The chemistry of the gas helmet

After a period training at Kinmel Park in Wales, studying such matters as the workings of the gas helmet issued to troops, Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence Image with good news.

Aug 10, 1917
My dear WF

Thanks to John my address is
Cadet P J Spencer
B Company
No. 5 Officer Cadet Battalion
Trinity College
Cambridge

All the bad men from Kinmel are here too, so at any rate I feel I shall have a moral advantage.

I’ve just been trying to get the rules and regulations into my head. Luckily I realised early that it couldn’t be done and gave it up….

You are quite right about Kinmel. I was awfully well and jolly there, and look and feel very fit. Even the lectures were entertaining, no matter how dry. For instance one lecturer (a schoolmaster before the war) taking us in musketry, and looking very brainy, explained (in fact he was so pleased with the idea, he explained it twice) that “an explosion is the immediate or spontaneous transition of a solid into a gas. Q.E.D., which those of you who have studied Euclid will know means Quod erat dictum!!!”

We also had some very interesting lectures on the gas or PH ‘Elmet. Really they were not so much lectures on the helmet as they were upon methods of dodging learned recruits. If I am unlucky enough to get hold of some recruit who evinces a knowledge of chemistry, I am to switch off on to the mechanism of the helmet, of which he’ll probably be ignorant, and vice versa. Presumably if one is unlucky enough to be landed with a recruit who knows both the mechanism & the chemistry of the helmet there is nothing to be done but to lead him gently to the gas chamber….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/62-64)

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Gallantry in the field

Men from the Bracknell area had mixed fortunes.

Ascot

We are sorry to hear of the loss of Wm. J. Hawthorn in the “Vanguard.”

Bracknell

It has been reported that 2nd Lieut. R. F. Needham is missing. He was in the fight on the dunes on the coast when the Northamptonshire and K.R. Regiments suffered so heavily. The deep sympathy of many friends is felt with Colonel and Mrs. Needham.

Winkfield

OUR MEN WHO ARE SERVING.

We are proud to be able to record this month the decoration of three more Winkfield men for gallantry in the field. Lieut. Cecil Hayes-Sadler, R.E, who has been serving lately with the French forces has been given the Croix de Guerre. Lieut. Wilfred Lloyd, R.E., has won the Military Cross, after having been recommended for it once before, and Corporal R. Nickless, 6th Royal Warwicks, has been awarded the Military Medal.

We regret to learn that Pte. Joseph Baker is ill in hospital with gas poisoning. He was able to write home himself, so we hope he will soon be completely recovered.

Signaller Fred Holmes has been invalided out of the Army. He was a member of our choir and one of the first Winkfield men to volunteer in August 1914, and he has seen a great deal of service at the front. We sincerely hope that he will soon obtain suitable work and in time completely recover his health.

Sergt. Leonard Tipper (Middlesex Regt), has lately gone out to France and we trust will be remembered in our prayers.

Winkfield District Magazine, August 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/8)

Lonely and sad

Putting the clocks forward or back by an hour is one of the ongoing legacies of the First World War. First introduced in 1916, 1917 saw the experiment repeated.

Soldiers’ Club

The lighter evenings, with their out-door attractions, and the Daylight Saving Bill, caused the committee to decide on closing the rooms to the soldiers, and this was done on Wednesday, April 4th. The evening was marked by a most enjoyable concert, after which our Pastor made a short speech assuring the men of the welcome they would still find at Trinity. Second A.M. Rose then voiced the thanks of the men. Until they knew Trinity they had been lonely and sad, but the hand-shake and kindly welcome had done much to dissipate the loneliness. Second A.M. Morgan then spoke of the men’s great appreciation of all our Pastor had done for them, causing amusement by his remark that Mr Harrison was unlike many ministers of his acquaintance, who were invisible all the week and incomprehensible on Sunday!

The evening closed by singing! Auld Lang Syne, after which our guests sadly and reluctantly dispersed.

The committee gladly recorded that all expenses, including the gas and coal, have been met, and a complete balance sheet is printed elsewhere.

Trinity Congregational Magazine, May 1917 (D/EX1237/1/12)

Mutiny in Russia, revolution in the East End

The worst mutiny of the Russian Revolution took place at Kronstadt in March, when two admirals were among the officers murdered. Admiral Viren was the unfortunate commander to be cut into pieces.

