The British Munition Office in Switzerland

Cookham expat Will Spencer met a fellow Englishman with foreign connections in Switzerland.

15 May 1917

While J[ohanna] was busy in her room, the English gentleman who arrived here on Saturday or Sunday came onto the terrace with his little girl. He expressing the hope that his little girl did not disturb me, I asked him whether he wouldn’t sit down, & he did so & we chatted for a few minutes, until it was about time for lunch. His little girl, aged 5, was born in Venice. His wife died, after three or four years illness, in January of this year. He has now found something to do at the Munition Office (British) here. His wife’s mother was a German, & he himself has been much in Germany – in Marburg & Bonn.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

We are not fighting the German nation

John Maxwell Image reminds us all that the war was not really against the German people, but against their leaders, the militarised Prussian aristocracy (the ‘Junkers’) and royal family.

29 Barton Road
3 April ‘17

I should like to announce that we are fighting Hohenzollerns and the Junker Oligarchy – not the German nation.

Your affect.
Bild

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

A prisoner of war in Germany

A Cookham Dean man had been taken prisoner.

Roll of Honour
With sincere regret and sympathy we hear that Corporal H. Winkworth, Royal Berkshire Regiment, is a prisoner of war in Germany.

Cookham Dean parish magazine, March 1917 (D/P43B/28A/11)

“Only those who have lived amongst the Boche can fully appreciate what it means to be at the mercy of a brutal bully”

A man educated at Reading School reveals the horrors of being a prisoner of the Germans.

THE UNSPEAKABLE HUN.
A True Story.

It was Thursday morning, February 16th of last year [1917], and intensely cold, the thermometer registering 10 degrees below Zero. At 9 a German soldier came to tell me that I was wanted at the camp hospital. I was there met by the British doctor, Capt. Frank Park, C.A.M.C., who told me that their ere sixteen British Prisoners had just newly arrived from the station seven Kilometres away. With him I went into ward 2, and there saw 16 specimens of humanity. That is all you could call them, 16 frozen, hollow cheeked wrecks, the remnants of hundreds and hundreds of once strong, healthy men, who had been taken prisoners and kept to work behind the lines. Their comrades were dead.

Now these men were captured in September, October and November, 1916, and kept to work close to the front, working in preparation of the big German retreat then planned to take place in February and March, 1917. Their work was demolishing houses, bridges, felling trees, making roads and digging trenches, those called the Hindenburg line. This line and others were built by prisoners of war. We praised German engineering skill and paid silent tribute to the endurance and work of German working parties, but the work of prisoners, Russians and Rumanians in thousands and tens of thousands, and of British. They worked under appalling conditions, brutal treatment, blows, kicks, death if they refused, with housing and quarters not fit for pigs and food not enough to keep even body and soul together. What did it matter if they died, there were plenty more where they came from? Germany numbered her prisoners by millions. Prisoners they were, not prisoners of war; slaves, yea, worse than slaves.

These details these poor wretches told us with tears in their eyes when they spoke of some dear friend and pal who died beside them at his work, died of exposure, starvation, or our own shell fire. They told us of the clothes they had to wear. There was no need to tell, we saw it ourselves when we undressed them. Here is the list, and think of the temperature and cold as you read it:

Thin service tunic and trousers, old cotton shirt, socks and boots, and old cap. That was all, no warm under clothing, no great coat. All these the Boche had stolen under the plea they needed to be fumigated. But they were never returned.

And what did the outside world know of this or care? It may have cared, it must have cared, but it knew nothing. Germany took great care of that. These men were reported in British Casualty lists as “missing,” and missing they will remain till the end of time. But they were not missing; they were once strong healthy men, prisoners of war. They were not allowed to write to their relatives, Germany did not want the world to know where they were, or of their existence.

