“A dirty morning but bad for the Hun so it’s a good day after all”

Percy Spencer wrote a long letter to his sister Florence based on his diary.

May 13, 1918

Ny dear WF

It’s along time since I wrote you, but now I swear to steal an hour and give you a sort of diary of events.

First of all, though, before I forget them list of wants –

Propane Royal Navy dressing
2 pairs long cord laces for field boots
Wrights coal tar soap

Also what does my baccy cost out of bond? What would 50 small size Meriel de luxe cigars cost out of bond? And what would 100 reasonably good Virginia cigarettes cost out of bond?

If you could do all that for me when passing the tobacconist, the chemist & Thrussell’s. I shall be very grateful.

I’m trying hard for your sake to keep a diary that is within the law. Just how far I had got in my last letter I forget, so forgive me if I repeat myself.

On My 3rd Ridley, my No. 6 in the famous Eight, turned up and talked over our Trinity days.

The next day was mostly solid work. Colonel P[arish]’s band played at mess, I think it was that evening the Mayor dined with us and we drank to France and the King, and everyone was awfully friendly and nothing disturbed the harmony except Col. P’s boyish anxiety for Paddy, a lovely Irish terrier, the regimental mascot, which is always being stolen. Paddy was tied to the big iron entrance gates while the band played, and every few minutes Col. P jumped up to see none of the crowd outside had borrowed him.

On the 5th the Padre, a delightful fellow, messed with us. The CO wound up a jolly evening with an imaginary stroll “down the Dilly”.
The next day was wet. M. Le Maire [the local mayor] dined with us and under the influence of his own good brandy made a clean breast of buried souvenirs de la guerre.

The 7th was a red letter day. Many honours were received by the Division, Col. P getting a DSO and our own CO his 2nd bar to DSO.
In the evening another padre came in and talked politics & economies till a late hour.….

The 8th was a lovely day. The field cashier turned up short of cash & I had to cycle to another village to get money for the boys. Me. Le Maire [the local mayor] again dined with us & collared lots of bread. Col. P spent the evening gloating over the anticipation of leave and going [on] imaginary walks all over London much to our CO’s disgust. The APM lunched with us and told us amusing “3rd degree” trial stories.

The 9th produced the best story I’ve heard for along time. Told me by an interpreter at lunch who had been engaged upon taking a census of people in a certain village in the forward village [sic] and persuading them to leave. An elderly lady refused to go without her children. And how many children have you, enquired the interpreter. I don’t know, she replied. But surely madam! Exclaimed the interpreter. Pointing to the yard crowded with Tommies, she exclaimed, “There are my children: when they go, I go.”

10th Paterson the popular officer of my old regiment dined with us.
On the 11th I had tea with my old friends Tyrrell, Garwood & a host of others. They all made me very welcome, only “Miss Toms” couldn’t remember to call me anything but “Sergeant Spencer”.

In the evening another Regimental Band played outside my orderly room, conducted to my pleasant surprise by the private in my platoon in England who is a Mus. Doc. [doctor of music] & deputy organist of St Paul’s. Col. P went on leave. I prosecuted in a case for him.

12th: a very uneventful day because I have heard the full song of a Bosch shell for the first time for 10 months. Had a long chat with the CO who said the folks forward were finding me very useful. A letter too from a wounded Major in England arrived saying nice things about me. I’m easily getting to the not altogether enviable position of having a reputation to live up to. By the way I might say here that KK has been perfectly charming to me.

And that brings me up to today – a dirty morning but bad for the Hun so it’s a good day after all.

Give my love to all at 29 & let me know if you don’t like this sort of letter.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister (D/EZ177/7/7/35-36)

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Peaceful persuasion

Sydney Spencer moved to better quarters today, while Percy’s regiment was handing out food to starving locals.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 11 May 1918

Got up at 4 am. ‘Stand to’ and took men over to yet another new BP. Got back at 5.30 & slept till 9. Had breakfast brought to me in bivy. After breakfast a shave & wash & wrote long letters to Broadbent & Father & Mother. A note from the Padre re wine bills.

