“I am no longer the dismal mortal of Friday”

Percy now felt much better.

Sunday [18 Aug 1918]
My dear WF

These few lines till I can write you tomorrow to let you know that I am no longer the dismal mortal of Friday.

I’ve got back to normal again, and taking an interest in life once more.

Please excuse more as I am awful drefful [sic] tired & am going off to sleep.

With my dear love to you both

Yrs ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/76)

Rattled nerves and sickly faces under heavy shelling

Percy Spencer had time for a long letter to sister Florence after some near escapes.

Feb 20, 1917
Dear WF

It’s a niggly drizzly day, but I haven’t seen much of it so far as I slept peacefully on till 9 am – and of course the whole office did the same. That’s the worst of being senior, no one moves till I move.

As soon as I came back to this part of the world I started cultivating a throat again, but apparently I’ve become hardened, for just as I began to have hopes of “home-sickness” I got better again.
This is evidently a “throat” area for half the world here has some throat trouble.

Garwood is due back from leave today. I expect he went to the Curtises and left them news of me – I’m afraid you’ll find it rather more shelly that you’d like. However we’re getting grand at dodging.
A short while ago our outfit was driving to a certain place, when I noticed a shrapnel burst ahead of us. I remarked to my brother Sergeant on the box of the lorry that that it appeared to be bursting at our destination. He disagreed and I therefore drove on. Just as I ordered the driver to stop at a road corner, the beggars burst a second shell almost overhead, but luckily beyond us, so I suddenly changed my [speed?] and drove on 50 yards. Before I’d got my men clear and off in small parties towards our ultimate destination, we’d had a dozen more shells over, and for a quarter of a mile of our progress, so very much on the lines of a game of musical chairs in which the gun report was the pause in the music and the ruined skeletons of houses the chairs. There’s a certain amount of sport in this shell dodging game, but on that occasion I could not get up any of the interest of my brother sergeant in the terrific bounds of red hot lumps of metal off the frozen surface of the road a few yards away.

However I think I’d always rather be in the open when there’s any heavy shelling on, unless your roof is absolutely safe. For instance, also a short time ago, when we had to endure the heaviest shelling in the worst cover that has so far been our misfortune, we all (including myself) awaited the climax with rattled nerves and sickly faces, but once I got into the open en route to my office I thoroughly enjoyed sliding across a frozen moat, scooting across a road into a ditch t’other side, and ducking along this as the shells came over until we reached home. Tyrrell went sprawling in the ditch but nevertheless was an easy first – a big burly fellow passed me like the wind on the final stretch – I couldn’t run for laughing at the humour of the situation – once the heavies got going, man is very much in the position of the rabbit when a ferret is dropped in his warren.

Last night we had your sausages for supper. Today, just now, in fact, I’ve had lunch – quite a swagger meal, so I’ll list it:

Roast beef
Boiled potatoes
Tinned beans
Suet pudding
Boiled pudding & treacle

Come and join us! It’s bully beef tomorrow.

I’m gradually getting a little more time to myself and last night played a rubber of bridge in our mess – it’s a cosy little shanty, timbered roof & green canvas walls – once upon a time it was our office, until one afternoon in the midst of a hefty strafe the Huns dropped a 5.9 shell just behind it, so now we’re in a somewhat safer place, and next door to an almost safe place into which we all dodge if the weather gets too thick.

Believe me, this is a shell strewn part of the world, and just when I went up the line the other afternoon during a very heavy bombardment, we turned up first a hare, then a cock pheasant and then a brace of partridges that all the noise and thunder couldn’t disturb – only man is vile.

Did I ever thank you for the splendid socks you sent me, and for a thousand and one other things – I’m afraid not.

I believe I did tell you about our follies & their pantomime. There’s some excellent stuff in it, the best scene I think being one of the opposition trenches manned by their respective defenders. A system of reliefs has been inaugurated under which firing & trench guarding is done by turns and the scene opens with a row between the Britisher & the Hun, because the latter had during the night fired his rifle out of his turn and nearly hit someone. From that you go on to the idea of morning inspection of each other’s trenches with a good deal of friendly criticism and wind up with the arrival of tourists and souvenir hunters, the “ladies”, as I told you, being quite edible.

