The “Scroungers’ Retreat”

Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence to tell her about his experiences in officer training. His fellow trainees were mainly NCOs with experience of the worst of the war, and were not easily corraled by their superiors.

Attd C Company
58th TRB
Sergeants Mess
No 9 Camp
Kinmel Park
Rhyl

July 26, 1917
My dear WF

I’m very fit indeed, working very hard and always hungry. We are exceptionally well fed, I think, and conditions are good.

It’s very difficult to write as several of the boys are telling their experiences, and every now and then they touch ground I know and I have to join in. One man has just been minutely describing the bundling and labelling of corpses for the fat factory as seen by him, and another the manacling of maritime gunners to their guns, also as seen by him. Both descriptions are so minute and definite as to be convincing. I’ve only to meet someone who has actually seen a corpse factory and I shall be a confirmed Kadaverite.

The battle of wits – the staff v. us continues with varying success. The routine is changed daily to put us off our stroke and get ahead of us, but the same crowd who lay themselves out to “dodge the column” successfully carry on just as usual, appearing on parade, answering the roll call and vanishing into the blue before any work is done with consistent ability. This rather large section of our number have a discipline of their own. Backsliders are dealt with by courtmartial. Absence from the “Scroungers Retreat” (a quiet marquee in the neighbourhood) seems to be the most seriously looked upon offence, and is dealt with very harshly, the punishment being I believe to attend next parade and answer for all the others from their hut who are not there.

Of course, being out of training, I find the work very hard indeed, quite apart from my ignorance of it which is another difficulty with me, but I can feel myself growing straighter and stronger every day and look forward to being a Samson soon.

By the way I’ve had 2 days trench digging. It’s extraordinary how difficult such a menial job as digging earth and throwing it out of the trench is. An experienced man will throw his shovel of earth intact 10-20 feet away in any direction. The novice finds it difficult to throw and direct and very hard to keep together.

I can see I shall very soon be nailed down to drill and books – that is, as soon as I get to a cadet unit. Until then I’m not taking this business too seriously, and simply concentrate upon breaking myself in physically. You’d scacrcely credit how absurdly soft my hands and feet were. They are hardening up rapidly, but I’m still a pretty blistered object.

Well my dear girl, I feel this is a very uninteresting letter, but conditions are very trying for letter writing so you’ll have to please excuse it.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/53-57)

A marvellous piece of electrical work consisting entirely of lemons

Percy Spencer was having difficulty getting his commission organised. He wrote to Florence with the latest news – and a story from the Somme.

May 1, 1917

My dear WF

Isn’t it perfect weather!

And that’s just about all that’s perfect hereaway.

Thank you for all your frequent letters: they’re so refreshing. Your last about [censored] is too delightful. I sometimes quote extracts from your letters to the Mess, so you see you’re helping to cheer more than one lonely soldier. Your jokes are always hugely appreciated.

Tonight I am going to a town some miles back to drive with the original officers and sergeants of my old Battalion. I thought it was very kind of them to remember me as I have had so little to do with them.

And tomorrow I have to go and see a still greater brass hat about my commission. I have an idea that there is no intention to hurry my affairs, the reason being, of course, that my experience & weight here are difficult to replace. However sooner or later I expect I shall be an officer or an angel – I have had thoughts of becoming the latter quite frequently of late.

Rene Hunt tells me that [Percy’s brother] Horace is going to apply for a commission.

Before I forget it I must tell you a story of the Somme battle last year.

Our Headquarters were in some ruins off a very narrow and deep lane. On one side of the lane was a series of small splinter proof dugouts; on the other side a battery of guns. One of the splinter proofs just opposite a gun was occupied by “Baby” Huish, the Surrey cricketer (a splendid raconteur). “Baby” tells me that one morning, annoyed by a fellow walking about on his roof and throwing off portions of its brick and sandbag cover, he crawled out and asked the man what he thought he was doing. The man, ignoring him, continued to clear material from his roof and then turning towards the gun hailed the gunner in his gun pit. “How’s that, Bill, can you clear ‘er na?” Voice from gun pit – “Yes, that’ll be all right if we don’t ‘ave to drop below eighteen ‘undered”. Exit Baby to safer quarters.

