“Far away from my battalion and the plague of khaki”

Percy had gone on ahead of his unit to arrange billets in the French countryside.

June 19 [1918]
My dear WF

I like this place. Far away from my battalion and the plague of khaki, here I am billeting – at least I was yesterday.

Today I’m just waiting for my people to turn up.

I like the chateau with its monster lime trees – one, the largest I have ever seen. And I like the big farmer who took me into a direct current from his styes and there held me in lengthy conversation – and the old ladies apparently born in strait waistcoats who hold one spellbound for hours in a flood of patois out of which one thing only is clear – they require an exorbitant price for what they are pleased to call an officers’ mess.

The postman, fat & aged, is refreshing too. His cheerful announcement of letters & postcards with all details and contents of the letter is good to the heart. His cheery good day to me as I passed and request for a cigarette & explanation that tobacco is very scarce went straight to my cigarette case.

And then there is M. le Maire, schoolmaster & umpteen other things, who left his overalled charges to show me billeting matters and give me lengthy explanations only pausing to hurl corrections across the courtyard to the schoolroom, where one of the boys was reading aloud.

And then there is Madame at the estaminet where I have my temporary headquarters, who provides me with an interminable reserve of eggs and coffee, and constant shocks. The climax was reached when I asked for milk, and taking a homely bedroom utensil [a chamberpot!], she drew therein a supply from her little goat and served me liberally therefrom.

And that’s my village.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/47-49)

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Not much to grumble at

The Governor of Reading Prison was defensive about complaints about the food put forward by one of the Irish internees.

Place of Internment
Reading
29 May 1918

W L Cole

1. The Commissioners’ instructions are – no letters in or out – no visits.

2. When formerly here, the Home Office allowed parcels of food &c. Now food is controlled & parcels mean letters to acknowledge.

3. By Commissioners’ orders these men were on Local Prison diet. This does not carry tea or coffee. Further as tea is rationed in Reading, 1 ½ oz per head per week, they could not buy it without coupons, and they cannot write [for it]. Now the diet has been altered – as for the remainder of the interned aliens – they can have tea for breakfast or coffee.

4. They receive 3 ½ oz a head a week, the same as other interned men – Reading maximum ration is 4 oz per week. They receive 14 oz of bread daily, the same as other men. Cereals are limited to 117 oz a head a week.

5. They receive potatoes daily and on most days of the week a second vegetable – leeks – or something else as well – where procurable.

I will give their food today – not much to grumble at. They can supplement that by purchasing non controlled articles.

Breakfast – 6 oz bread, 1 pint porridge, ¼ oz margarine, 1 pint coffee.

Dinner – 2 oz bread, 1 ½ oz salt pork, 4 oz haricot beans, 16 oz potatoes, 4 oz stewed rhubarb (fresh), 4 oz leeks (from garden).

Supper – 5 oz bread, 1 pint cocoa, ¼ oz margarine, 6 oz potatoes, 1 ½ oz salt pork (alternatively with cheese).

Reading Prison [Place of Internment] letter book (P/RP1/8/2/1)

Moving from billet to barn, from barn to billet

Sydney Spencer hosted a big dinner.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 16 May 1918

I was orderly officer today so that today’s diary means: Reporting B HQ at 8.45, inspecting billets from 9.30-11.30, censoring letters from 11.30 till 12.30, inspecting dinners. After lunch a lie down, a short read, mounting guard at 3.30. Dismounting old guard. 4 pm tea.

After tea preparation for dinner guest night. Dinner a huge success. Consisted of soup, choufleur au gratin [cauliflower cheese], salmon mayonaize (don’t know how to spell it!), pork with baked potatoes & cauliflower, and sweet of plum pudding & custard – savouries of hard boiled egg etc on toast, coffee, biscuits, chocolate & cheese, port, sherry, whiskey & lime juice, & smokes. Do not think, my dear old diary, that I am a gourmand! I hate remembering what I have eaten. But I just put it down as a curiosity in this year of the war 1918!

Took staff parade, visited guard. Mess crowded with officers & all company & when I got to bed they had a jolly time.

Percy Spencer
16 May 1918

Cash. I went to Beaucourt to draw cash. Met Anderson who asked to be remembered to WF [Percy’s sister Florence Image]. Spent day in moving from billet to barn, from barn to billet.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

Coffee with a man back from France, war worn

Sydney Spencer resumed his diary on finally being sent to the Front, after three years of training.

