“He died as he lived, trying to do his duty”

There was sad news for two Speenhamland families.

It is with great sorrow that we heard of the death of George Courtnell, our late esteemed verger, and our hearty sympathy is with Mrs. Courtnell in her sad bereavement. He died in the Canadian hospital at Doullens, having been brought there with many other wounded at the beginning of the recent big battle in France, and was buried with military honours near there. He died as he lived, trying to do his duty. He was a faithful servant of Christ, and a loyal worker and helper at S. Saviour’s.

Our deep sympathy is also with Mrs. Lane, who has for the second time been called to make the sacrifice of a son, Henry Paice having been recently killed in France. He leaves a widow and children, to whom also, as to his mother, we offer our sincere condolence.

Speenhamland parish magazine, April 1918 (D/P116B/28A/2)

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“It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war”

Sydney Spencer was now very close to the action, as he confided in both his diary and a letter to sister Florence (written in pencil on a scrap of paper). His fluency in French meant he was the recipient of the sorrows of an elderly Frenchwoman.

Diary
Wednesday 24 April 1918

After a very peaceful night I got up at 7.30. after breakfast had a rifle inspection. Made up mess acocount. Wrote to OB. Sent cheque to W H Smith & Sons. We march off & dig in at 2 pm. We go to M-M. We arrived here at 8.45 pm. Our platoons dug in & made cubby holes. Before one could say knife they had scrounged any mount of loot & made cubby houses! One was named Norfolk Villa, another “Tumbledown Nest”. Another “Home sweet home”.

Two pathetic incidents, an old lady horribly crippled finished her plaint weeping, “Vous me donnerez, M’sieur, [meme?] grand service si vous tirez a moi”! [You will give me great service, sir, if you will shoot me.]

Another, outside our cellar here in the yard lies a cross with grave number & the legend ‘A British soldier’. Tonight Frost found some flour someone else went to move. Brought back some sort of [lime?]. The two were mixed before I discovered the mistake. Result chaos!

Guns are behind us now firing considerably in “crashes on suitable targets”!


Letter

24.4.18
My dearest Florence

A cellar in a ruined village, straw on the floor, 4 candles, a brazier, a table ‘scrounged’ from somewhere with glasses, table cover & supper in preparation. Artillery getting ever louder & nearer. And that is how I approach nearer the real thing. It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war. I suppose it is a case of fools & angels again!

Only twice have I been made to feel the effect of war. Outside leaning against the wall is a small wooden cross torn up from goodness knows where & on it the legend “A British Soldier” and a grave number. An old lady, very crippled, who wept & spoke patois, poured her troubles into my ears, seated on a pile of wood & earth. I was the only one who could understand her so I had to bear the brunt of all her troubles. I will not tell you all she said, but when I told her gently that there was nothing I could do, she wept and pathetically asked me whether I would do her the kindness of shooting her! My captain, who says that he is a well seasoned soldier, was quite touched by the incident, so you can imagine that I had to take very great care to preserve an outward calm.

But still my darling Florence I am as I have repeatedly said, very perky & as well & vigorous as ever I have been. My tootsies are just a little weary after much walking about today, but otherwise c’est une bagatelle.

All love to you my darling sister &
Cheer Ho

Your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Same address
I am Mess President of my Company. Tonight my [illegible] discovered some flour in a disused mill, another went for more & brought back some lime, both were mixed before I discovered mistake. Result chaos!!!

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/22)

“All of a tremble: I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire”

Sydney Spencer and his battalion were on the move, and getting ever closer to the action.

Tuesday 23 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. Got kit packed & mess kit packed. No parades today. Went for short walk in woods. A lovely morning. The young trees looked their lovely ‘shrill green’. Violets & cowslips everywhere. After lunch we had a mess meeting. Drink bills were settled up, thank goodness. I paid in for B company 160 francs. It is now time to get ready for our route march to Lillevillers, so we is off [sic] 5.45 pm.

