“His soldiering days are probably over”

With six of their seven sons having joined the army, the Spencers of Cookham had a lot to worry about.

Will Spencer
30 September 1918

By the afternoon post a letter of Sept. 11 from father. They have had news from Stanley. They are not allowed to know Gilbert’s present whereabouts. Sydney has gone back to the front. Harold leading an orchestra (in Plymouth, Father believes). Horace is better, but Father thinks his soldiering days are probably over.

Florence Vansittart Neale
30 September 1918

We reached Cambrai. 2nd Army with Belgians got Dixmade.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Providing a man is practical & unselfish, the life is not bad”

Will Spencer heard from soldier brother Horace, who offered a pleasant view of army life, and from the wife of another soldier brother, Natalie.

19 March 1918

When I got back, Johanna asked me if it was my birthday. Letters from Natalie & from Horace, & a parcel [and letter from a Swiss friend]…

Reading the [three] letters to Johanna, with running comments, after dinner, was quite a long proceeding, as Natalie’s letter was one of 8 large pages!.

Horace writes to me,

“Perhaps you are sometimes pained at the conjectured hardships that we have to undergo, so I will try to relieve your mind on that point. Providing a man is practical & unselfish, the life is not bad, there are kind words and deeds exchanged at all times, & so the atmosphere is pleasant. He has heard concerts & lectures, visited 6 cathedral towns in France, has learned to play chess, & read – amongst other books – Holmes’ Life of Mozart….

Natalie writes that Harold “had a rotten [underlined] time one way & another, tho’ now his lines seem to have fallen into pleasanter places”.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Women tip the Tommies to shop for them as they can get ham & cheese where the women can’t

Still training in Wiltshire, Percy Spencer wanted a special lamp to take back to the Front. He had also had a surprise reunion with younger brother Sydney – and was unimpressed with their other brother Harold’s attempts to sponge on good-natured Sydney.

21st Res Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Feb 11, 1918

My dear WF

I’ve just returned from 48 hours leave, a frightful scramble, but the break is worth it.

Luckily I was able to catch Dot in town and we went together to “General Pat” at the Haymarket, after trying without success to get into the Albert Hall to hear Carrie Tubb, Ivor Foster & Harry Dearth. She is very much better I’m glad to say.

As I was seeing her off at Paddington, Sydney turned up, and I persuaded him to take his luggage out of the train and stay with me the night in my digs. We hadn’t met for over a year so I was very glad to see him again. He doesn’t seem to have altered a scrap.

We had a talk about Harold, and Sydney is sending me a letter about him. Apparently Harold looks on Sydney as an investment from which he is entitled to expect an income. It’s too preposterous.

I expect my embarkation leave pretty soon now – probably about the time Sydney will be with you. I suppose I may come too if I have a ration card, but please let me know dear, as I don’t wish to crowd you, or add to your food expenditure. In London though the women tip the Tommies to shop for them as they can get ham & cheese where the women can’t.

All last week I was upon battalion duties and lost touch with my boys, and it was very disheartening this morning to find that they had started off badly. However I’ll soon get them going again I hope.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Percy to Florence
Feb 11, 1918
My dear WF

The lamp is an ORILUX, made by J. H. STEWARD Ltd, 406, STRAND, LONDON. The price including spare bulb 25/- (probably more now).

It is a first rate long life lamp, well protected from weather, most suited for wearing on a belt, military fashion, but quite suitable for carrying by hand. I think, however, Stewards could show more suitable hand lamps.

Yours ever

Letters from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/11-13)

Showing generals how to perform card tricks

Will Spencer was glad to hear how his soldier brothers and family friends from Cookham were getting on. One brother, Horace, was a professional conjurer in peacetime, a skill which entertained his superiors.

13 January 1918

Read a long letter which had come for me by the morning post from Mother, describing their quiet Christmas – none of the boys, & Natalie [wife of Harold Spencer] not able to come, through having an influenza cold. Percy had been with them on the 22nd, leaving on the 23rd. Notwithstanding that the plums Mother had obtained proved to be old ones, the puddings, of which she made two, had been pronounced to be a success. Percy had said they were the best of her making he had ever tasted. She wished I might have been there, & then also have had a piece. The second pudding was still intact, save for the piece cut out which Percy had….

Katie Poskett’s elder boy is in the army, & the younger called up. She finds it difficult to bear. That Percy had passed all his exams I had previously heard. Mother now writes that he is Second Lieutenant & down in Wiltshire. Horace, in France, has been showing generals how he performs his card tricks, & then talks of ‘his friend General — ’ to comrades who “can only boast of corporals’ friendships”.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

Fears of a separate peace

James Louis Garvin, the influential editor of The Observer, warned of the potential impact on the war of the revolution in Russia.

18 March 1917

Harold back on leave. Hopes to get job in France soon….