Sunday 7 April 1918

8.15 pm
I left home at 7.50 for la belle France. Although I deplore the fact that I temporarily lost all my cash, my warrant, my food card etc, it took away the sting from the leavetaking. Thank goodness I found the whole pocket book in my cardigan. I leave Victoria tomorrow morning at 7.35, & report Folkestone at 10 am.

Arrived London 9 pm. Went to Grosvenor Hotel & had a very good night’s sleep despite the fact that I was unable to get any dinner or food of any sort. Thank goodness I had a few biscuits which Florence (bless her) had put in my pocket. I did manage to get a cup of coffee & drank it conversing with a man back from France, war worn.


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

The wounded soldiers are no longer able to get the cup of tea in the afternoon which they so much enjoyed

The Broad Street Chapel premises had been hosting soldiers since the start of the war. But shortages of food – and, worse, tea – were putting a dampener on things.

Our work amongst the soldiers has been somewhat interrupted by a new Army Regulation which precludes the provision of refreshments to soldiers, except between the hours of 6.30 and 9.0 pm. This means that the wounded soldiers are no longer able to get the cup of tea in the afternoon which they so much enjoyed. Nor can they be supplied with food of any kind. Coffee and cocoa may still be served; but these are not regarded as a satisfactory substitute for the “cup which cheers, etc”. Consequently we have very few men in the rooms which formerly were crowded.

We have to admit that the regulation is reasonable in view of the food shortage, and we can only hope that our wounded friends will soon get accustomed to the near [mistake for new?] conditions, and that we shall have them back again.

Men and women in khaki still crowd the rooms each evening, though they are now strictly rationed.

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, March 1918 (D/N11/12/1/14)

Many anti-submarine proposals have been received

An internee’s proposals for trapping enemy submarines were greeted with a signal lack of enthusiasm, while the imposition of rationing meant the Place of Internment (aka Reading Prison) had to revamp menus.


Board of Invention & Research
Victory House
Cockspur St
SW1

21-2-18

Sir

I am directed by the Board of Invention & Research to thank you for your letter of the 14th inst: transmitting particulars of anti-submarine proposals put forward by alien C. Slingeneyer, interned at Reading.

In reply, I beg to inform you that many similar proposals have already been received from various sources. If however the Inventor will be good enough to furnish a full description of the device to which he calls attention, the matter will receive careful consideration; and I am to ask that, if no objection be seen, alien C. Slingeneyer may be informed accordingly.

I am, sir,
Your obedient servant
Walter J. James

21-2-18
The Gov. P of I Reading

With ref: to the system of rationing which will shortly come into operation, the enclosed scale of dietary will be taken into use at your Establishment – as soon as you can make the necessary arrangements. The Commission desire to leave you a free hand as to the manner in which the ingredients shall be prepared and the Con: Pn: dietary is enclosed for your information. This, together with the present dietary for interned prisoners will be a guide as to the distribution of the various articles.

Fresh fish will be issued alternately with salt fish. The Commission are arranging for the supply of fresh fish to all Establishments and instructions will shortly reach you on this point.

The dietary cards at present in use will be withdrawn when the new dietary is introduced. On the introduction of the new dietary, no prisoner will be permitted to purchase rationed articles, or articles containing ingredients which are rationed. The rationed articles are bread, cereals (including flour, oatmeal, rice, tapioca, barley, beans, peas etc), meat, sugar, margarine or butter, fats, oils etc.

Signed Alfred Wall, Sec:

Breakfast Bread 6 oz
Porridge 1 pint
Margarine 1 oz
Tea or Coffee

Dinners

Sunday Bread 2 oz
[Illegible] Meat 2 ½ oz
Potatoes 16 oz
Rice 3 oz (uncooked)
Jam 2 oz

Monday Bread 2 oz
Soup 1 pint (containing 3 oz clods, 4 oz peas, 2 oz vegetables, 2 oz onions)
Potatoes 16 oz

Tuesday Bread 2 oz
Fish 12 oz uncooked
Potatoes 16 oz
Rice 3 oz uncooked made into puddings

Wednesdays Bread 2 oz
Salt Pork 13 oz
Haricot Beans [1 ½ oz?]
Potatoes 16 oz
Apple rings or fresh fruit

