Steel helmets were donned & many were for fleeing to dugouts

The fighting came closer to Sydney Spencer.

Sunday 30 June 1918

My dear diary! Rejoice with me for at last I have stopped mentally crying & railing on the world & saying ‘The world? Why the world’s a hoss’.

Last night the Huns raided some ten miles away. General wind up in our camp. Steel helmets were donned & many were for fleeing to dugouts. Their noise & excitement bored me as I wished to be left at peace to sleep.

Spent a delightfully lazy morning studying the phrase ‘dolce far niente’ lying on my back most of time. Am now writing letters in Grand Hotel Club. Hope to see Cubitt today.

Had my bath. A dog who craftily escaped waves when fetching a stick was very amusing. Had dinner at Club & an amazingly interesting talk with a Scots officer. He had no religion & was full of it without knowing it!

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

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“Why should we all be potential thieves, liars, cads & scoundrels”

Sydney was uncharacteristically resentful of his superiors.

Wednesday 26 June 1918

When I got up today at 6.45 I felt just as scornful & uppish with everything in general as I did yesterday. Thus does ‘Flu’ play pranks with us. At 7.45 to MO’s inspection. A farce when I simply said ‘I am alright’ & walked off. At 8.5 listened to a long long harangue from the Base Colonel. I cannot understand why such an attitude as he took up should be necessary. Why should we all be potential thieves, liars, cads & scoundrels. At any rate I shall be anxious to prove myself otherwise!

5 pm I am up in the little turret at the top of the Fleche of Rouen Cathedral. A wonderful view. 500 feet or more up. Had dinner at Club. Had a long talk with a staff Major. Afterwards went to a picture show to rest my weary legs. Very boring.

Back to camp by 10 pm. Saw men & dogs being tossed in a blanket. I go away tomorrow. To bed & read more of Tartarin sur les Alpes.

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

Battalion HQ in very deep dugout

Sydney had a sightly better journey today, and paid more attention to the controversial Billing case at home.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 6 June 1918

Rose at 5 am. Got breakfast, & into the train for Hesdin by 6.30. It is now 9.30 & we haven’t yet started. Another glorious morning, all sunshine.

Billing has been pronounced ‘not guilty’. Justice Darling makes use of the following expression, ‘I tell you now that I do not care a bit for you or anyone like you, or what you say about me’ seems ridiculously childish. A street boy would have pulled a face & said ‘yar ‘oo cares for you’ & would have called for more conviction with him!

Started for Hesdin (30 miles) at 9.30. Got there 11.30. Wonderful. Lorry jumped to Marronville, arriving at 12 noon. Graham & I billeted at the mead, a long low white cottage facing the church. Mess will be started tomorrow morning.

Had lunch at the Hotel de Commerce. Walked back to billets. Slept. Got some [illegible] out of the sergeant. Walked down with Graham & Barker to Hesdin. Had dinner at the Hotel de France. Back by 9.15 & to bed. Started reading Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet. A very droll book.

Percy Spencer
6 June 1918

17th relieved us and we went into support. Battalion HQ in very deep dugout.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 June 1918

Early church – dog walk – then fussed to find rooms for farm workers till lunch. Heard another officer coming today & one tomorrow. Captain Petcher AFC Maidenhead called on Miss Areson.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Guerilla warfare

Sydney Spencer kept busy regrouping after his spell in the trenches.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 28 May 1918

After a good night’s sleep in pyjamas in my beautiful old flea bag, I got up at 8 am. A glorious day with the earth & air all aglow with spring leading onto high summer. Paraded at 9 am for platoon inspection. The company & battalion then proceeded to rest for the whole of the day, i.e. men were medically inspected, kits were inspected, Lewis Guns were inspected, 24 magazines cleaned. Lunch.

Men of my platoon ordered to dig out floors of tents. Started. Guerilla warfare ensued, i.e. shovels, broken bottles, language, myself, 4 sergeants, dogs, a goat, Monsieur, Madame et les petits, mallets, & the town mayor (a decrepit full colonel) took part. It ended in my decamping with my platoon. I was dumped by the DOC (above) on the parade ground of an army school. Thence we backed to another place & finally got the platoon settled in.