Amongst the sixteen who reached Minden were men who had been prisoners four or five months. This I found out as a fact when I wrote home to their relatives. They told me of pals who died beside them and I reported them to the Record Office of their Regiments and my letter never got home. It was always a mystery to us that these sixteen and other little parties later ever got back into Germany. They attributed it to the fact that, being men of fine physique and health, they didn’t succumb as quickly as their comrades went to hospital suffering chiefly from dysentery, recovered a little strength, and the Germans, seeing it was no good sending them back to the line. Put them on a train and back they came into Germany.

This is just one isolated instance of many that might be quoted. What one must realise in relation to these crimes is that while primarily they may be said to be the work of the system and spirit inculcated throughout the German Army by “Prussian Militarism,” yet nevertheless they were perpetrated by the Boche generally, and that right down to the very last German soldier this devilish brutality is to be expected and looked for. This is not generally realized, and only those who have lived amongst the Boche can fully appreciate what it means to be at the mercy of a brutal bully. You have no possible redress, no chance of even making your conditions known to the outside world, and you have only your own British spirit to carry you through.

If you can realise what this means, perhaps then you can appreciate what the ex-prisoner feels when he tells you that never again can he hold out his hand in friendship to a German.

CAPT. REV. A. GILLES WILKEN.
(Late British Prisoner of War).

Reading School magazine December 1918 (SCH3/14/34)

Food rations begin

Our diarists had a variety of interests. In Switzerland, Will Spencer saw the US was coming closer to war; in training, his brother Sydney was learning to shoot; and in Bisham, Florence Vansittart Neale was worried by food rationing and strikes.

Will Spencer in Switzerland
5 February 1917

News in the paper that diplomatic relations between Germany & the United States have been broken off by the latter.

Sydney Spencer in army training
Feb 5th

General Musketry course results (extract). Lt S Spencer, A company, Marksman 130. This was fired at Totley with 2 feet snow & hard ports!

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
5 February 1917

Expected men from Cliveden – arrived late as motor broken down. Came in 2 ambulances.

Wild argument from miners!…

Food rations begin. 2 ½ lb meat – 4 lbs bread or flour – ¾ lb sugar per week.

Diaries of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27); Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“If keeping your heart up & your head low will carry us through…”

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence from behind the lines with a few cheerful words.

Feb 4, 1917
My dear WF

If the ink lasts in my pen I hope to write you a few lines – if it doesn’t, you’ll have to wait for the ink in the filler is frozen solid.

It’s a perfectly grand day and we’re all enjoying it with the full pleasure that comes to those who feel they have well earned it. Garwood & Tyrrell are both outside the hut playing footer while “Miss Jones” (the latest addition to my staff) and I “hold the fort”. The weather is and has been bitter cold, but grand for those out of the line. There have been times though, since I came back when we’ve all thoroughly hated the beauty of the day; when our only remark has been that of the parrot of the monkey, and the night has seemed full of charm.

Well, “here we are”, “here we are” all right, and here we all mean to keep, if keeping your heart up & your head low will carry us through. Germany seems to be following the normal course of its hydrophobia: it ought pretty soon to reach the climax of its disease.

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/12-14)

“Are we down-hearted”?

A PoW writes home after two years in the hands of the enemy.

Prisoners of War.

We think it would interest our readers to see extracts from letters from one of our Prisoners of War, Private W. Simmonds, of Dedworth. Every month we send in from Clewer a small collection for the Prisoners of War Fund. This month 16/- was sent. The Boys of St. Augustine’s Home contribute largely towards it. Mrs. Buttress and Mrs. Cowie very gladly receive contributions, however small, as they all mount up. They are sent in the beginning of each month, and after reading the letter you will see how very grateful the recipients are. The parcels used to be packed weekly at the Town Hall, Windsor, but now they are sent straight from the London Depot, 4, Thurloe Place, London, S.W.

Letter from Private Simmonds, Kriegsgefangenenlager, Prisoner of War, Langensalza, Germany, Jan., 1917.