Thursday Bread 2 oz
Beef 6 oz uncooked
Potatoes 16 oz

Friday Bread 2 oz
Vegetable soup 1 pint consisting of 2 oz vegetables, 1 oz onions, ¼ oz fish, 5 oz peas
[Illegible]

Saturday Bread 2 oz
Fish 12 oz uncooked
Potatoes 16 oz
Tapioca 3 oz
Jam 2 oz

Suppers Bread 6 oz
Cocoa or Tea 1 pint
Margarine ¼ oz
Potatoes 6 oz
Cheese 1 oz

Fish – fresh and salt alternate days.

As the meat ration increases, the vegetable soup on Fridays will contain clods.

Fresh vegetables for part ration potatoes when obtainable.

These men can of course buy at the canteen or elsewhere such things as eggs, fruit, tinned fish &c: in fact anything that can be bought outside, not rationed, as in the past.

Reading Prison [Place of Internment] letter book (P/RP1/8/2/1)

The great advance in prices

A church run refreshment stand had to increase its prices.

COFFEE STALL.

Owing to the great advance in prices it has been found necessary to raise some of the charges at the Coffee Stall. Bread and butter is now 1d. a slice or two slices for 1½d. Halfpenny cups of tea will be sold only up to 9 a.m., after that hour only penny cups will be on sale. Other prices are unchanged.

Reading St. John parish magazine, March 1917 (D/P172/28A/24)

A very hostile reception

Percy continues yesterday’s letter.

Tomorrow’s come and with it your letter (and another Garwood has discovered in his pockets dated May 22).

Well, I know now you did get my telegram, and feel all the more keenly our mutual disappointment; WF, my darling sister, I could cry when I read your loving preparation for my visit. But luckily I’ve been too busy today to do that for we’ve moved bag and baggage to another and largerer [sic] place, and for the first time in our experience have met with a very hostile reception. However, we’re friends again with a very handsome hot tempered maid, in fact – don’t tell mother, but she’s winked at me. Not knowing the correct repartee, I referred to higher authority (the Staff Captain), who solemnly winked back, and now we’re awfully friendly. We’ve been invited to take coffee, allowed to store our bicycles under the eaves of a stinking sty and graciously directed to the “usual offices” by every member of the family, though nothing could be further from an Englishman’s thoughts than to explore the mysteries of French sanitation.

However, here we are: for how long I don’t know, but I don’t suppose we shall be doing much for a while. Did you see today’s tosh in the Chronicle? Thank goodness our fellows only laugh and “carry on” as usual in spite of such hysterical stuff. Our Division don’t want that kind of nonsense: our reputation on facts is good enough without frothy journalism.

[Censored section]

This is terrible news about K of K. Thank goodness his great work is well under weigh [sic].

Unfortunately such an event, the first report of the naval battle, and the local attacks on our front all tend to buck up the Hun & will tend to prolonging the war, the latter I imagine are solely to keep up the morale of the troops, as they have no real significance.
And too, K of K was a name to compare with – there were never two opinions about who should be at the War Office.

His greatness is hard luck on his successor, even if he should happen to be a Welshman. I hope a soldier of worth & experience will get the post, though, and an Engineer for preference – lawyers are becoming a curse.

And so am I, you’ll be saying, if I keep on scribbling.

But before I close I must tell you about Nini. Nini is a duck of a child at our mess, very interested in all branches of mischief. Thin, lithe & lovely, she dances round our mess, evading our fellows’ longing arms, and clamouring for “music”. We’ve all wound our gramophone till we’re sick of every time it plays. It’s rough luck on us and on the gramophone, but the imp’s worth it…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/5/18-19)

Glad to be brought together for fellowship and prayer prior to the trenches

More from chaplain T Guy Rogers:

April 6th

I am writing at Headquarters… going out to bury at 8 p.m. Then back here to sleep for a few hours, and out again to visit at 3.30 a.m…. Yesterday I took in two sections – and had such touching Services for them – one deep under the ramparts, another in a cellar. They will be in the trenches and were glad to be brought together for fellowship and prayer…

I am busy now getting a canteen started where the men can get coffee, tea, chocolate, cigarettes, bread, tinned stuffs. The General is keen on it, and we are constructing a shed in the safest place we can.