After lunch to change bivys with D Company. Completed by 3.45. Changed my socks & had tea. Wrote to the mother of one of my wounded men. During the ‘bivy’ [illegible] this afternoon saw a very comic fight between two men carrying petrol cans.

After dinner we all sat & waited to ‘scoot’ for A—s, which waiting lasted till 9.45, & then we took up our bed & walked. We arrived at midnight.

Found my platoon’s billet a very cosy one. Came here to our billet. Jolly comfortable. A small room each, and a mess room decked with French flags! Probably an old café’. To bed in my flea bag & valise with clothes off for first time for 15 days, with exception of taking them off for a bath!

Percy Spencer
11 May 1918

A good day. Had tea with my old chums of the 1&2. Called on Blofeld of the TMs, who was full of glee over his TM barrage which led to the 23rd killing 70 Bosch. Met Lynes whose company lost the bit of trench afterwards retaken. He told me trench was full of kit & pillows!

25-0 band conducted by a private (my old friend at Chiseldon – [Henry?] Doe & varsity man – deputy organist of St Paul’s) played outside my orderly room.

A good deal of misery in village owing to a shortage of food, army fed these poor folk. Have an idea this is part of peaceful persuasion scheme. Col. Parish on leave – a great loss to the mess. I prosecuted in SIW case for Col. P. & man was convicted.

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

A strange looking man who looked ill, got into a trench & started making charts

Sydney Spencer was obviously a suspicious looking character! Halma is a strategy board game involving constantly moving pieces across the board.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 10 May 1918

Got up at 7 am and went over to my platoon front to make out my range charts. I was taken for a spy and questioned by an Essex officer. The sentry had described me rather comically. I was to him a strange looking man who looked ill (!!) & wandered about, & finally got into a trench & started making charts!

At 9.45 gave evidence in a case at the orderly room & then had a bath at old brewery. Met Forster & another chap with whom I walked back.

Found that once made, our battle positions were to be changed! We seem to be sort of playing at Halma! After lunch I had a long sleep from 2.15 pm till 4.30 & much I enjoyed it too. Now I am writing to dear old Jumbo [Kenneth] Oliphant who wrote me last night. His address is St Margaret’s, Fern Hill Park, Woking.

Stand to tonight is at 8.15 pm. I took out a carrying party. Two journeys down a road you wot of, master diary. We had one casualty from machine gun fire. A C Company man. Got back at 11.30.

Letters from Florence, Broadbent & Father. Wrote a long letter to Florence.

Percy Spencer
10 May 1918

A glorious day. Paterson lunched with us. The Lance Corporal who was no good – only offence apparently that he plastered tracts on latrine seats.

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

“The Royal Naval Division had encamped in our Nissen huts & refused to budge”

Sydney Spencer had the unappetising job of taking part in a court martial, before a dispute over who would get to sleep in a Nissen hut.

Monday 15 April 1918

9.15 am.
At 12 midnight a note came in to detail me for a court martial with 9th Essex Regiment at 10 am. Also orders came in for practice taking up of a trench system at —. We move into T-c-t this afternoon, after lunch. Have just made up my accounts.

FGC Martial over by 11.50. I spent remainder of morning in censoring about 100 letters and studying Intelligence reports, till 1 pm when company returned from scheme. 3 pm started for T-t-c-t.

Arrived at billets at 4 pm to find that Royal Naval Division had encamped in our Nissen huts & refused to budge. Result, we were camped outside & behagged the city until matters straightened themselves out, when we gave over half the huts to the RND.

Dinner at 9.30. I am orderly officer tomorrow. Duties start at 8.45. Had no chance of a read this evening as ten of us crowded into 1 Nissen hut.

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

Scenting battle

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about his experience defending a soldier at a court martial, as he awaited news about his destination at the front.