1917

Hear that Russian sailors killed all naval officers. Cut up an Admiral & sent pieces to each ship!!

In air raid in London hear police say children might press on the yellow from poison in shells.

They say air raids purposely go East End so as to make the people revolutionary.

Hear Stepney very revolutionary. Hate the King, say the war caused by personal quarrel between our King & Kaiser.

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

“Many empty lorries driven by the men of the Flying Corps pass daily through the village”

Cranbourne people were invited to grow vegetables, while church services were disrupted.

For the purpose of saving fuel and light in Lent week, Evening Services will be held in the Sunday School on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., and Evensong will be said on Sundays in Church at 3 p.m. instead of 6 p.m., until we can do without the gas. It seems to be almost impossible for the Coal Merchants to deliver fuel just now, there is coke and coal at the stations, but no carts are to be had. Many empty lorries driven by the men of the Flying Corps pass daily through the village, how helpful it would be if they could “dump” a few sacks of coal for us at some central place.

Two lectures on “Vegetable cultivation in War time” have been given in the Reading Room by Mr. F. W. Custin, F.R.H.S. Unfortunately there was not the large attendance that might have been expected when all of us are being urged to add to the food supply of the nation. The lectures were most practical and helpful. Great stress was laid on the need of spraying not only potatoes, but the young vegetable plants. The lecturer gave the following recipe for a spray of paraffin emulsion:- ¼ pint of paraffin, ¼ -lb. of soft soap, 3½ -gallons of water. Mix the soft soap with a little hot water, whisk it up and then add the paraffin slowly, beating it up as it is poured in, then add the remainder of the water. This should be used for onions and celery in May and June. Potatoes should be sprayed with Bordeaux mixture at the beginning of July and also early in August. We expect the delivery of the seed potatoes at an early date.

Cranbourne section of Winkfield District Magazine, March 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/3)

Beer and bottled water to be in short supply

Sydney Spencer underwent training in gas exposure, while Florence Vansittart Neale was shocked by the amount of items to be restricted.

Sydney Spencer of Cookham
Feb 22

I go through chlorine gas for first time (in a P.H. helmet).

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
22 February 1917

Large contingent of nurses & MOs from Cliveden. Saw everything & had tea in hall. Came at 3, left 5.30….

Good speech by E. Carson on submarine menace – very serious, but hope it will get [illegible].

Importations of timber, apples, tomatoes, raw fruits, tea, restricted, meat, paper, wines, silks, only 10,000,000 barrels of beer – spirits also restricted, aerated water and table water.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

The bravest man in the trenches

Many of the former pupils of Reading School were serving with distinction.

O.R. NEWS.

Military Cross

Temp. 2nd Lieut. F.A.L. Edwards, Royal Berks Regiment.- For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the enemy twice attacked under cover of liquid fire, 2nd Lieut. Edwards showed great pluck under most trying circumstances and held off the enemy. He was badly wounded in the head while constructing a barricade within twenty-five yards of the enemy.

2nd Lieut. (Temp. Lieut.) W/C. Costin, Gloucester Regiment. – For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the enemy penetrated our front line he pushed forward to a point where he was much exposed, and directed an accurate fire on the trench with his trench guns. It was largely due to his skill and courage that we recaptured the trench. An Old Boy of Reading School, he won a scholarship at St. John’s College. Oxford.

2nd Lieut. D.F.Cowan.

Killed in Action.

Lieut. Hubert Charles Loder Minchin, Indian Infantry, was the eldest of three sons of the late Lieut-Col. Hugh Minchin, Indian Army, who followed their father into that branch of the service, and of whom the youngest was wounded in France in May, 1915. Lieutenant Minchin, who was 23 years old, was educated at Bath College, Reading School, and Sandhurst. After a probationary year with the Royal Sussex Regiment, he was posted to the 125th (Napier’s) Rifles, then at Mhow, with whom he served in the trenches.

After the engagement at Givenchy on December 20th, 1914, he was reported missing. Sometime later an Indian Officer, on returning to duty from hospital, reported that he had seen Lieut. Minchin struck in the neck, and killed instantly, when in the act of personally discharging a machine-gun against the enemy. The Indian officer has now notified that he must be believed to have fallen on that day.
2nd lieut.

