“Our hearts and prayers go out to these dear lads, confident that the day is not far away now when they will come back to us”

There was news from some of the young men from Spencers Wood.

Our Soldier Lads.

Two more of our young men have been wounded in recent engagements: Pte. Fred Norris and Pte. William Povey. Fred has been in France for two and a half years and has been wonderfully fortunate. He is now in a Bristol hospital and going on well. Pte. Povey has been twice wounded, the first time about eighteen months ago at Loos. Both lads were regular in their attendance at our little church.

Cheering letters come from Harry Wheeler, Percy and Chappie Double, who are all so far well, although Harry has suffered from trench feet. Our hearts and prayers go out to these dear lads, confident that the day is not far away now when they will come back to us. God bless them!

Spencers Wood section of Trinity Congregational Magazine, April 1917 (D/EX1237/1/12)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Burghfield children deprived of cookery and handicraft classes

The effects of the war on Berkshire schools were commented on the Burghfield parish magazine.

Owing to the war, the Berks Education Committee are effecting what economies they can, and are reluctantly contemplating the discontinuance of the “conveyance” of children to cookery and handicraft centres throughout the county. They are also reducing the staff of these teachers. Mr Selman, who has obtained an excellent appointment in Bristol, will no longer be here; nor shall we have Miss Wallace, who will be missed by her pupils. But it is hoped that teachers in both subjects will be available to take classes of Burghfield children living within walking distance of the school. We cordially thank Mr Selman not only for his careful routine instruction of the day scholars in the use of tools, and for his evening classes in woodwork, drawing, and shorthand, but also for his good help with the Boy Scouts, who made their own “Trek-Cart” under his supervision, and who will not forget him.

Burghfield parish magazine, September 1915 (D/EX725/3)

No woodwork in Warfield

Warfield children were missing out on some of their favourite lessons, but still patriotically collected money for British sailors.

2nd September 1915
The Ranelagh cookery and woodwork classes are closed until after the war for reasons of economy, and our scholars do not live near enough to attend without conveyance.

I answer to an appeal for funds by the National Sailors’ Society Seven girls and boys have collected the sum of £3. 6s 3 ½d, which I have today sent to the secretary, Rev. W. Burton, 34 Prince Street, Bristol.

Warfield CE School log book (C/EL26/3, p. 323)

“One of the most wicked things ever used in warfare”

Parishioners of St John’s parish in east Reading got an insight into life at the front when the young men from the parish who had joined up wrote to the vicar. They shared their experiences of the trenches, hospitals just behind the lines, and being gassed.

Letters From The Front.

My Dear Vicar,
I have just received the good old Parish Magazine, sent to me by my mother. Well, throughout the numerous hardships I have endured, I am pleased to say I am still quite well and happy. At the time of writing I am out of the trenches with my regiment resting, which I think we all honestly deserve; you cannot imagine the hardships and endless duties we have to perform.

While in the trenches you are working throughout the whole night and practically all day. At night the first duty commences at 8 o’clock, that is two hours’ sentry, which is very monotonous and tiring to the eyes, having to rivet them on a certain object the whole time while the booming of the enemy’s guns is deafening and bullets whistle over your head. After two hours you are relieved, feeling tired and sometimes wet through; you wish you could enter your dug-out and have minutes’ sleep. But no! you are at once detailed to join either a working party or a ration-carrying party, there you keep on hard at work till day break.

Sometimes we are given the job of repairing the barbed wire between ours and the Germans’ trenches; my job one wet night was to climb over the parapet of our trench and crawl up within a few yards of the enemy’s lines and to lie down for four hours listening for any signs of an advance by them; I could hear them singing and talking quite plain. I can assure you I was very pleased when I had finished. At about 4.30 a.m. we partake of breakfast consisting of a piece of salt bacon about four inches square, a small piece of bread, and a mess-tin of tea (?). This meal is looked forward to as much by us as the school treat is by the children.

