Singing with the swaggering soldiers

Sydney Spencer reflected in his diary on his YMCA work and getting to know the rough and ready soldiers. His musical talents came in handy.

Wednesday Sept 23rd
It is a glorious day – indeed so glorious that despite the fact that I am in this tent, & the men are all round reading and playing games, & I am still surrounded by all those things which tend to make life feel sordid – still the sunlight is so lovely, & there is such a warm light and buoyancy about everything that I feel as though I have just for a time got right into the country. I feel even a buoyancy about myself, & considering this is the end of my fortnight’s work here I feel that I am very fit. Although I have caught a cold here it has not given me very much trouble. Only in the mornings when I get up I have had a grumble in my throat.

Yesterday was quite a successful day for me in the way of getting on with the men. I did a lot of playing for them & they sang quite a lot too. The difficulty has been to get them to sing. These men, so rough & rude in speech, are as shy as children when it comes to asking them to do a thing such as sing a song. They rough it & swagger & say they can’t sing & don’t know the songs, or don’t like them, & now they are gradually warming to the work & beginning to sing songs which before they would not sing. Brown – a man whom we both liked very much – Hayes & I – has gone off to the front & he seemed most happy to be going. Our concert is tonight and I am most glad that it is so for I have not been looking forward to it, for either I have to play or I have not to, & if I was asked my desires I should prefer not to play at all! I know that my type of music does not at all suit, hence it will make the playing ever so much more difficult, & embarrassing. I have grown to be very fond of Hayes. He has a regular appetite for scheming with his “thoughts”. He weighs out his every speech, & the time he takes thinking out the exact form of his next question or answer to the captain is remarkable. Although I am glad that my time is coming to an end, still I feel that I would not have been without this experience, with all its particoloured effects upon me. We had our morning service here last Sunday with a certain amount of “éclat”, if it is not “rirement” [laughable] to use such a word in this conjunction.

We had the Venite & the Benedictus, & hymns. Captain Watson read the lesson & prayers, & hayes preached a five minute sermon. It was a very good thought that he put into it. He stood for beating a man on his own level, & then shewing him that he bore him no ill feeling, & was willing to raise him or go with him on to a higher level.

The air this afternoon is rather thick, as Captain Watson is annoyed – justly so too, I feel – at Daldry’s proposal to take the chair at the meeting tonight. Daldry wants to finish up the concert with the hymn “Fight the good fight”. I feel with Hayes and with Captain Watson too that a hymn then would be out of place. I think strongly that a hymn & prayers every night before we parted would be well, but it would create a false atmosphere if the hymn suddenly broke in on the rather trifling concert programme we have on the boards.

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


‘The jar jar of this life’

Sydney Spencer was struggling in his work at the YMCA camp and sought consolation in an old friend – poetry:

Thursday Sept 17th
Today is a miserable day. It is pouring with rain and our tent is full of men. We have an orderly too now, & it makes the work “some lighter” as Hayes would say. We are both getting to know the men here quite well & have chats with them. I am feeling my way to get at some spiritual work. That is my whole object & I shall be very disappointed if I don’t get my chance. Last night we had an interesting talk together while Hayes was gone off on some errands. Some of the men here seem devoid of any sort of consciousness of shame at being “defaulters”. They don’t seem to understand the stigma & smudging of their honour they suffer when they have committed an “army crime”. One of them last night was a defaulter, & had been six years without a crime. But on Sunday night he ran away & was captured at Colchester & was brought back here. He told me that he wanted badly to see his wife so had gone off regardless of consequences. It seems such a pity after six years good behaviour to feel that he has spoilt his sheet. Hayes & I are having difficulties over the officers here. I do not know whether they quite know whether we are paid grocer’s assistants or what we are I am not sure, but they have done quite enough to make me feel that I could not possibly accept any invitation they might offer me. I cannot swallow my pride, & the message we received last night saying that Hayes was invited to breakfast but that “the other young fellow was not wanted” made me just mad. Of course that message was not deliberately sent to me, but that was what was said. I was very tired when this came along having been on all day at this work and I felt that I really could not do much more than be angry. These times when I have to eat humble pie are times which I find more than difficult, & when the words [Greek quotation] are read, I often feel that I shall never be able to inherit the earth. I suppose that it is that I am not used either to snubs or to insults, & when one comes along, for the moment I feel that my whole control is gone & that I must go straight to that man and make him take it back. Hayes did not say much about the matter although he sympathised with my position, but just before going to bed he said, “Be all things to all men”, & that put the thing in the right light for me. Hayes has a beautiful edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse here & it is such a relief to dive into it and read. It is like a dive into some level limpid stream after a long walk through paved suburban streets on a hot day. The jar jar [sic] of this life – for it is a strain despite its interest – wants relief and when I come across such lines as these from Browning’s ‘Paracelsus’ I feel such a relief as makes me grateful for these grand men who wrote such sweet words for our refreshment:

Heap cassia, sandalbuds and stripes
Of labdanum, and aloe balls
Smear’d with dull nard an Indian wipes
From out her hair such balsam falls
Down seaside mountain pedestals
From tree tops where tired winds are fain
Spent with the vast and howling main
To treasure half their island gain

And strew faint sweetness from some old
Egyptian’s fine worm-eaten shroud
Which breaks to dust when once unroll’d
Or shredded perfume like a cloud
From closet long to quiet vow’d
With moth’d and dropping arras hung
Mouldering her lute and books among
As when a queen, long dead, was young

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

The YMCA: just a splendid grocery association?

Sydney Spencer tells us more about his work with the YMCA in an army camp. The poem he liked so much is by Henry Newbolt, and is now regarded with more irony.

14th Sept. Monday morning at the Packerton YMCA camp

I am to sleep in the marquee tonight with Hayes. I am only sorry that Jumbo [his friend Kenneth Oliphant] and I are parted. Yesterday I very much enjoyed the day at Gravel Hill. At 6 o’clock I got some tea at Harwich, & then went into the writing & reading room downstairs where I found a Private Russell who had a talk with me which ended by my having an opportunity of giving him a Testament, with which he was not only delighted, but said that he had “mates” who would like some too.

[Section censored in later years by Sydney’s sister and heir Florence]

I went to the Co-operative Hall at 7.30 and played right on without a moment’s break till 9 o’clock. I should think I must have played about sixty hymns or more.

I said I had not a break, but now I remember that Hindle spoke to the men for about ten minutes, & they very much appreciated his really good address which he gave. I was surprised at the way in which the men had turned up to the service. There were about 300 of them and they sang with the greatest gusto imaginable. They sang hymn after hymn & their choice of hymns was really good. They had for one, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”. This hymn went best of all, I think on the whole. Hindle works himself to death & does, I think, splendid work, although I think that it is a great pity that he frivols so on his table conversation. Conversation has been of a better kind lately & I am very glad of it. I am waiting just outside the YMCA canteen in the lobby place of the guard house, & one of the prisoners inside is playing a flute & is playing Home Sweet Home in a slim melancholy way which makes it comic. I begin to doubt of its being a flute, I should imagine it is a mouth organ by the sounds of the chords put in which I had not before heard. Hayes roasted Daldy splendidly last night saying that he thought we were a splendid grocery association & that we ought to chuck the YMCA. I am glad he did for he – Daldy – seems to think of nothing except the money part of the affair, & it absolutely disgusts me. I am very glad that Hayes is shewing his colours to such an extent, I shall get on much better for it. (more…)

Talking to the men, and enemy vessels spotted: Sydney Spencer’s adventures at Harwich continue

Sydney Spencer writes about his work with the YMCA at an army camp in Harwich:

Sunday September 13th

This morning we have been to Gravel Hill – that is to say Dr Marks and myself – as he was shorthanded & wanted help. I enjoyed going with him as I had an opportunity of getting into conversation with some half dozen of the men, & a very nice talk it was too. From the window where we were (the YMCA abode here is a four roomed house) we could see right out to the North Sea…. Last night just before we closed up, I had a little talk to one of the guards, who gave me some very interesting information. The River Stour goes by just below our canteen at Packerton, & he pointed out to me 15 destroyers lying in the harvour. They are distinguished by the cross at the mast heads. They had torpedo tubes at the stern, & also ship maxims like small cannon – which the guard described as being like bears, & so they are too. Also he shewed me the Austrian trading vessel which was captured & fired through the middle, & which turned out to be a mine layer, also a German boat a little nearer to us, & close at hand a large German trading boat which had on it a cargo of boots – he stated their value at £2,000,000, but that with a very little thought appears obviously impossible.