Well my dear girl I’m now going to do a little work by way of a change,

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/15-20)

Swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches

Percy Spencer wrote to his new brother in law with a vivid description of life in the muddy trenches.

Dear Mr Image

Almost it seems another world that last I saw you in. we move so often and crowd so many events into our time that the clock seems to have more hours in it nowadays than in ordinary peaceful times.

Here I am in a long lean dugout made by the Huns. [Censored.]

Being in a Hun’s trench naturally the parados [sic] is our screen from the enemy. And that makes life fairly exciting, for the parados is very low in places with here and there a gap. Bullets are plentiful and shells quite frequent, but at present we are all here still and keeping fit. You can’t be anything else while life overhead is so exciting, and life underfoot is equally so, for swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches the slightest error will land you at the bottom of a shoot 15 or 20 feet deep – German funk holes scarcely wide enough to admit a man, diving steeply into the bowels of the earth: a tribute to the power of our artillery.

Another thing that strikes one is this evidence of the Huns to stay for the duration of the War. The officers’ dug-outs are walled, floored and ceiled with wood – spacious beds are built between walls at either end. The walls are papered with a cheerful pattern; the ceiling is also papered. Between beds 2 small tables, a couple of chairs, a comfortable arm chair and a full length mirror. On the floor oil cloth – on the walls a few pictures. A stove with flue carried up and through the wall heats the room. The trench leading down to this palace is floored with wood gratings: at the entrance door there is a good scraper – overhead a porch formed with a circular sheet of corrugated iron – “Home from home”.

Well, we’ve run up against a pretty rotten kind of existence as the result of our “push”, but no doubt if this war goes on through the winter which God forbid, when our line is straightened and settled down we shall get better quarters. At present we are “fighting” our men from pretty close up.

This morning I went round the reserve lines with the Brigadier and at one point got well “strafed”.

The reason apparently was a man standing in full view of the Huns on his parapet. He was looking for a bottle of rum another had taken from him and thrown over the parapet. Queer how men will risk their own and others’ lives.

Well, we’ve a strange collection of men and I find them a humorous one too. We all get as much fun out of this life as we can and the dry hunour of our Signal Section is a constant source of amusement to me. One “Taffy” speaks a weird language he describes as pure English. He’s been advised to have a phonetic vocabulary printed down one side of his tunic with the English equivalent opposite, so that we should only have to run our fingers down until we came to the sound he was making. He’s not at all pleased.

It’s 11.30 pip emma as the Signallers say, so good night my dear friend.

With love to you both
Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

Morning hate

Percy Spencer wrote to his just-married sister Florence to report on life quartered in a civilian village just behind the lines – and close enough to be at serious risk.

My dear Sister

Last night I moved back here. We weren’t very close up, but quite close to what has been our front line, as you can imagine it wasn’t a very cheerful place. All these villages are more or less in ruins, but still a lot of the people remain amongst the ruins and live in the cellars. The children play about in the shell holes and make miniature dugouts.

Yesterday morning the Bosche suddenly began throwing shells just over our roof and into the field behind. We happened to be upstairs at the time and experienced all the delightful uncertainty of “will it hit us; won’t it hit us”. From below grandmothers and mothers burst out, rounded up their various charges and went to ground. Far straying youngsters stopped their play and came pounding along home. And then the gentlemen across the way suddenly came to the end of their morning hate, and peace reigned again pretty nearly all day. But just when we were due to move off, everything was cancelled; an attack was expected near us and there was nothing to do after we had rearranged all our dispositions but to sit tight and wait for the music to begin. The previous night 5 pm had been the chosen hour and the Bosch had made a dart which had fizzled out with many losses to them and no loss of ground to us. But last night they apparently thought it better of it anyway, no attack developed and about 8 pm I moved down here and opened shop again in a larger room. The only thing against the place is that it’s riddled with shell splinters – a shell having pitched on the corner of the doorstep.