After this you at once enter your dug-out and snatch a few minutes’ sleep; you generally settle down and are at once told to leave your dug-out and ‘stand to arms’ as Fritz is sending over a few more ‘Whistling Willies.’ You can imagine how very tiring and strenuous this sort of business is day after day, but still we keep a stout heart, trust in God and pray for the time when we can return home victorious, with the knowledge that we have performed our duty both to God and to the nation.

While I have been out here I am pleased to say I have had the opportunity of partaking of Holy Communion. Last Sunday my pals and I walked about four miles to attend a very rough and ready celebration held by our Chaplain in an old stable.

Well, I must now close, hoping you will please excuse this hurried letter and to receive a line from you whenever opportunity afford.

I remain, Rev. Sir,
Yours very respectfully,

To France in a few days

The son of a friend of Florence Vansittart Neale was soon to go to France.

12 August 1915

Edith & I to High Wycombe to lunch with Margie. Michael there training – he just heard he had to go to France in a few days – back to Bristol that afternoon. Very heavy storms. We lent him motor & stayed with Margie till after tea.

Zeppelin raids about coast of England most [of] night!

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

“The Germans are murderers, not clean soldiers”

A selection of letters from Reading soldiers at the Front, in England, and in Egypt, which were printed in their home church’s magazine.

Letter From the Front. Come out and help.
When we are out of the trenches on a Sunday (like to-day) we have a short service which come as a luxury and which reminds me of old times when singing in the choir at S. Stephen’s. I had a scarf sent out to me by my sister which was made at the Girls’ Club, I understand, but it is very handy when we have nights out, which we often do, for it is very cold at nights. We have been out here practically eight weeks, and I suppose have seen as much of the trenches as any battalion out here during that short time. I never thought that when I went to see you when home on leave from Chelmsford that we should have been up in the firing line so quick as we were….

We are always thinking of all the friends and people we have left behind, and I know that you are thinking of us while we are away from everybody doing our bit. I hear that you call the names out on a Sunday and I know that there are quite a number, but I hope that before long that list will be twice as long, for the more men and young chaps we get out here the sooner it will end, and I am sure that we all want to see that as soon as possible.

Poisonous Gases.
Just at present we are having a very troublesome time with the Germans. They are trying their very hardest to break through and we have very hard work to keep them back because they are using those poisonous gases which is something terrible for our poor men, and you can’t do anything at all with them. I think myself that the Germans are murderers, not clean soldiers.
L.H. CROOK. (more…)

A train load of machine guns

Great Western Railway employee William Hallam witnessed the transport of some guns.

26th May 1915
When going back to work at breakfast time saw a train load of machine guns go down towards Bristol.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/23)

Too soft a time in St Albans

Percy Spencer reports the latest on his situation to John Maxwell Image, a Cambridge don who was a close friend of the family.

Hart Road
St Albans
Oct. 5, 1914

Dear Mr Image

Thank you so much for your letter.

I am having a very soft time here at present – too soft altogether, but if I am allowed to remain, I have been promised that ample opportunity will be given to me to do my training and musketry.
Unfortunately the GOC Salisbury District has refused to confirm my transfer, and I am supposed to return to Bristol.

Captain Holliday is most anxious to retain me; in fact he has made such representations to me that I feel bound to stay with him if it is at all possible.

All day long we have been deep in the “Army Act”, “Manual of Military Law”, “Royal Warrants” etc, until I am beginning to think in sections and sub-sections.

The result of our researches is not at all promising, but I am tonight making an application for a discharge for the purpose of re-enlistment. It is very doubtful indeed that I shall get a discharge either by “indulgence” or by payment, and failing these, it is intended to apply for my attachment to the 22nd C of London Battalion, 6th London Infantry Brigade. Failing all these expedients, I shall have to return to Bristol. But in that case, I think I shall be able to transfer to the Bristol Battalion of my regiment, which is composed of Bristol professional and business men – anyway I shall try.

