“I keeps my pecker up”

Sydney Spencer greatly admired his commanding officer, Captain Dillon.

July 31st [1918]
My Dearest Florence

My clothes are literally falling to pieces & my batman is going on strike if I don’t soon do something about it. So here goes. Will you be sweet & send me my trousers & best tunic keeping the brass buttons on it as these brown buttons are an “anathema” in the regiment. Also the tunic will need Norfolk badges put on it if I remember. Don’t send the old trousers but the new ones (they are of the same material as the tunic is barathia)!!!

I have sent so much kit home that things are getting almost to an indecent stage! And I simply refuse to continue this existence in breeches any longer! Also my pyjamas (the one pair I have have parted company in the middle, almost. In a day or two I am expecting to put them on one leg at a time! I have to do that always, but you know what I mean! It won’t be funny much longer however. Also (patience darling, I hang on as long as possible & then ask for lots of things at once so as not to be continually worrying you), I need about 1 dozen dark collars size 14 ½, 6 handkerchiefs, 2 pairs of thin short pants & another thin shirt. Also (!!) my batman orders me to get at once some Proberts mahogany brown polish for my belt & boots. He nearly ticked me off yesterday because I hadn’t written before!

Now to be pleasant & chatty. Since I wrote you I have moved about 30 miles. The best of it is that the flies here are about 75 % less than down where we were. Moving in this broiling weather is very fatiguing. But I keeps my pecker up & there is always something funny or incongruous to be amused or puzzled over. I wish I had time to write you sketches of French life as seen in these funny little villages. Some would amuse, some would make you sad, others not bearing the repeating, being of a nature that although highly amusing, are so essentially ‘not done’ in England, that they would leave you breathless.

When I tell you that there are practically no sanitary arrangements, & that all French cottages possess manure heaps (of which even Job himself could not complain) in their front gardens, you can imagine that [there are] times when life is not only embarrassing but precipitate.

I told you about my platoon being the winner of competitions in my last letter. My skipper – Capt. Dillon to boot – was very pleased as it brought credit on his company. By the way, he has a great love for Gold Flake cigarettes. Would you like just to please me to send him a tin, only putting your name on it, as sending them. He would be delighted & I could tell him they came from you afterwards.

He is such a splendid chap & I would like him to feel that I appreciated him & a tin of 100 gold flakes would please him immensely.

His address is the same as mine. Captain G Dillon MC, 7th Norfolks, BEF.


All love to you both from your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Diary
Wednesday 31 July 1918

Got up at 6.30 & went down to the stream at the bottom of the garden, & had a splash in the cool cold water. On parade at 8 am & did an hour’s march [in] full marching order. Then half an hour’s PT & ½ hour’s gas drill. Cut my foot slightly when bathing this morning. Having a rest surreptitiously on Dillon’s bed. Feel very tired after yesterday.

Letter and diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/59-66; D/EZ177/8/15)

‘I got a revolver in my tummy for not “giving right password”’

Sydney Spencer’s platoon worked hard behind the lines.

Monday 29 July 1918

I liked today’s programme of work very much. We had from 8.30 to 10.30 out by the wood for platoon training. Took my men in close order drill, & did some communication drill with the NCOs, also PT. Got back to billets at 11. Found that all officers & NCOs from each platoon were to be on range at 2.20 for a demonstration. Tracer bullets were employed on targets. Also phosphorous bombs from discharge cups. Also the New T. Bombs. They seem very effective.

After tea a rest & some games of patience. Late dinner & then night operations. An outpost scheme. We were not informed that there was to be an enemy. This caused lots of “fun”. Major Gethen was captured. I got a revolver in my tummy for not “giving right password”.

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

Easily the best platoon in the Battalion

Sydney Spencer was proud that his platoon won a competition.

Friday 26 July 1918

I rolled clean out of bed in the night & fell whack on to a stone floor & I did not even bruise myself!

Today came the greatly talked of “best platoon in the Battalion competition” consisting – we were told – when we got on to the parade ground – of three tests.

(1) Cleanliness & appearance.
(2) Platoon drill.
(3) A platoon scheme.

Hold your breath, Mr Diary – my platoon won! Points were as follows. 20 points for (1), 20 points for (2), 60 points for (3). My platoon tied with a platoon of A Company for cleanliness with 17 points. My platoon got 17 points for drill, “Easily the best” so the CO said. The scheme was an easy one had we had time for reconnaissance, but it was difficult. I got highest points with my platoon – 30 points, so I had 64 out of 100. I was very pleased, so was the platoon too.

