“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)

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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)

“Started my first adventure in the front line”

Sydney Spencer was at the real front line at last.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 18 May 1918

At stand to this morning, i.e. 4 am. Started my first adventure in the front line. My bit of line was on the extreme right flank, being a straight portion facing due east, & running north & south. On my left was No. 8 platoon. From my front I could see the crater 250 yards away slightly to my right. It had a great coil of French wire all round it. The hill on which it stood sloped down to a valley along which runs the New B Hand road. At the end of a patch of withered tree stumps & behind out of sight, the site of BH on the left of the road, the hill rose up again & went over the crest on which was line of NZs, C & D on our left.

[Illegible] front ran north & south, while the remainder of B Company was in a weird sort of re-cutment like a horse shoe, a very curious position as posts of Peyton’s platoon could fire at posts of Hervey’s platoon if they faced their direct front. The day was spent in settling on fire positions, sleeping & eating. Company HQ was in a dugout in the local support line…

Percy Spencer
18 May 1918

Another lovely day. Heavy thunderstorm in afternoon. I went down to Warlos and had to wade. Rathorn & party from Wing arrived. Awful toothache. Had wisdom tooth drawn. A painful business – a 4 pronged beggar. One prong too many, aid the dentist.

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

“One can get absolutely nothing except very poor & cheap cigarettes, or bootlaces when you want a cup of tea, or a tine of dubbin when you want some chocolate!”

In another pencil letter on a scrap of paper, Sydney Spencer wrote to his sister Florence.

May 10th 1918
My ownest own Florence

I think my last letter said that I had received cigarettes [and] tin box safely, but bless my soul & body if I didn’t forget for the Nth time to say that I received & do receive Punch regularly & it is great pleasure to get it too. Can I get Spirit cigarettes. My dear lady. War is not what it was. In these days of rapid movement (I call my bivvy nowadays ‘where-my-caravan-doesn’t-rest-for-long’), one can get absolutely nothing except very poor & cheap cigarettes, or bootlaces when you want a cup of tea, or a tine of dubbin when you want some chocolate! So Spirit cigarettes are a Godsend!

I am sending you a cheque for £7. Will you take what you want from it for my debt to you & part what I owe Percy [their brother]. If you could order some Spirit cigarettes to be sent out to me every fortnight, 200 at a time, that would be very agreeable to me….

I know all the flowers round here. Just outside I found a plant of wild tanseys & another of delicate blue periwinkle. Why has it such an ugly name! The cock crowing would have just the same effect on me I am sure, although I must own that at the present moment a cock’s crow would be pleasing.

Now it is midnight, & I’ll curl up on the straw which is mighty comfortable too, & sleep as I always do out here without a dream & quite peacefully. A few nights ago I slept quietly through the explosion of about 150 lbs of guncotton within about 100 yds of my dugout!…

Your always affectionate
Brer Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/30-32)

Advance section “got lost through not obeying my orders”

Sydney Spencer was on the move.

Sunday 5 May 1918

7.15 pm. Now what do you suppose, my dear diary, has happened? Why, we are being relieved at some time tonight. I am now in my dugout, a new one today, and it is most comfortable, plenty of room.

I came on duty this morning after stand to, but was unable to do a lot owing to the fact that I am helping Bradley of C Company find ‘bivys’ for his men. Managed to get them settled in by about 7 am.

At 5 I went down Beaumont Road to look at our wiring which we did last night. It was better than I expected. The 150 lbs guncotton used to blow up road behind us failed to wake me at about 2.15 am. At 9 this morning I did a tour of D Company’s front line returning via CT to south of Capt. McCullam’s Company HQ.

At 10.15 am we were relieved & we marched off by platoons to our new position. I sent one section in advance. It got lost through not obeying my orders! The wrong map reference was given as so [sic] that we had a difficulty in finding these bivys.

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

The air is rent now & then by the zip zip of machine gun fire!

Even now he was in the trenches, Sydney Spencer was able to note the resilience of the local wildlife.