F.A.L. Edwards, Royal Berkshire Regiment, awarded the military cross, died of wounds on August 10th. He was 23 years of age, and the youngest son of the late Capt. H.H. Edwards, Royal Navy, and Mrs. Edwards, of Broadlands, Cholsey. He was educated at Reading School and the City and Guilds College, Kensington. He had been on active service 10 months. His Adjutant wrote:

“He was the bravest man in the trenches. All the men say he was simply wonderful on the morning of August 8th. We lost a very gallant soldier and a very lovable man.”

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“The Huns threw a lot of shells about” – and gassed one of their own men

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence with his latest news. This letter, which is, unusually for Percy, typed, is badly torn and parts are missing. He had been gassed, and met an old friend.

30/9/16

Life is such a harassing affair nowadays that I [never see]m to have both the time and the humour to write you … lines, but if I don’t soon send you a letter I [shall for]get altogether how to write one, so here we are, and … excuse the type.

This pushing business is business, but it’s very […] I can assure you. However, the Huns are absolutely […] and very much on the wobble, and I still hope for [the s]udden collapse I feel sure will be the end of this …

Since writing to you last I have added the experience of being lachrymatory [tear] gassed. It was jolly. [Every]one scrambling for helmets and goggles and crying […], the gas seeming to have caused an inflammation which [was] very much aggravated when one closed one’s eyes. At […] the enemy, and I had the pleasure of getting out […]ration orders wearing a gas helmet and goggles. We [wer]e a remarkable assembly – you couldn’t tell t’other from [whi]ch, and when I had finished at my typewriter I was surprised to find that the man at my elbow crowded on the dug-out steps was a German officer prisoner we had captured. It was rather a joke for this fellow to be brought in and suddenly hoist by his own petard, so to speak.

Since then we have had a “rest” – quite an eventful one, for on one occasion I spent a few thrilling minutes watching parachute descents from kite balloons and on another, after tea, lying out in the sunshine, suddenly I espied a splendid fox wending its way amongst some […] trenches and taking cover in the wire entanglement […] rank grass. We chivvied it out and had a small fox [hole?] all on our own.

The night we came out and went into rest we had […] welcome – the Huns threw a lot of shells about and […] knocked down the house opposite us. That’s the second time they’ve done that – it’s most inconsiderate.

By the way I’ve been looking out for Jack Jackson for a long time. He was wounded at LOOS and I imagine he […] long come out again. Anyway a short time ago toward the end of a pretty big do, I was going up in a Staff car [and] just as I was stepping in, who should go by but Jack. [We] only had time for a handshake, and then on he went up […] the line and I to the comparative safety of a dug-out. I hope he came through all right as the main part of that […] bump so far as his Brigade was concerned was then over.

If you could send me some gloves I should be glad.

I am now transferred to the A.S.C. but have no number at present. My pay is 3/6d per day as from Mar. 9th. You might make a note of this. I was sorry to transfer, but had to….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/30)

Training new recruits in bombing and anti-gas measures

Sydney Spencer might not have got to the front yet to practice his skills – but he was considered good enough to train new recruits.

Aug 5th [1916]
By order 1242 … Lt Spencer will be struck off all duties & his whole time will be entirely devoted to training drafts in Bombing & Anti Gas Measures.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

“A very nasty bit of line”

An army chaplain with links to Stratfield Mortimer reported on life and death in the thick of the fighting.

Mr. Bowdon

The most recent news from Mr. Bowdon includes the following:-

Since I last wrote we have been almost constantly on the move, and it seems as though there were little likelihood of our being permanently established anywhere. Orders to march come so suddenly and unexpectedly sometimes that it is very difficult to arrange one’s work. It has been interesting visiting centres, and we have had very pleasant times on the march and at our various camping grounds. Here, down South, we have had a bad time.

