“It is very hard indeed to realise that we shall not again see his figure when he is so very much alive in the hearts of his friends”

Percy Spencer was saddened to hear of the death of his younger brother Sydney.

Sunday

My darling sister

I’m grieved that the first shock of this blow should have fallen on you, yet there must be some comfort in knowing that it was dear Syd’s great love for you that so arranged it.

As soon as I got your letter I hastened home and stayed the night. Mother grieves when she thinks about it. Father cries if it is mentioned, but it is a merciful fact that neither appears heavily overpressed by it. Mother spoke as usual about all her little worries and Father too conducts himself much as usual.

Even in Cookham he was greatly loved and it is very hard indeed to realise that we shall not again see his figure when he is so very much alive in the hearts of his friends and those who came in contact with him. It is a happy thought that his was such a straight, clean, useful life that he is not and never will be dead.

I found father difficult about Syd’s kit. I am trying to get it sent here and have been up to Cox’s twice but if, as I imagine from the fact that the War Office wired father, Syd gave him as next of kin, my instructions will not be accepted unless covered by father’s authority.

I wish you would write to father and tell him you wish Syd’s kit sent here (27 Rattray Rd) and to write me a letter asking me to arrange this. I quite agree that it would be bad for mother to go through it.

Well, dear, I am afraid this is not a very comforting letter. That God you have John, and thank God I have you both.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/7/94-96)

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16 absent suffering from influenza

Nov. 5th [1918]

School returned after half term holiday. Several children (16) absent suffering from influenza.

Cookham Rise County Primary School log book (C/EL71)

Turkey has given in completely

Germany’s ally Turkey surrendered. Meanwhile, at home, Ernest Gardner of Cookham, the sitting Conservative MP for Wokingham, would successfully stand for Windsor at the upcoming 1918 election, following a redrawing of constituency boundaries.

31 October 1918

Turkey out of the war!

Henry & I went off after early lunch to Windsor to nominate Mr Gardner. Lloyd George in chair. Good speeches. We had coffee & tea at Langtons & then walked on terrace. So thankful Germans had not destroyed it.

Heard Turkey had given in completely. We going to Dardanelles & Constantinople. They submit to all proposals.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/9)

“Nothing that the war has brought me is anything to compare with your suffering, and no courage I have shewn, can compare with your superhuman endurance”

Florence Image reveals the strain it took to stay strong for her family in the face of Sydney’s death.

29, Boston Road
Cambridge

Oct. 29 1918

My own dear Stan

John says, “Are you writing to dear old Stanley? Then tell him his letters give me the greatest pleasure to read.” Well my darling, I do pray you will get some of our letters soon. I am getting yours so quickly – less than 3 weeks! I was dreadfully bothered about you. Do ask for leave. The infantry won’t know you have been 2 ¼ years without any. When you get back to your unit, beg the Colonel to grant you either (a) your overdue leave – or (b) sick leave with a view to discharge. Tell him how many times you have had malaria. Lloyd George promised you all leave in the spring. Last week the WO said they were granting leave as fast as possible – and again they assured the House of Commons that something like 1500 had had leave recently from Salonika – I enclose a cutting. But I hope the Min. of Inform. Affair will come off soon, if the war isn’t over first. I do long to hear the story of what you did for your Captain darling.

I feel your letters acutely darling. If my letters seem prosaic and material it’s because I have had a tremendous strain on my emotions, and I hardly dare take out my thoughts and look at them at all – because I’ve got to keep well, & be strong for all your sakes. I’ve written reams on your account – and it’s for you & Gil, and to keep Mother & Father going, for your sake, and for Perce [sic] – as well as my beloved John – I’ve got to keep going – or rather keep the ship going – See? But of course nothing that the war has brought me is anything to compare with your suffering, and no courage I have shewn, can compare with your superhuman endurance. My only struggle is not just to keep myself going – but to keep the ship going – do you understand? And so I am the most extraordinary creature apparently. I haven’t cried about Syd – and every time dear John attempts to be even sad about it – I am quite firm & cross. In fact it’s carry on – carry on – carry on – all the while – and snub every gust of longing or regret, love & hatred (like you I get awful fits of hatred as well as love) and save up all your energy for the end of the war and the radiant return to the old order – for you the front bedroom of a sunny warm day – with [Tobit?] – when the war is over. I’ll burst – and then you’ll be astonished at all I say. I get madder & amdder & madder with those who have not been wrenched up by the roots in this war. “Why cumbereth it the ground?”