Thursday 2 May 1918

10.30 am. In a CT trench long disused. It is almost impossible at the moment to believe that I am within 1000 yds of the front line! The banks are alive with dandelions. The villages or vills are bedecked with them. Larks sing high, the drowsy bumble [bee], pollen laden, blunders from one dandelion to another. In a pond below in the trench I have watched the quick water boatman & the dainty daddy long legs, & I have watched the bright yellow frog & teased him into an enforced immersion of over 80 seconds.

The air is rent now & then by the zip zip of machine gun fire! A perfectly glorious day. Butterflies scattered all over the landscape.

It is tea time & my man Fox is making me a scrambled egg tea at the bottom of my dugout! After stand to hour, I took out a party of men & duckboarded CT going down to White City Trenches. Had an hour’s sleep at 2.30.


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

“The bomb passed through the bows, exploding on the other side”

Three of the Sisters of the Community of St John Baptist, whose base was at Clewer, were shipwrecked on their way home from India thanks to enemy action.

April, 1918
My dear Associates

You will all be interested to hear that we have just welcomed home from Calcutta Sister Alexandrina, Sister Marion Edith and Sister Edith Helen after a really perilous voyage. The only route available was via Colombo, which they reached by train from Calcutta. The first part of the voyage through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea was very enjoyable, smooth and lovely weather.

Good Friday was spent in the harbour of Suez, and Port Said was reached on Sunday morning. Along the banks of the Suez Canal they saw many races of the recent fighting in Egypt – deserted trenches and dug-outs, and in one place a camp of a considerable size, but their own course was perfectly uneventful.

After waiting four days at Port Said, their steamer joined a large convoy of vessels bound for England, protected by several destroyers and sloops. All went well during the first six days, and then, at 7 a.m. on a date I am not allowed to mention, the ship was struck by a torpedo. Mercifully no one was seriously injured, the bomb having passed through the bows, exploding on the other side.

Fearing another attack, the Captain immediately transferred all the passengers to the boats, and after rowing about on a rough sea for two hours, a sloop picked them up, and conveyed them to Bizerta, a French town on the coast of North Africa, the actual site of ancient Carthage, about four hours by rail from Tunis. At once everything was done on a most generous scale for their comfort and protection, and four days later a mail boat from Tunis conveyed all the passengers to Marseilles, and from there the homeward journey was continued via Paris, Havre and Southampton….

Letters to Associates of the Community of St John Baptist (D/EX1675/1/24/6)

A right little, tight little house with sandbag entrance steps and a strong sense of security

Percy Spencer told his sister Florence al about the cosy way he and a comrade had improved his current trench.

1.ii.18

Dear WF

Well, how are domestic affairs going?

We’re getting on quite well. Little by little we’re improving our “home”. Having been well strafed the other day, the map expert and I set to work to build a wall of sandbags at our end of the dugout. It’s now a right little, tight little house with sandbag entrance steps and a strong sense of security. Also we’ve got wooden gratings laid in the trenches, so we’re not so much in the mud as we were, and our home is greatly improved. You’d be surprised how each day “we” (that’s my brainy map expert assistant) make little improvements in ways and means. Now we each have a board bed off the ground, & a canvas bucket wash has taken the place of a teacup wash – by the way what would they say at home if I arose, cleaned my teeth, shaved, washed and breakfasted all from the same tin mug you sent me? But as I say, we’re gradually changing all that for the better. We took over a dirty untidy dugout open to the wind and the weather: we shall hand over a tidy, weather proof and shell proof residence, and I’m glad we shan’t hand it over to the people who left us such a miserable legacy. The best souvenir we found when digging to level the earth was a German officer’s revolver loaded in two chambers, one bullet having been bored at the top to make it a dum-dum. I wish I could have kept it and sent it you.

I’ve just been arranging a mouse trap on the tip cat system. We’ve made a beauty and the map expert with a bloodthirsty glint in his eye is toasting some cheese in the candle.
[Censored]

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/93)

“The woollen balaclava helmet was just about the only thing I wanted”

Men in the armed forces associated with Broad Street Congregational Church were grateful for their Christmas gifts, which really helped to boost morale.