This is a very nasty bit of line, and we have had two battles in two successive days and lost a good many officers and men. I was right in the thick of the second fight. It commenced one evening just after nightfall as I was finishing a funeral service at the back of the lines. After a heavy bombardment the Huns came over and succeeded in capturing a number of men of our Brigade in a part of the front where the lines are only about 25 yards apart. The roar of the guns was terrific, the very ground shook and the air was thick with the fumes of the explosives. The Huns sent over a number of weeping shells, and everyone got out his gas helmet…

The brutes are shelling us again; some 4’7 shells keep whistling past my window as I write, and are exploding a little way over to my right; I hope they won’t come nearer or I must shift. There is no glass to break, that all went long ago. I have nailed up some calico to keep the weather out and give me light.

The country we are in now is much more interesting than where we have been – there it was flat as a pancake, here it is all hills and woods and rivers scattered about, and one can see something of what is going on. From many points one can view the Hun lines, though it isn’t healthy to expose oneself too much, as they have a nasty trick of turning on the machine guns at unexpected moments when they don’t consider it worth while to send shells.

With every best wish to all friends at Mortimer.

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

To France in June!

Two of our diarists had news. One of Florence Vansittart Neale’s nurse daughters was set to go to France, while Sydney, still in training, was given a special role.

Florence Vansittart Neale
27 May 1916

Wire from Phyllis – to go to France on 10th June!

Sydney Spencer
May 27

Battalion order 521. Lt S Spencer is appointed Gas Officer of the Battalion.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

A terrible price – are we worth it?

Eric Guy Sutton, a member of the wealthy family which owned Sutton’s Seeds, Reading’s iconic horticultural business, had joined up soon after the start of the war. He was awarded the Military Cross a year later for saving a fellow soldier’s life, but was killed in action in April 1916. His home church, St John’s, was devastated by the news.

It was with great sorrow and deep sympathy for the bereaved family that we heard of the death of Lieut. E. G. Sutton. This most promising young officer, who had already been awarded the Military Cross for an act of great courage and self-sacrifice, was killed on Saturday, April 8th, in the gallant performance of his duty. We shall hope to publish some details of his career in the next issue of the magazine.

“Ye are not your own. You are bought with a price” (1 Cor VI.20)
Most of us were moved, I think, a few weeks ago by a story of almost unexampled heroism given in a list of recently conferred V.C.’s. A young officer attempted to throw a bomb into the enemy’s trench. The missile, however, struck his own parapet and fell in to his own trench. The officer cried a warning to his comrades and himself sprang back into safety, but then noting that his warning had been unheeded, turned back, flung himself upon the bomb and was destroyed by its explosion. And I wonder what were the feelings of his comrades and whether the thought of our text came into their minds, and they said to themselves: “We are not our own, we have been bought with a price.” And I wonder how many of us at home had the same thought in our minds as we read the account, or whether we have ever sufficiently thought at all that not to one such glorious act of heroism, but to countless splendid and ungrudging acts of devotion, do we owe today the security of our shores, the air we breathe untainted by foul poison emanations, the food we eat unstinted in quantity, our women their honour, our children their deliverance from brutality, our old people the quiet, even tenor of their placid lives, and all of us our immunity from the horrors that have desolated Belgium and Poland and Serbia.

We are bought with a price! Who will deny it? Vicarious suffering! Vicarious death!, say some. “We can’t understand it, we can’t accept it!” To such, I say: Alas for the poverty of your intellect and the hardness of your heart, when the very thing is happening today before your very eyes and crying to your souls. When not one minute passes, but even now in France, in Russia, on the seas, wherever the ceaseless battle rages, a man dies that other men may live. We are bought with a price, and day by day in that pitiful concentration of tragedy we know as the casualty list, the bill is presented, and every now and then, at longer intervals, the account is rendered up to date. And how stands it today? Some half a million of Englishmen slain, mutilated, sick, languishing in pestilent Wittenberg prison camps – for us. Mown down by machine guns, crashing from the air in the shattered aeroplane, settling to the ocean-bed in the sunken submarine, buried beneath the soil, buried beneath the waves, unburied in the hideous no-man’s-land between the trenches, tossing in our hospitals, limping about our streets, cry of the wounded and sob of the broken of heart, laughing boys who do not know what awaits them, grave-faced men who do, going forth in courage to do their part – behold the price that is paid; the price that is paid for us; in virtue of which we sit tranquilly in this church this morning, and shall walk tranquilly home to our tranquil and ample dinners.