You were very generous with the wedding cake; it was excellent. After thinking it over I came to the conclusion that it was no use my trying the dream test, and eat the cake there and then, assisted by sundry sappers of the Signal Section who were all in favour of my applying the dream test, especially as I haven’t a pillow, and the cake wouldn’t have been much improved in mixing with my hair.
All our fellows who got knocked out wounded when I lost my kit are at home in various hospitals, one on Manchester, another in Liverpool, and three or four in London: one in Barts, badly hit in the legs.
Thank you for the Jacobs books. I get very little undisturbed time and they are just the sort of thing for us. You’d be surprised how I’m asked to lend them round. Anything that isn’t about the war is so welcome.

Well, I’m going to close for the present.

On second thoughts, I’ll hold on; the post has just arrived; three big bags around which half a dozen eager boys are scrambling, and here comes my share…

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/49-50)

An unusual wartime wedding

Newly-wed John Maxwell Image reports on his wartime wedding to Florence Spencer, sister of Percy and Sydney.

29 Barton Road
7 Nov ‘15

MDOM [My dear old man]

I was turned off, as you saw by my wedding cards, on Tuesday 12th, at St George’s, Bloomsbury… Mr Spencer gave away his daughter: my brother and sister supported me – one or two cousins, a brother of Florence in khaki [Sydney], and some of her girl friends. Then, after lunch at the Victoria Station Restaurant with Selwyn and his wife and my sister, we got into the train and steamed away for Ventnor – having (luckier than you) a carriage to ourselves all the way. Professor Selwyn had the consummate impudence to tip the very civil guard and bid him “look after the young people”. So I was told – and he did that so effectively that he got another tip from me at Portsmouth…

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

A subject for quips and gibes

John Maxwell Image, at the age of 70, had suddenly got engaged to Miss Florence Spencer of Cookham, the 30 year old sister of Will, Percy, Stanley and Sydney. The age gap may have been significant – but this was a devoted relationship. The Master of Image’s college, Trinity, at this time was Montagu Butler (1833-1918), whose three sons were all in the army.

TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge]
Friday 24 Sept. ‘15
VDB and DOM [nicknames for Mr and Mrs Smith]

Wedlock at my age is such a subject for quips and gibes that I naturally felt shy and reticent. Needlessly; for the Fellows, many of them, have whispered (I like them for that) really affectionate good wishes – true spirit of camaraderie. I wrote news to the Master [of the College] in Scotland: and two hours after my letter was posted came the most warmhearted letter in his own name and Agnata’s …

[Butler’s son] Gordon’s wound is healing fast. He is nearly convalescent in Malta. Nevile [another son] stands once more on his native heath, after 14 months captivity. Agnata came down to receive him at the Camb. Station, and has whisked him off to Caledonia…

The ceremony will take place on Tuesday Oct. 12 (probably) – Tuesday is full of grace – at St George’s, Bloomsbury – chosen by us all as having been the scene of my brother’s wedding 14 years ago. The bride is to be given away by her father: my brother and sister will sustain my tottering steps. No other guests, I trust: unless one or two of her ecstatic girl friends thrust themselves in….

Yours ever

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“No German shell will ever penetrate the Bucks accent”

Percy Spencer was still delighted by news of his sister’s engagement, and had some cheery reports for her of life near the Front. The amusing books Florence was sending him were going down well.

Dear Florrie

Hurrah! for the good tidings of great joy. Don’t let anything postpone it.

Give my love to Mr Image and tell him all my sympathy is his. Poor fellow, he’ll never have any peace at all now, and as for an enjoyable pipe, already he must see the vision of it fast fading. They’re always sending our fellows away upon courses of instruction in the various arts of killing; why not send you away for a 14 day’s pipe loading course with say a one day refresher course occasionally. Something of the kind will have to be done.

