“So ravenously hungry up in these hills that I could eat a hayrick”

Hungry young art student turned medical orderly Stanley Spencer was equally desperate for food, books and art while serving in Greece.

March 27th 1917.

Dear Florence,

I am no longer in the 68th or 66th F.A., so note my new address. Simply alter number of F.Amb. to 143rd. The remainder of the address is the same as it always has been. I was sorry to lose the C.O. of the 68th and I was getting on well in the 66th. If you think you can afford it could you send me out some eatables of some kind, say biscuits or those tinned cakes – cakes in air-tight tins.

Send me one of those little 6d Gowan’s and Gray’s books of Masterpieces of Art. Send me Raphael.

You must not think that I ask for eatables because I am not getting enough food. On the contrary, I am getting good rations, as we all are, but I get so ravenously hungry up in these hills that I could eat a hayrick. It is being out-of-doors so much.

And about books: it is impossible to get them here. A field Amb. is not like a hospital at Salonique where you can buy books, etc. Robert Louis Stevenson is a man whose writings I love.

I do not know if any parcels containing eatables have been sent to me; if so, none have ever arrived. But with the exception of the wonderful ‘Daily News’ Christmas pudding which I never got (and would like to know why), I do not think anything in that line has been sent to me ever since I left England on August 22nd last.

With much love

From your ever loving,

STAN.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

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Bread is better than tins

Medical orderly and artist Stanley Spencer wrote to his sister Florence asking for home made bread.

March 25th, 1917.

Dear Florence,

I have been down to Salonique in hospital again, though only for a trivial thing. I had bronchitis, but it was more really nasal catarrh. I am out again now, and after a day at the base was drafted into the 143rd field amb. so you will address me accordingly.

That is three ambs. I have been in.

The flowers are out, the primrose, violet, celandine and many other flowers unknown to me. I passed by such wonderful ones to-day.

It is getting dark and I have no candles and want my letter to go to-night, so goodnight, Flongy dear. With much love to you both,

Your loving brother

STANLEY

If you send me anything, send me some currant biscuits or bread and butter. We get bread and we get butter sometimes, but you know what a boy I am for bread and butter, and it is better to send that than these eternal tinned stuffs. Send me some of your own home made bread, Flongy dear, and I will love you forever.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

An offer to go to Italy

Phyllis Vansittart Neale was invited to nurse in Italy.

2 March 1917

Phyllis & May [illegible] to tea at Cliveden. Nurses forgot they had invited them! Phyllis offer from Devonshire House to go to Italy – field ambulance hospital at once, but refused it.

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

Sending dressings right out to the firing line

People in the villages of Wokingham Rural District gave their money generously, while those in Wargrave were proud to know that their handmade surgical dressings were being put to use at the front where they were most urgently needed.

Our Day

Very hearty congratulations and our best thanks are due to Mrs. Oliver Young and all her collectors, for the splendid contribution sent this year from the district to the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Cheque sent to the County Secretary from the Wokingham North District was for £168. 10s. 1d. and was made up as follows:-

£. s. d.
Wargrave per Mrs. Victor Rhodes: 19 3 2
Wargrave per Mrs Vickerman 36 0 0
Hare Hatch per Mrs. A. W. Young 20 7 2
Twyford per Mrs. F. C. Young 23 4 0
Remenham and Crazies Hill per Mrs. Noble 21 1 7
Mr. Noble per Mrs. Noble 20 0 0
Sonning per Miss Williams 13 0 0
Woodley per Miss Pantin 3 6 2
Hurst per Mrs. Roupell 12 8 0

£168 10 1

Wargrave Surgical Dressing Emergency Society

Since March 23rd, 1915 over 300 Bales of dressings and comforts have been sent to Casualty Clearing Stations in France, Malta, Egypt, Alexandria and Port Said. The Society is now approved by the War Office, and properly licensed under the New War Charity Act. In future it is intended to print the hospitals where dressings are sent every month, in the Parish Magazine, as it cannot fail to be a source of satisfaction to know that while the Hospital is doing all it can for the men who have come back, the Surgical Dressing Society is sending every month about 20 Bales right out to the Firing Line, for the use of the men who come out of the trenches on the field of Battle.

