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…)

Advertisements

“If only Fritz would drop a bomb on it, it would save further argument”

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence to let her know how he was getting on. The following day he was to be wounded.

Aug 6, 1918
My dear WF

Almost I’ve forgotten how to write a letter. Lately I have been so busy picking up the threads and so on that I haven’t had time to write a line since July 14, I think it was – not even to write and wish you many happy returns of the 4th. However I’ll put the clock back a couple of days and do it now.

My diary has gone during the last few weeks and I’m racking my brain for news.

To go back, I finished my course on the 17th. My section, 4/7 of which was my Division, won the School cup. The runners up were also 4/7 my Division. So we set our caps at the Canadians, Australians & our friends from USA and swanked. Also individually my section scored highest marks in the examination. My own report read –
Qualifications Very good
Power of command Ditto
Keen

So there was much rejoicing and our [HLI?] instructor got very tipsy at our expense and insisted on singing all the Scotch songs ever written, and some which I believe had before scarcely escaped the boundaries of his “wee bit hoos ben” or some such foreign place.

After that I returned “here” – that’s interesting. From here I went up the line once or twice, and then went “there” and billeted the Battalion. With the aid of 200 men, made the area reasonably clean, and HQ habitable. There was even a piano and one evening we had our string trio over to play to us at mess, and afterwards the doctor (from USA) with a fine voice, sang to us and made us all homesick. And the adjutant begged for Raff’s [Cantina?] and got it, and wondered how I knew when I turned to him during the piece and said, “Your wife plays this”.

And then I came here again & the adjutant being inoculated & sick, I had to ride up the line and take over. And now I am here again (and it’s pouring with rain) in an abandoned cottage with an earth floor and leaky roof and really very comfortable. To a newcomer it would be startling to go round a battalion’s “billets” and hear our boys tell the visiting officer that they were quite comfortable in a tumbledown outhouse or barn. Someday again I expect we shall get luxurious again.

Had one very bad night here during an event I expect you are now reading about. Fritz bombed all night and generally played the devil. A few days before a billet of ours was gutted by fire due to another unit’s fault. Luckily overnight I had organised our people for such an event, and in 25 minutes we had it out and a large farm saved. The other unit having at last accepted liability, rebuilt the place. I remarked that if only Fritz would drop a bomb on it, it would save further argument. He did, but not till it had been rebuilt & occupied and the farmer was gloating over new buildings for old.

The CO has just turned up so I’ll close while I have the opportunity.
With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/58-60)

“Major Smith has been associated with the Tank Corps from the beginning of its operations and he has rendered splendid service”

There was news of three Reading men.

PERSONAL

We offer our heartiest congratulations to Major L. Victor Smith, MC, on his recent promotion. Major Smith has been associated with the Tank Corps from the beginning of its operations and he has rendered splendid service. We are glad to know that he has come safely through many dangers, and we pray that he may have the continued protection of the Most High in all the days that lie before him. It was a pleasure to see him looking so fit and well when he was home on furlough.

Private Gerald S. Hampton, only son of our friends Mr and Mrs A. S. Hampton, has recently been in hospital in one of the base camps, “somewhere in France”. We are glad to hear that he is now well again, and able to take up his duties. We pray that he may come safely through all the dangers of the trenches.

The latest news of Private E. Layton Francis is that he is in a military hospital in Cairo and making good progress. His many friends will wish that the progress may be accelerated, and that before long he may be home on furlough.

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

“We have no traitors in our midst worse than the so-called “pacifists,” who want peace at any price and, in many cases, are simply enemy agents.”

The fourth anniversary of the start of the war was commemorated soberly in churches throughout the county.

Sulhamstead

THE WAR

WAR COMMEMORATION

Sunday, August 4th, has been set apart for the purpose of commemorating our entry into this terrible war. We shall remind ourselves that it was impossible so long as we maintained honour, righteousness and justice to hold back. We took our place by the side of France and Belgium, not from any desire to increase our own power or raise our position in the world, but simply to prevent wrong and to work righteousness. Our objects are still the same. There is no hope for the world until the gigantic military despotism of Germany is destroyed. There will be services of Intercession at 11 a.m., St Mary’s Church, followed by the Holy Communion; 6 p.m., St Michael’s Church.