Dear Mrs. Cowie,

So pleased to have the pleasure of writing to you, to let you know that I am still in splendid health, thanks to the parcels you send me weekly, for these I think go a long way to keep our spirits up in this very trying time, but I suppose we shall have to stick to our well-known motto – “Are we down-hearted”? At present there is still the same answer amongst us, that is, “No.” But we shall be pleased when it is all finished and we can return to those who are dear to us again.

Madam, I should be very pleased if you can give any instructions as to the acknowledging of the parcels, as no name of the donor is received from the Central Prisoners of War Committee, London. It was a splendid parcel, and of course I should like for yourself to continue packing the parcel, but there we are in war time, and orders are orders, so we must abide by them for the present, but not much longer, I hope.

You say in your letter, Madam, that we must have patience, but I am afraid mine won’t last out; being here two years has tried my patience to its utmost, but still with the help of those fine parcels I have managed to pull through with flying colours. I shall certainly have to visit that War Shrine in Dedworth when I return.

And now will you kindly convey best wishes and thanks to His Worship the Mayor of Windsor, yourself, and all helpers of the Committee and all in the dear old Royal Borough and vicinity for their-never-to-be-forgotten kindness towards myself and all other unfortunate comrades of the Borough. I am sure, Madam, if you and the Mayor heard how good we all speak of you, you would be prouder than the V.C. winner. Again thanking you and all members of the Committee for their kindness,

I remain yours thankfully,

W. SIMMONDS (Private).

Clewer St Andrew parish magazine, March 1917 (D/P39/28A/9)

German prisoners say we (English) do not know what shelling is!

Food shortages were a problem for both sides, as blockades of shipping limited imports, and labourers fought rather than brining in crops. In Germany, the problem was serious enough to result in food riots.

26 January 1917

Miss Buck says her friend just from Germany says in Berlin riots 1000 killed! Will Howard says German prisoners say we (English) do not know what shelling is! (Ours so much more awful.)

No pheasants to be fed or reared.

Spirits & beer restricted.

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

Some internees mope about all day long

Artistic Albert Cusden, interned in Ruhleben camp near Berlin with three of his brothers, wrote regularly to his family safe in Reading. Brother Len was the recipient of this letter. In return, the family and other friends back home sent the Cusdens food and other essentials.

18 Jan 1917

Dear Len

I received Lucy’s letter of the 4th a few days ago. The money sent for Swiss bread in December was apparently used for sending a small parcel of food in place of the bread, as Dick received a card from the Bureau to the effect that a small parcel of provisions was being sent from Shrimpton’s, and Arch & I received similar advice as from you. These parcels arrived early this week, so suppose everything is now settled. I note Lucy states you still do not know particulars of the new parcel system, but I gave details in my letter to Father & Mother, so I daresay you understand everything now. We are receiving the new parcels regularly and as regards quantity, quality & variety, the food is very good and we shall be very satisfied if things go on like this. We are also able to obtain as much bread as want, as regular supplies of Danish bread are sent to our camp captain for distribution. This Danish bread is white and superior to the Swiss. I wrote sometime ago asking for soap, but just too late for you to send before December. Since then we have obtained some extra soap and one of the standard parcels contains soap, so we have now enough. But I believe that anything not in the nature of food, e.g. clothing etc, can be sent by private individuals, but through the Central Organisation. So if we require anything like this we will let you know….

I haven’t been doing so much drawing lately, the weather isn’t so favourable. Winter seems really to have come now, plenty of snow and frost, but it is chiefly dry and as long as it remains so I don’t mind how cold it be, except of course from the point of view that I don’t do so much drawing. The changes in the weather form, I suppose, the chief changes in the life here, but the time doesn’t hang so much as it might easily do. It depends mostly upon the person. There are some who mope about all day long and won’t or can’t take up anything. Did the Camp magazine reach home? My drawings didn’t come out well, the originals were too small. And I haven’t done much with ink yet…

Your affectionate brother

Albert

Letter from Albert Cusden to L W Cusden, 57 Castle Street, Reading (D/EX1485/4/4/5)

The future of civilisation depends on the brotherhood of nations

The vicar of a Reading church had some thoughts about the effects of the war – and the future of the world.

