Heavy breathing and foul language – but a great success

Sydney Spencer faces his last day at the YMCA camp, and looks back over his experiences.

Thursday Sept 24th
[Opposite a page setting out the Morse code]
The following is the Morse Code written in this book for me by one of the privates here. He lent over our impromptu letter box & wrote it earnestly with much heavy breathings. I want to learn this code if at all possible…

Tomorrow I leave the camp. Am I sorry? Yes, I must own that I have quite a number of regrets in leaving Harwich. The last two or three days have been such a pleasure & I have so warmed to the work that I shall distinctly leave behind many pleasant memories, & but very few unhappy ones. With the exception of one man’s foul language to myself, for which I just straightly attacked him, I have had not one unpleasant passage of arms with the men. Our concert last evening was really a huge success. The place after a most strenuous two hours preparing looked – use a university modernism – “top hole”. I had a very busy time of it preparing, & when it was done – the platform made, the counter covered up, and candles placed in saucers on a form for footlights, then I really felt that we were well rewarded for our labours. The items on the programme were all or nearly all quite successful, & Private Macgregor who sang Father O’Flinn and Long Live The King, & other songs, really was the best item of the evening for his healthy figure & his splendid voice, & his splendid taste in singing made him for me the best of the bunch. He took a real joy in his singing & made the whole air tingle with the splendid swing of his singing. Today has been a rather hard day for me, as Hayes has been out most of the day to get a rest from yesterday’s concert. Tonight he has gone out with the “light” signallers, with Lieutenant Chadington who was last night at our concert, & also sang. He sang very well indeed – rag times – and delighted the men. Daldry was very cut up because we had the counter closed up. I should think that the concert would have been lowered 80 or 90 per cent at least.

Sydney Spencer’s diary, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

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Singing with the swaggering soldiers

Sydney Spencer reflected in his diary on his YMCA work and getting to know the rough and ready soldiers. His musical talents came in handy.

Wednesday Sept 23rd
It is a glorious day – indeed so glorious that despite the fact that I am in this tent, & the men are all round reading and playing games, & I am still surrounded by all those things which tend to make life feel sordid – still the sunlight is so lovely, & there is such a warm light and buoyancy about everything that I feel as though I have just for a time got right into the country. I feel even a buoyancy about myself, & considering this is the end of my fortnight’s work here I feel that I am very fit. Although I have caught a cold here it has not given me very much trouble. Only in the mornings when I get up I have had a grumble in my throat.

Yesterday was quite a successful day for me in the way of getting on with the men. I did a lot of playing for them & they sang quite a lot too. The difficulty has been to get them to sing. These men, so rough & rude in speech, are as shy as children when it comes to asking them to do a thing such as sing a song. They rough it & swagger & say they can’t sing & don’t know the songs, or don’t like them, & now they are gradually warming to the work & beginning to sing songs which before they would not sing. Brown – a man whom we both liked very much – Hayes & I – has gone off to the front & he seemed most happy to be going. Our concert is tonight and I am most glad that it is so for I have not been looking forward to it, for either I have to play or I have not to, & if I was asked my desires I should prefer not to play at all! I know that my type of music does not at all suit, hence it will make the playing ever so much more difficult, & embarrassing. I have grown to be very fond of Hayes. He has a regular appetite for scheming with his “thoughts”. He weighs out his every speech, & the time he takes thinking out the exact form of his next question or answer to the captain is remarkable. Although I am glad that my time is coming to an end, still I feel that I would not have been without this experience, with all its particoloured effects upon me. We had our morning service here last Sunday with a certain amount of “éclat”, if it is not “rirement” [laughable] to use such a word in this conjunction.

We had the Venite & the Benedictus, & hymns. Captain Watson read the lesson & prayers, & hayes preached a five minute sermon. It was a very good thought that he put into it. He stood for beating a man on his own level, & then shewing him that he bore him no ill feeling, & was willing to raise him or go with him on to a higher level.

The air this afternoon is rather thick, as Captain Watson is annoyed – justly so too, I feel – at Daldry’s proposal to take the chair at the meeting tonight. Daldry wants to finish up the concert with the hymn “Fight the good fight”. I feel with Hayes and with Captain Watson too that a hymn then would be out of place. I think strongly that a hymn & prayers every night before we parted would be well, but it would create a false atmosphere if the hymn suddenly broke in on the rather trifling concert programme we have on the boards.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)