List of Hospitals for October and November:

B. Ex. F. France:
No. 5, Casualty Clearing Station
No. 27, Field Ambulance – 9th Scottish Section
No. 3, Canadian Casualty Clearing Station

Egypt:
No. 19 General Hospital, Alexandria
No. 31, General Hospital, Port Said

These Hospitals have 4 Bales of Dressings etc. each:
No. 21 Casualty Clearing Station
No. 5 Casualty Clearing Station
No. 2/2d London Casualty Clearing Station
No. 1/1 Midland D. Casualty Clearing Station
British Exped. Force, France.

4 Bales each.

By order of the Director General. Vol. Organizations
Scotland Yard.

Wargrave parish magazine, December 1916 (D/P145/28A/31)

‘He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika’

Will Spencer had news of several of his brothers. Stanley and Gilbert, both art students and a year apart in age, were very close to one another, and both had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.

31 August 1916

Letters from Mother & from Florrie. Both contained the news that Gilbert had recently written from a hospital ship at Marseilles. He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika. Stanley hopes he may be going to Salonika, as he so much wants to be with Gilbert. Horace better, & making himself useful by making tables & chairs.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

The first “to go over”

An army chaplain with links to Stratfield Mortimer was a witness to the horrific carnage of the Battle of the Somme.

Mr. Bowdon’s latest news is as follows: –

2nd Royal Berks, B.E.F.,
17th July 1916.

Dear Vicar,

Much has happened since last I wrote, and my battalions have been through a terrible time. They were with the first “to go over” on July 1st, at the Battle of the Somme, and got badly cut up. We lost more than half the men and nearly all the officers – in my battalions alone some 800 men and N.C.O.s are killed, missing, or wounded, and 38 officers! We got the full force of their concentrated machine gun fire. However, it wasn’t in vain, for we prepared a way for others, and we now hold all the ground which they contested so stubbornly. We had the Wurttenburghers in front of us, and there is no question they are fine soldiers and know their business.

It was all very sharp and short, and in 36 hours we were right out of it and miles away in the rear to re-form and rest. From my perch on a hillside about three miles from the firing line I watched the whole of the bombardment during the week preceding the battle. I could even see our lines as I lay in bed – but the morning of the attack was so misty no glasses could penetrate the clouds, and we could only listen to the din and wonder how things were going. It wasn’t long however before our poor wounded chaps began to stream along the road, some in ambulances, some in lorries and carts, and many on foot; so by 9 a.m. I was busy (the attack was at 7.30), and as the day advanced there were more that [sic] we could cope with, our wards and tents were full, and men were lying everywhere, in the streets and fields and ditches. But they were all splendid and so grateful for the smallest thing we did for them. We did eventually get them all dressed and fed and more or less comfortable, but not till noon next day could anyone slack off. I reckon some 1,500 men passed through our hands at that one Field Ambulance!

That same evening we were on the move again, and I re-joined the remnant of my two battalions to entrain for the rear.

Yesterday I arranged and conducted a Brigade Memorial Service at the Theatre here. The names of all officers and men killed at the Battle of the Somme were read out and prayers offered for them. The whole service was in keeping, but quite bright and joyous. We had the Divisional Band, and the Assistant Chaplain General 1st Army preached. Besides our own General, the Army Commander and his Staff were present, and Prince Arthur of Connaught.

I have had a fair share of the dangers and risks of war these past weeks. Four times during the bombardment about Albert I had to tumble into my dugout to escape the bursting shells – three times about 2 a.m. in the darkness, cold and wet. One day I spent with the guns in the thick of the firing, and even back with the Field Ambulance they didn’t let us alone. It has been a great relief to be away from the noise and out of range of their guns for a spell.