EXPRESSIONS OF APPRECIATION

We have pleasure in giving below a number of extracts from the any letters from our men on service, in acknowledgement of the parcels sent out at Christmas. These are just a sample. We should have been glad, had space permitted, to give many more. The letters OS after the initials mean “on active service”.

My very best thanks to you and the kind folk at Broad St for again thinking of me this Christmas season, thoughts which I know are extended to us out here not only at Christmas time, but all the year round. The parcel arrived quite safely and in good condition. The woollen balaclava helmet was just about the only thing I wanted in the way of woollen stuff. I still have a lovely woollen scarf which was sent me last year. The rest of the contents were also quite “O.K.” I must also thank you for all the kind wishes, and also for the cheering, strengthening and encouraging Xmas message.
A. S. (OS)

Thank you and all at Broad St for your kind wishes and parcel which reached me on Christmas Eve, the latter in excellent condition and very welcome. One is greatly encouraged to know that one is always in the thoughts of the church at Broad St. it is the knowledge that one is constantly remembered in the prayers of those at home which makes us feel that in spite of occasional discomfort and discouragement, the job is worth doing after all.
C.Q. (OS)

It is very good of the Broad St Friends to think of us out here, and I know I am not only speaking for myself when I say that I am exceedingly grateful, not only for the parcel, but also for the good wishes. I am writing this from the bottom of a “dug-out” where the accommodation is not the best for writing in.
O. F. (OS)

I do indeed think it exceedingly kind of the members of Broad St and yourself to send us such useful things for Xmas. I think you must have secured expert advice as to “Tommy’s” need. Thank you very much indeed… My thoughts frequently wing their way to you, and on Sundays when things out here continue as on other days, there some strong yearnings to be present with you in our service at Broad St. still I am conscious that you think of us all, and pray that our true and deepest needs may be met.
J. H. P. (OS)

I wish to thank the friends at Broad St, who so kindly sent me the most useful parcel at Christmas. It reminded me of old friends and the happy hours spent both in Sunday School and Church…. Here I am bivouaced on the plain of Sharon near the Judean Hills, with nothing but eucalyptus, lemon and orange groves in sight, and practically speaking, within a stone’s throw of the Holy City, Jerusalem. It is a grand experience of which I have no doubt you envy me, and all the lads out here, but nevertheless let us all hope it will not be long before we are able to return home and get once more into the traces.
W. T. B. (OS)

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, April 1918 (D/N11/12/1/14)

That snug retreat “Railway Dugouts”

Percy Spencer dropped a quick line to his sister Florence and brother in law John Maxwell Image as he prepared to head back to the front.

Decr 23rd, 1916

Dear WF and John

I’ve just got your dear wire – it’s like you both, full of good cheer and happiness…

In the dark hours of tomorrow I start back for that snug retreat “Railway Dugouts”. Thank God I shall take with me the fresh memory of your peaceful quiet home…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/42)

“It was all very suggestive of Bethlehem, except for the noise of the guns outside”

Another army chaplain reports his experiences leading services and planning social activities very close to the front line.

5 December 1917

The following extracts are from 2 letters which Mother received lately from the Sub-Warden with the troops in France.

“This morning, I had an hour’s walk through mud & trenches, delayed by the unwelcome attention of a German aeroplane for a while, but otherwise uneventful, & at last arrived at a certain dug out. There was a steep staircase down about 20 ft, then a square flat, and then 5 or 6 more steps to the right. On the square flat I arranged a little altar. Men all up & down the stairs crouching to one side so as to leave me room to pass to communicate them, and a few outside in the trench kneeling in the mud. At the bottom, a few Non-Conformist officers were very reverent & interested… I reminded them that our Lord chose a “dug out” when He first came to earth… It was all very suggestive of Bethlehem, except for the noise of the guns outside.”

“We have discovered a large cellar beneath ruins close to the lines. There is plenty of room for a canteen, reading rooms & a chapel. The chapel is to be dedicated to St John Baptist. I wonder if the Community would furnish the altar for us; the Pioneers would make the altar… I said Mass there this morning & 60 men came & were very reverent and appreciative.”