There were good attendances at the church on Sunday, August 4th, for Thanksgiving and Intercession. The offertories for the fund for assisting Prisoners of war belonging to the Royal Berks Regiment amounted to:

11 a.m. £3 11s 0 ½ d
6 p.m. £1 13s 1 ½ d
Total £5 4s 2d

Earley St Peter

August 4th

The anniversary of the proclamation of war (August4th) will this year fall on a Sunday. I do not know whether any special Order of Prayer will be issued. For myself I consider that the forms of Prayer for use in the time of War (by authority, S.P.C.K., 1S.) Contains sufficient material. But I hope all the clergy will prepare well beforehand to stimulate and satisfy the spiritual needs of their people. The collect, Epistle and Gospel for the Sunday (x. after Trinity) might well be used. Otherwise the order suggested for the last year may be used again (Forms of prayer, P. 87 FF.) with necessary changes.

My Dear Friends

The first Sunday of this month, August the 4th, is the anniversary of the war. I wonder what we should all have felt if on August 4th 1914, we had thought it would have continued up to this time. Lord Kitchener indeed said three years and enrolled his army for that time, but such is a contingency seemed impossible to the generality of our countrymen, many of whom thought that the first battle of the Marne was the beginning of the end.

Who then dreamt of the collapse of Russia, or of the entry of America into the war? Who for a moment imagined that Germany would descend to the depths of degradation to which she has sunk in the eyes of the world by her false dealings and her barbarities. Who had any conception of the miseries, the losses, the bereavements, of the greatest war that the world has ever seen? (more…)

“I feel that I have lost a friend in addition to a very gallant officer”

There was sad news for a number of Wargrave families.

The following names must be added to the Roll of Honour:-

Ogbourne, Harry.
Trooper 1st Life Guards, died of wounds due to enemy air raid, May 20th, 1818, aged 24. He was the youngest son of Mrs. Ogbourne, widow of John Ogbourne of Wargrave. He was educated at the Piggott School, Wargrave and the Knowl Hill School. Before the war, he was engaged as Assistant to the Lock-keeper at Shiplake Lock. He volunteered in October, 1914. He was sent to France in May 1915, and with two short periods of leave, he remained there until his death. His Squadron Leader gave him a most excellent report.

Sinclair, Gerald John.
Captain, 1st Battalion The Black Watch, only son of John Sinclair, was educated at Rugby, and joined the Inns of Court O.T.C.in September, 1914, from there going to Sandhurst in January, 1915. He joined the reserve Battalion in Scotland, in July, 1915, and went out to France in April, 1916, where he was wounded in Peronne, in July. He returned to France the following January. He was 21 on March 21st, 1918, was killed in action on April 18th, and was buried in the Military Cemetery at Givenchy. His Colonel wrote “I feel that I have lost a friend in addition to a very gallant officer.”

Woodruff, Charles Herbert.

Lance-Corporal 2nd Royal Berks, killed in action between April 22nd and 27th, 1918, aged 24. He was the youngest son of Mrs. Woodruff, widow of George Woodruff, who was cowman at Scarlets for twenty-two years. He was a Piggott Scholar and on leaving school he went to work under a gardener. Before the War he was an under-gardener at the Lodge, Hare Hatch. He volunteered on August 30th, 1914. He was stationed in Ireland for three years with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, but in 1917 he was transferred by his own desire to the Royal Berks in order that he might share in the fighting. He was sent to France, June 1st, 1917.

Missing.

The following are the names of those who are now missing:-

Burton Haycock, John Frame, Frank Heakes, James Hes, Arthur Haycock.

Prisoners.

The following are prisoners:-

Robert Burrough, Fred Hall, Albert Hodge, Henry Wise, Charles Crampton, Jack Gieves, James Pithers, George Woodruff.

O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and with the eyes of thy mercy, give them comfort and sure confidence in Thee, defend them from the danger of the enemy, and keep them in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Wargrave parish magazine, August 1918 (D/P145/28A/31)

Reconnaissance

It was obviously a busy day for Sydney Spencer.

Thursday 1 August 1918
Reconnaissance.

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

“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)

A good billet

Sydney was on the move.