Tomorrow comes the company competition, conference in afternoon. Had to explain dispositions. After tea gave Kemp a riding lesson! Frost did not come to dinner as he went on leave. Rolfe stayed to dinner instead.

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

“I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!”

Sydney Spencer’s unit practiced their technical skills behind the lines.

Wednesday 24 July 1918

Got up at 6.45. Route march from 7.15 to 8.30. Dillon went to see tanks so that Dawkins was in charge of company. Parade at 10 am. My platoon did a stunt with Dawkins on a strong point watching an attack. By coincidence I worked the oracle in exactly the way he did, rifle section working down at side of the field, bombing section at corner of a copse, L Gunners on left. Remainder of morning in squad drill.

After lunch spent a long afternoon playing patience, & censoring letters. Likewise after tea I did not do a great deal. Managed to get a letter to Florence after a struggle. Her article in Punch has not appeared. It is called “Or Both”. Went to bed fairly early tonight. These nights I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!

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

“News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids”

Sydney Spencer, who oped to train for the Anglican priesthood, disapproved of vulgar songs.

Thursday 18 July 1918

Got up fairly early. News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids. This we did & gave my platoon a talk about maps & did musketry & gas drill in the billet. The men were very pleased with the talk about maps.

After lunch little or nothing doing. I helped Plant with his Battalion dinner for tonight. It was not very successful, I thought. I hate big messes. There were 33 of us there. I rather deplored the songs which were sung after dinner.

I walked home with Kemp & Sergeant told us great news of a big French victory. Some 20,000 prisoners & 300 guns in all, south of us.

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

“The weather & the flies are very trying”

The heat was almost as troublesome as the enemy.

Wednesday 17 July 1918

Got up at 7.30 am. Flies were a nuisance. Air raid on village during night, about a dozen bombs dropped. 1 soldier killed, 5 wounded. A good parade this morning from 9-12.30. Inspection, Platoon & Section drill, PT, & BF. Break ½ hour. Rifle grenadiers from 11.30-12.30. Company arms drill. Marched home. Censored letters after lunch. Another broiling hot day.

The weather & the flies are very trying. After tea I began to fret. I wonder whether the photographer would turn up to take the officers of the Battalion. We were all at the orderly room at 7.30, but as a storm intervened he did not come. So I was unmercifully ragged by the CO who thought that it was my bad French which had made the muddle!

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

A good example of a good defensive position

Sydney Spencer and his men practiced tactics before meeting the locals.

Tuesday 16 July 1918

All the servants were very late this morning & we were not called until 7.55. It meant a rush! At nine on parade. Did a good morning’s work consisting of platoon drill, a very thorough inspection, I took the rifle bombers in cup discharge work, then we did a scheme from 11-1. Hervey took out his platoon to a hill with trenches. Kemp attacked. I was in reserve. A good example of how [sic] a good defensive position.

After lunch censored letters. Then went down to Kemp’s billet & played on an atrocious piano. A mademoiselle charmante [charming young lady] spoke pretty broken English, & prettier French. Madame gave me some flowers. Spent a pleasant evening – a really decent one. Acted as interpreter for a photographer who took our drums. The village crier, a pale looking youth with plaintive voice demanded after beating his drum that we should declare the boites de foin [haystacks] gathered in during the [illegible] in the morning.

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

Saluting the Roll of Honour of Old Scouts now serving in H.M.’s Forces

Boys joining the Scouts were not just having fun – they anticipated possible military service.

Several friends attended a Parade of the Windsor Forest Boy Scouts which was held on the Sunday School, on Saturday, June 22nd, when the following scouts were admitted after passing the tests of a tenderfoot. A. Kleinod, H. Hyde, R. Harrington, F. Fasey, J. Robb, A. Johnson, W. Prior, H. Welch, M. Adams, E. Payne. Mr. Asher very kindly presented the badges and Miss Ducat (a Scout Mistress) the certificate of admission. The troop was formed into a semi-circle as each Scout made the Scout’s promise, which is as follows: “I promise on my honour to do my duty to God and the King, to help other people at all times and to obey the Scout Law.” Mr. Asher then addressed the troop with kindly words of encouragement, and said he trusted each Scout would at all times remember their promise. The troop then did some staff and cart drill, and after saluting the Roll of Honour of Old Scouts now serving in H.M.’s Forces, the proceedings ended with the national anthem.

Cranbourne section of Winkfield and Warfield Magazine, July 1918 (D/P 151/28A/10/6)

“Dreaming incessantly that I had lost my platoon Lewis Gun Section & could find it nowhere”

It was a frustrating day for Sydney.