21st Res Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Mar. 24, 1918

My dear WF

Of course down here all we GS officers are scenting battle, but I think there’s a tremendous reserve of officers, and do not expect to be rushed out. Apropos of this – while at the Orderly Room the other day the CO showed me a letter from the 1/21st London regiment applying for me to be sent out as he wanted me as his adjutant. As the present CO of the 1/21st London does not know me, of course this is the going of General Kennedy.

My CO explained that unfortunately he could do nothing except to advise his correspondent to apply for me. So I am now in the flattering position of having 2 COs applying for me. And yet I get no forrader. Isn’t it galling!

This week I’ve had some good news. I was detailed to defend a man on a charge of allowing a prisoner to escape. There was no getting over the fact that he did let him go, and the assistant adjutant was pretty confident I couldn’t get him off.

However, I did, and enclose his letter of thanks. It was quite funny to hear myself described as “counsel for the Defence”, and quite a shock later, when rising to cross examine on behalf of the accused, to hear this described as “Cross examined by accused”.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/25-27)

Shot at dawn for “cowardice” caused by shell shock

John Maxwell Image wrote to his friend W F Smith, who was staying at Hindhead in south west Surrey, not far from the big army camp at Aldershot. Normally very gung-ho in support of the war, Image’s compassion had been aroused by stories of court martials and teenagers shot at dawn. The Revd Thomas Pym (1885-1945), in peacetime the chaplain at Image’s college, was serving as an army chaplain.

29 Barton Rd
6 Dec. ‘17
My very dear old man

The military cars to and fro Aldershot must surely be more or less an interesting sight.

The poor Tommy comes under this [?not clear] penalty quite frequently. Not often from cowardice, poor boy. Most often (I believe) it is from slinking off to some girl in the rear which is called “desertion”, tho’ he would have returned right enough.

Just before I was married there was shown to me a letter from a young Trin. Officer at the Front, describing a visit from one of our Trin. Chaplains, begging this young friend of his to “pray for him”, for he had to pass the night with a boy of 18 who was to be shot at dawn. Pym spoke then of a night with another poor child (of 17!) who had been shot the previous week, for what the CM was pleased to style Cowardice – though he had twice behaved with exceptional bravery, and it was only after seeing his two brothers killed at his side that on this occasion his nerve broke down. In an officer it would have been called “shell-shock”, and the interesting sufferer sent home to a cushy job in England. I know of 2 thus treated. Pym’s words brought the tears to my eyes. I see that he has told the story (slightly altered) in a book that has recently come out by him, Characteristics of the Army in Flanders.

Sir Arthur Yapp at the Guildhall last Friday. The Signora went (non ego) and returned enthusiastic – she and her Cook – over the great man’s dignity and sweetness. That evening he lectured the students (and I believe also them of Girton) in Newnham College – and left by the 9.9 for London.

One remark of his: “The vessels sunk by the U-boats during the week ending Nov. 24 (I forget how many that was) might have carried enough bread to feed Cambridge for nearly 7 years, or enough meat for 8 ½ years, or enough sugar for 64 years.”

He said that Food Tickets have changed Germany to a nation of forgers. He dreaded the like fate for England.

Yours ever
Bild

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

The “Scroungers’ Retreat”

Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence to tell her about his experiences in officer training. His fellow trainees were mainly NCOs with experience of the worst of the war, and were not easily corraled by their superiors.

Attd C Company
58th TRB
Sergeants Mess
No 9 Camp
Kinmel Park
Rhyl

July 26, 1917
My dear WF

I’m very fit indeed, working very hard and always hungry. We are exceptionally well fed, I think, and conditions are good.

It’s very difficult to write as several of the boys are telling their experiences, and every now and then they touch ground I know and I have to join in. One man has just been minutely describing the bundling and labelling of corpses for the fat factory as seen by him, and another the manacling of maritime gunners to their guns, also as seen by him. Both descriptions are so minute and definite as to be convincing. I’ve only to meet someone who has actually seen a corpse factory and I shall be a confirmed Kadaverite.