Well, this is an ugly letter. It’s all imported rage with those who don’t dream what you in Salonika endure – and if they did wouldn’t dream what you in particular endure. But I do – and meanwhile I am trying to get you some light books to carry. I have ordered Andrew Marvell, and hope to get it in a week. His poems. Do you want his Satires too? And have you got a Bible? And do express any other longing you have. What you tell me of Heine & Goethe is so interesting. I’d no idea they had the taint. Tell me one or two nice things you would like to beautify your dust-bins out there. I do hope you will get the parcel with biscuits I sent you.

I heard yesterday that Syd has been awarded the Military Cross for what he did on Aug. 8th, and am vain-glorious enough to be glad, because he told me before he was killed, he was recommended for it, and was very pleased, because of the pleasure he knew it would confer on us…

Your own loving
Flongy

Have you plenty of shirts etc?

Letter from Florence Image to her brother Stanley Spencer (D/EX801/110)

“What keen, sensible, often attractive faces the Huns had: nothing vicious or brutal; even kind-looking, sometimes!”

Florence Image and her frail elderly parents were dealing bravely with the loss of Sydney.

29 Barton Road
28 Oct ‘18

My very dear old man

On Thursday [Florence] goes up to London (and to Cookham), to settle poor Syd’s affairs. She has been in correspondence with the WO (how feelingly and touchingly some of them can write) – the disposal of his kit would be an overstrain for the broken old father. The mother appears so abnormal in the unnatural cheerfulness and insouciance she shews that Florrie dreads the crash which must come, when at last she begins to realise her loss. Both parents inundate poor Florrie with constant reams of letters, of portentous length: and besides, there are numberless letters eternally reaching her from officers, and Oxford people, who loved Sydney. I think these keep her life up – for she is full of energy and even bright…

I saw a posse of Hun prisoners march by, this afternoon, escorted by a soldier with fixed bayonet, and another whose rifle looked innocuous, behind. What keen, sensible, often attractive faces the Huns had: nothing vicious or brutal; even kind-looking, sometimes! And how coarse and vulgar and unheroic look our Tommies – I have often wondered why Punch, for instance, always gives our men animal countenances – and so do the photographs in the D. Mail, whereas the photographs there of Germans are often clean cut and amiable.

Florrie received today from the Front a letter saying that news had just reached the Regiment that the Military Cross had been awarded to Sydney Spencer! Poor Syd, it was promised to him as far back as August. I recall the joy with which he told us as a secret not to be spoken of. It will be a pride to us, in token that, in his 6 months’ active service, he bore himself manfully.

Florrie isn’t the least scared about Influenza. Our streets reek of eucalyptus and all the ladies are sucking Formamint.

With our dear good wishes to you both

Your loving friend
J M Bild

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

“Thy warfare is accomplished”

The devasated father of Sydney Spencer wrote a poem in tribute to his son.

To Sydney

O well-beloved! How shall we pay
The debt to thee we owe?
How find the words half adequate
Thy priceless worth to show?

Fair as the Evening Star wert thou
Pure as the morning dew
As gentle as a little child
Brave as the dauntless few

Who once at Crecy did withstand
Their proud insisting foes
And scattered them in hideous rout
With their good English bows

So with thy peers didst thou withstand
Th’exciting German host
With them didst share the glorious day
That shamed the foe’s proud boast

Thou took’st thy Father’s gifts with joy
The beauty of the flowers
The glory of the starry sky
And of the cloud-built towers

The thoughts of great men fitly clothed
In words that flame like fire
And Music’s deep, mysterious voice
For thou could’st touch the lyre

Thine was a perfect sacrifice
In thought, in will, in deed;
Thou couldst have been in England still
But thou wert of the breed

Who hear the clarion call but once
To where red Danger’s tide
Most fiercely sets, and thither haste
As bridegroom to his bride

Could’st thou have known, thou had’st forgiven
The foe who aimed the shell
For in thy brave and gentle heart
Nought but pure love did dwell

Would we have shaped it otherwise?
‘Twas not within our choice;
Or, still to feel thy loving touch,
To hear thy gentle voice

To Duty we had recreant proved
Perchance, and tried to sway
Thy steps from that appointed path
Which thou didst know thy Way

“Thy warfare is accomplished”
Life’s battle nobly won
And thou beyond the stars hast heard
Thy Father’s great “Well Done”

FATHER
Fernley, Cookham, Oct. 22nd, 1918

Poem by William Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/78)

“I have lost a friend”

A neighbour offers symapthy for the loss of Sydney Spencer.

Hedsordene
Cookham

3-10-18

My dear Floory

It was with the greatest sorrow Gwyn & I heard the sad news contained in your letter to Miss Bailey – Syd was such a ‘friend’ & we have known so much more of him during these years of war. He was so kind & cared so truly for others – poor or rich – & the pleasures he has given to Gwyn are numerous, helping her with her ‘collections’, badges or what-not.