With kindest remembrances to all friends at Mortimer.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, August 1916 (D/P120/28A/14)

Human kites: an ambulance convoy on the move

The Revd T Guy Rogers, former vicar of St John’s Church, Reading, reports his latest adventures as as army chaplain attached to a medical contingent.

A FIELD AMBULANCE TREK (BY REV. T. GUY ROGERS).

Here we are on ‘trek’ – only half a dozen miles from our starting place – destination all unknown. It was a good thing the journey was a short one – we made it against driving wind and rain, and it was difficult either to sit on a horse or to walk. Everybody’s mackintosh was distended like a balloon – the Sergeant Major on horseback might have been mistaken for a zeppelin. If only the wind could have done a little more for us and converted us into human kites we might have enjoyed the struggle with the elements, but as it was we were merely buffeted and knocked about.

Here and there the ranks were broken as someone plunged into the ditch by the side of the road to recover his cap blown off by the wind. The lucky ones (including the Padre) found them floating peak upwards, the unlucky ones peak downwards. Every now and then we halted, blocked by transport ahead of us, and resigned ourselves to a profane silence. These halts may be said to have begun before we started (this is what one of the Irish contingent said anyhow!), for just as we moved up the narrow by-street, C.O. riding as the head, R.A.M.C. in serried ranks following, transport bringing up the rear, ready to defile upon the road of march, we found our exit blocked by troops in motion. So we sat upon our horses, or stood upon our feet, while the wind blew and the rain poured, admiring the balloon-like forms in front of us.

At length – a long length it seemed to us – the troops passed our exit and it was possible for us at last to ‘debouch’ (ah! That word has a good military sound about it!) upon the road behind them. But the halt was ill-omened, prophetic of many halts behind this column which had filched our right of way. ‘How do you pass the time during these delays?’ Punch’s historic answer gives the correct reply: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sit.’ (no ‘p’ in the last word, though Tommy Atkins is apt to insert it when he quotes the ‘bon mot’!)

At last we march in, though at first it looks as if there was nothing to march into. Motor wagons are side tracked, horses stabled, men billeted, and last, according to unwritten law, Officers find their way to the Mess, if there is one, and concentrate upon a scratch meal, to which a ravenous appetite does ample justice.

Reading St John parish magazine, March 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

Whizz! Bang! Life is too dangerous under fire to be pleasant

An army chaplain with links to Stratfield Mortimer wrote to the vicar with more news of his work in France. He was now right at the Front in constant danger.

25th Brigade,
8th Division, B.E.F.
22nd February, 1916.

Dear Vicar,

With much regret I have had to leave my work at Wimereux to come ‘up the line’ right to the battle front to minister to two battalions of regulars of the 1st Army – one from our own county. And also to look after the patients at an advanced Field Ambulance. I am now continuously in the danger zone, and my work takes me into the trenches, and to the reserve billets just behind the lines. I spent a week with the General at Brigade Headquarters, but now have a billet of my own nearer the hospital, but still under shell fire, indeed my room is rather unpleasantly situated, being just between the railway station, a large ordnance workshop, and a battery of 6-in. guns, all of which are being constantly shelled. Last Sunday afternoon I was lying down for half-an-hour after a strenuous morning – a Celebration and four Parade Services, all at different places – when twelve shells roared over my billet, I could tell by the noise and vibration that they were fairly low down, so thought I had better get a move on. I had just stepped into the street when whizz! bang!! and a 4.9 shell burst almost under my nose, making a huge hole in the roadway, and bowling over two Frenchmen who were passing – fortunately for me the whole force of the explosion was away from me, so I escaped without a scratch, but it was a near thing! A little further along another shell dropped, while overhead 16 aeroplanes were straffing [sic] one another, and as some of us were gazing upwards watching the fighting a Bosche let loose two bombs which exploded with a terrific noise near by, but didn’t hurt anyone. They were shelled out of the hospital, which has been evacuated, and the patients taken to a farm further back. A man was being operated on when a shell burst over the roof of the building, and patient, doctor and sisters were smothered with glass and debris, but none were badly hurt.

