Details of the last moments of a friend are wonderfully precious

Sydney Spencer’s good friend and army comrade Henry Loughton shared in the general grief at his death.

2/5th Norfolk Regiment
49TDS
Royal Air Force
Catterick
Yorks

23 Oct. 18

Dear Mrs Image

I convey to you my heartfelt sympathy at this time as you mourn the loss of your brother Sydney.

I am very grateful for the kindliness which prompted your letter. Details of the last moments of a friend are wonderfully precious and especially so when the noble courage they define is so truly typical, and of the essence of the life into which I am proud to have memory for me.

I am immeasurably thankful that he desired me to possess a memento.

I am at present attached for training to a long distance bombing and reconnaissance squadron and hope to be in France in a month or so.

Believe me,
Yours very sincerely

Henry E Loughton

2/5th Norfolk Regiment
49TDS
Riyal Air Force
Catterick
Yorks
23 Oct. 18

Letter of sympathy to Florence Image on the death of her brother Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/81)

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“When my enemy is dead then he is but a soul thrown into the boundless space of infinity, & he is no longer my enemy”

We have followed the story of Sydney Spencer from timid young man scared by the roughness of the army, but driven to join up; through his finally ariving at the front in 1918, to an experience with shell shock in August. Sadly, he would not survive the war. This is the last full letter written by Sydney to his beloved sister Florence; a couple of field postcards followed, before his death in action less than two months before the end of the war. Here he describes his current bivouac, and spares a thought for the enemy. His story epitomises the tragedy of the war, and his spirit shines through the years between us.

Sept 15th 1918
7th Norfolks
My Dearest Florence

My pillow is my haversack containing iron rations, my bedding, borrowed Burberrys eyc. (My kit – all of it – is still wandering about between here & Cox & Co’s London!) Now for the door which is the chef d’oeuvre! It is about 2 ½ feet square i.e. the opening of it! The door is a lid of a sugar box which just fits it! Hence when I go to bed, I lie down on the ground & pull myself into the bivouac by my hands. When I go out, I have to go feet first, & back out probably looking about as dignified in the action as does a dog over whose head some wretched boy has tied a paper bag! Dear old Dillon [his captain] chuckles with delight when he sees me getting in & out. My batman is about as big as I am [Sydney was rather small] & he & I are about the only two who can fit inside! Mind you I believe that he & Bodger (Dillon’s batman) made the entrance small on purpose, a covert pulling of my leg. Nevertheless it is so ‘cumfy’ [sic] & warm & dry I love the little spot. Its dimensions are 7 feet length, 4 feet breadth. Height 2 ½ to 3 feet high. Voila ma cherie. Vous avez une phantasie vraisemblable de ma maisonette qui doit vous donner a rire? [This rather bad piece of French translates as “there you are, my darling. You have a vision resembling my little house which will make you laugh”.] …

Two nights ago German aeroplanes (note I say German, I hate ‘Hun’, ‘boche’ etc, it is petty!) came over on bombing intent. A low moon sickly behind a cloud hung (it could not do much else by the way!) in the sky! Planes over. Lights out! The usual boredom. Then about 14 search lights crisscrossed in the sky. Hallo, they have got one in the ray. I had my strong field glasses & there sure enough in the focus of about a dozen searchlights I could see him. He glowed against the deep blue green of the sky, like those lovely flies of May which have transparent emerald green wings. The usual rat-a-tan of machine guns & the muffled boom of shells bursting round him followed. Then high above him appeared a speck of light like a star which winked & glowed & winked again. Machine gun fire stopped. This was one of our men after him. A moment of waiting, a dull spark of light like a shooting star (a tracer bullet) sped by the enemy plane, another one, a momentary pause then a sheet of flame curved gracefully to earth followed by a brilliant stream of coloured lights – some mystic comet from a Miltonian chaos & dark night it looked – & the soul of an enemy passed into the infinite. Over lonely wooden crosses in shell holes one sees in German characters a name & above it the one word ‘Ruhe’ [rest]. I felt that for him. Through all this I cannot help preserving the thought that when my enemy is dead then he is but a soul thrown into the boundless space of infinity, & he is no longer my enemy. Another enemy plane came, another fight took place & he sped to earth at a sickly pace, his signal rockets all colours bursting out behind him in reckless profusion. I suppose he crashed to earth too somewhere, but he did not set on fire.