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This filthy war must end some day

Officer’s wife Maysie Wynne-Finch, now based in Windsor, wrote to her brother serving in Egypt to wish him a happy birthday. She shared her usual frank views on the army. The Sassoon referred to is not the war poet Siegfried, but his wealthy cousin Philip (1888-1939), while the Duke of Teck was Queen Mary’s brother.

March 3/16
Elgin Lodge
Windsor

My darling R

Very very many happy returns of today. If only this filthy war would end. However I suppose it must some day….

Rumour has it our Canadians, some say Ansacs [sic], have been with the French in the last fighting. It must have been terrible beyond words, but so far anyhow they’ve hung on alright, & Hun losses must be heavy. You talk of “partial” offensive, I doubt if you’d describe it so now if all one reads is true. It seems like the battle of all.

I was told the other day, it was Aunt Alice as a matter of fact, had heard that the Belgians are a source of anxiety at present – they fear they are being bribed & the authorities want them sent back & not to take the line over. It must be dreadful for their splendid King. That yarn was rather confirmed by a story I heard yesterday that all or a lot of the Belgians were right back now.

Yes, I suppose Erzerum was great. One can well understand that. I think the beginning of the end must be in sight really, though not very evident to the man in the street yet. No, I am sure Meg has no anti-gas stuff. I will tell her what you say, neither she nor the babies return to London till the 20th anyhow. As far as I know there is nothing to tell about the Caroline. There was no word of truth in the report. I’ll write to Evelyn to let you know.

You should be able to hear more of Frank’s doings than I know, but as I was told it, Frank single handed riding his pony went & bearded a robber & disloyal chief in his stronghold & brought him “in”. He was to have had troops etc sent for the purpose of intimidating the man, but as they failed to arrive, Frank kept his appointment alone, which I imagine so astonished the native he surrendered & became loyal. I believe Frank received the thanks of the Sirdar & Sultan & various decorations etc. Rather a fine performance.

It’s no use raging about my views on the Staff as you share them just as much. The gross abuse of Staff appointments has resulted in general muddle. Good men, who are, & others who should be, Staff officers, suffer, but young Sassoon & the Duke of Teck still are given important Staff appointments on a very recently formed Staff! Can you wonder people jib a bit!

Now I must stop & return to my hospital work room. I work the company with all the other Windsor females twice a week at swabs etc. It’s all very funny & petty. If one could but write it might make a funny new volume of Cranford….

Your ever loving Maysie

Letter from Maysie Wynne-Finch to to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/3)

Chocolates for gas protection

Aldermaston schoolchildren were unexpectedly rewarded with sweet treats for helping out the local regiment.

18th October 1915
Major Egginton (3/4 Royal Berks) called to than Miss Adams and the girls for their kindness in sewing on the anti-gas pockets for the regiment, and to show their appreciation, a large box of chocolates was presented to the children.

Aldermaston School log book (88/SCH/3/3, p. 43)

Doing their bit: protecting Berkshire soldiers from gas

Pupils at three church schools were affected by the war. Girls in Aldermaston were spending their spare time making gas respirators for local soldiers, while Earley children got an afternoon off because of a military sports day. The head master at Yattendon joined the army, leaving his wife, who also taught at the school, as temporary head.

Aldermaston CE School, 1st October 1915

The 1st and 2nd class girls, under the supervision of Miss Adams, have been engaged in sewing on gas respirator pockets for the 3/4 Berks Regiment which is stationed here. Some of the girls volunteered to give up part of their dinner-time, and others in the village gave up an hour or so in the evening in order to “do their bit”.

Earley CE School, 1st October 1915

School was closed on Wednesday afternoon as some Athletic Sports by the soldiers were then being held in the field adjoining the school premises.

Yattendon CE School, Oct. 1st 1915

Today I received the official sanction of the Education [Committee] to enlist & the letter setting out the conditions is filed in the portfolio [which no longer survives].

Arrangements have been made for my enlisting in the ASC at Aldershot and tomorrow I go there to take up service.

My wife takes charge of the school, and Miss Toms comes on Monday as Supply Elementary Teacher until Miss Aldridge can take up the appointment for the period of the war.

E. Crook.

Aldermaston CE School, October 1915 (88/SCH/3/3); St Peter’s CE School, Earley (SCH36/8/3); Yattendon CE School log book (SCH37/8/1)/em>