Reading St. John parish magazine, May 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

When the evening shadows fall: a valuable service for soldiers in Maidenhead

Maidenhead Congregational Church continued to provide a homely environment for off-duty soldiers billeted locally.

OUR SOLDIERS’ CLUB ROOM.
The room continues to be thronged every evening, and is undoubtedly doing a most valuable service for the men. There is always a large number engaged in letter-writing, for which paper and envelopes, ink and pens are provided free. The five bagatelle tables are never idle, the piano has little time for rest when the evening shadows fall; the news-papers and magazines are well thumbed. The ladies at the refreshment buffet take about £5 weekly, mostly in half-pence, for coffee, tea, cocoa, Oxo, buns, cakes and cigarettes. The B.W.T.A. ladies in the mending room “take in washing,” and see that it is returned darned and patched up. Two Concerts and a Conjuring Entertainment have been thrown in as extras, and other delights of a similar character are in process of being arranged.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, March 1916 (D/N33/12/1/5)

“There is no glory in this war except the glory of sacrifice and friendship”

An anonymous army chaplain shared his experiences seeing off troops headed for the front line with the parishioners of Windsor.

A Draft: A Sketch. By a Chaplain to the Forces at the Front.

Mud and rain and darkness! I looked out of my hut. The station was four miles off. My bicycle was heavy. I was not sure that my lamp was in order. I had already got thoroughly wet. Should I give the train a “miss”?

There were five or six hundred men going from “my” camps. Part of my task is to see men off to the Front. Some chaplains do it, and some do not. One gives out Woodbines and Prayer-card from England, one says something. I am usually reduced to saying “Good luck,” even though I do not believe in luck. (more…)

A room full of weary, war-stained men, straight from the trenches

The minister at Trinity Congregational Church reports on his work at a YMCA hut at the Front, serving men getting a temporary respite from trench warfare.

Again we are indebted to Mrs Harrison, who has very kindly furnished us with further details concerning the work of our beloved pastor.

YMCA Hut
Jan. 24th-Feb 16th

We are now really at the Front, and have to be more careful to say nothing except generalities, and those very brief. We are perfectly well and happy, and like the new lot of helpers very much indeed. This hut is always open, so we take it in turns to do night duty. Things are rougher here in many ways than at the base, but the food is excellent, and the work is exactly what we came out to do. I wish it were permitted to tell you more details, but I don’t suppose it will matter your knowing that we are about six miles from the first line of trenches. Yesterday we went for a most interesting walk to within three miles of a famous town, the name of which begins with Y. We stopped by a fine old church whichn was completely wrecked some six weeks ago. Last night I trudged through heavy rain and pitch-dark cobbled streets to address a crowded meeting of men in a Y.M. hut about a mile from here.

They gave me a most attentive and quiet hearing, – it was a great opportunity, I could not have wished for a better. To-night I am going there again to help at a sort of “sing-song” they are having, – as a waiter, not a performer!

We get many chances of talks with the men in the rest-room, and also over the counter while serving them with coffee, etc. It is pathetic to see the big room full of weary, war-stained men, half of them asleep, and the rest half asleep. They come straight in to us from the front trenches, having had nothing to eat all day, but their good temper and quiet kindness to each other and to us, and their evident appreciation of what is done for them, are things to see and remember. We need all the health and strength, and all the other help we can get, for things are decidedly grim just now. We are sleeping in the cellar, and at the first warning of the danger we make tracks for our refuge like rabbits. There is a lot of amusement to be got out of it, and no one could call life out here dull, but what is far more important, is that officers and men speak in a way that would do you good to hear. There is not the slightest doubt about the need for what we are able to do, and of the way in which it is appreciated.

There is no denying that we are in the midst of danger, but it is right that we should face it, and we shall be kept safe. Think of us as utterly content with life, and do not have any thoughts of worry or anxiety on our behalf.

Trinity Congregational Church, Reading: church magazine, March 1916 (D/EX1237/1/11)

Much appreciated: soldiers’ recreation in Thatcham

Soliders billeted in Thatcham had the benefit of a special centre providing hot drinks, snacks and entertainment for their off-duty hours.

Soldiers’ Recreation and Reading Room.

