A city of silence

Sydney Spencer was cautious about revealing place names in his diary in case of capture by the enemy, but it is clear that he was now at Arras, whose cathedral was severely damaged by German bombs.

Sunday 14 July 1918

Got up at 6.15. Breakfast 6.45. Am orderly officer today. We move at 9. Parade at 8.30. Marched off at 9. Got to busses [sic] (carrying 23 & 2 drivers) & embussed at 11.20 on RVS Road. Started at 11.35…

12.45 A..s a ruined city from the point of view of inhabitants. A fine cathedral. A city of silence. Left A-s at 1.15. D-y at 1.20. Now lying on road between D & St- awaiting orders. It is now 4.15 pm.

Got into village of “Holy Refuge” at 5.30. Saw men into billets. Found officers’ mess no. 38 ‘La Route de Paris’. Dawkins & I found a bed at no. 39. Mounted guard at 7 pm. Conference at 7.30 pm. Had dinner at 8.15. Saw staff parade at 9.30.

Lights out at 10. Turned guard out at 10.45, & then to bed. Had a bed to sleep on but flies were a great nuisance. Dawkins & I in same bed.

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

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“Don’t worry, she can’t speak English & I could never make love in French”

Percy Spencer was excited by his sister Florence’s getting a comic article published in Punch, and almost fell in love with a French girl.

July 14, 1918

My dear WF

Another week gone & here I am still at school & beginning to know something about musketry.

I’m very glad to hear Sydney is better again and delighted about the Punch article. Mind you send me a copy of the number.

This week I’ve been feeling very dicky myself. I think I had a touch of this strange fever, but a very slight one. Another officer here, I am sorry to say, has died with it.

Today I have been to a much bombed town near here for a holiday. There is quite a good officers’ club and one can generally meet old friends there and get a good dinner. It’s nice to sit in a pretty garden and receive tea from the fair hands of a wholesome English girl.

Today as you know is France’s National day. I went to the cathedral – which by the way has been rather badly bumped at the eastern end – and listened to a service. The singing was delightful, but it is difficult for me, much as I love the Roman Church’s seriousness, to refrain from smiling at their quaint beadles armed with swords and wearing mighty cocked hats, and at the endless collections.

Another good thing out here is the good nature of all motorists. One sets out to walk anywhere, hails the first car or bus or lorry, which always stops & takes you as far as it can. The other night a staff officer we coolly hailed drove us in here and offered to take us as afar as Paris if we liked. This however only applies as between Englishmen or as between French etc. but today I had quite a romantic experience.

Following the usual custom I stepped out to hail a car, but observing it was driven by a Frenchman, stepped back. However, it stopped & then to my pleasurable surprise I saw it was driven by a French GIRL. I’ve given her capitals as she was a capital girl. She wasn’t going very far my way but would give me a lift on my way. Well, the fair chauffeuse who was on her way to fetch the Prefect of the town we had just left melted, & when she got to her turning & I made to alight, she said she would drive me here and she did. After that we got very friendly and talked about London & the Thames, and she said that after the war she should come to London, and I said then I hoped we should meet again, whereupon she volunteered her address and I mine and neither of us could remember the other nor muster a pencil between us, so we pulled up at a cottage & borrowed one & some paper from an old lady who smiled approval at the beginning of a romance. And all the while the Prefect cooled his heels at some village down south!
I must be a lady killer after all!

Don’t worry, she can’t speak English & I could never make love in French, and Bordeaux (her home) is a long way.

Well, goodbye & God bless you both.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/53-55)

Putrid bodies and foul vapours: “I have really seen the horrors of war”

Sydney Langford Jones (nickname Jonah) was a young artist and conscientious objector with deep seated religious objections to war. He was to spend time in prison as a result of this. However, his close friend Reginald Pearson, another artist, did join up. His frank letter to Sydney gives some of the most graphic details of the horrors of war we have seen, things which may well have been omitted from letters to sisters and churches.

Postmarked 14 June 1915

B Company 1st Bat. Lincolnshire Regiment
British Exp. Force

My dear friend Jonah

How I wish I could have seen more of you and I even wanted to turn back that Saturday night and catch you up to say goodbye again.
Since then I have really seen the horrors of war such as I never dreamed possible, marching at midnight with a lovely moon through the famous old town you have heard so much of, flaming all over the place and not a single house untouched. Stones, bricks, paving stones in what was once the roads, putrid bodies under the heaps of broken bricks once houses, and furniture blown out of the windows.

The old Cathedral and Hall as big as the Doges’ Palace and once very fine I should think now but a skeleton of ragged bones rapidly growing less and less, and the cemetery, no longer sacred, is blown to atoms with holes in it 40 yards round without the slightest exaggeration, for I measured one, and hemispherical shape, and the whole town a collection of foul vapours, still being shelled, shelled, shelled.

From there we were marched to a wood full of dugouts where we remained all next day being shelled, losing many men.

About 4 o’clock the whole lot fixed bayonets and travelled through the wood arriving at a communication trench by dark, full of mud up to the men’s thighs, hundreds of shots fired over it to catch as many as possible who happened to get out.

Along this [wading?] trench about 6’ deep and so narrow the men struggled passing those who were coming out, and eventually I found myself in the most extraordinary position ever created, but which I must not mention though I could draw you a perfect map from memory.

Trenches scarcely 3’ deep, parapets and bullet proof, strobing over dead men, bullets, bullets everywhere and the next 3 days cannot be spoken of. Trenches blown in beyond all recognition, and the first thing I saw when down broke was a dragoon with a little cat on his lap, which he had been stroking, lying both dead right across the trench, horrible, horrible, horrible.

I lost 18 wounded, 3 killed and 1 officer seriously wounded and here was I for the 1st time in charge of nearly a Company in the worst position ever held. Strategically bad, too few men, and for every German shell which came intermittently, every 20 I ought to say, we acquired a little pill in return.

9 miles march 3 days – the trenches 9 miles out with no sleep, little food and small shot, would offend the nostrils of death himself, leave men a bit fatigued, and so my first experience of war is passed and as a matter of fact I did well.

So much for my troubles for at present I sit in an orchard where we are bivouacked, resting.

The God of all the men we love is with me, I know, and this wonderful help and guidance are seared on my brain.

I am too tired to write much and so I must say goodbye.
God bless you always
Your dear friend
RO

Letter from Reginald Oswald Pearson to Sydney Langford Jones (D/EX1795/1/5/2)

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…)

Shock as Rheims Cathedral burnt!

Florence Vansittart Neale was horrified to learn that historic and beautiful Rheims Cathedral had been attacked.

21 September 1914
Rheims Cathedral burnt! List of casualties – fierce fighting.

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