Thus we rested for a whole day! Wrote a letter to Florence. After dinner went down to platoon to see them settled in. Made up mess accounts & so to bed at 11.30 pm.

Percy Spencer
28 May 1918

As yesterday. Bosch shelled top of bank under lea of which we live. Major P[arish] dined with 141.

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

“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)

Peppered all along our line

Sydney Spencer was under fire and trying to catch some sleep, while brother Percy was behind the lines and Will’s wife was trying to get permission to visit her sister in Germany.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 4 May 1918

I started tour of duty at 10 pm [last] Saturday night. Finished at 4.30 this morning. Took on again at 5.30-7.30 so as to get a long morning’s sleep.

Was on Tour duty till 4.30 this morning. At 2.45 enemy sent over a few shells into village behind us. Rain set in at 2.15 am & continued to drizzle until 4 am. Had a half hour ‘kip’ till 4.30, then ‘stand to’ till 5.30 & I took tour duty till 7.30. Examined rifles & feet. Saw gun sections issued & [tried?], then sleep till 8 am. After breakfast more sleep till 10.

Brigadier came along at 10.30 just when I was rubbing my feet & getting my boots cleaned. He had a good deal to say, looked severe, but it struck me he had very kindly eyes. Got some more sleep in after lunch.

On duty 3.30-5.30. Many enemy aeroplanes came over. A glorious day with a little rain early in the day. At stand to the Neuglanders did a strafe & bombing raid, & we were peppered all along our line, particularly my platoon front. No casualties however. No 7 had one slight one.

Took a wiring party along New Broad & put up a tangle barrier on road & obstacle on right.

Percy Spencer
4 May 1918

Another hard day. Got some useful work done. Office in a chaotic state still. Col. Parrish’s band played at mess. Col. P constant anxiety about “Paddy” the Irish Terrier.

Will Spencer
4 May 1918

I was playing in the library after breakfast when the taller of the two Canadian ladies [staying at the same hotel] (their name, by the way, is Thompson) came in. … She left at 10.30 to meet a tall young Belgian soldier on the hotel terrace. She distributes Bible reading cards among the soldiers.

[It seems that the hotel was used partly for the accommodation of interned soldiers from foreign nations.]

By the morning post letters for Johanna from her Engeloch (enclosing form of application for her to travel into Germany for her to fill up), & from Agnes…

Before dinner J. wrote to Agnes asking for medical testimony that her mother was ill, & after dinner she filled up the above mentioned form of application.

[She eventually got permission to go in August.]

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

The work of vandal hands

Sydney Spencer was distressed by the signs of looting and damage by the enemy, but could still delight in natural beauty.

Friday 26 April 1918

I got up at 7.30 & Peyton & I went into the cook-house, & we sat by the fire & talked about Oxford & had a cup of tea, & then we had breakfast. Morning spent in gas drill, rifle inspection & mouching [sic] round & lying about.

After lunch we went down to the platoons & O ticked them off about camouflage. Then went for a ‘scrounge’ with Harvey through the town. Very pathetic. In one house I found beautiful books, furniture & china all pelmel [sic] smashed & broken & torn by vandal hands on the ground. Upstairs large cupboards ruthlessly torn open, quantities of women’s apparel lying thick on the floors, & [illegible] lying full sprawl on the apparel a massive black dog with weak brown eyes, also looked long & sadly at me. In a ruined chateau I found a curious letter written on Sept 25 1915 from here.

After tea rations came. While I was away at D company HQ, 2, 15 point 9 shells got used. B company HQ. No damage to life but a hole in wall just outside the cellar. Tonight Rolfe and [illegible] have gone on working parties.

I gathered some lovely apple blossom from an apple tree blown up by a shell today. Also some forgetmenots, wallflowers, [peonies?], cowslips & bunches of blossoming branches of Tulip Tree.


Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

Escaped internee “did not make friends with the dog”

Carlos Kuhn Escosura y Diaz was a Spanish electrical engineer from Vigo, aged 28 when he first arrived at Reading Prison as an internee in May 1916. He escaped custody in 1917, and shocking claims were made in the papers about the way he had allegedly suborned a guard dog.

16 January 1918
Reading PI [Place of Internment]

Please note that arrangements are being made to bring back Carlos Kuhn de la Escosuras to your custody from the Spanish Embassy, whither he fled on escaping from your custody some time since. He will not be punished for his offence, and precautions will be taken to prevent his making any fresh attempt to escape.

[Illegible]
Secretary

Noted. Prisoner was received on the 15th inst.
C M Morgan
Governor

The attached cutting from last night’s “Evening News” [not attached] may interest the Commissioners. It is the average veracity of the Northcliffe Press.


C K de la Escosuras

1. He did not make friends with the dog.
2. The dog did not come into the Prison.
3. The dog does not exist – the only officer who has a dog is the Chief Warder and far from being friendly to strangers, it bit a policeman in the “tail” when he was searching the Forbury Gardens on the night of the escape – it is a bull dog.

He did not pick his cell lock with a wire. He was not in a cell – but free to walk about the prison till 8 pm – and this escape took place about 7.30 pm.

He does not collect Prison Keys – neither are they left for him to collect.

The key was made by another man out of tinfoil and the garden door unlocked as previously reported.

As regards his prolonged conversation with Police and other officials – he is the only man of the four who cannot talk English.

Reading Prison [Place of Internment] letter book (P/RP1/8/2/1)

A fighting board at the Admiralty

Phyllis Vansittart Neale started nursing in Reading – less exotic than France, but still working with seriously wounded soldiers. Her father Henry, at the Admiralty, found changes afoot.

5 May 1917

H., I & Phyllis last dog walk – we on to Vicarage with flowers to say goodbye to Willy. We all motored to Reading & Pussycat [Phyllis?] started on her new venture.

3 [SJ?] destroyers mined in Channel. We going on in Western Front, very hard fighting.

2nd dish asparagus – economising in salmon!

Changes at the Admiralty – a fighting board – Lloyd George has been at it.

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

War between Germany and the USA is in the balance

Will Spencer was still trying to find out news of young family friend Max Ohler, a German soldier reported missing. He was pleased to hear from younger brother Sydney, dong well in army training, but was now well settled in Swiss society. Back in England, Florence Vansittart Neale was keenly interested in the prospects of the US joining the war. Johann von Bernstorff was the German ambassador to America and had been involved in sabotage and intelligence work there, and had just been thrown out.

Will Spencer in Switzerland
12 February 1917

A letter from Sydney. Hopes that we may obtain news of Max Ohler from the War Office Prisoners of War Department, which can find out more than any single enquirer can. He enjoys reading my accounts of Switzerland. Has just passed the exam for “Marksman” with 135 points out of 160 (or something of that sort), none of the 28 men he took up with him scoring more than 113. (130 was required to pass.)…

At 5 I called again on Herrn Fursprecher Hodler (by appointement). My obtaining leave to declare a smaller amount of Kriegsteuer [war tax], after signing for 500 fr., dependent of goodwill of the official concerned, but I might make the attempt. An income of 4,800 fr. represents normally a capital of 120,000 francs, for which the tax would be (class 110,000-120,000) 275 francs. I handed in my short sketch of my career, & signed a declaration which he drew up, that military duty “[illegible word] meinem Falle nicht in Betracht” [is out of the question in my case].

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
12 February 1917

Took dogs a walk again in afternoon – discussed War Savings & digging with Martin & Willie.

Bernstorff given safe conduct. So Gerard left Germany – war with US in the balance. Ag went to Boulogne.

We continually advancing on Somme & Avere. Constant raids.

Diaries of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27); and Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Our generation has learnt to think of settling down to end one’s days together in safety seems all one asks of life”

Ralph Glyn’s sister Maysie was amused by their aristocratic mother’s depression at the thought of living on a reduced income now her husband was retiring, and had had a royal encounter in Windsor.

April 24/16
Elgin Lodge
Windsor

My dear darling R.