10.15 pm. Arrived at Lealv-s at 8 pm. Have had supper. Papers have arrived. We move on tomorrow & dig in behind Mailly-Maillet by daylight. So I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire. I am all of a ‘thremble’ [sic] at the idea and as Aunt L would say, here’s a nice kettle of fish. Hervey and I are billeted at No. 75. Artillery is making some row just at present.

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)

Stranded without kits or rations

Percy Spencer had a trying journey through France – but he was better off than one of his comrades who fell in a sewage ditch.

EFC
Officers Rest House and Mess
Apl 21, 1918

My dear WF

Last Sunday I was sick – very sick. But this Sunday beats all records.

On Friday Last I started to join my unit and for the last 36 hours we have been within 5 or 6 miles of it. Nevertheless I shall have at least another 8 hours wait here and then at least another 4 hours train journey.

The key to part of this puzzle is that the French borrowed our train complete with kits and half our men, but deficient of us. So here we are stranded without kits or rations waiting until the French have done with our coaches. We all hate ourselves and each other like poison. We eat and drink indiscriminately and sleep in heaps in odd corners. Luckily we have cash and have found, as one always does this side, some good friends. Oh! but we are “fed” [up], and tired out.

If I get time later I must write an account of the journey. There was a painless climax when at 2 am this morning one of the party pitched into a ditch which was really the outfall from a sewer. The subsequent proceedings were lovely for the victim. However he’s quite scraped down now. We dried him in sections before some boilers, and if one keeps up-wind, he’s all right. The joke is, if his kit doesn’t turn up, he’s nothing else in France to escape into.

Well, goodbye,
With my dear love to all

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/7/30)

Adventures in armoured cars and tanks

Old Boys of Reading School continued to serve their country, and share their experiences.

O.R.NEWS.

Mr. A.J. Wright has kindly sent the headmaster extracts from a letter of R.F. Wright’s, who was then in the 2nd squadron Russian Armoured Cars. The letter gives a vivid description of the threat on the Galician front and for the adventures of the Armoured Cars. The most striking sight was the explosion of the huge ammunition dumps at Crosowa, – apparently caused by a chance shot,- which Wright witnessed from a distance of 5 or 6 miles. It was most fortunate that the British cars got away with such small loss.

We must congratulate Capt. Rev. A.G. Wilken, Brigade Chaplain, Canadian Force on his return from Germany. He has been a prisoner of war for a year and eight months, during which time he has made the acquaintance of no less than six prison camps, Gutersloh, Minden, Crefeld, Schwarmstedt, Holzminden and Frieburg. We understand that some of these were comfortable enough, others very much the reverse. We hope that someday perhaps Capt. Wilken will tell us of some of his experiences.

Captain Haigh, M.C.

We are now in a position to publish news of the great honour which has been conferred upon Capt. Richard Haigh, M.C., Tank Corps, son of Mr. W. Haigh, of “Llanarth,” Hamilton Road, Reading. Capt. Haigh has been selected from all the officers of “His Majesty’s’ Land Ships” to take charge of the tank which has been touring Canada and the United states to help boom the U.S. Liberty Loan. He and his crew all of whom, by the way, have been wounded, have been touring the chief cities of the Republic for the past three months polarizing the great loan which our Allies have been raising. Such work is, of course, of the highest responsibility, and the fact that the gallant officer has been entrusted with this duty speaks well for his ability and for the confidence which the authorities place in him.

Educated at Reading School, where he distinguished himself in every form of athletics, particularly long distance running and football, Capt. Haigh obtained a commission in the Royal Berks Regt. just after the outbreak of war. He was wounded at Loos in 1915 and again on the Somme in 1916. In January of last year he was awarded the Military Cross, and for the last twelve months he has been attached to the Tank Corps.

