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))

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Dreading having to obey for three years

Sydney Spencer was still agonising over his future, as he found out a friend had joined up. He confided in his diary:

Sunday 6th September
Editarton, Lynwood Road, Epsom

Yesterday morning two things happened. One, a letter from Mr Ruscoe, & the other a letter I wrote to London. Hence I am here in Epsom just for the night. The following is my letter to the Secretary of the Ex-Public School & University Corps:

Fernlea, Cookham, Sept 5th

Dear Sir

I have spent three days in Oxford trying to get some work to do with the following result: Mr Cookson of Magdalen College advised me to get some drill practice and then join the OTC.

As I am not satisfied that I have done all in my power I apply to you to ask you whether I might have a chance of getting into the ex-public school and university corps in formation. I would willingly cycle up to London any day if you thought that the following statistics concerning myself would not make such a journey fruitless.

I am still a University man but it is doubtful as to whether I can continue my studies at Oxford. My age is 25 years 22 months. My height is 5 ft 4 ½ ins. Weight 8 stone 1 lb. Chest measurement 32 ½ ins. Constitutionally strong but physically rather weak. A good walker & good lungs! No military experience. I should be obliged for any advice or information you could send me.

Yours truly

That letter may mean my going up to London on Monday. Mr Ruscoe’s letter was to ask me to come and stay for a bit. As yesterday seemed the only chance, I cycled down here, getting a puncture en route. I got here at about 1.45. I found that Willie Birch has joined the East Surrey & is off on Monday! Poor, poor Mrs Birch, it does seem terribly sad for her. It is a hard thing that a mother should lose her only son! I hope too, & pray, that Willie will bear the brunt of what he has undertaken. It will be a fearful strain on him, I feel sure, & when temptation comes, may he be guarded & kept from all wrong. I am very glad that he is joining with four or five others whom he knows. So he will not be altogether alone. I am going to eight o’clock celebration in a few minutes, & shall sit with him. There is one thing about this corps I am trying to join, I fear that one has to bury oneself in it, also supply one’s own kit. But that remains to be yet proved. This failing, I can make no other efforts for I feel sure that I have then done all that is expected of me.

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham, meanwhile, was hearing of various family friends who had joined up including one with similar qualms to those of Sydney Sepncer.

6 September 1914
Church [at] 11. Willy read out names of those gone to volunteer…

Sep joined Public School Corps – rather dreads having to obey for 3 years!…

Papers signed by Allies. None will make peace without the others. Signed Kitchener – Cambon – Beckendorf.

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 6 September 1914); Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“God forgive me if I have not played the man”

Sydney Spencer of Cookham visited Oxford, where he was an undergraduate, to investigate his options for service. His diary tells the tale of his anguished debate with hinmself.

September 3rd
Oxford

Now dies the saying ‘No news is good news’! I have had to keep away from you, Mr Diary, for a very long time, but because I have not been able to give you any news it does not mean that it is all good news. Red war still rides her bloody way, & the noise of her chariot wheels is dread & fearful. In her course she ruthlessly runs down thousands of poor men, ruining at the same time hearts & homes, puffing out the one little flame that lit the home, & snatching away the one pair of hands which earned the bread. Oh War, War, when will your end come? On all sides one hears “cursed Germans, wicked Kaiser! Oh that they were all butchered!” Who will find me a man to get up into the chariot of dread war & cast her down & trample her to the ground? That is what we want cursed in its cruelty, cursed in its cold modern methods, cursed root & branch is War, & yet here we are in modern Europe, in the civilized (?) twentieth century, making the whole of Europe shake, making a ghastly field of battle of miles of smiling country, devastating, destroying, wounding killing, yes & even Murdering! Louvain, the loveliest of cities, mellowed by its ancient buildings, beautiful for its memories of the past, [rivalling] Oxford for its traditions & its university; is no more. It has been ruthlessly levelled with the earth. It is almost unthinkable that all those homes – private citizen homes – beautiful for their memories of childhood & young married days, & days spent around the fires by hallowed old age, all, all gone! The spirits of hundreds of homes wander over desolate spots & find no habitation for themselves.

It is just striking three & I am seated on the Union Lawn to write. To write what? The chronicle of perhaps the greatest mental strain I have ever passed through. I came up here to Oxford to find out what work I could do. I did not for one minute think that service might be a point now. It came as a terrible shock & brought me up dead against “self”, when Hudgel of St John’s Street suggested that I should join as a private in the 2nd Bucks Light Infantry Territorials, which are offering to go out on active service. I passed through such a two hours from 9.30 till 11.30 this morning as I never hope to pass through again. It seemed that everything pointed to my going to the office in 20 Magdalen Street, & offering to be medically examined. Every nerve in my body & mind was at breaking tension, & I had determined to throw up all “thoughts” & join, when, passing by Keble College I saw the men I should have to join. It was terrible. My whole power of reasoning & my whole religious feeling cried out, “Play the man, & go in & take the consequences”. But my mind & self kept edging out that it would be unendurable to be always always in the company of those men. The hard living I can endure, the drilling I would have done my best to satisfy, in the dying even for my country & my God I could even support & endure, rather than the hourly & daily torture of being in the company of men whose minds although ennobled by willingness to serve their country, would be for ever grating on mine by their coarseness or even worse than that. God forgive me if I have not altogether played the man, but I have done my all at present.

Last night I was refused altogether by Colonel Ranking at the Hospital (the Examination School). This morning Dr Allen said he would see if there were [sic] any sort of work I could do on the Emergency Committee. Then came the proposal to join the body of men, & I went, confessedly to myself almost distracted by doubts & longings, by thoughts pulling & pushing me one way & another – to Dr Pope. He advised me to go to a Mr C Cookson of Magdalen College, so I went to his rooms. He told me that it was utterly foolish to think of doing such a thing as Hudgel suggested, that I was altogether unfitted for it, & that I should not only be useless but be in the way & do harm. He did not even suggest that I should do any such thing as join this new battalion for ex-public school men or university men, but that I should go home & rest quietly till term commenced & then join in the OTC at once. By this I found that according to him – I should be doing not only what was best for myself, but also the best thing all round. So my next step is to go home & get some drill from Maidenhead in preparation for joining the OTC next term. No one who has not passed through what I have passed through this morning can know what a relief it is to me to feel that I have done what I could possibly do, & that I know my duty plainly – having it set before me by men who are purposely chosen to give advice to such as myself. Dr Pope was very sweet & kind to me & I feel deeply grateful to him, as also to Mr Cookson, for the way in which they helped me through this terrible ordeal. If I want to get further information re the Public Schools & University Corps I can write to the Secretary of the Public School & University Force Committee, 46 Victoria Street, Westminster SW.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)