“I loved my men & they followed me wonderfully & I longed to remain with them, but I was for the time being the led & not the leader”

Sensitive Sydney Spencer had found the experience of hard fighting had led to shell shock.

August 19th 1918
73rd General Hospital
BEF France

My Darling Sister

Just this line or two to say that I am much much better. Thank goodness the effects I dreaded – sleepless nights & ugly dreams – have passed away quickly like a mist & although I don’t like to look back upon one or two incidents which I witnessed in the push of Aug 8th, 9th & 10th in which I took part, a merciful providence has given me a spirit with which to fight those weary thoughts which at first crowded my mind & spoiled my chances of getting well. As it is, I am quite normal & perky again & my happy old self except that I want to get back to the B[attalio]n & see how things are.

The history of my affair roughly is this. We were on a high plateau taken the day before. We were moved – I think unwisely – slightly forward (after having dug ourselves in & camouflaged ourselves too!) to dig in, in broad daylight. There was no place to dig in, so the co[mpan]y got into shell holes scattered here & there. A German aeroplane saw us, & then the shelling started. 7 of us were in one hole. Myself & a c[or]p[ora]l & 5 others. At last a shell landed right in the hole.

A man not a yard away from me was killed instantly being horribly smashed up. 5 were wounded. One wasn’t at all. I had a wee wee splinter cut my left arm. I held up for a time, then the effects of 8 days work with about 4 hours sleep, little food, & existing on a cup of whiskey every 5 or 6 hours told their tale, & I broke up, & was sent down.

Bitterly disappointed I was, I loved my men & they followed me wonderfully & I longed to remain with them, but I was for the time being the led & not the leader.

All love to you my darling Sister

Your always affect
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/70)

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French camouflage and courtesy

Sydney Spencer’s stomach upset didn’t make his day any easier.

Sunday 21 July 1918

I had a most interesting day today. I got up at 6.45. Had a snap of breakfast despite my ‘colic’ – to put it politely.

At 8.30 I, with about 14 other officers, went off to a village due east of this village, about 10 kilos via a very roundabout route covering some 20 to 25 miles. Here we went to the [blank]ieme Division HQ French Army. Saw the French positions from Soutien line or purple line. French camouflage wonderful! French colonel’s courtesy more wonderful, chairs under arbour with dainty cup of coffee!

Returned by a blue shaky but wonderful car to lorry & got back to this place of Holy Refuge by 6 pm. My very poor digestion gave me a bad time on that lorry. After dinner I went to bed fairly early. But I sleep very badly these nights, getting little reading.

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

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)

Watching ships in camouflage

HMS Vindictive was deliberately sunk to block the port of Ostend.

9 May 1918

Eastchurch… Lay out on cliffs. Watched ships, camouflaged & others. Also “Archies” in the sky & aeroplanes. After tea to see [illegible] & trenches.

Blocked Ostend by the old “Vindictive”, most successful.

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

“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)

The work of vandal hands

Sydney Spencer was distressed by the signs of looting and damage by the enemy, but could still delight in natural beauty.

Friday 26 April 1918

I got up at 7.30 & Peyton & I went into the cook-house, & we sat by the fire & talked about Oxford & had a cup of tea, & then we had breakfast. Morning spent in gas drill, rifle inspection & mouching [sic] round & lying about.

After lunch we went down to the platoons & O ticked them off about camouflage. Then went for a ‘scrounge’ with Harvey through the town. Very pathetic. In one house I found beautiful books, furniture & china all pelmel [sic] smashed & broken & torn by vandal hands on the ground. Upstairs large cupboards ruthlessly torn open, quantities of women’s apparel lying thick on the floors, & [illegible] lying full sprawl on the apparel a massive black dog with weak brown eyes, also looked long & sadly at me. In a ruined chateau I found a curious letter written on Sept 25 1915 from here.

After tea rations came. While I was away at D company HQ, 2, 15 point 9 shells got used. B company HQ. No damage to life but a hole in wall just outside the cellar. Tonight Rolfe and [illegible] have gone on working parties.

I gathered some lovely apple blossom from an apple tree blown up by a shell today. Also some forgetmenots, wallflowers, [peonies?], cowslips & bunches of blossoming branches of Tulip Tree.


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

Camouflage ships

Florence Vansittart Neale was on the Isle of Wight on holiday, and was interested to see camouflaged ships.

18 April 1918

More boats about. Saw 2 camouflage ones!…

Began battle Hill 60. We took it from the Germans. They counter attacking daily.

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

Camouflage with a vengeance

The Images experienced a power cut as a result of an air raid, and heard some interesting Navy news.

29 Barton Road
22 Oct. ‘17
My Most Dear Old Man

On Friday evening we were at dinner – the clock, I remember, was in the middle of striking 8 – when, in a flash, down went the electric light, and up bounced Florence to find whether it was so all through the house. It was! and we had in a candle, to the accompaniment of bombs and anti-aircraft guns, seemingly 2 miles away to the north. I wonder, were they trying for the aerodrome at Hardwick? for they are reported to have attempted that at T in Norfolk. Well, we went unconcernedly to bed, and were awakened by a glare at 2.10 – sign that the raiders were clear of England. But oh how humiliating! They can drop bombs at will, and unharmed, in England. Once cross to France, and they are chivvied and hustled, go wherever they attempt. The French can bring them down. Never has there been such a field day before, for Zepps.

Some friends, fresh from Liverpool, told me the other day of the steady silent inundation of Americans now overflowing the place. Especially of the hundreds upon hundreds of Yankee aeroplanes, beautifully packed, daily landed on the quays.

In one dry dock these people came across a large Yankee man-of-war, painted blue with pink spots (or was it, pink with blue spots. Those were the colours anyhow.) Camouflage with a vengeance: but it has the effect of destroying outlines and muddling them up at a distance. This they observed especially in the case of HMS Ramillies lying out in the stream – a battleship, painted the most bizarre horror, chiefly black and white stripes.

All this is very fine – but as today’s Daily Mail asks, in Italics, ‘Who commands the North Sea?’ The British navy may be the ‘incomparable’ weapon we hear it called, but it is bluffed by the Huns and its convoys and their escort snapped up by a small force of 2 raiders, almost in hearing of the Grand Fleet. The Kaiser’s vaunt of Germany’s future being on the water looks justified – Nelson went to the Gulf of Riga – but we can’t.

Our united love to you both.
Ever yours,
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

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)