The impression here is that the Territorials will see more service than Kitchener’s Vagabonds, and certainly they should do, as they are practically equipped, and their training is well advanced. But I feel there is an afternoon feeling about the men here which was absent from my mob.

Of course if the City Battalions or the Public School Corps had been known to me, or had commenced recruiting at the time I joined the army, I should have been enlisted in their ranks. But we were informed that a good class of man was enlisting in Kitchener’s Own – I hope the recruiters will prove correct.

Thank you for the introduction to the Dean of St Albans. I hope to use it, but now my freedom may be terminated by a Corporal and file from Bristol, I suppose.

I’m very much in love with St Albans already. There seems to be all sorts of nooks and corners I should love to explore, so I hope to stay. But with the Cathedral I am rather disappointed. I like the exterior from the west end immensely, but the interior I found rather commonplace.

Yours affectionately
Percy Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer to John Maxwell Image (D/EZ177/7/10/7-8)

Very different from Kitchener’s Army

At last, Percy Spencer secured his transfer to a territorial unit at St Albans, working for his peacetime boss. Or had he?…

In a letter to his sister Florence, Percy reported the good news:

Hart Road
St Albans
Oct 2.14

My dear Florrie

You’ll be glad to hear that, if we go to the front, I should probably be with the staff at headquarters, well away from serious danger.

Soldiering here is very different to that of Kitchener’s Army, but I hope to do some of the rush [sic] and tumble work shortly. This office job exclusively is getting on my nerves. I’ll feel in sorts at all directly, if I don’t do my training and musketry course.

Yours ever

But it wasn’t the end of the story, as this menacing letter reveals:

The OC Depot
Gloucestershire Regiment

In reference to the attached correspondence, I am directed to inform you that this transfer cannot be sanctioned.

Clerks are urgently needed in the Regular Army, and the services of Pte P J Spencer in that capacity can be fully utilized in his present Corps if he so desires.

G Hill
Staff Capt
2nd Oct 1914

[On the reverse page is the following note:]

The Officer Commanding
6th London Infantry Brigade

Please see decision of Headquarters Southern Command … and arrange for the return of Pte Spencer accordingly. Please return this correspondence.

C L Barnes, Lt Col
Commanding Depot Gloucesterhire Regiment

Letter from Percy Spencer of Cookham to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/9) and letter demanding his return (D/EZ177/12/7/14)

Problems with an ‘old buffer’ of a clerk in the Orderly Room

Percy Spencer was still desperately trying to organise his transfer from Kitchener’s Army to work with his old boss in a territorial unit, and being stymied by army bureaucracy, as today’s letters reveal:

Pte Spencer, No:-11814
The Gloucester Regiment
Horfield Camp
Sep. 21.14
Staff Captain R J Holliday
Dear Sir
I was very glad to get your wire today, and again thank you for all the trouble you are taking in the matter.

I had not made an application in writing, as I was quite unable to obtain a form for the purpose. The officers are all very sympathetic, but once in the Orderly Room they seem to curl up before some old buffer of a clerk there and merely repeat his assurance that nothing can be done.

So today I have myself written a formal application to Lt. Col. C J Baines, who is in command of the depot here – the GOC so far as I can ascertain is a General Knox, and if that is the man you want to get hold of, I’ll try and get his full name and address.

I will remain here as long as I can, or until you advise me that you can do nothing further, and in the meantime I’ll try to push matters at my end.

Yours faithfully
Percy J Spencer

“One poor fool has cut his throat” – difficult conditions for the recruits

No sooner had he joined the army than Percy Spencer began to have second thoughts. Conditions at the camp he was assigned to were dreadful, with one suicide. His former boss, Reginald Holliday, had a staff post in the Territorial Army, and was keen for Percy to join him. But would this be possible faced with army bureaucracy? A lengthy struggle kicked off with this letter.