This afternoon I was in my nothings & a very smart sergeant came up to me & said, “Are you Sydney Spencer”? Well I thought “Yes I am Sydney Spencer as it happens but anyway what the – is it to do with you”, & then “My word, it is Frank Godfrey!” My dear, I was so overwhelmed at meeting someone from Cookham, that I nearly fell on his neck in front of the whole company – all with their nothings on – & wept. I had not seen him since Aug 1914. Thus does anyone from home stir one!

Percy. How is he? I hoped he would be held in bed for months to prevent his coming out soon….

Leave. Think, Florence, I have been out here 6 months & possibly before Christmas I may get leave! And then a rug in front of a warm fire, your sweet selves to charm me to laziness and – oh well – let’s wait till it comes off. I might get impatient if I wrote more on that score. …

Cigarettes. By the way, you said in one of your letters that you had sent Dillon 500 cigarettes. I think from a business point of view you should know that the parcel contained 200. He did not tell me for a long time, but when he did, I thought you ought to know in case Coln Lunn [the merchant] made a mistake & only packed 200, charging you with 500.

The men were delighted with the share they got of them. Dillon, dear old chap, was almost pathetically grateful….

My kit & cheque book are wandering about somewhere in France or England & have been doing so for the last about 40 days, & at present I sit twiddling my thumbs & waiting! When I came out of hospital, lo! I had no hat, no belt, no change of linen, no nothing except for a pair of Tommy’s slacks & a tunic! I managed to go to Le Havre where I spent fabulous sums on making myself look like an officer, having managed to borrow a cheque, which I changed at Cox & Co’s…

By the way, darling, you may send that kit for which I asked although probably by the time I get it all my other kit will come tumbling back & then I shall be once more told I possess too much.

All love to you my sweet sister & to John, of whose approbation – told me through your letters – I am more proud than I can say

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/3/79-82)

“I take gas like a lamb”

Percy Spencer was expecting an operation on his injured wrist.

Bed 8, Florence Ward
St Thomas Hosp[ital]
Aug 21, 1918

My dear WF

6 am and I’ve been washed & tidied up. Aren’t the hours they keep frightful?

I don’t expect to be conscious before the country post goes out today, but in case you don’t get a line from me in the morning, don’t worry dear – I take gas like a lamb and there’s nothing dangerous about the operation. Lastly I feel very fit & well this morning.
As it’s so early of course I haven’t any news except that (unless I dreamt it) there was a heavy bombardment in the early hours of this morning, which spelt attempted air raid I expect.

Just had my last meal (breakfast) till tonight. Sister says I’m a most uninteresting patient – temperature & pulse both normal.
I’m not at all sure my wrist is as bad as they think. I frequently feel or think I feel in my little finger and believe I can waggle it slightly – but of course this may be imagination. Anyway I shall know, I hope, tomorrow.

With my dear love to you both
Yrs ever

Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/80-81)

“Just after I had written to say the Hun had not got us yet, he came over & buried us”

Percy Spencer sent his sister a postcard to let her know the Germans had got him at last.

7/8/15
My dear WF

Don’t worry.

Just after I had written you yesterday to say the Hun had not got us yet, he came over & bombed our mess & buried us. I myself escaped with a fractured left wrist & slight scalp wound. I feel quite fine under the circumstances.

Yrs ever
P J Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/64)

“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)

“I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!”

Sydney Spencer’s unit practiced their technical skills behind the lines.

Wednesday 24 July 1918

Got up at 6.45. Route march from 7.15 to 8.30. Dillon went to see tanks so that Dawkins was in charge of company. Parade at 10 am. My platoon did a stunt with Dawkins on a strong point watching an attack. By coincidence I worked the oracle in exactly the way he did, rifle section working down at side of the field, bombing section at corner of a copse, L Gunners on left. Remainder of morning in squad drill.