Tuesday 30 July 1918

Was awakened at 6.30 by Home, Dawkins’ batman, with the news that we were moving! So had to get a move on. Paid billets, got packed & ready to march off by nine. Got mess kit packed up & sent off too. At 9.30 inspected billets. At 8.45 am ready to march off. Moved off about 10. Marched to a place called P-z!

Entrained & travelled for about 3 hours north, & slightly west; unloaded & marched here to this pretty village, whose name would make a man turn round if one called it out behind his back! Found the men, then billet after much trouble. A good billet too. Our mess & sleeping quarters as at 44A. A beautiful garden at back & a stream in which I had a bath at bottom of garden. To bed at 10 pm. Feeling very tired after this very hot day!

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

On a football field in France

Old Boys from St Bartholomew’s Grammar School in Newbury shared their news.

Several letters have come our way from O.N.’s, among them being one J. Allee, who wants to know if there are any other O.N.’s in Palestine, where he is serving as a Captain in the A.S.C., as he has seen no one but Brooks since he has been there, for nearly three years. He seems rather disappointed with Jerusalem, but says that the country around the Dead Sea and the Jordan was well worth seeing, the hills being ablaze with flowers.

H. Pappin, in another letter, tells how he met Newman on the football field in France, where they both had been picked for the same team, the latter recognising Pappin’s name in the list. There seems a favourite place of recognition, for it was in Egypt that Pappin met Hobbs and Beard under similar circumstances. He has been running his battery team, “The Lily Whites,” all the winter, a combination in which what is lacking in science is made up with enthusiasm.

Two most interesting letters have come to us from F. W. Taylor and W. H. Bradfield. The former, who is serving with the Nigeria Regiment at Zungeru, has met our plea for an article by saying that he is writing a Grammar of the Fulani Language, but promises to do his best; while Bradfield, who is with the R.F.A. in France, is in the thick of the present heavy fighting.

J. J. Hurrell, who left the N.G.S. for Bradfield College, in 1913, has just passed through Sandhurst and goes into the Indian Army in September.

A double good fortune is the lot of D. W. Rosling, who is serving at Salonica; for simultaneously with his majority comes the following announcement: May 28th, at Cambray House, Carmarthen, to Florence, wife of Major D. W. Rosling, The King’s Liverpool Regiment, the gift of a son. – Congratulations.

We also have to congratulate two O.N.’s on their marriages; Lieut. E. J. Widle, T.M.B., to Miss Daphne Collette, at St John’s Church, Oxford; and Henry Hoskings, 1st Life Guards, to Miss Phyllis Richens, at St Anne’s, Westminster.

Our casualties are again heavy, though the proportion of wounded is, as last term, small. A. B. V. Brown and I. C. Davidson are both in hospital in England, after having been gassed, while A.L. Sandbach has been discharged through his wounds, after an exciting career. Volunteering for service on the outbreak of hostilities in Africa, he served against German West Africa, under Botha, in Greyling’s Commando, where he was one of the sole two white men serving. German West having been quelled, he returned to his civil duties, but soon after answered the call for men for German East. This time he joined the 2nd South African Horse, with whom he saw some hard fighting, on one occasion having his horse shot from under him. He was promoted to Sergeant and served for about three months longer, after which time he was hit in the thigh by shrapnel at Germinston, with the result as stated that he has been invalided out, returning to his work at Johannesburg. By a curious coincidence, each of these in this branch of the list is an old Victor Ludorum, Sachbach having also tied with Evers for a second year, while the dates of Brown and Davidson respectively, are those immediately preceding the War.

I. K. Fraser, whom we reported as having been wounded, in our last number, has so far recovered as to be able to pay us a visit towards half term. He is looking remarkably fit in spite of all.
Congratulations to G. W. Hall on his Mention in Sir Douglas Haig’s last despatch, and also to J. Allee on his mention in General Allenby’s.

John Cannon has been transferred from the A.S.C. to the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, and is now in the trenches.

The Newburian (magazine of St Bartholomew’s School, Newbury), July 1918 (N/D161/1/8)

‘I got a revolver in my tummy for not “giving right password”’

Sydney Spencer’s platoon worked hard behind the lines.