Love the brotherhood: a sermon preached at St John’s and St Stephen’s Churches on Sunday, January 7th, 1917, by the vicar, the Rev. W. Britton

“Love the Brotherhood”. This is our motto for the year…

There are two competing principles by which men are wont to regulate their actions and to determine their relations to one another: one is summed up in the phrase “the will to power”, in obedience to which every individual man pushes and struggles and fights his way to the front perfectly regardless of any injury inflicted on other people, and somehow out of the endless rivalries and fightings of individuals, the good of the whole is supposed to result. The other is expressed in the words of our text, “Love the brotherhood”, in obedience to which the individual sacrifices himself and seeks the good of the whole… Which of these principles is right? One at least, the first, is wrong; for it has been tried on a large scale and over a long period and we are witnessing its total failure today. Now we are engaged in an experiment in the second, to which we have been driven by grim necessity, and from that experiment large benefits are flowing into us already… It is also my belief that our country, our Allies and the whole of Europe must blazon it on their banners if we are to obtain that final tranquilising of Europe and permanent peace of the world which we all so earnestly desire….

Consider first that brotherhood of nations which the aggression of Germany has called into being, and her powerful blows have only succeeded in welding into closer cohesion. That wonderful alliance which is not a triple or a quadruple, but a multiple alliance of ten nations into which all its members both small and great have entered quite freely and spontaneously, that alliance which is held together by a common danger, a common interest, a common duty, and a common goal. I say, consider and think whether the future of civilisation does not depend on the integrity of that alliance and its ability to maintain itself close and unbroken. Let suspicion, or jealousy, or war-weariness, or any other disruptive influences drive asunder those nations who now stand shoulder to shoulder, and down they go one by one, they cannot succeed in their mutual undertaking, their splendid cause is lot. We must love the brotherhood now or we cannot triumph; and we must love the brotherhood more than ever when the victory shall have come and when the difficult task of redrawing the map of Europe must be undertaken, lest the tragic sequel of the Balkan War, when the victorious nations of the Balkan league quarrelled over the spoils and turned to fighting one another, be repeated on a greater and more ruinous scale. Love the brotherhood therefore that now exists, but acknowledge that it is not yet perfect, cannot be perfect until it embraces all Europe, and therefore it must not shut its doors until the Germanic peoples have been admitted, for until brotherhood be complete, there can be no permanence in peace….

So it must be within the boundaries of our own nation. Our minds go back to the evil days before the great storm broke upon us when the spectre of Civil war stalked through the land. Then came the great danger from without, and the ranks closed up; a common peril, a common need, a common love hushed our party cries and brought us to an outward unity – a unity that has, I think, been growing more inward and more real, more coloured with genuine mutual esteem and affection as the war has gone on. How foolish, how petty, how wicked seem those epithets so freely banded about in pre-war days – Traitor, Time-server, Hypocrite, Pro-this and pro-that – now that men of differing opinions have been compelled to recognise in their opponents a sincerity, a readiness to sacrifice, a devotion to King and Country, and to duty, equal to their own….

Reading St. John parish magazine, February 1917 (D/P172/28A/24)

Germany wanting to make peace

Florence Vansittart Neale was excited by news of possible peace negotiations.

5 January 1917

Germany wanting to make peace notes!

Transport [illegible – possibley Ivernia] sunk.

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

Sham peace terms

Florence Vansittart Neale heard that the Allies did not intend to accept the German peace proposals, which were thought to be disingenuous.

2 January 1917

Allies’ answer sent through Washington to Germany. Refuse their sham peace terms.