After lunch spent a long afternoon playing patience, & censoring letters. Likewise after tea I did not do a great deal. Managed to get a letter to Florence after a struggle. Her article in Punch has not appeared. It is called “Or Both”. Went to bed fairly early tonight. These nights I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!

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

“The weather & the flies are very trying”

The heat was almost as troublesome as the enemy.

Wednesday 17 July 1918

Got up at 7.30 am. Flies were a nuisance. Air raid on village during night, about a dozen bombs dropped. 1 soldier killed, 5 wounded. A good parade this morning from 9-12.30. Inspection, Platoon & Section drill, PT, & BF. Break ½ hour. Rifle grenadiers from 11.30-12.30. Company arms drill. Marched home. Censored letters after lunch. Another broiling hot day.

The weather & the flies are very trying. After tea I began to fret. I wonder whether the photographer would turn up to take the officers of the Battalion. We were all at the orderly room at 7.30, but as a storm intervened he did not come. So I was unmercifully ragged by the CO who thought that it was my bad French which had made the muddle!

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

“I witnessed all the terrific bombardment from land and sea against the Gaza defences, and shall never forget the awful spectacle”

A Maidenhead man bears witness to the fighting in Palestine.

OUR SOLDIERS.

Reginald Hill has left Sheffield Hospital, and hoped to have left hospitals for ever, but very shortly after getting home he had a slight relapse, and at the time of writing is a patient at Cliveden. We hope his stay there will be very brief.

Harold Islip is in hospital at Trouville, suffering from trench fever. He expects shortly to be in training for a Commission.

Ernest Bristow will probably be at Cliveden by the time this has reached our readers’ hands.

George Ayres has been transferred to a Field Company of the Engineers, and is at Anglesey.

Reginald Hamblin is in a Flying Corps, and is training at Totteridge.

Herbert Hodgson is in a camp near Salisbury Plain.

Benjamin Gibbons is in Ireland.

Leonard Beel sends a letter (which has evidently had a soaking in sea water) with vivid account of what he has seen in Palestine. He says:

“I witnessed all the terrific bombardment from land and sea against the Gaza defences, and shall never forget the awful spectacle. Afterwards I had a good look around Gaza, and saw the results of the bombardment, but unfortunately missed the several interesting spots associated with Samson’s career through want of a guide.”

He speaks, too, of visiting Ashdod, Lydda, the Vale of Ajalon, and Jaffa, where Simon the tanner entertained Peter, and where Dorcas was raised.

“The native villages,” he says, “are picturesque from a distance only. Inside they are usually worse than any English slum, full of filth and squalor. It is months ago since I last saw an Arab with a clean face.”

His one regret is that he has missed seeing Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, June 1918 (D/N33/12/1/5)

“Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X – a lamentable sight.”

Civilians were among the victims of German poison gas.

Tuesday 11 June 1918

Got up at 7.45 am. Got my kit packed by Fox [his batman]. Had breakfast, & then Jones stropped my razor & got a really good shave. After breakfast got down to Hesdin station. Train was due to leave at 10.15 so Graham & I bought biscuits, strawberries & bananas to eat if no food was available. Started at 11.45. Got to St Pol at 1.15. Lunch at the EFC canteen. Town has been fairly well shelled & bombed. Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X. ‘De profundis’ a lamentable sight.

7.30 pm Candas. We stay the night here at Candas as we cannot go further until tomorrow morning at 7.30. Tea at Café’ [illegible] Henly. Then kits to RTO office, a walk and dinner at same café’. Just discovered that I have left my advance pay book & my cheque book, ‘horribili dictu’, at Marronville!

After dinner I made paper frogs for French officers who thought them ‘tres gentils’. To bed at rest camp at 10 pm.

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)

“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)

A bolt from the blue

Aeroplanes overhead were becoming common both in France and on the home front.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 4 June 1918

I am seated in a waggon for 40 hommes or 8 chevaux at Candas! How do I come to be here? Well, hear my story with patience, my dear diary!

I rose at 6.30 as usual, on parade etc at 7 as usual, company training as usual till 10 am, & then a bolt from the blue! In other words a note from Mark Tapley to the effect that I would report Marronville for a gas course on the 7th, taking at least 36 hours to get there!