Annals of the Community of St John Baptist, Clewer (D/EX1675/1/14/5)

“Everyone misses his smiling face”

There was good news and not-so-good news of Maidenhead men.

OUR SOLDIERS.

We are very sorry to learn that Ernest Bristow has been wounded, but there seems every hope that his injuries are not serious. One of his chums writes,

“He went up to one of our advanced dressing stations to take over stores, and it was while standing at the mouth of a dug-out that he was wounded. A Bosche fleet of aeroplanes came over, and a bomb dropped quite near, wounding some ten men and killing two others. He caught it in the left arm and in both legs, but his wounds are flesh wounds, and not dangerous. He suffered from a severe shaking up, but bore it extremely well. The sergeant who dressed his wounds thinks he will soon be all right again. Everyone misses his smiling face and bright personality, and none more than his sorrowing pal. We all feel that his loss to the Unit is irreparable… He was by far the best clerk, and one of the most popular in the Unit.”

We earnestly trust that the hopeful tone of this letter may be justified by events, and that Corporal Bristow will suffer no permanent injury.

Harold Islip, who returned to his post after leave about a month ago, has been in hospital suffering from dysentery. Cyril Hews, George Belcher, and Donald Wilson have been home again for ten days, all in good health and spirits. Herbert Brand, who has been Company Q.M.S. in the 8th Berks., has been for two or three months past in a Cadet Corps, and expects shortly to receive a Commission.

Wilfred Collins is now quite convalescent and was in Maidenhead a few days ago.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, November 1917 (D/N33/12/1/5)

A brave man’s death for his King and Country

A bellringer at St Andrew’s Church, Clewer, was the latest to be reported killed.

In Memoriam: Henry Wetherall. R.I.P.

We desire to express our heartfelt sympathy with Mrs. Wetherall, who has lost her husband at the Front. Henry Wetherall was one of our Bellringers, and we could ill afford to lose him.

The Chaplain has written: –

“Your husband was killed in his dug-out by a shell. I know what a blow this will be to you, but I pray that God may show you that even in this ‘all things work together for good to those who love Him.’ You have the pride and the joy of knowing that he died a brave man’s death for his King and Country. I buried him on September 8, in the little village of Boeringhe, in Belgium, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to Eternal Life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. He was buried alongside of some of his Comrades, and the Police, to whom he belonged, have erected a Cross over his grave. May God comfort and bless you in your great need.

F. W. HEAD, Chaplain of the Guards Division.

Clewer parish magazine, October 1917 (D/P39/28A/9)

“Ain’t we rural” – nests in the dugouts

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about the disconcerting contrast of burgeoning wildlife and warfare.

May 11, 1917
My dear WF

Very many thanks for the parcel. I see you have exceeded my request and bought things, but that’s just you. I hope my a/c will stand it….

We’ve been having the most glorious weather: it seems awful that we should be in so poor a position to enjoy it. However, good weather helps towards the conclusion of our mighty task, so don’t pray for rain.

You’ve no idea what an extraordinary feeling it is to hear on the heels of a hurricane bombardment around one’s home the lazy song of the cuckoo. A swallow is building on the joist supporting our dugout. By vote it has been allowed to remain, but I doubt if we shall stand the strain of it as it has chosen a position immediately above the centre of our mess table.

2 days ago someone brought in a lovely clutch of pheasant’s eggs – rather a pity, for besides being contrary to orders I expect they were “set”. And within 10 yards of me in a moat, a bullfrog croaks to the sun. Ain’t we rural!

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/36-37)

Shells laming horses

Wounded soldiers visiting Bisham Abbey gave Florence Vansittart Neale information about the war.

16 April 1917

Went to Engineers’ camp to see dug outs & trenches…

Wounded came for afternoon. Nice set – usual games & singing. All enjoyed themselves. Edie & Mary came.

One of the wounded from church told me we could have taken Bapaume before Xmas but the French Government stopped us to save the town – now the Germans have destroyed it.

Hear [illegible] casualty to horses 10,000 in 3 days! Germans leave shells with sharp points that get into the hoofs & lame them.

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