A sad thing has happened to us. The rum issue has ceased, leaving us with a stock of lemons and a supply of all spice, cloves and cinnamon, no more rubbers of bridge and rum punch nightcaps. Jerome K Jerome’s “Told after supper” is nothing to our experiences in punch brewing – we can all make one pretty well, but there are some – well, I’m reckoned an expert.

A short time ago when moving into the line, the Signalling Officer noticed an ammunition box. “What’s that?” he asked. “Oh, that”, replied an innocent telegraphist, “is a test box Sapper Newport is making”. “Is it, I should like to see that”, said the officer, and opening the box all eager to examine the boy’s clever work (and he is clever) discovered a marvellous piece of electrical work consisting entirely of lemons!

But, alas, those days are over – over for good I hope.

Well, dear girl, goodbye.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/30-32)

Amateur dramatics behind the lines – “each pause is filled with the roar of guns & explosion of shells”

Percy wrote cheeefully to Florence, telling her about the amateur (and cross-dressing) dramatics by his soldiers.

April 24, 1917

I wonder if the sun is shining on you as well. It’s a perfectly glorious day here, full of sea, wind, aeroplanes and shells. There’s precious little sleep after daybreak this sort of weather.

Yesterday I went for quite a good walk across the fields along narrow waterways, and in the evening I went to the Follies and saw an absolutely topping performance. I do wish I could have you both here one evening just to show you what alluring damsels some of my boys make. Of course one can’t get away from the incongruity of it all, for each pause is filled with the roar of guns & explosion of shells, and at the end of each scene, as the windows are thrown open, bursting shells in the distance are just about all the view.

Altogether we’ve had a very good time lately, and but for a couple of rounds which the Huns fired at another NCO and myself a fortnight or so ago, we’ve been particularly immune from that being-shot-at feeling.

I’m enclosing one or 2 more souvenirs. I think Tyrrell’s is a perfectly charming group (the family put their Sunday clothes on for the event). The other is really sad – the central figure committed suicide a few days ago – why, heaven knows.

Well, I’m being so interrupted, I’m going to close.

Oh, I forgot to say I have been applied for direct (without a cadet course) by the OC of the Battalion I’m to go to, and the Brigadier has endorsed all the nice things said about me in the letter sent with my papers by the CO. So I doubt whether I shall get much, if any, time in England.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/29)

A great offensive

The Allies were doing well on the western front.

19 April 1917
Great offensive of the French – taken 19,000 prisoners. We took 14,000 & 228 guns.

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

Over 11,000 prisoners

The news continued to be good.

11 April 1917
We have taken over 11,000 prisoners & over 100 guns.

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

Pounding the Germans

Florence Vansittart Neale rejoiced in the war news.

14 March 1917

Almost at Bapaume, pounding the Germans. Outer defences are gone. Our guns doing great havoc. Gunboats up Tigris.

Heard from Maisie 2 subs sunk in Clyde.

C. Menzies told me 9 sunk in 5 days. Navy jubilant. We had new bomb flung from destroyers, if it does not hit the periscope makes such commotion in water submarine comes up. Then our guns go at them.

Henry busy day at Maidenhead – District Council – massage – Tribunal.

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

The greatest of inventions that this war has produced

Percy Spencer was instructed by sister Florence to write to her husband John Maxwell Image about a new kind of weapon – the Stokes mortar, invented by Wilfred Stokes in 1915.

Mar. 13. 1917
My dear John

I’m under orders from WF to write and tell you “all about the Stokes gun”, with a sort of threat that if I don’t I shall forfeit your affection. Do please give her some lessons on the ‘power of command’.

