Little details of war

This is the fascinating account written by Sydney Spencer in hospital recovering from shell shock of his experiences at the front line in August 1918.

I have read many a glowing account of deeds & doings up there when men know each other as they are. Not one of these accounts gives for me at any rate, more than a very sketchy idea of the innumerable happenings which may take place in a few days. War is made up, so far as I have seen in my short experience, of little details done, undone, to be done, or to be undone, and unless these things are truly & patiently portrayed, the great with the little, the brave with the craven, then for those who yearn to know how things really happen there is little hope of arriving at an understanding of the atmosphere which surrounds warfare.

Before going any further, do not for one moment mistake me. I am not the old war worn man who has been out there for 3 years or more. My service out here is still in its babyhood. All I wish to do is to set down here as much in detail as possible the happenings of some eight days ending for me in the morning of August 10th, in the hope that should my ain folk ever read this, they may enter a little into what we do out here. Let the papers speak for themselves of vast movements, of cavalry, tanks, army corps, air fights, massings of troops, forward or retrograde movements, strategy & tactics. I mean to talk about much more humble things. How to get men’s socks changed. How to get shovels with which to dig in, under fire when no shovels are obtainable, how to carry the burden of 11 Lewis Gunners, when you only have four gunners left. How to walk that last kilometre when men are almost asleep as they walk. How to buoy men up when they are down. How to sympathize & yet be firm. How to be grim with the craven, & gentle with the exhausted ones.

I want to get away from the newspapers’ broad sweeping view of things & come down to little things, nay, at times to talk of a yard or two of ground or an individual man. The yard or two of ground will not be one necessarily where deeds were done, the individual will not be a budding VC.

And so let us get away & follow these 8 days through. We had had a day’s rest at [censored], after coming up from down south, & then at an early hour of the 1st, Dillon had orders to reconnoitre line in front of [censored], & I was to go with him. (more…)

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“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)

“The cleanest platoon he had seen on parade in this Battalion”

There was more glory for Sydney Spencer’s platoon.

Saturday 27 July 1918

Last night we were informed that the platoon competition would be judged by the CO & Capt Shutes at 7.30 am this morning. So we had breakfast at 6.45 am, on parade by 7.15. My platoon came up to the scratch wonderfully, and after an hour’s minute inspection by the CO & Shutes the CO said to me that my platoon was “easily the best”. He told Dillon it was the cleanest platoon he had seen on parade in this Battalion.

After parade went to range & fired No. 24 rifle grenades with RB Sections. Got back at 10.15. Had some biscuit & cheese, & at 11 o’clock a 2 hour route march. It poured with rain& we got splashed unmercifully with chalk & mud!

After lunch I took my clothes off & tried to sleep, flies preventing it! After tea ‘lazed’ & made up accounts. Bed at 10.30 & read ‘Masterman Ready’.

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

Bad sanitary conditions

Hygiene was not always ideal, with the inevitable results.

Saturday 20 July 1918

When I got up today I found that I was suffering very uncomfortable things from my tummy. Probably it is the water or perhaps the plague of flies or a combination of both, helped considerably by foetid pools of water, the ubiquitous French Muck heap always in the front garden (!) & the bad sanitary conditions.

Morning parades fairly easy although the march rather tried me. After tea I concluded the day’s performance by being violently sick & having other troubles. I had only a couple of cups of tea today and a slice of bread & butter so that I went to be feeling very cheap! Maddison, Knights & Nixon to dinner.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (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 horrible plague of flies

Sydney Spencer was busy preparing for a return to the trenches.

Monday 15 July 1918

Flies – a scourge of them – woke me up at 5 am & gave me beaucoup d’ennui until 7.30. On parade by 9 am. Had a platoon inspection which lasted an hour. PT for ½ an hour, then got new SBRs, anti [dumming?] composition etc. Had a talk about men’s rations etc. [Illegible] cleared up. Arranged for hair cutting. Got shoulder [illegible], water bottles covered etc, caps changed etc ad infinitum!

Returned to billet. Mended breeches. Got my surplus kit ready to send to Florence. Saw the men’s dinners which were really bad today. We had lots of difficulties in getting water for cooking. Sanitary arrangements in village filthy. Result a horrible plague of flies. The French here seem pleased with us & treat us more courteously than those further north.

Looked round my platoon in afternoon & rested most of evening. There was a fear of our being turned out by N. Hants but this did not come off.


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

A city of silence

Sydney Spencer was cautious about revealing place names in his diary in case of capture by the enemy, but it is clear that he was now at Arras, whose cathedral was severely damaged by German bombs.

Sunday 14 July 1918

Got up at 6.15. Breakfast 6.45. Am orderly officer today. We move at 9. Parade at 8.30. Marched off at 9. Got to busses [sic] (carrying 23 & 2 drivers) & embussed at 11.20 on RVS Road. Started at 11.35…

12.45 A..s a ruined city from the point of view of inhabitants. A fine cathedral. A city of silence. Left A-s at 1.15. D-y at 1.20. Now lying on road between D & St- awaiting orders. It is now 4.15 pm.

Got into village of “Holy Refuge” at 5.30. Saw men into billets. Found officers’ mess no. 38 ‘La Route de Paris’. Dawkins & I found a bed at no. 39. Mounted guard at 7 pm. Conference at 7.30 pm. Had dinner at 8.15. Saw staff parade at 9.30.

Lights out at 10. Turned guard out at 10.45, & then to bed. Had a bed to sleep on but flies were a great nuisance. Dawkins & I in same bed.