Monday 29 July 1918

I liked today’s programme of work very much. We had from 8.30 to 10.30 out by the wood for platoon training. Took my men in close order drill, & did some communication drill with the NCOs, also PT. Got back to billets at 11. Found that all officers & NCOs from each platoon were to be on range at 2.20 for a demonstration. Tracer bullets were employed on targets. Also phosphorous bombs from discharge cups. Also the New T. Bombs. They seem very effective.

After tea a rest & some games of patience. Late dinner & then night operations. An outpost scheme. We were not informed that there was to be an enemy. This caused lots of “fun”. Major Gethen was captured. I got a revolver in my tummy for not “giving right password”.

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

Tug of war

Sydney Spencer’s Sunday was a mix of attending church with the locals and sports with his platoon.

Sunday 28 July 1918

Had a glorious ‘louze’ [sic] in bed this morning until 8 am. After getting up so early lately it was strange to be able to lie in.

Took a gas parade at 10.15. Church Parade at 11.

At 12.15 heats for tug of war. No 6 platoon beat No. 5. No. 7 beat No. 8. At 4 pm No. 6 pulled No. 7 platoon, No. 6 winning, after losing the 1st pull.

After tea went to church with Kemp. French service was peculiarly noisy, all sorts of people continually moving & walking about. Little girls took the collection. An old man with a stick thumping vociferously on the floor with a heavy cane before them to remind us they were near us. Father Thompson dined with us.

In the evening after tea rode out to B- Y- with Dillworth & Dawkins a cheval [on horseback].

Diary of Sydney Spencer

Killed instantaneously by a shell

Working in labour groups doing manual logistical work behind the lines could be as dangerous as actually fighting in the trenches.

We offer sincere sympathy to Mrs Canning, whose son Arthur has been killed in France, and also to Mr and Mrs Joseph Bosley who have also lost a son, Francis James. He was working with a Labour Battalion behind the lines, and was killed instantaneously by a shell.

Brevet Lt-Col. B J Majendie, DSO, recently commanding the 4th Batt. King’s Royal Rifles at Salonica, has been promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General in command of the 65th Infantry Brigade.

Capt. Wilfred Belcher has been promoted to the rank of Brigade Major.

RED CROSS WORK PARTY

The total amount collected from January to December, 1917, was £22. 8s. 6d. Twenty-three meetings were held during 1917, working for about 12 different objects, some two or three times during the year.

Newbury St Nicholas parish magazine, July 1918(D/P89/28A/13)

“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)

Supported and comforted by our prayers in the hour of trial

There was news of men from two Berkshire villages.

Hare Hatch Notes

The deepest sympathy is felt for Mrs Woodruff whose son Charles Herbert was killed between April 22nd, and 27th while serving in France. Previous to joining the army he was employed at The Lodge, he was greatly respected. In addition to this loss, we hear that her son George is a prisoner of war in Germany. We trust that she will be supported and comforted by our prayers in the hour of trial.

Crazies Hill Notes

We are very glad to see Willie Hatch home again; also Charles Haycock and Harry Whetton have been home on leave. James Dow has also been home this month but only for a very short leave.’

Wargrave parish magazine, July 1918 (D/P145/28A/31)

Easily the best platoon in the Battalion

Sydney Spencer was proud that his platoon won a competition.

Friday 26 July 1918

I rolled clean out of bed in the night & fell whack on to a stone floor & I did not even bruise myself!

Today came the greatly talked of “best platoon in the Battalion competition” consisting – we were told – when we got on to the parade ground – of three tests.

(1) Cleanliness & appearance.
(2) Platoon drill.
(3) A platoon scheme.

Hold your breath, Mr Diary – my platoon won! Points were as follows. 20 points for (1), 20 points for (2), 60 points for (3). My platoon tied with a platoon of A Company for cleanliness with 17 points. My platoon got 17 points for drill, “Easily the best” so the CO said. The scheme was an easy one had we had time for reconnaissance, but it was difficult. I got highest points with my platoon – 30 points, so I had 64 out of 100. I was very pleased, so was the platoon too.

Tomorrow comes the company competition, conference in afternoon. Had to explain dispositions. After tea gave Kemp a riding lesson! Frost did not come to dinner as he went on leave. Rolfe stayed to dinner instead.

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