Wednesday 19 June 1918

It was raining hard when we got up this morning at 7.30. I had a very bad night of it, dreaming incessantly that I had lost my platoon Lewis Gun Section & could find it nowhere.

I took some of men [involved] in last night’s escapade for some arms & close order drill till 10.30. Camp cleaned up & kits packed by 11.30, ready to move to S-n-s, where we go today.

1 o’clock order came in that we should not move till tomorrow. Had two or three hours of quiet & rest.

At 5.30 was informed that company would march to new area. Am now doing my utmost to get on with the move as the skipper has not yet returned. Now I have to go to orderly room.

6.45 pm. No. 5 & 6 platoons moved off. Dillon returned, thank goodness. Got into new area at 10 pm. Dillon & I shared mattress in a dugout.

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

A very unfortunate incident

Sydney was not far back enough from the lines to avoid danger.

Tuesday 18 June 1918

Got up at 6.30 am. After breakfast carried out the following programme with my platoon down in the orchard which I found last night. 7.30-8 inspection. 8-8.30 PT. 8.30-9.30 arms drill & close order drill. 9.30-10.30 musketry including rapid loading & [wealing?] of SBRs, gudging [gauging?] distance etc. 10.30-11 a break & a run. 11-11.30 BF. Back to camp & a sleep, thank goodness, till lunch time.

After lunch another sleep till tea time. After tea my two rifle sections made concertina barbed wire entanglements. They were very successful. During afternoon & evening we were pretty heavily shelled with long range HV for a back area. One landed about 30 yards from my platoon bivys! Later in evening more shelling ensued. This resulted in a very unfortunate incident. Bed in clothes at 11 pm. Raining hard.

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

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)

“It was delightful to hear from England at last”

There was a last day’s practice before Sydney Spencer went ‘up the line’.

Monday 22 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. A lovely morning, sunny & so much warmer. After breakfast went on parade. Did PT & company drill till 11.30. Paraded again at 12.45 & took company in gas drill 3 platoons at a time while another platoon was firing in the long range. Company commanders took a look at the line which we are taking up tomorrow. Adjutant of Suffolks got a nasty wound in shoulder & lung from sniper.

I had lots of letters & parcels from home today. It was delightful to hear from England at last. Flea bag came. Am at present at HQ mess trying hard to get mess bills (wine) paid up, but they don’t seem to want to take any notice of me but here I [stay?] till it is settled. 9.15 am [sic?].

Not settled.

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

An enormous front to hold, with Lewis Guns as strong points

Sydney Spencer met an old friend.

Friday 19 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. A fine morning but very frosty. Day became wind & frost & snow & hail and sunshine. Spent morning up the ‘demmed hills’ again at BF PT & company drill.

After lunch we had a company tactical scheme under the CO. We had an enormous front to hold, & we simply put out blobs of ports, with Lewis Guns as strong points.

Arrived home, we had tea, got our mess rigged up in No. II Nissen Hut. Went down to Company QM Stores & arranged dinners for 5 new officers who arrived today. Capt. Leslie Shuter was one of the officers. I had not seen him since October 1915 when he left us at Brentwood for Egypt.

The B Company is in a scout squadron now, arranged for mess cart to be here at 7 am tomorrow to take me to D-lens to get goods for mess.


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

“It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months”

Sydney Spencer was still some way behind the front line.

Wednesday 17 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. A better morning, warmer, but wind.

Went on parade at 9. A march of about one mile up on to a trench system where … I did platoon’s drill for a time. It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months.

After lunch fine again till 3 when it poured with rain. I gave a lecture to ‘B’ company on Gas. Paid company at 3.30.

After tea got my clothes dry, changed, made out mess and [illegible] for A and B companies. After dinner, all officers paid me so that I was able to make things square.

To bed at 9.30 & read In Memoriam for a little while. A fine night.

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

The Church Lads’ Brigade has lost many of its smartest lads, who are now serving in the Forces

The Reading St John branch of the Church Lads’ Brigade was preparing teenage boys for army service.

CLB

The Company is changing its headquarters from the Institute to the Princes Street Mission Room. It has been passing through some stormy times lately, but we feel that it has now weathered the worst, and we look forward to a winter of real progress. There are vacancies for some good recruits, who will be welcomed any Monday from October 8th onwards.

The Company has had a great many changes in the personnel of its officers during the last year, and has lost many of its smartest lads, who are now serving in the Forces. In spite of these difficulties, the drill was very fair, and the uniform clean and correctly worn, and the lads steady on parade… Acting Captain Hawkes is evidently very keen.

Reading St. John parish magazine, October 1917 (D/P172/28A/24)