Lieut. Fielding Clarke. – On Wednesday in the last week Captain Fielding Clarke of Ampthill, Craven Road, Reading, received a telegram intimating that his second son, Sec. Lieut. A. Fielding Clarke, R.F.C., was missing. The previous Saturday he had been with his squadron carrying out a bombing raid on and around Metz, and his machine was the only one which did not return. Lieut. Clarke, whose age is 18 and a half, was educated at Reading School and Bradfield College, and joined the R.F.C. at the age of 17 years and four months. He had been in France about three months and had just returned from his first Furlough. It is supposed that the cause of his failing to return must have been engine trouble, for on the occasion of the raid there was particularly little German anti-aircraft fire.

(Later). Lieut. A. Fielding Clarke is now known to be a prisoner of war interned at Karlsruhe.
(more…)

“10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames”

Sydney Spencer revealed life behind the lines in France in his diary, and wrote to his sister with more details.

Diary
Sunday 21 April 1918

Men bathed today from 9-4. So ‘Beer’ company officers had a rest in bed. Got up at 8.30, had a cold bath. After breakfast wrote to Mother & Father & Florence. It is now 11.15 am. A sunny morn & I am in a bit of pretty woodland. We parade at 11.30 am so I must go.

We had our parade on some fields near to billets. Only a short inspection & a talk and organization of platoon. I take over No 6 Platoon. After lunch took out company for football. After tea went to church in ‘flying fox’ lecture hall. A good service with a band and some solos from Elijah. A lovely day with plenty of sunshine.

After dinner I tried on my field boots which came today. They fit well. To bed at 10. Read Tennyson.

Letter

7th Norfolk Regiment
BEF
France

Sunday
21.4.18

My Dearest Florence & Mr I

Just a short line to let you know that I am very well & quite happy. Nothing exciting has yet taken place. The great pleasure at present is coming across lots of men who used to be in our regiment, who shew in their slow Norfolk way a keen relish at meeting a man of the old (help! I nearly got within reach of the censor I believe!) regiment. Also I have come across two men who were up at Oxford with me, one yesterday & one last week. …

Yesterday night a man was ‘stunting’ in his plane just above us. One moment he was like a calm serene bird floating down the wind. 10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames. I only hope he escaped a horrible death!

All love to you both
Your affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to his sister and brother in law (D/EZ177/8/3/20)

Tonight a plane came down in flames

Sydney Spencer got some help from a couple of old friends.

Saturday 20 April 1918

I rose at 6 am. Breakfast at 6.45. Went off to D-ns in the mess cart 18 miles from here to get mess stuff & personal stuff for the officers of the Battalion. While in D-ns met Private King who left Killinghall in August 1915 for France! He helped me a lot in getting mess stuff. Spent about 300 francs. Fearful business getting stuff. Also met Pryse, a Welshman who was at Oxford with me! Got back at 6. Mess cart & French roads succeeded in giving me a fearful headache.

Last night German plane bombed H-s-t about ½ a mile from here. Tonight a plane came down in flames at about 6.30.

10 new officers arrived on scene today.

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

In open boats for about 2 hours in a rough sea

Three Sisters of the Community of St John Baptist had a terrifying experience as they travelled home from India.

20 April 1918

Sister Alexandrina, Sister Marion Edith and Sister Edith Helen, who had left Calcutta March 9th, arrived safely after an adventurous voyage. They had only been allowed to travel with special permission from the Government of India on account of Sister Alexandrina’s state of health, which made it necessary for her to leave India.

Their ship was torpedoed by an enemy sub-marine in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Africa. Then passengers were transferred to the ship’s boats and all were saved. They were in open boats for about 2 hours in a rough sea. The Sisters & their companions were picked up by a British sloop-of-war and landed at Bizerta, where they remained for 4 days. Then they were taken on board a French mail boat carrying troops and were safely landed at Marseilles after a very uncomfortable voyage owing to the crowded condition of the steamer.

From Marseilles they travelled by train to Paris & Havre, & from thence crossed to Southampton.

Owing to rationing orders limiting the quantity to each House of certain articles of food, & the scarcity of others, the Sisters from the other Houses cannot for the present come to the House of Mercy for tea on Sundays, as has been the custom, nor have their meals there when having day’s retreats.