I am up at Gravel Hill again this afternoon. There is a “Tommy” here who is struggling with a letter to his mother. He is a finely built man, young & brown & boyish. He is sprawling in his chair & obviously finds the writing a greater nuisance than trench digging! His face is intensely serious, his pen travels up & down each letter laboriously …

Outside there hangs on a piece of wire a large iron ring. This is used as a clock, which unfortunately gives no other time than the hour. A man has just struck two upon this weird bell. The men have just been having their dinners. The tins they have them in are kit shaped, & the meat they have! It is simply lumps of meat clipped up & boiled in pots. The grease & fat & smell are really when blended together something too awful. Poor old Percy, that is all I can say. He must be having a beastly time of it all round. I only hope that he has accepted a post with Mr Holliday.

Business is slack here & I have a little time to spare for writing. Right out to sea I can see a couple of ships which look like destroyers although I can only see smoke as from one funnel.

I am to go oout to Packerton & sleep with Hayes in the marquee. That will be splendid work as we shall have a chance of knowing and talking to the men. The only thing is that I should have loved to have “Jumbo” with us too.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 13 September 1914 (D/EX801/12)

First impressions: Sydney Spencer’s first evening in Harwich

Sydney Spencer starts work for the YMCA at Harwich alongside his friend Kenneth “Jumbo” Oliphant, and reports on his first evening:

Friday 11th
At the Royal Naval Sailors Home: Harwich

I arrived at Russell Square to meet Oliphant at 11.30 but he did not turn up till 12.30, as the telegram which I sent him stating the hour as 11.30 had arrived to him stated as 12.30. …Harwich is a very dirty squalid place from what Jumbo & I saw of it last night when we arrived at 9.30. There are nine of us here altogether counting the leader Mr Daldy with whom we came down from town. … Both Jumbo and I are a little disappointed at the fact that we are housed instead of being under canvas. I was looking forward to the tent sleeping just as an experience. All our bedding which we brought with us is now of course not wanted as beds are supplied us. Also the early hours which I was expecting are not kept here, the members of this house apparently not getting up till 5 o’clock for breakfast. Jumbo & I sleep in separate rooms which makes it impossible for us to have our quiet times together.

I begin my work today under the care of a Mr Hayes (who is an Oxford man), & I go with him about a mile out of Harwich for a place I think called Pontisbury. It is right among the trenches so I ought to see some interesting sights as well as just sell “pop”. The man who sleeps with me is from a college in Manchester and he knows a lot of Hindus at Oxford, among them Raju, having lived with him for a fortnight. He is heavily interested in Hindus and was to have gone off for the YMCA to India to a hall in Calcutta which has about 16 Hindu students, & work among them.

Friday evening
I have spent the day from 9.30 right on till 6 pmbehind the counter at the camp at Packerton. It has been a weird sort of day full of extraordinary experiences. In this room there were collected sometimes about thirty or more “tommies”. It is extraordinary how quiet and orderly they all are. They sit & write their letters, read the papers and have their refreshments, and give not the slightest bother at all. They all seem to be aware of the benefit they receive from having this Y.M.C.A. shelter to come to, & accordingly respect the institution and do all they can by natural and almost pretty little courtesies to show their appreciation. One or another with a sheepish smile will bring a few cups back left on the table, or will say, when teaspoons are scarce, “never mind that, I’ll use my mate’s”, & so on. Studying the faces of these men, one sees a great deal more which indicates latent intellectual abilities than one might expect. Some have a native charm about them & the expressions on their faces sometimes show keen intelligence or lively interest & appreciation. We sell here to the men, cakes and buns, tea & coffee, and the ubiquitous “ginger pop”; paper and envelopes are supplied free of charge, & we sell stamps & postal orders to those who want them.

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 11 September 1914 (D/EX801/12)