Well dear, I’ve no news to tell you except that I’m very busy so don’t expect to hear from me much. But don’t worry.

I’ll write when I can, and when I can’t, take it for granted I’m all right. I’ll let you know soon enough if I’m not all right.

I’ve just discovered a Maidenhead boy in our Signal Section; also a Wycombe man who went to school with the Skulls! So I think I’m safe enough, as the Signal Office is between me and the enemy, and no German shell will ever penetrate the Bucks accent, or anybody connected to a Wycombite Skull. After thinking it over carefully, I’m sure you’ll agree that even Will in his worst moments couldn’t beat that at short notice.

“Short [Cruises?]” has been a Godsend to us. The Quartermaster Sergeant has even been seen to smile once or twice lately since I lent it to him, and he confesses that it’s done him a world of good. It’s just the sort of thing we have time for, and the style of reading to take us away from the monotony of our affairs.

My heartiest good wishes and love to you both
Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/44)

Dream it true: unexpected joy for Florence Spencer

Percy Spencer had just received the unexpected news that his sister, 30 year old Florence, was engaged to be married to elderly Cambridge don John Maxwell Image. Dr Image had been close to Florence for some time, but it was only recently that the friendship had, despite a 40 year difference in their ages, had blossomed into a genuine romance.

My dear Florrie

I’m well and have been well. We’ve had a quiet peaceful time in charming surroundings, but my work has been heavier than usual…

I’m so surprised and happy to hear of the possibility of your coming joy. Dream it true dear.

We’ve had all sorts of good times lately, concerts and sports (of which perhaps you read an account in the Daily Mail) and I have been out once or twice, so you’ll wonder why I haven’t written to you.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/43)

Silent tears and sad days

Now that he had settled in back behind the lines, Percy Spencer could reflect on his recent visit home on leave. he was much better than off than one poor man who had been given compassionate leave for teh funeral of a young son.

7th August 1915
Dear Florrie

Poor old girl – what a time you had at Victoria: what a time we all had. Well, if that were possible, my admiration for you has increased. One poor fellow in my carriage silently crying explained to me that he had only come home to bury his four year old boy. “He was the brightest little feller you ever saw: the wife was that proud of ‘im, and I loved ‘im; I loved the little chap, sergeant.” Ah me – these are sad days.

But here I am, right back into my work again, only the happy days at home remembered and looking forward to my next visit – for good, pray God….

We’re having a brief rest a good way behind the line, with the promise of a longer rest shortly. It seems quite strange not to hear the guns going. On Tuesday we’re to have a concert in the grounds of this place. It’s going to be quite a big affair I can tell you; I don’t know that I won’t sing at one of these stunts someday if you’ll send me a song…

Yours ever

Copy letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/41-42)

“The dreariest thing that has ever happened to me”

Percy Spencer enjoyed a stay with his sister Florence when he was home on leave. But now it was back to the grind. He sent Florence a postcard, postmarked 4 August 1915, to say:

Thanks for your delightful long letter, and for all the many things you did for me at home.

Will you do another thing – send me a bar of prison soap and a towel, both of which I left in my room.

I think the journey back was the dreariest thing that has ever happened to me, but it’s wonderful how soon one settles down again and starts to look forward to the next peep at dear old England, home and hearts.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/40)

Having a rest out of action

Percy Spencer was not able to write to his sister Florence while under fire in the trenches. At the end of July he managed to snatch time for a postcard, undated but postmarked 27 July 1915:

My dear Girl…

We are having a rest out of action and are all feeling much better for it as we have certainly had our share of the work.

I shouldn’t wonder if some of us get leave in a few months time and I may be lucky enough to get a few days, but don’t know when or if.

Yours ever

Postcard from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/39)

The children of France at war

Percy Spencer wrote a quick letter to his sister Florence, with some frank if not too flattering comments on his French hosts.