And now to show she needs none, I’ll tell you, not everything, but a few things about our famous little strafer.

I suppose the character of this war was bound to lead to the development of the mortar. For one thing, in a vast number of cases the distance between the opposing trenches is so short that to hit the enemy trench without damaging one’s own demands closer shooting than modern artillery has yet completely achieved. Hence, as I say, the development of the mortar which from its size and easy portability to forward positions was bound to become an important weapon for short range work. But no one who saw the primitive weapons of this kind which we possessed in 1915 had much hope that the “wonderful Stokes gun”, the existence of which was at first a carefully guarded secret from the Huns, would prove the success and surprise to the enemy that was expected by the experts.

Its advance upon old types was at once recognised, but I do not think its unique effectiveness would have been thoroughly appreciated, but for the perseverance and pluck of our men who work the guns.

Of course owing to their weight and difficulties of ammunition supply, all guns, mortars and mechanical contrivances for trench warfare diminish rapidly in value as an attach advances, but for preparing the way for an assault I believe the Stokes gun is one of our most valuable weapons, and perhaps our most valuable trench weapon. I should not be surprised if it were ultimately classed as the greatest of inventions that this war has produced, excepting, of course, the Kaiser’s utterances.

I’m told its rapidity of fire has the most terrorising effect and in one heavy battle last year, when the preliminary preparation had not been thoroughly completed, it was our Stokes strafe (creating I believe, a record for volume of fire) which not only ripened the harvest for our fellows, but actually gathered it in, for the Huns never waited for them, but ran in with their hands up.

Curiously enough, arising out of a discussion in the mess yesterday upon the reward of the great inventor, some said that the joy of personal achievement was his real reward, others that it was determined purely by the extent of his cash profit, and another that his reward was essentially the consciousness of having benefitted humanity, the latter opinion being cited as Mr Stokes’ recompense; and upon its being suggested that the last was rather a matter of point of view, like a true Christian and Britisher, he challenged the suggestion and stood to his statement.

So, altho’ I’m afraid Mr Censor will not pass any remarks as to the principle of the gun, its rate of fire, ranges and kinds, anyway you’ll be satisfied that it’s a bonnie weapon [censored].

A little while ago WF asked me if a report of “our raid” was true. It was indeed a champion affair, never do I remember such a tornado of fire, but as you will have realised, beyond the broad facts that there was a raid, and I believe the most successful one ever made by the British, the newspaper report is sheer nonsense. The gorgeous gentleman who resides in comfort somewhere behind and seems to have the newspaper glory of this Division peculiarly under his care, succeeds only in getting well outside the truth, and making us appear ridiculous in the eyes of those who do know what is and what is not possible.

Recently I have missed 2 opportunities for souvenirs. One, the top of a brass candlestick discharged from a shrapnel shell at us last night – whether Fritz has grown humorous or artistic, I don’t know, but it strikes me as a rather charming idea of conveying “evening hate”. The other was very curious. In clearing the manure refuse etc from a farmyard midden a stone’s throw from here a Uhlan, intact, with lance complete, was discovered standing upright in the mire. Unfortunately he had been completely souvenired before I heard about him, otherwise you should have had a morsel. It would be interesting to know how he met his death.

Well, I think that’s all the news I have to tell you just now. Life is fairly lively, and we still have to do a good deal of shell dodging.

However it’s all towards the end of the war.

With love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

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

“The nation generally has not yet realised the gravity of the situation”

Cranbourne people were encouraged to invest their savings in the war effort.

The Sunday School was crowded on Thursday, March 8th, when Mrs. Boyce gave a very vigorous address on “Food Saving.” She said that the nation generally had not yet realised the gravity of the situation, and the necessity for the control of food. We had suffered from want of foresight on the part of the Government, not merely during the early months of the War, but during the work and self-sacrifice of us who remain in the safety of our homes.