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

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)

“There are 10 of us in a hut called a Nisson Hut”

Sydney Spencer had previously written to his sister Florence b(in an undated letter not included on the blog) asking her to send some items from home. Now he learned that he would not be able to take even what he already had when they moved to the trenches.

18 April 1918
7th Norfolk Regiment
BEF France

My Dearest Florence

Here’s a pretty kettle of fish! Just as I have written to you about my flea bag etc I learn today that we have got to reduce our kit! So the flea bag must not be sent! So if it has been sent I suppose I must send it back! The other stuff I have asked for I simply can’t do without.

It is Thursday night & there are 10 of us in a hut called a Nisson [sic] Hut. It is in form like a boiler cut in half but we are quite comfortable comparatively speaking….

I am having to send you my bath & my spare tunic & mess tin, as I must reduce my kit. I have two blankets & a spare pair of breeches & a suit of Tommy’s clothing so I am alright. The gramophone is playing & we have just had the 1812 Symphony. I hope you won’t object to the packing of the parcel. I could only get hold of a sandbag!

All love my Darling Sister

Your ever affectionate Brer
Sydney
18.4.18
6.45

Letter from Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/3/19)

That weird & wonderful place known as “up the line”

Percy Spencer had recovered from the rough sea crossing, and anticipated his arrival at the Front.

Apl 17, 1918

My dear WF

In a few days time I expect to be in that weird & wonderful place known as “up the line”.

My posting order is through, and my address will be “15th Lon Regt, 140th Infantry Brigade, BEF, France”.

I’m the only one going to the 15th. Everyone else is going to his own regiment, as apparently the authorities, if slow, have a long memory, and my fortune may not be bad.

When you have time, will you please place an order with Colin Lunn for 1/6 of Fryers “Original” per month – 1/6 to be sent out now.

I’m afraid my letter last night [poss 7/7/28] was rather incoherent. The boat still rocks if I look down, but I’m almost enjoying a pipe again.

Today we have been doing gas again, and that I think is about all that will be required of us until we go up.

I’ll write more when I have more news.

With love to all

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/29)

Ordered to France at once

A young Maidenhead soldier would have his leave extended as he managed to catch an infectious disease while home on leave.

King Street School, Maidenhead
16th April 1918

Mrs Trace had leave of absence for the afternoon as her husband is ordered to France at once.

Mrs Bland’s Infant School, Burghfield
April 16th 1918.

Bertie West absent owing to the fact that his brother who is a soldier is home on leave and has contracted German measles.

Log books of King Street School, Maidenhead (C/EL77/1, p. 418); and Mrs Bland’s Infant School, Burghfield (86/SCH/1/1, p. 235)

It is all so like soldiering in England except for the rumble of artillery and the latrines

Sydney Spencer’s soldiers complained about smelly, unsanitary toilet facilities.

Tuesday 16 April 1918

Had the warmest and most comfortable night’s rest since being in France. Rose at 7.15. Am now inspecting billets. 9.30.

10.50 am. Have finished orderly officer’s work for time being. Latrine accommodation was the great bug bear! Had to “square” smell up, as poor old Archdale would have said had he been alive.

I am beginning to settle down nicely now although one can hardly say settle down because it is all so like soldiering in England except for the rumble of artillery which is distant from line.

It is warmer today & wind has dropped. Just a spot or two of rain, that is all.

[Continued in pencil:]

My pen has given out so pencil is the only resort. After lunch I got hold of a cottager’s wife who would bake our pots for tonight, & also bought a chicken for 7 francs.

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

The most appalling voyage

Percy Spencer had now returned to France after his training as a =n officer. He wrote a brief note to beloved sister Florence as he adapted to dry land.

15.4.18
My dear WF

After the most appalling voyage we arrived safely today.

Thank you so much dear for your wire.

I bought some field glasses at six guineas and have made out John’s cheque accordingly. Will you please thank him very much for the gift. It’ll be good to carry now close reminders of you both….

This is a very scrappy note, but you must forgive more until I have got over the Channel trip.

If you are writing home, you might say you have heard that I am in France.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/28)