The battle of wits – the staff v. us continues with varying success. The routine is changed daily to put us off our stroke and get ahead of us, but the same crowd who lay themselves out to “dodge the column” successfully carry on just as usual, appearing on parade, answering the roll call and vanishing into the blue before any work is done with consistent ability. This rather large section of our number have a discipline of their own. Backsliders are dealt with by courtmartial. Absence from the “Scroungers Retreat” (a quiet marquee in the neighbourhood) seems to be the most seriously looked upon offence, and is dealt with very harshly, the punishment being I believe to attend next parade and answer for all the others from their hut who are not there.

Of course, being out of training, I find the work very hard indeed, quite apart from my ignorance of it which is another difficulty with me, but I can feel myself growing straighter and stronger every day and look forward to being a Samson soon.

By the way I’ve had 2 days trench digging. It’s extraordinary how difficult such a menial job as digging earth and throwing it out of the trench is. An experienced man will throw his shovel of earth intact 10-20 feet away in any direction. The novice finds it difficult to throw and direct and very hard to keep together.

I can see I shall very soon be nailed down to drill and books – that is, as soon as I get to a cadet unit. Until then I’m not taking this business too seriously, and simply concentrate upon breaking myself in physically. You’d scacrcely credit how absurdly soft my hands and feet were. They are hardening up rapidly, but I’m still a pretty blistered object.

Well my dear girl, I feel this is a very uninteresting letter, but conditions are very trying for letter writing so you’ll have to please excuse it.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/53-57)

Shot in cold blood, and now “beyond the reach of human injustice and incompetence”

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image was excited by the new tanks rolling into action; philosophical about air raids – and horrified by first-hand stories of the executions of young men for cowardice or desertion.

29 Barton Road
[Cambridge]

23 Sept. ‘16

Mon Ami!

I share your views about the ghastly War. With its slaughters and its expenditure, where shall we be left after it is over. Any peace that leaves Germany still united – united for evil – is a fool madness that deserves the new War it will render a certainty.

I am in a fever to see the photograph of a Tank in action. I can’t imagine its appearance. I don’t believe them lengthy like caterpillars – but more like mammoths, Behemoths – “painted in venomous reptilian colours” for invisibility – and “waddling on” over trenches.

Today’s paper speaks of a seaplane over Dover yesterday. This is the very general prelude to a Zepp raid: and we expect one accordingly tonight, if their courage hasn’t oozed out. There is a Flying Camp near here – at Thetford, I believe. Daily, Planes soar over us – a sight I view every time with fresh pleasure. Twice we have had an Airship – huge, but not like the pictures of the German Zepps. I may as well tell you of our own experience on Saturday 3 weeks ago. Peaceful and unsuspecting, we were sitting in the drawing room at 10.30 when suddenly the electric lights went down and left the house in darkness. This is the official warning of Zepps. So we went out into Barton Rd. Not a glimmer, nor a sound. Quite unimpressive.

We turned in to bed – all standing (in Navy language) – and I into the deepest slumber, from which I was eventually shaken to hear an agitated voice, “they’re here”. I bundled out, lit a match and read on my watch 2.50. There was no mistaking – a thunderous drone, such as I had never heard before – and, seemingly, exactly overhead. We hurried down into the road. The roar grew fainter, and then began – deep and dignified – the guns. I guessed them to be on the Gogmagogs – then sharp explosions, which we took for bombs, thrown haphazard by the Zepp which was undoubtedly fleeing for the coast.

Robinson’s Zepp had come to earth at 2.30. Possibly ours was the wounded bird, which dropped a gondola or something in Norfolk when making its escape?

At 4.5 our electric lights went up again, and we to bed. Decorous night-rails, this time.