Our Sailors and Soldiers are doing their bit. We also have to do our bit by using as sparingly as possible all commodities that are sea-borne.

Mr. Creasy after spoke on the subject of war-savings.

It may interest residents of Cranbourne to know that a National War Savings Association has been started, and up to date 134 people have joined. Anyone may join, and a card is supplied. The subscriptions are paid by buying sixpenny coupons and affixing them to the cards. When a member has 31 sixpenny coupons on his card a War Savings Certificate will then be given in exchange for the completed card.

War Savings Certificates for 15/6 may, if desired, be purchased outright. The money paid by each person is sent at once to the Treasury, London, it is in fact money lent to the Government, who in return give generous terms. For 15/6 the Government agree in five years to give one pound sterling.

All the money collected is spent on the Army and Navy to provide men, ships, guns and munitions to terminate this great war.

The more money each individual leads the Government the sooner relations and friends will return to their homes and settle down to a peaceful life once more.

Cranbourne section of Winkfield District Magazine, April 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/4)

Binding up the wounded in No-man’s-land

A Reading soldier reports on the act of heroism which won his former vicar a medal.

EXTRACTS FROM LETTER TO THE VICAR THANKING FOR THE PARISH MAGAZINE, FROM MEN ON SERVICE.

By the way I saw the Rev. T. Guy Rogers winning his honour, in fact I saw him in the trenches and No-mans-land binding up the wounded, with our Chaplain, who also won a Military Cross. The Rev. T. Guy Rogers preached the Sermon at the Church Service held on the evening before we went into action at the time when our Brigade captured the village of Lesboeufs on the 25th. I was talking to him and our Chaplain in the third German line and they asked me where most of the wounded lay in support with a gun team and they went forward. Soon afterwards we had orders to move forward and hold ground won and I saw them busy binding the wounded. It was one of the days I shall never forget.

W. HOLLOWAY.

I was at the Dardanelles through the main operation and our ship did some very good work in landing troops &c. I had the misfortune to see the Italian ship ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ blown up. It was a terrible sight and it made us quite nervy for a week or so . But I am proud to say that our ships did all that was possible in the work of rescue.

L.O. STAGG, A.B.

CARE AND COMFORTS

The following have been sent from the Working Party: 5 pillow slips, 6 shirts, 30 locker cloths, 35 limb bandages, 18 bags; total, with those already acknowledged, 1,940.

Donations have been received as follows:

Senior members of St John’s and St Stephen’s Choir, balance of Outing Fund £3.17.11

Miss K C Lovejoy £1

Anon 10s

Mrs Dimbleby 5s

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

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)

Armed ships on the Thames

Even the River Thames was now regarded as a dangerous place.

10 December 1916

Mrs Martin tells me her niece tells her, whose husband works in Woolwich, all merchant ships go down the Thames now as mid guns each end.

Diary of 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.”

(more…)

A small block of wood from the Somme

The Battle of the Somme approached its end with the Battle of the Ancre. An acquaintance of the Vansittart Neales had a dramatic story.

15 November 1916

Most successful push. Ancre battle – nearly 6000 prisoners taken.

Ernest Rich brought from France small block of wood, the only thing left of a gun, 20 horses, 4 officers, several men – big shell came in middle – everything gone!

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

Guns like thunder

William Hallam, originally from Lockinge, but now living in Swindon, could hear the roar of guns from army training camps miles away on Salisbury Plain.

29th October 1916

Very heavy firing all day from Salisbury Plain. It must have been big guns from the reports – like thunder.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/24)

Working on howitzer guns all night

Night shifts at the munitions factory in Swindon continued to be hard work.

14th October 1916

When I got home at ¼ past 6 this morning I lit fire, washed, fried some sausages for breakfast and got to bed at ½ past 7. Got up at 3 and went down town to get some safety razor blades sharpened and stamps for Income Tax. Home and had my tea and in to work again at 6. Working on 6” howitzer gun arches. A rough windy night.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/24)