mail May 15th. Its accuracy as an outline of the day’s events is remarkably accurate.

I wasn’t at the place of the postcard [Rouen Cathedral] when I sent it to you – as a matter of fact we were in action and I was off to our palatial dug-out a good deal further forward, but I have since had a night’s “rest” in the town, broken by shells which the houses opposite stopped fortunately, though one of them immediately opposite and dead in a line with our billet wiped out a poor family.

About 2 p.m. I was ordered to the cellar where all of us remained until morning.

Now we are in the line again about 6 miles due east of that town and at the present moment the din of gunfire is too awful – it fairly rattles your frame at every report.

How are you all this long time? I hope well and jolly. I hope too the people of our nation will not lose its head but deal with all [restrictions?] sanely and moderately. I don’t like the papers at all. The state of domestic affairs is not necessary.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/27)

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“The man we could least spare”

Harry Fisher, a Reading soldier, wrote to the vicar of St John’s Church with the bad news of the loss of a prominent young parishioner, Ronald Poulton-Palmer (1889-1915), who was isher’s commanding officer. Ronald was a rugby international for England. He was the grandson of George Palmer, a former MP for Reading and director of Huntley & Palmers’ biscuit factory. He was also very active in church life, and we will be hearing again about his loss. Sergeant Fisher also talks more generally about life at the front.

Belgium, 5.5.15.

My Dear Vicar,

At last I find an opportunity to write to you.

I regret that my first note to you should bear such sad tidings. Last night at 12.20 a.m. Lieut. Poulton-Palmer was killed while doing duty in the trenches. At the time he was superintending the work of improving the trenches and was standing on the parapet. The bullet entered his right side and passed through his body killing him instantly. He was, for some reason, taking the turn of another officer. His death has cast a gloom over the whole battalion. He was, I think, the most popular officer we had, loved by officers and men alike. The man we could least spare. He lived a clean life and died a noble death. The greatest tribute I can pay him is to say that in every sense of the word HE WAS A MAN. His was the third fatal casualty we have had besides six or seven wounded.

I really have very little news to tell you. We are not allowed to say anything about the military situation. We are all as happy as possible under the circumstances. We spend our time doing duty in the trenches for four days at a time and then come back into billets for four days. Our billet at the present time is a very large piggery. The pigs, of course, are removed, most of them having been stolen by the Germans when they were here. Last week we were billeted in huts in a wood and were sorry to leave them. The wood had just got on its first spring garment and was profuse with violets, cowslips and the like.

One of the most touching sights here are the tiny cemeteries dotted about. They are a testimony to the loving care with which our British Tommy lays to rest his fallen comrades. Each grave has its wooden cross and is well turfed and kept up. Where there are a number of graves together the ground has been fenced in and in some instances a gateway with a rustic arch has been built. The other day I passed two big graves each equally well-kept and bearing the inscription ‘To the memory of — men of the 108th Saxon Regiment. Killed in action. R.IP.’

On Monday the Bishop of Pretoria paid us a visit and spoke some very encouraging words to us.

I have had three opportunities of taking Communion since being here and have taken advantage of each. On each occasion the table was a biscuit box. Twice the Service was held in a barn to the accompaniment of cackling hens and the lowing of cattle, &c. The other was held in the wood to Nature’s own accompaniment. But on each occasion it was the same beautiful Service, making one feel how thoroughly unworthy one is to partake of the blessings it offers.

It is good to know that we have your prayers; we greatly need them. The temptations are very great and the means of grace seem so few out here.

One thing is very noticeable here, and that is the number of churches that have been shattered. I paid a visit to one recently and was astonished to find that, although the church was very badly battered, the altar and all the figures in the various shrines were intact. The same thing is noticeable about the shrines built by the roadside. The houses may be badly battered, but the crucifixes remain intact.

Most of us have had narrow escapes from flying bullets. My nearest one was one day when standing in a ruined cottage close by the trenches. I was in the doorway when a bullet came right through the opposite wall and shattered pieces of brick all round me. The bullet probably went on through the doorway in which I was standing.

I hope all my old friends at S. Stephen’s and S. John’s are well. Please give my kindest regards to them all.

The hardest thing to bear is the thought of those dear ones at home waiting anxiously for news of us. If it were not for that one could be quite cheerful even in the face of the greatest danger.

I must conclude now with very best wishes from
Yours very sincerely,
H.W. FISHER.

P.S.- My address is
No.17 C., Q.M. Sergt. H.W. Fisher,
‘A’ Company,
1/4 Royal Berks Regiment,
British Expeditionary Force.

Reading St John parish magazine, June 1915 (D/P172/28A/24)

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…)

The churches are under fire

Percy Spencer wrote briefly to his sister Florence to report on his latest movements close behind the lines:

Apl 3. 1915
Dear Florrie

Yesterday I marched about 12 miles to this place by a circuitous route arriving about the time the enemy dropped a shell into a field nearby. They’re having a go at the church but haven’t found it yet, but the church in the last village is a ruin. Shell fire must be awful…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/21)

No one can realise what it is like out here

A Reading soldier wrote to the wife of his minister at home to tell her about the horrors of what he was experiencing. The letter was later published in the magazine of Broad Street Congregational Church.

1st Batt. Herts Regt
British Expeditionary Force
France
February 10th, 1915

Dear Mrs Rawlinson,

Just a few lines to say thank you for your kind words and …

We have had four days in the trenches. On Sunday morning last we had a very warm time. Shells were bursting all round us, but fortunately only two were killed and a few injured. I thought of all the people at home going to Church and Chapel and having ever such a quiet time, whilst we were in the trenches expecting every minute a shell would burst upon us. I did have one, but luckily all the contents went forward.

No one can realise what it is like out here. It is a terrible sight to see the towns and villages in ruins, and the Germans seem as though they have made a special target of churches. I do wish this terrible war would soon end, but at the present it doesn’t seem as though it will. We are all looking for that time when we shall once more be on the shores of dear old England.…

Yours very sincerely,
Geo. H. Keene

Broad Street Congregational Church magazine, March 1915 (D/N11/12/1/14)