No. 3 Company
Gloucester Regiment
Horfield Barracks
Sep. 13, 14

Dear Sir

Thank you so much for your letter – I’m very glad you think I’ve done the right thing.

I should like nothing better than to be with you in this business, so if you think I should be useful to you, I shall be more than glad if you can arrange a transfer as you are good enough to suggest.
I sincerely hope you will be able to do this, but in fairness to you, must point out that I am the rawest of recruits – a four days soldier, without uniform or kit. Moreover we have all been badly mauled by some OTC youngsters here.

But you will know whether I should be up to the work you require me to do, and, needless to say, I would do my utmost not to disappoint you, sir.

Today I have been transferred to No. 3 Company, and believe I shall get my number tomorrow when it is rumoured that we are to go to Tidworth, Aldershot or Woolwich. If we are moved, I will advise you at once.

Conditions are very bad here, and men are sneaking off, and one poor fool has cut his throat. But the camp is well situated in glorious country, and the staff here are undoubtedly doing their utmost to deal with an unprecedented situation.

Yours faithfully
Percy J Spencer
To –
Staff Captain R J Holliday
6th London Infantry Brigade

Letter from Percy Spencer to Captain Holliday (D/EZ177/7/12/1)

Sydney Spencer continues to think about his future

Sydney Spencer was still considering his future plans as he headed off to help at a YMCA camp serving the armed forces:

Thursday 10th September
I am in a GWR train on my way to Paddington to meet Oliphant with whom I am gong to Harwich for a fortnight to work for the YMCA. I do not yet know whether we go to soldiers or sailors. I go to Russell Square to meet him & we get to Harwich at 2.30. I shall pop into the Coxes just for a few minutes on the way. Percy was accepted for the Regulars and has been put into the Gloucester Regiment & sent to Bristol. A letter came this morning from Holliday & Greenwood, offering to make Percy an orderly-clerk for Mr Holliday. I do not think perhaps that he will accept such a position. Last night I wrote a letter to the Oxford Grant people & placed my position before them, as follows.

Dear Mr Reade

This letter must be a rather long one, as necessity compels me to make a very clear statement of my present position. My last letter to you was to say that my allowance was made up to £108. Almost immediately after my sending you that letter, this terrible war broke out & my position is now, so far as I can at present tell, this:

Until the war is over and affairs can be looked into, my allowance is practically nothing, and my return to Oxford even as an unattached student is – as matters now stand – highly improbable. With regard to the war and my actions concerning it, I feel that I may, in justice to myself, say that I have tried all means in my power to get some work to do, & finally having offered myself as a private in the Old Public School and University Corps, I was refused on account of my chest measurement. Mr Cookson of Magdalen, whom I saw last week, advised me to join the OTC next term. This in the event of my returning to Oxford I should of course do.

Hence for the time being I cannot but turn my thoughts to my private affairs. These being as I have above stated, I feel that I must write to you to ask your advice as to my best course, since my whole future may be irrevocably checked & broken by this present state of affairs unless I try to improve my position. I of course am aware that at this juncture I am by no means the only man who is placed in the position I now find myself, hence I find it particularly difficult to make my plea, & foresee that this letter cannot but be one among many such. As you said, however, when I last saw you, that provided I was successful in Responsions my case might be reconsidered, perhaps in this present crisis there may still be a chance that I may look to my diocese for help.

If it were not asking too much of you, I should be so glad if you would write me your very frank advice as to my best course. I feel sure that you will see that it would be tantamount, metaphorically speaking, to suicide, if I did not do my best – being useless for the army – to continue my studies at Oxford, especially as the smallness of my exam I have just passed would make it of little value, were I forced to give up my studying for Holy orders – which I hope may never have to be – and take to other work.

There is but one other alternative – which I will place before you, & concerning which I should be grateful to you for advice – and you will understand how singularly disagreeable such an alternative must be – I could place my position before several wealthy friends interested in my future at Oxford & in the Church, & beg!

Yours truly

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 10 September 1914 (D/EX801/12))