This sort of thing goes on more or less every day, and the noise of the guns is hardly ever out of one’s ears. I am continually in the saddle and often get into warm places, one never knows where the shells are going to drop next, so it is little use trying to dodge them. Nearer the lines one has to go on foot, and it is well to go along with an eye open for grassy hollows into which to tumble if a shell comes too close or the bullets begin to fly around. The other day a Colonel, with his 2nd in Command, found themselves in the way of a shell and promptly rolled into a ditch by the roadside, unfortunately, it was full of water, and very cold, and they rather regretted they hadn’t taken their chances of being blown into a warmer clime.

Life is very rough and comfortless up here, but there are opportunities for us which make it all worth while, and certainly the Padres always find a warm welcome from both officers and men. I hold services wherever and whenever I can – in barns and dug-outs and tumbledown houses, often with the guns booming and shells falling all around. Funerals are the worst part of our duties – apart from the sadness of them, there is always a most unpleasant amount of risk as the cemeteries are close to the lines and often very exposed – we wait for nightfall when possible, but often they have to be taken in broad daylight and in full view of the Huns’ observers. Life is very exciting and interesting, but too dangerous and nerve-racking to be pleasant. I often wish myself back in the comparative security and quiet of Wimereux.

I mustn’t close without a word about the Cinematograph. I spent a couple of days of my week’s leave in buzzing around the cinema firms, got the whole apparatus together and brought it out with me on the leave boat, by special permission of the War Office. It should be in full swing by now, but I haven’t yet had word to that effect from my successor at the Hut at Wimereux. I applied for permission to remain till I had it all fixed up and working, but was told that senior men were badly needed at the front, so felt I couldn’t press my claim.

With best wishes to all friends at Mortimer.
Yours very sincerely,
W.S. Bowdon, C.F.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, April 1916 (D/P120/28A/14)

Ministering at a Field Ambulance hospital

T Guy Rogers, former vicar of Reading St John, reports again on life as an army chaplain.

EXTRACT FROM A LETTER FROM Mr. ROGERS.
Dec. 10th

Here I am for the present a little further back where part of my work is to look after a Field Ambulance Hospital. There are about 70 patients, cases of chill, trench feet and slight wounds. I have arranged for special Holy Communion Service for them to-morrow (Saturday) at 8 a.m. The place is very rough and ready though good for so near the line. The poor fellows are so glad of illustrated papers or puzzles or anything that will pass the time…

I have also arranged a voluntary service for the Protestant sheep of the Irish Guards in the evening. I think I am getting hold in places…

TGR

Reading St. John parish magazine, January 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

That dread word “missing”

Broad Street Church in Reading continued to care about its men who had gone to war.

November 1915

We desire also to express our sympathy with the relatives and friends of our brother, Trooper G P Lewis, of the Royal Berks Yeomanry. Mr Lewis has been a member of our church for some years. He was one of the first to respond to the call of his country in August 1914. He has been reported “missing” in the Dardanelles, for some weeks. We can imagine what that dread word “missing” means to his loved ones, and we tender them our affectionate sympathy.

News reached Reading a few days ago that Private Reginald S Woolley, son of our friends Mr and Mrs W A Woolley, 85 Oxford Road, had been seriously wounded “somewhere in France”. It is a pleasure to be able to report that our young friend is now making good progress towards recovery, and hopes before long to be home on sick leave. We congratulate his parents upon this relief from their anxiety, and we hope that their natural desire to have their son home may soon be realised.

The call for recruits for the army and navy is sadly depleting our ranks in the Sunday School, and there is the possibility of further loss in the near future…

Talking of recruits reminds me that eight more names have been added to the church section of our Roll of Honour.
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