June 28, 1915
Dear Florrie

Within a few hours we shall be moving again, so I take this opportunity to scribble you a few line, not knowing when I may have the next….

We strike some queer people in these peasant villages out here – immorality is fairly rife, and personal cleanliness rare; the houses and yards too are mostly in a filthy state, and our fellows think we are here to clean up the country. Well as I was saying we’ve struck some queer people here, but I never expected to strike so rare a youngster as Gladys the daughter of a French Canadian miner. She’s an opportunist – passing her door, she caught my hand and remarking I was “some soldier” in a pronounced American accent dragged me indoors, sat me down and began relating her family history, only pausing to tell her mother in French to give me a coffee. It seems after we had got very confidential and she had clambered onto my knee, that all she wanted in the world to make her happy was her brothers back from the war, a new skirt, a hair ribbon and some chocolate. She guessed I was pretty rich and would like to buy her a skirt. I assured her she’d guessed very badly. I came up to scratch on the matter of chocolate, a threepenny compass too staved her off for a while, but it’s a matter of Danegelt and I am thankful we’re moving, otherwise that skirt would be hers for I’m in love with the little elf – how wouldn’t I be, for she’s told me my eyes are blue and kind. About you she expresses no opinion, but Dot she insists is my fiancée and after a careful scrutiny declared her “some girl that”.

Adelaide was another of my flames, roguish and plump. Sadly we parted, sorrowfully she put up her cheek to be kissed. We were great friends – well, she let me look at her reliquary, though I must admit her trust in the British Army didn’t go as far as removing the chain from her neck.

Oh the kiddies! how I love them! At – it was screamingly funny to see the youngsters soldiering under shell fire. Drawn up in proper columns you’d see them marching along under the orders of their captain – a ragged curly headed lean limbed scamp; that youngster is a born commander. His orders were like pistol shots and his “men” jumped to obey them. However we all have weak spots. I regret to report that this sturdy body of citizens when paraded by their officer was utterly routed by a cigarette. A passing soldier was appealed to by OC [Officer in Charge] Ragamuffins for a souvenir. None was forthcoming and the ranks were unruffled. But a few yards further down the wind, the Tommy, repenting his churlishness, threw back one cigarette. In the race which followed, I’m sorry to say OC Ragamuffins won and returning with the [illegible] Woodbine stuck at a jaunty angle between his lips proceeded to take the necessary disciplinary actions to restore his ranks.

But for that incident I should mentally have marked that youngster down for at heart a Lieutenant Colonelcy. Now, who knows, he may be shot for depriving his country of his services at a critical moment.

I shall have to close this letter as I have a big job on hand. Madame desires an explanation or rather the production of some petit table. In vain have I assured her that it has only been borrowed by some excellent fellows and will be returned. I’ve got till quatorze heures [2 p.m.] now, and punctually at that hour I shall have to ward off another attack. So I must get down to the dictionary. Can you possibly let me know by 2 pm how you say with an air of assurance “it’s only just across the road”? If not I’m done and must fly.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/36-37)

Making up for other men’s lack of duty

Sydney Spencer wrote to his brother Percy to tackle Percy’s doubts about Sydney’s joining up. Sydney was still at Oxford at this point, and this letter explains exactly why he chose to join the army.

12 Southmoor Road
Monday June 7th [1915]

My dear Percy

So I hear from Flo [their sister Florence] that you don’t approve. And why. Because you want to shield me from horrors which other people have to endure. Well that doesn’t wash. As things stand now, if the horrors were 50 times greater it would make little difference. If you were over here in England just now to hear the way some men talk you would be glad enough that anyone should be willing. I played tennis last week. A lolling lazy looking Welshman enters into conversation with me.

“Why don’t you think you will pass Mods?”
“Because the OTC work has swallowed up an enormous amount of time.” “Well I suppose you must have liked military life to make you join the OTC”.
“Yes indeed,” I said, “a man who has spent most of his life reading poetry & playing the piano would naturally be deeply absorbed in such work!”
“Well I can’t understand what made you join the OTC if you didn’t like the work.”