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

The difference between fair terms & absolute surrender

The son of the vicar of Radley, Captain Austin Longland was serving in Salonika with the Wiltshire Regiment, where he struggled with the heat, but hoped the Germans were about to give in.

Thursday July 6th [1916]

Temperature in here continues at 95-105 degrees I’m told by the doctor. Also I’ve just had my 2nd dose of typhoid & perityphoid inoculations & have a day off duty in consequence. Twice clouds have gathered, & once we had a violent storm of thunder & lightning but never a drop of rain. Needless to say all beauty’s gone. The sun glares down, trying the eyes, and our view of the town is blurred by a continuous cloud of fine grey dust. I have told you that from the sea up to the hills the ground rises steadily till the last steep ascent, & we’re therefore, tho’ considerably below the level of the actual hills, some height above the town which is about 5 miles away. We are to the left of the road this time, but we can see the sites of our 2 early camps and get a rather different view of the town & the citadel. You remember the shock I had on returning our bivouacs last Sunday fortnight & finding them gone and all my kit packed. My first idea then was that we were going forward – first stop Nish or Sofia, but when it was known that we were to march back over the hills no one knew what to expect.

The men were more cheerful than I’ve seen them in this country – all firmly persuaded that they were going back to France – an opinion which I hadn’t the heart to discourage, but did not hold myself.
Since then nothing has happened. From about 6 to 6.45 each day in the morning the battalion does its old physical drill, & parade which the officers, except Waylen who takes it, do not attend, going out instead to study tactics with the NCOs, each company by itself. This lasts 6 till 9. Three days a week we go a route march from 5-8 a.m. In the evening we parade from 5.45 till 6.15. doing physical exercises gain, officers & all – & that is the day. The NCOs class was ordered by the Brigade & is most useful – tho’ of course it’s what we ought to have done at Marlboro’. So from 9 till 5.45 every day & from 6.30 onwards we have nothing to do except sit in our hut.

Wood as usual is scarce, so there’s not chance to make a chair. At present I am seated on 2 sand-bags, which raises one off the ground a bit. We have a hut for a common room, but tho’ it has forms and a table, it’s very hot & full of flies. Here the flies grew so unbearable that I ordered yards of muslin from the town & with its aid we ae at last at peace. We feed in a hut off a sand bag table & seated on sand bag seats. I’ve just been busy trying to make that fly-proof – harder but even more necessary. If you sit still for a moment you can always count over 50 on the plate in front of you.
(more…)

Wounded soldiers will be fit subjects for these dreadful germ-carrying flies

The arrival of wounded soldiers to Reading gave a new impetus to the battle to fight contagious disease in the town.

SAVE THE WOUNDED

The Municipal Authorities have joined forces with the War Office in a great crusade, the object of which is the extermination of flies.
It is a matter of common knowledge that the house fly is a carrier of diseases, including the germs of consumption, typhoid fever, diphtheria and other infectious diseases.

A committee was recently formed to deal with this question which is a most serious one in view of the fact that there will be in Reading hundreds of wounded soldiers, who will be fit subjects for these dreadful germ-carrying flies.

It was decided that every house within a quarter-of-a-mile radius of each war hospital shall be regularly and systematically visited, and that fly traps shall be provided to each of these houses.

Many V.A.D. Nurses, District Visitors, and other ladies have already offered their services for this work, valuable not only on behalf of the soldiers but for the benefit of the health of the entire community.

This is a tremendous undertaking, as many thousands of houses will require to be visited, and the offers of help at present received are not nearly adequate to deal with the work.

There must be, many ladies, who would be glad to do any useful work on behalf of our soldiers, more especially for the wounded who have already risked life and limb for us as a nation.

As we in Caversham now have a Red Cross Hospital the work has to be taken up here.

The Hon. Secretary (Miss Innes, Health Department, Municipal Buildings, Reading), or Mrs. Cleaver, who has undertaken the work of Supervisor for Caversham, will be glad to receive offers of help, and to give particulars with regard to the duties of the voluntary inspectors.

A lecture will given on “Flies” at Balmore Hall, at 2.30, on Thursday, June 3rd, by Dr Stenhouse Williams, and it hoped that all who are able will be present.

Caversham parish magazine, June 1916 (D/P162/28A/7)

‘It is this terrible “drift, drift, drift” which is so depressing’

Another fellow officer writes to Ralph Glyn to express his frustration. It may be General Frederick Stanley Maude.

11.10.15
My dear Glyn

Many thanks for your letter. I wrote to thank you for the vegetables, the which arrived all right, but possibly the letter like many of them has got lost.

You will have heard by now that the Division to go to Salonica was altered here & that, instead of our going, the 10th have gone. H[ildyard?] told me the change had been made but not the reason…
Still these little things will happen & I should be quite happy if I felt that we were going to do something here. It is this terrible “drift, drift, drift” which is so depressing, & one feels so un-English to be hung up for months here by a handful of Turks less numerous than we are. I wonder what the Peninsula warriors would think of us if they knew the situation!

A good deal of sickness which does not seem to improve morale. Personally was never fitter in my life, but Cooke & 2 ADMS have gone sick, & several others are dicky.

Gillman has become Bg RA 9th Corps & Hildyard moves up.

Weather seems to be breaking & we are getting some rain & wind, but the flies are still with us, though not so numerous….

Yrs sincerely
[F S] Maude

Letter to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C31/30)