Maisie tells me this.

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

“Sickened by this uncalled for impertinence of President Wilson”

Percy Spencer spent part of his leave with his parents in Cookham, then headed for his sister’s house in Cambridge. Brother in law John Maxwell Image had some more to say about the political scene – he was very unimpressed by US President Wilson!

24 Dec. [1916]

Florence specially bids me join her good wishes with mine to Mrs Smith and you, we can’t at this juncture say for a Merry Xmas, but our heartfelt good wishes that you may have a Good and Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

She got back here on Thursday [from Cookham]: and is at this moment in bed with a rancorous cold which she brought back from her voyaging, together with her brother. Poor fellow, he had to leave the very next morning (and is back at the Front by now): but he longed to see me, just once again. He is one of those fine fellows whom you feel you can trust through thick and thin. Florence showed me a thing he values far above medals – an autograph appraisement of him by the General. It is scribbled in pencil, but I never read stronger and I may say more affectionate words of the way he is looked up to and regarded by the entire Staff of the Brigade; and (it would have been tame without that) of his coolness under fire and his courage. Prizing it as he did, he would not take it back, but left it for safety – not with his parents, but with Florence. It is touching to note how the brothers, one and all, turn to her for everything.

I have never felt more bewildered – more sickened – than by this uncalled for impertinence of President Wilson. Does he dare to pretend that, in his view, the desire of each side is “virtually the same”, to secure the “rights and privileges of weak peoples and small states”?!!!

To quote the Observer, he would “present Germany with a gratuitous certificate of moral equality. Take the Hun out of quarantine and provide him with a clean bill of health”.

The Right Answer is the answer of Jehu.

Let Mr Wilson ponder what will be the lot of America, should Germany establish the world-empire she is striving for.

Nevertheless, ever since Agadir in 1911, I have placed full trust in Lloyd George as a fighting chief – once he could shake clear from “Wait and See”. He has done that now. He is practically a Dictator. It may not be pleasant for the home-folk, but it is the winning card. Once more is true the claim, “I know I can save this people, and that nobody else can”. It is Lloyd George or nothing.

Carson, no doubt, might: but he is older: and would he have received such unanimous acceptance?

How will the worn out Balfour manage at the FO? He was so singularly gauche in his announcements from the Admiralty that I am of those who see, in his appointment and that of Lord Robert Cecil, a sop to the Salisbury influence. He resembles Grey in being a gentleman. In other things I hope he will be clearer and keensighted.

The Hall was full on Wednesday – 199 Cadets and 37 Dons and Officers. Government limitation of 3 courses. I had 1. Hare Soup. 2. Wing Fowl. 3. Mincepie – and felt far more comfortable than after the gorges of old time. Wines were Fizz and Port, only. The former foamed forth during the soup. The Master and VM were unable to come, and I was in the Chair: and let in for some of the oratory. It was a joyous party. The boys (nearly all of whom had served at the Front already, and had wounds and medals to shew) were so sweet and friendly. They buzzed round, begging your signature on their menus. They set such store by this, and send the cards home to the ends of the earth. I signed my name well over 100 times. Fortunately I had the Colonel on my right, so I got him to stand up and send them to their places; else we should have got no forrader, at one time. At 10 he and I eloped: but the fun went on – and what most relieved me was that I escaped the sickening song Auld Lang Syne…

Your most affectionate
Bild

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

No peace terms yet

The German peace terms were rejected.

19 December 1916

Lloyd George made good speech to Asquith. No peace terms yet. All Allies agreed.

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

A great French victory

The Battle of Verdun came to an end after nine months of fierce fighting on the River Meuse. The Germans offered to negotiate peace terms on terms favourable to themselves.

17 December 1916

Germany’s peace terms come here thro’ America!!

A great French victory at Verdun – taken 11,370 prisoners (284 officers), 115 cannon, 44 mine throwers, 107 machine guns.

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