G. was broken-hearted on hearing it, saying truly “I have lost a friend”.

Percy is down today – & he says Mrs Spencer & Annie are most brave – but Mr Spencer is feeling it very keenly – I feel so very sorry for you – you seem to have to shoulder all the trials & worries for your people. I do hope Mr Image will soon be better, but this sudden change to winter has been very trying.

I will call & see Mrs Spencer in a day or two, but I felt with Percy there, they would prefer to be alone.

Bess is staying with me for a few days. She is quite tired with her long duty at Hospital.

With our truest sympathy & kind regards to your husband –

Yours sincerely

Amy

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

A bitter & lasting blow

Sydney Spencer had tounched many lives, and his sister Florence Image was to receive many letters of sympathy paying tribute to him. A family friend, aletred by Florence, went over to Cookham to comfort his elderly parents.

Sweethayes
Littlewick
Oct 2nd

My dear Mrs Image

Your telegram gave us the greatest sorrow. We were all so very fond of our dear “Peter”, and the thought that we shall never again hear his cheery voice grieves us more than I can tell.

For some reason your message did not get to Littlewick until nearly three o’clock.

Directly I could get the pony put in, I drove over, and found that the War Office telegram had arrived only ten minutes earlier. Your father came to me first, quite broken hearted, poor old man, then I saw Nan [the eldest sister, Annie] who appeared indifferent, strange creature – and after a while the little “Mother”, who was bearing up splendidly and talked over Sydney’s youthful days and all the other boys in a way truly wonderful.

I hardly think she realised it all, that will come with the quiet of the night. She was resting in bed after a bad night of coughing. I shall go over again in a few days and will tell you how she bears up. To you, what can I say by way of comfort except that you have our deepest sympathy. We know how dear a brother he was, and that to lose him must be a bitter & lasting blow. So keenly did he feel it his duty to go with his men, that nothing less would have satisfied him, so let us honour his dear memory together as one who loved as a fine example of a good life.


With many loving wishes
Believe me ever
Affectionately yours

Florence Lamb

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

“His soldiering days are probably over”

With six of their seven sons having joined the army, the Spencers of Cookham had a lot to worry about.

Will Spencer
30 September 1918

By the afternoon post a letter of Sept. 11 from father. They have had news from Stanley. They are not allowed to know Gilbert’s present whereabouts. Sydney has gone back to the front. Harold leading an orchestra (in Plymouth, Father believes). Horace is better, but Father thinks his soldiering days are probably over.

Florence Vansittart Neale
30 September 1918

We reached Cambrai. 2nd Army with Belgians got Dixmade.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“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)

A half holiday for blackberry picking

Sandhurst children had the chice of schoolwork or gathering berries for jam for the soldiers.

Sandhurst
September 11th 1918

A half holiday given to-day for blackberry picking. Those children not joining in the work were kept at school.

A total of 171 lbs. was the result.

Cookham Rise
11/9/18

School closed in the afternoon for blackberry gathering.


Lower Sandhurst School log book (C/EL66/1, p.447); Cookham Rise County Primary School log book (C/EL71)

The National War Savings Department

War savings investments were still a government priority.

10/9/18

School visited by Miss J A Jones of the National War Savings Dept.

Cookham Rise County Primary School log book (C/EL71)

Blackberrying

Schoolchildren were set to pick wild berries to make jam for the troops.

Datchet
9 September 1918

According to instructions, the children have gone blackberrying this afternoon.

Thatcham
September 9th 1918

The children were taken to gather blackberries on the afternoon of Monday and Wednesday.

Cookham Rise
9/9/18

School closed for the purpose of gathering blackberries.

Log books of Francis Baily Primary School, Thatcham (90/SCH/15/1, p. 48); Datchet National Mixed School (SCH30/8/3, p. 406); Cookham Rise County Primary School log book (C/EL71)

Blown into the air

While his wife Johanna was in Germany visiting her sister, expat Will Spencer heard that two of his brothers had been wounded, while a third had had a narrow escape.

2 September 1918

A letter from father. Percy in St Thomas’s Hospital with an injured wrist; Horace in a hospital at Edinburgh, suffering from exhaustion; Sydney in hospital at Rouen, suffering from “Debility, slight” – had written a cheerful letter home. Percy had been buried in the ruins of a building in which he was having supper with other officers when a bomb came through the roof. Sydney had been blown into the air by the explosion of a bomb in his immediate vicinity, but had not been wounded!


Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Sickness among the children

29/7/18

Change of staff, sickness of the staff & influenza & other sickness among the children have made it impossible to hold a term examination this time.

Cookham Rise County Primary School log book (C/EL71)