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

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

Germans “too downtrodden to rise”

Florence Vansittart Neale was glued to every wild rumour about the war, while Will Spencer’s love for his German wife had only grown stronger through their difficult years of exile in Switzerland.

Florence Vansittart Neale
November 1917
[inserted before 23 November]

Hear P. Innes says state of Germany awful. People too weak to rise, able bodied men only able to work half time, too downtrodden to rise.
Hear the Pope instigated the Italians to give up. He encouraged Austrian spies everywhere!

23 November 1917

Hear Boy cannot get Paris leave. Hope for January…. Hear most domestic servants to be requisitioned for work – only allowed 1 servant each person! Counting the gardeners!!!

Hear General Plumer & staff have been in Italy 3 weeks to see how many necessary to keep Italy. Our troops must go over Mt Cenes pass.

Hear through Marga that a Florentine Regiment who deserted was sent back to Florence with “traitors to their country” on their brassades.

Hear many battalions would willingly shoot 1 in 10 of strikers [illegible].

Will Spencer
23 November 1917

During the afternoon I called & had an interview with Herrn Fursprech Engeloch. Father need take no further steps to obtain attestation of my residence in Cookham before Jan. 19/15, as it may not be needed. As soon as the matter comes before the Gemeinde (I told him we had chosen Oberburg [as their official home town in Switzerland]. Herr E. will let Oberst Reichel know, in order that he can then write on our behalf, stating that we are friends of his, as he has kindly offered to do. Probably the best means of letting the German authorities know that I had become a Swiss subject would be to apply to have Johanna’s money sent here, mentioning thereby that I am a Swiss subject, & if that is questioned, to then place the matter in the hands of the Swiss Political Department. My naturalization cannot finally be ratified until the Grosser Rat has met again. It only meets twice a year, & will meet next, Herr E. said, in Feb. or March, or at the latest in April….

I was sorry to have to tell Johanna how long we might have to wait for the ratification of our naturalization. After we had had coffee in Johanna’s room, something moved me to tell her that I had learned to know her better & that she had become more to me than ever during these last years – in some ways years of trial – in Switzerland. Johanna had afterwards to go into the town, but she would not let me go with her, as I was not quite up to the mark, & she thought it better for me to rest. When she returned, she thanked me again for what I had said. I said that I was sorry that they were only words that I had spoken, that I felt such things were better expressed in deeds, but she comforted me with the assurance that what I had said had not been merely words.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

“Reformed” Belgian deserter seeks shelter in Bisham

The voluntary work of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey continued with the local Red Cross branch providing clothes for displaced Serbians, and a stray Belgian needing help.

19 March 1915
Red X meeting. Settled ask for grant to send clothes [to] Servia [sic]!…

Julian returned! Said he was reforme’. Wanted to stay here to find work! We told him impossible. Wired to Salvation Army for orders about him.

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

Arrested as deserter – might be shot!

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey was shocked when one of her favourite Belgians was arrested as an army deserter.

16 March 1915
Edie, I, Dominique & Modeste to Oxford. Went to Ruskin College to see about Louis to go Oxford. Objectionable female refused to take him as Mr Pusey would not have him near Sylvia his fiancée….

Heard poor old Jules walked off by gendarme – a deserter! Might be shot!! Pray not.

Hear now nearer 1800 prisoners taken. 30 officers. Retaken St Eloi. Gemrans beaten also by Russians. Heard Jack Farrer must lie flat for long time.

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

‘The jar jar of this life’

Sydney Spencer was struggling in his work at the YMCA camp and sought consolation in an old friend – poetry:

Thursday Sept 17th
Today is a miserable day. It is pouring with rain and our tent is full of men. We have an orderly too now, & it makes the work “some lighter” as Hayes would say. We are both getting to know the men here quite well & have chats with them. I am feeling my way to get at some spiritual work. That is my whole object & I shall be very disappointed if I don’t get my chance. Last night we had an interesting talk together while Hayes was gone off on some errands. Some of the men here seem devoid of any sort of consciousness of shame at being “defaulters”. They don’t seem to understand the stigma & smudging of their honour they suffer when they have committed an “army crime”. One of them last night was a defaulter, & had been six years without a crime. But on Sunday night he ran away & was captured at Colchester & was brought back here. He told me that he wanted badly to see his wife so had gone off regardless of consequences. It seems such a pity after six years good behaviour to feel that he has spoilt his sheet. Hayes & I are having difficulties over the officers here. I do not know whether they quite know whether we are paid grocer’s assistants or what we are I am not sure, but they have done quite enough to make me feel that I could not possibly accept any invitation they might offer me. I cannot swallow my pride, & the message we received last night saying that Hayes was invited to breakfast but that “the other young fellow was not wanted” made me just mad. Of course that message was not deliberately sent to me, but that was what was said. I was very tired when this came along having been on all day at this work and I felt that I really could not do much more than be angry. These times when I have to eat humble pie are times which I find more than difficult, & when the words [Greek quotation] are read, I often feel that I shall never be able to inherit the earth. I suppose that it is that I am not used either to snubs or to insults, & when one comes along, for the moment I feel that my whole control is gone & that I must go straight to that man and make him take it back. Hayes did not say much about the matter although he sympathised with my position, but just before going to bed he said, “Be all things to all men”, & that put the thing in the right light for me. Hayes has a beautiful edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse here & it is such a relief to dive into it and read. It is like a dive into some level limpid stream after a long walk through paved suburban streets on a hot day. The jar jar [sic] of this life – for it is a strain despite its interest – wants relief and when I come across such lines as these from Browning’s ‘Paracelsus’ I feel such a relief as makes me grateful for these grand men who wrote such sweet words for our refreshment:

Heap cassia, sandalbuds and stripes
Of labdanum, and aloe balls
Smear’d with dull nard an Indian wipes
From out her hair such balsam falls
Down seaside mountain pedestals
From tree tops where tired winds are fain
Spent with the vast and howling main
To treasure half their island gain

And strew faint sweetness from some old
Egyptian’s fine worm-eaten shroud
Which breaks to dust when once unroll’d
Or shredded perfume like a cloud
From closet long to quiet vow’d
With moth’d and dropping arras hung
Mouldering her lute and books among
As when a queen, long dead, was young

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