Garvin’s account of Russia very interesting. Find fears of separate peace justified.

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

An intelligence role for a dancer?

Many wounded prisoners of war were transferred to neutral Switzerland. Will Spencer wanted to meet a new arrival, still suffering from wounds from the first day of the bloody battle of the Somme. He also heard from his sister in law Natalie, a dancer, that her husband, Harold, had been called up, and that she too hoped to do war work.

19 January 1917

A letter from Natalie, from their new home, 18 Elgin Avenue, London NW. Harold has to join the army on Jan. 19th (today), but only for Garrison service at home. She is hoping that her knowledge of Spanish, & a personal introduction to the Head of the Intelligence Dept, will lead to her getting something to do at the latter.

Mr Arthur Hodges, now Lieutenant, who was wounded on July 1st, has now been brought to Chateau d’Oex. Wrote to Lieut. H., offering to call on him next Wednesday (from Gstaad).

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

The war engulfs Sydney Spencer

After months of agonising, undergraduate Sydney Spencer took a significant step in his progress towards the army, when he joined the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford.

22 January 1915
I join the Officers’ Training Corps this day!

Have just had two letters. One from Father & one from Harold.

On Harold’s PC it says “Yes certainly” which means I may buy a uniform; & Father says he feels that I must join which means I shall enrol myself a member of the OTC this morning! Hurrah! It is a relief to feel that I shall at last be outside the pale of the power of the recruit catcher & be able to stare those wretched king-and-country-need-you posters out of countenance. What a peculiar change in a life like mine. Me a soldier of all impossible things. Well, “that is what becomes of that”, & you may fill in what that means ad libertam. By the way when I saw the Adjutant Commanding Officer last night the curve of his mouth & the angle of his glasses struck me as familiar – where had I seen him before. I remember! In the summer term I took Smalls, & there swept up & down the great north school in robed dignity a man with a peculiar curve to his mouth and a certain angle to his glasses! The same man. He was an invigilator the last time I saw him!

7.45pm So the war has engulfed me at last! I am just returned from signing my name on the enrolment list of the OTC. I now belong to C Company, Class II of the OTC, and that’s the humour on it! I am thankful to have taken the plunge. Now may God go forward with me and lead me where He will through this strange fantasy of life which when it unfolded its blossom a year ago seemed to pint me n to a life of quiet study, contemplation & general seclusion from officialism. And now. Well, Colonel Stenning said on parting, “You understand that parades etc are compulsory.” I am under orders, I am a unit in a vast machine, I have a place to fill, an office to fit myself for, and if need be a country to fight for.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/14)

A lump to stand on

Sydney Spencer continued to think seriously of a future as an army officer, despite his slight build:

21 January 1915
I wrote to Harold and Father this morning to find out whether they agree & will help me to get into the OTC. Also last night when I had done my work I wrote to Captain Wixly & told him of what I was intending to do if matters sorted themselves out properly. When I was discussing probabilities with Loughton I suggested that if I did ever get a commission and went out to the trenches they would have to make a little lump for me to stand on! He was highly amused at this!!

This evening I went to see Colonel Stenning at the OTC Offices in Alfred St, No 9. (Ye Gods! I have been to the wrong Alfred Street every time! How was I to know that there was another Alfred Street?) He tells me that I can go into the Corps as soon as I definitely know from home as to whether it is approved of.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/14)

The best butter: Christmas in Cookham

Sydney Spencer reports on a wartime Christmas at home in Cookham. A quiet day was enlivened by the unexpected arrival of soldier brother Percy, who had got leave at the last minute:

Christmas Boxing Day 1914
We had to spend a quiet day yesterday, for which I must own I was very glad. With war going on as it is now, & all the horrors which it entails, one does not feel very festive at such a time! So we had no holly or mistletoe, & no “high jinks” in the evening, but we had a quiet day instead, which we were able to thoroughly enjoy so far as it was possible when Percy was unable to be with us, & Horace was away in Africa, & Harold & Natalie were unable to get to us as they had an engagement to play to the wounded soldiers who are round about here…. Just as I wrote these last two or three words the front door opened and Percy walked in so exit myself for the time being, Mr Diary.

Percy has just gone over to the Worcesters, so I can just write a few more lines. He is now a sergeant & has been told that he stands a very good chance of getting a commission if he applies for one. He has just told us that his old landladies had made him a lovely Christmas cake & that the baker had burnt it to a cinder & sent them another in its place. They said “yes, & I expect he made it of egg powder & ours was made with fresh eggs, & he used margarine & we used the best butter & almonds & sultanas,” & here they both melted into tears! Also Mrs Everest, the elder of the two, had a slight accident. She was knocked against the railings by some drunken soldiers, & having been taken into a shop to recover, was given some neat brandy! When Percy arrived home he found the old lady considerably dazed, apparently not from the bruise or the shock as much as from the neat brandy!

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)