The Infant Schoolroom in the Broadway was opened as a Soldiers’ Recreation Room at the end of October last, and from that time to this has been much appreciated, we understand, by all of them. Certainly it has been much resorted to by them. Two ladies, Miss Ida Worthy and Miss Taylor, have most kindly provided tea and coffee and light refreshments at a very small charge, and have also brightened the time spent there by an hour’s music most evenings. In this they have been considerably helped by several other ladies and by Mr. Fyfield and his orchestra. One evening of the week has been devoted to a “concert” or “social” … and on these occasions the room is usually crowded.

It is not of course without some considerable expense that it has been found possible to place this room at the disposal of the soldiers – heating and lighting alone are two expensive items this winter. We are glad to say, however, that many kind friends have come forward to assist, and what was required has been provided up to the present time. It may be some weeks still before the A.S.C. are summoned to leave their winter billets, and however long it may be they are quartered here, we shall endeavour, with the help of kind friends, to continue to them their recreation and reading room. We take this opportunity of thanking those who by their contributions have assisted in maintaining the Room up to the present time.

Thatcham parish magazine, February 1916 (D/P130/28A/1)

Tins and money for Serbia

The people of Wrgrave gave generously in support of our hard pressed allies in Serbia.

Servian [sic] Relief Fund

The Collections at the Parish Church on Christmas Day Amounted to £15 2s. 6d.

Miss Rhodes acted as Secretary in Wargrave to assist Mrs. Noble in her collection of tinned foods. People were invited to bring contributions to the Parish Church on Sunday, January 23rd, and a great quantity of things was given:- Many pounds of Cocoa, Coffee, Tea, and Benger’s Food; Tins of Fish, Bacon, Sausages, Beef, Soup, Beans, Biscuits, and Cakes. And £1. 16s. in cash.

Wargrave parish magazine, February 1916 (D/P145/28A/31)

“I am increasingly glad to be out here”

The minister of Trinity Congregational Church was volunteering with the YMCA in France, helping provide home comforts for thr troops, and reported to his flock at home. The Taube to which he refers was a kind of aeroplane.

News from France

Through the kindness of Mrs Harrison, we are able to print some extracts from letters telling of our Pastor’s doings. We shall all rejoice to know he is well and enjoying his novel experiences.

YMCA Hut
Near Calais
Jan. 1st-18th, 1916

Here we are, safe and sound, and already hard at work.
There are five of us helpers in this hut, – all good, good sorts!
We spend hours and hours each day serving out tea, coffee, cocoa, cigarettes, matches, chocolate, Nugget polish, boot laces, etc., to the soldiers.

By great fortune I have come across Hamilton Moss, who seems in excellent health and spirits. We were just going to have a smoke together, when I was called away to my duties, – we hope for better luck next time.

For the last two days I have been in charge of a motor transport tent, but am back again now.

This morning I have scrubbed our three cubicles, – a thing never done before at one co,- and gained great glory thereby.

It is now my afternoon out.

There are two great boilers in this hut, from which tea, coffee and cocoa are made, and all water for household purposes drawn. It is my present duty to light the kitchen fires, and keep these pots full and boiling. Scrubbing out cubicles is by no means the heaviest job nowadays. Cleaning up the back yard and the stables, and unloading big cases of provisions from the vans, is a usual morning’s work, while washing up stacks of dirty mugs is becoming second nature.

We have just had our first sight of a Taube. It came almost over our heads, and we watched the shrapnel bursting round it. It got away without doing any damage, but I am told that they brought it down further on.

It is pitch dark here at night, and getting about is a weird business. Flash-lights are indispensable. The weather is not as bad as it might be, and we have some jolly walks along the sands.
Now I am off to get hold of a stove for the rest room. I am able to get some good talks with the men in there, but the room is too bleak for words, so I must make things more comfortable if possible.

This morning, along with other sundry duties already mentioned, I had to peel the potatoes for dinner, and boil them! They were quite well done.

Our chief told us yesterday that we should most likely be sent to the Front this week. We don’t know where, as there are some thirty places under this Calais centre alone. We shall be right in things then, and have less freedom and more work. Some huts are just dug-outs within three quarters of a mile of the trenches.

I am thoroughly enjoying the work, and keeping in the best of health. I am increasingly glad to be out here.

Trinity Congregational church magazine, January 1916 (D/EX1237/1/11)