I wonder what for an Easter you spent [sic]. Very many happy returns of it anyhow. I got yours of 14th today. I hope you have seen Frank by now. How splendid of him to spend his leave in that way. Your weather sounds vile, still you are warm & here one never is. I hear from Pum [Lady Mary] today that Meg is in bed with Flu & temp 102. I am so worried, & hope she will not be bad. I must wait till John comes in, but feel I must offer to go to them, but how John is to move house alone I do not know! We move Thurs. My only feeling is that it may distract the parents somewhat during this trying week….

[Mother] takes the gloomiest view of household economies etc, & is determined it will all be “hugga mugga”, “She was not brought up like that & you see darling I have no idea how to live like that” etc etc. I tried humbly to suggest that one could be happy from experience & was heavily sat on, “it’s different for you young people”. Of course it is, & I wasn’t brought up in a ducal regime, still one can have some idea – also possible if Pum had ever had Dad fighting in a war she’d find more that nothing mattered. I think our generation has learnt that, & to think of settling down to end one’s days together in safety seems all one asks of life perhaps! You can well imagine tho’ nothing is said, how this attitude of martyrdom reacts on Dad. In fact he spoke to John about it. One does long to help, but one feels helpless against a barrier of sheer depression in dear Pum…

There seems little news to tell you. The King came Thurs, & has been riding in the Park. We ran into all the children, 3 princes & Princess M pushing bikes in the streets of Windsor on Friday. It was most surprising. They have got two 75s here as anti-aircraft, one on Eton playing fields & one Datchet way. They say if they ever fire the only certainty must be the destruction of the Castle & barracks!!

You know all leave was suddenly stopped on the 18th & everyone over here recalled. We all thought “the Push” but Billy writes the yarn in France is, it was simply that the Staff and RTs wished to have leave themselves – but then one can hardly believe, it’s too monstrous to be true. However John Ponsonby has written about coming on leave the end of the month so there can’t be so much doing yet. The news from Mesopotamia is black enough, one more muddle to our credit & more glory through disaster to the British Army.

I wonder what you think of the recent political events. Pum nearly or rather quite made herself ill over it!…

Billy has I fancy been pretty bad. The bed 10 days at some base hospital, bad bronchitis & cough….

Bless you darling
Your ever loving
Maysie

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Thankful not to be in the trenches

Wounded officer John Wynne-Finch wrote to his brother in law Ralph Glyn from his convalescence in Wales.

John to Ralph (D/EGL/C2/3
Voelas
Bettws-y-Coed
N Wales
Jan 19th 1916
My dear Ralph

We have most certainly had a lovely long stay here. All thanks to my very “tuppenny-halfpenny” wound which refused to heal. During this time I have done a good deal of shooting, and the total bag for the year is really rather good and has beaten all previous records for the years when no pheasants have been reared. Over 1000 pheasants have been killed, and about 400 partridges, and very little shooting was done before the end of November.

The weather here has been very bad, and there have been many occasions when we have wondered how Jimmy was feeling in the North Sea. The gale here on New Year’s Day was of most unprecedented violence, and did a great deal of damage, bringing down over 100 trees in one wood alone. But owing to the war, one can luckily obtain a very good price for timber, and it is so much in demand that I have been able to sell them all, whereas in the ordinary course of events one can get no sale here on account of the cost of carriage….

The rain has also been a most tiresomely frequent visitor, as Meg found to her dismay, during the week she was here. On this account I have very often felt thankful that I was not biding my time in the trenches of Flanders….

My next Medical Board is due in a few days, when I suppose they will pass me fit for duty at Windsor, whither I suppose we shall have to go, to be there I suppose about 2 months before they send me out again.

The war news of the last few days has not been of the very best. The end of Montenegro will not help us very much in the Balkans I am afraid. I would have expected Italy to have sent troops there, because I don’t suppose it will be any help to her to have the Austrians with a longer sea-board in the Adriatic.

The Persian Gulf business also seems a very tough job. It was most awfully sad about poor Ivar. They seem to have had a very severe handling out there. Nevertheless they seem to be making a slow but sure progress, and will no doubt join up very soon.