I just looked at him, & then he said in a confused tone “Oh I suppose you felt it a duty.”

I don’t say that there are numbers of such people about but I feel that it is well to make up in any small way possible for what is lacking in other men’s sense of duty by offering myself unconditionally.

If the thing turns out to be too much, well I should knuckle under, I suppose, & what’s left of me would get a discharge, & would settle down to civilian life again with this much added to it however, that I had done my share even if it was ever so small a share. As to my being saved from these horrors, I don’t see a single argument in favour of such an attitude. Put me in Madame Tussaud’s & preserve me in spirits right out, one might as well suggest, and I prefer neither of those alternatives. I feel that if God Almighty has other work for me to do, He will play the Germans all sorts of tricks, so that I may pull through. And if I don’t, well I shall fall in good company.

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/4)

A delightful spot behind the lines

Percy Spencer was in a cheerful mood as the summer started in France. He wrote to his sister Florence to describe the area he was based, a short way from the front lines, and to comment on his brother Stanley’s joining the RAMC:

June 5, 1915
Dear Florrie

We are having the most glorious weather and we are in a most delightful spot.

Today the peasant girls have been mowing the lawn – how Stan would love to draw them, rough, bronzed lassies with their large handkerchiefs over their heads and shoulders and tied under their chins.

The miners too are great. One I met the other day was particularly remarkable in his bronze blue overall and black [illegible] cap. He was a tall spare man with coal begrimed face, hands and clothes; only one thing was clean – a kind of cerise coloured scarf. I daresay the colouring sounds awful, but take it from me, he looked fine.

I see you are going to send me more bread. Don’t trouble to; we can obtain any we want from the village as a rule.

Stan’s idea of bargaining where he will go is rather pathetic – he’d better know that it’s utterly futile. But this he can do under existing orders. If he is not sent to join Gil, he or Gil can apply to their Commanding Officer for a transfer and it must be sanctioned on the grounds that they are brothers and wish to serve in the same unit of the same branch of the service [in the RAMC].

Yes, our fellows have done well, very well, and so their pictures are appearing in the paper, as you say. Curiously enough, the photos of the 24th are the photos of our boys of the 22nd, and you may be interested to know the leading boy in the picture of a company led by a bearded officer has been wounded in the eye, but is still with us. Again a picture of the answer to K. of K.’s appeal for men up to 40 is that of our own men who were sent back to the second line unit when we came out.

Love to all
Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/33)

Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence again. He was not very flattering about artist brother Stanley’s potential as a soldier, but was concerned about newly commissioned brother Sydney.

June 4, 1915
Dear Florrie

Here we are after a night move two days ago, a little move to the south and west. Jack Jackson’s regiment went by me in the dark but I didn’t catch sight of him. I expect he’s all right still as I believe our brigade has done most of the serious work so far.
This is a delightful and wealthy place – with a more glorious garden still than the last, and all the peace of a private farm, and all the joy of peasant men and women working about the place. But we are under the eye of the enemy so all our movements are dark and clandestine.

Mother’s letter was quite good. The artful touch about Edith French was very amusing. Edith will look perfectly charming in a nurse’s uniform, I agree. Tell mother I’m sure she’ll be wrapped up by the first sensible fellow fortunate enough to be wounded and nursed by her, and that I’ll try hard for the post.

By the way, the sweet little lady had written me a charming letter which I hope to answer. Why on earth isn’t she married? The men of her own wealth must be blind, or is it because she lives at the end of the world?

I do hope Stan will stick by the home. He really isn’t of much account for military purposes, but of course I understand it’s hard for him to remain out of this business, and he might be useful in the medical way.

Of course Sydney if he gets a commission and comes out soon will have the worst of it, and take exceedingly serious risks of at least being winged. Nobody except those who have been through it knows the cost and danger of an attack, and I don’t want him to be told, but, Flo dear, if he comes out as a subaltern, hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/32)