The Signora has a wee aluminium fragment from the Zepp that was brought down at Salonica. It was picked up by a young soldier who had been in her Sunday School Class. We had a sudden visit from her youngest brother, Gilbert, home on 6 days leave from Salonica. You have heard me speak of him as the rising artist who at 20 years of age sold a picture for £100, and is now a Tommy at 1/- a day. I fell in love with him on the spot. So simple, so lovable, – above all, such a child – going about the world unprotected!

By the way Gilbert saw the Zepp come down in flames at Salonica.
He had many yarns. The one that most made me shudder was of the announcement at a morning parade, “Sergeant So-and-so of the Connaught Rangers was shot this morning by sentence of a Court Martial for refusing to obey an order”. Just that! I have heard of these shootings in cold blood, several times, at the Front in France. Always they made me feel sick. A boy (on one occasion) of 17 ½, who had fought magnificently at Hill 60: and then lost his nerve, when his 2 brothers were killed in the trench at his side. Pym (our TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge] chaplain) sat with him all night and gave him the Sacrament. He

“could only feel what a real comfort it was to know that the boy was now beyond the reach of human injustice and incompetence”.

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

Irish revolt almost over

Florence Vansittart Neale was relieved that the Easter Rising had been quashed.

2 May 1916

Revolt virtually over. 459 prisoners taken to England for court martial….

H & I to say goodbye to Sep. He off to London en route for Madras. 2nd in command.

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

Patriotism is not enough

The Maidenhead parish magazine included various inspiring stories arising from the war, some well known today like that of Edith Cavell, other less so.

Sons of the Clergy.

All classes of the community have vied with each other in manifesting courageous self-sacrifice in the nation’s hour of need. But without drawing undue distinctions it is generally admitted that the sons of the clergy have been conspicuous in the Roll of Honour throughout the War. Week after week the long list of names appearing in the Church newspapers bear eloquent testimony to this fact. The work of the clergy in ministering to those left behind in a variety of ways has been of the greatest value.

“How Can I Help England – Say?”

Miss Helena L. Powell, the Principal of St. Mary’s College, Lancaster Gate, has written an earnest and helpful leaflet for children, showing how children can help in the War. It is addressed to the elder children in our Day and Sunday Schools, and copies required for distribution to these may be had free of charge from Miss Edith Neville, Banstead Place, Banstead, Surrey.

A Daughter of the Parsonage.

Edith Cavell, Directrice d’Ecole des Infirmières, Brussels, who was shot by order of Court-Martial in Brussels on a charge of aiding the escape over the frontier of British, French and Belgian soldiers, was the daughter of the late Rev. Frederick Cavell, Vicar of Swardeston, Norfolk. She was formerly a nurse in the London Hospital. In 1907 she went to Brussels, and when the Germans entered the city she refused to leave.

The Rev H. S. Gahan, British Chaplain at Brussels, has given a touching account of her last hours.

“She said, ‘I have no fear nor shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.’ She further said, ‘I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’

We partook of Holy Communion together, and she received the Gospel message of consolation with all her heart. At the close of the little service I began to repeat the words ‘Abide with Me,’ and she joined softly in the end. We sat quietly talking until it was time for me to go. She gave me parting messages for relations and friends. She spoke of her soul’s needs at the moment, and she received the assurance of God’s Words as only the Christian can do.”

(more…)

From tennis with the enemy to exploding vessels: wild rumours abound

HMS Irene was a Canadian steamer which was commandeered by the Navy for war service. It exploded off Sheerness on 27 May, in the same area where the Bulwark had exploded in late 1914. However, the court martial story appears to be the invention of the intense atmosphere of the time. None of the officers on the Bulwark survived to be transferred. The story about Mrs Asquith was equally untrue; she successfully sued a newspaper for libel for the allegation.

10 June 1915

Heard the Lt. Com. Of Bulwark was on shore when it blew up – he was sent to Princess Irene. Same thing happened at Sheerness. He was taken up, court-martialled & shot!!

Hear Mrs Asquith spends her time playing tennis with Donnington Hall prisoners!!

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