As regards myself I have been very lucky in getting promoted Captain, after such few years’ service. But it was all due to the formation of the Guards Division and the consequent augmentation of the regimental establishments.

You probably know that Godfrey Fielding now commands the division, and Cavan has got a Corps, XIV, to which the division is shortly to be transferred, so as to be under his command.

The evacuation of Gallipoli was a most astoundingly wonderful feat; and I am simply longing to hear something about it. I often wonder now after reading the Turkish “official” communiqués what amount of truth there is in what they say as regards the booty etc, which they took. It is always difficult to believe anything these days, from whatever source it may emanate.

Maysie still keeps her pack of hounds; and Connell is as naughty and bad as possible. In the house he is no better than a travelling water-cart.

The whole country seems to be full of soldiers; and London is simply one mass of them. Those on leave from France, looking too untidy and dirty for words. One sees also very large numbers of men, of every class, wearing the khaki armlets of the Derby scheme.

I hope you are keeping fit.

Yours ever
John C Wynne Finch

Lady Mary Glyn, Ralph’s mother, also wrote to him.
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Absolute hell a few miles away

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was safe, and gave her some information about the supply of newspapers at the front. But the danger was alleviated by some puppies:

May 26, 1915
Dear Florrie

I’m having a rest.

The Brigade Major mentioned the other day that he thought I was the hardest worked fellow on the staff – I suppose because to avoid mistakes I take night messages and often get very little sleep. So to my disgust I’m not in the battle now raging but am remaining behind to carry on with a few ore & Captain Holliday and to rest as much as I can. Really I suppose I’m lucky as it’s absolute hell a few miles away where we are successfully operating though losing a lot of men.

Thank you for your letters and parcel. I’m blessed if I remember if I wrote and thanked you for the parcel with the cake mother made in it, and father’s flowers. It was kind of him to fag about with them.

I expect you are having the same sort of weather as we are – glorious but terribly hot.

Today brought me four letters – yours, one from T.W., another from Sydney and one from Mrs Everest his former landlady]. Dear old lady; I think she’ll be leaving me something in her will if I don’t look out. Anyway you and I seem to have brought a gleam of sunshine into their (hers and Annie’s) secluded lives – and we are all glad of it.

All this morning I spent in the garden idly watching aeroplanes being shelled, or – for a change – two little brown puppies here, playing hide and seek round a small clump of iris. But for this damnable war and all the uncertainty it involves us in, our situation would be enviable.

Have I told you that I get the Advertiser [presumably the Maidenhead Advertiser] every week (thanks very much), and do not require any money as I keep the petty cash.

Generals & people like that get the “Times” through about 7-8 pm the day of issue, but Mrs Hothouse is wrong in stating that the men get anything more than one day old papers. Very often they don’t get that.

I’ve absolutely nothing to tell you except that I keep remarkably well and jolly. Give my love to all at home.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/30)

Helping wounded animals

The Blue Cross Fund was established in 1912 by Our Dumb Friends League, an anti-cruelty animal charity, to assist animals affected by war (originally in the Balkans).  During the First World War it provided care for wounded British army horses and dogs.  The parent charity later adopted the Blue Cross name, and still exists.  A school in Purley got involved with raising funds for this work:

5th November 1914 

The head-teacher was absent from school from 3.15pm to 4pm, to attend meeting re Blue Cross Day.

Purley CE School log book (C/EL85/2, p. 69)

Favours for wounded animals

The Blue Cross Fund was established in 1912 by Our Dumb Friends League, an anti-cruelty animal charity, to assist animals affected by war (originally in the Balkans).  During the First World War it provided care for wounded British army horses and dogs.  The parent charity later adopted the Blue Cross name, and still exists.  A school in Purley got involved with raising funds for this work, as the log book reveals:

2nd November 1914 

The timetable has not been strictly kept throughout this week after 11am, as badges and favours for Blue Cross, Nov 9th, have been made.

Purley CE School log book (C/EL85/2, p. 69)