I promptly made up mess accounts. Came to P[u?]chvillers by mess cart with Fox, my batman. Caught a train at 4.30 & have now been waiting nearly 2 hours for this train to start!

The train started and we moved on in fits & starts. How many miles we moved I do not know, as I slept by fits and starts. Just before midnight, however, I woke to the tune of Fritz aeroplanes. He dropped sundry bombs starting a fire not far off to N. West.

William Hallam
4th June 1918

Last night I heard an aeroplane going over. I got up and looked out of the window and saw it drop a star light.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and William Hallam of Swindon (D/EX1415/25)

All is peace during the day

Both Sydney and Percy were now back from the main fray.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 2 June 1918

We paraded for church parade at 9 am. Marched in full marching order up to range. Church parade was at 9.45. Padre preached on depending on ourselves & not on the ‘Chariots & Horses’! Did he refer to! [sic] I wonder!

At 10.30 the CO inspected us. At eleven GOC Brigade inspected men. He has a fine face & fine manner too. A long inspection which lasted till 1 o’clock but very thoroughly carried out.

Although there were supposed to be other parades during the day these were washed out & we got a fair amount of rest during the rest of the day. The weather still remains fine & warm & sunny.

We still continue to get a high velocity shell or two in the village occasionally. Two men were wounded tonight.

Percy Spencer
2 June 1918

Fritz bombed during night. The copse we are in is delightful. A swift flowing stream runs by the mess and all is peace during the day.

Joan Daniels
June 2nd Sunday

The Germans arrested on the Marne.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“My platoon beat No 5 platoon at football”

Sydney was enjoying time away from the front line.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 31 May 1918

Today I went on parade again. Paraded at 7 o’clock. Inspected platoon & then we went for a route march under Capt. Rolfe. A glorious morning again & I very much enjoyed the march. The country round here is glorious. We are already at high summer, dogroses are all out & trees in the first beauty of summer foliage, before the dust dims their shrill green.

After lunch to the range. My platoon shot well. I got an 8 inch group and a possible at the application.

By the way my platoon beat No 5 platoon at football 5-4. We are very anxious to take on Mo 7 platoon which beat No 8, 2 nights ago. Got to bed fairly early & read for a time.

Bombardment fairly heavy which disturbed me somewhat in so far as I had a night full of dreams!

Percy Spencer
31 May 1918

A lovely day. Fritz shelled near 17th a little, relieved 24th in front line, and bombed us at night.

Joan Daniels
May 31st Friday

Mummie had a letter yesterday from Auntie Lavinia. Her brother was killed at the front. Also a letter about Eina Furness. He is getting on better than was hoped for so that is great. He was on the third floor of the hospital, & was the only one on that floor who was left alive, falling from there to the basement. Besides having a piece of shell in his head he was injured in the back & arm. Mr Douglass is back from France.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

The two predominant results to be obtained: Discipline & Esprit de corps

Sydney’s delicate health was beginning to catch up with him.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 30 May 1918

Last night good old Dillon told me I was to see the doctor today & get a rest. So I sent a note round to the Adjutant to say I was seeing the doctor. I saw him at eleven o’clock & he apologised for having hurt me!

I did light duty during the morning & after lunch had a very long sleep, also inspected the guard before it paraded for guard mounting. Censored the letters. Got a tent in my platoon camouflaged, & did several other ‘no matter whats’ of no import practically, but of regimental vital importance. I think I see the end for which all these small things are done. One has always to keep one’s eyes on the two predominant results to be obtained: Discipline & Esprit de corps.

Rowell the TO comes to dinner tonight. He came & we had a fairly good mess night.

Percy Spencer
30 May 1918

2 a.m. moved at 21st camp after x-country trip thro’ bush and a mix-up with 9.2’s.

A lovely day. Mess cut into bank – earth seats.

Moved again to camp behind Franvillers in Bezieux rear defence line. Fritz shelled Franvillers and near us and bombed during evening. I dug trench round hut.

Florence Vansittart Neale
30 May 1918

Have lost Soissons.

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)