“Grim & sullen, at his post, never budging or paying any attention to anything at all but the patch of “no man’s land” immediately to his front”

As he travelled slowly back to the front, Sydney reflected on an old soldier who taught him a lesson about what was really important at war.

Wednesday 3 July 1918

11.30 am I don’t think I have felt so easy in mind, or fit and well, for about 8 weeks as I feel today. The influence of this club with all its civilizing attributes has sunk right into me, & has made me quiet & contented with everything. Have been writing letters to Florence, Mother & Father. After lunch I take my draft to station to leave by 2 o’clock train for Doullens change for Domleger.

6.30 pm. After waiting for 4 ½ hours on the station here at Etaples, I have managed to get into a carriage with my kit too!

6.45. Train started.

7.30 pm. Montreuil. We passed near Hesdin at 7.45, passed through Beaurainville, the rest of the journey today passed tranquilly with the exception that the OC train was a terrible fidget! Got some broken sleep occasionally. Had an argument about money with an RFA officer.

Sydney to Florence
EFC Officers Rest House and Mess

July 3rd 1918
My Dearest Florence

In my platoon I have one Private Smith. He is a young old man of about 38 or 40. He is uncouth & gruff, he has a seared, wrinkled, weatherbeaten, ugly face, & out of the line worries one by his apparent lack of power ever to look a soldier. I noticed this man & one day [censored], I went up to him & said “Well, Smith, how does the world treat you?”

He looked at me sullenly & grunted, & said “Well, I have been out ‘ere a long time & I suffers terrible, me bones is all stiff & I gits rheumatic pains something terrible etc etc”. I turned away [censored] saying to myself, another old soldier of the eternally grumbling type”.

We went up the line, & one day when it was dull & misty while on my tour of trench duty, I saw Smith cautiously peering over the parapet with a spotlessly clean rifle, looking well groomed & cared for, glued to his shoulder. I took no notice, but from then onwards I kept my eye on him.

On bright days he was never there, but so sure as it was a dull day, misty, or bad for observation, no matter at what time I went along, there I should find him, grim & sullen, at his post, never budging or paying any attention to anything at all but the patch of “no man’s land” immediately to his front. Now he is a sanitary man, & he is never officially a sentry, & never has orders to do sentry duty. Yet for hours daily I used to find him solemnly on the watch!

It puzzled me, so I paused in passing him one day & said “Well, Smith, do you think that brother Fritz intends coming over?” With much grimacing & grunting he slowly lifted himself from his post, & a slow rustic smile breaking out over his ugly face he said, “Well, sir, these youngsters doant realize & so I likes to keep on the watch meself a bit when the weather’s bad, but you know sir, my back, it’s fit nigh to break, in this damp weather & gits that stiff I wonder whether I shall ever be fit agin etc etc.” [Censored]

I felt then humble & respectful. He was his younger brother’s keeper very really. He had a lesson to teach me & I hope I learned it. [Censored] the native beauty of the character of this very rough diamond.

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/51)

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“Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X – a lamentable sight.”

Civilians were among the victims of German poison gas.

Tuesday 11 June 1918

Got up at 7.45 am. Got my kit packed by Fox [his batman]. Had breakfast, & then Jones stropped my razor & got a really good shave. After breakfast got down to Hesdin station. Train was due to leave at 10.15 so Graham & I bought biscuits, strawberries & bananas to eat if no food was available. Started at 11.45. Got to St Pol at 1.15. Lunch at the EFC canteen. Town has been fairly well shelled & bombed. Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X. ‘De profundis’ a lamentable sight.

7.30 pm Candas. We stay the night here at Candas as we cannot go further until tomorrow morning at 7.30. Tea at Café’ [illegible] Henly. Then kits to RTO office, a walk and dinner at same café’. Just discovered that I have left my advance pay book & my cheque book, ‘horribili dictu’, at Marronville!

After dinner I made paper frogs for French officers who thought them ‘tres gentils’. To bed at rest camp at 10 pm.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

French holding fairly, lost in some parts, but fighting very hard

It was the last day of Sydney Spencer’s gas training course.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 10 June 1918

Got up at 7.15. After breakfast, I wrote up some of my notes. Then to lecture given by chemical adviser Major Edwardes-Ker, on Responsibilities of Officers.

Then the usual last day of course lectures by students. Very droll, some of them, too. Major Knights was asked about Green X shells & spoke lengthily about what his CO had said concerning yellow X shells. Jones the Welsh man had a fit of spoonerisms, talking of ‘belastic lands’ for elastic bands! Poor Bin – he was dumb! Hardwick knew nothing but was so droll as to pass it all off. Graham was very good indeed. I had to speak on ‘Reliefs’ & gassed areas, etc. Major Ker promised to send my notes down to Broadbent in England. Wore SBB for an hour. After lunch a short lecture by Ash. Then break up of school.

After tea to Hesdin shopping & a bath at common dark place. Dinner, a short walk with Major Knights and then the completion of note writing up to 12.30 am. Wrote letter to Major Ker, reference notes & to bed & read Tartarin de Tarascon.

Florence Vansittart Neale
10 June 1918

Canadians left 9.45…

Disturbed siesta. Soldiers came early – nice set of men. Boats, bowls, croquet & tennis. Left 6.30.

French holding fairly. Lost in some parts, but fighting very hard.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose”

Sydney Spencer continued his gas course.

Sunday 9 June 1918

Got up at 7.15. After breakfast wrote up some of my notes. On parade. A long lecture on yellow cross shelling. A very good lecture. After a break, we each had to give details for different drills. Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose. Then a talk by SSOI training Lt Col Porrit Morris. A lecture on cause of casualties in yellow cross. Then we dismissed.

After lunch, during which we had a few contretemps owing to bad mess waiting, a lecture on gas poisoning. After tea lolled about a bit. Wrote notes until 7 pm & then down to Hesdin to dinner with Barker. Noticed a French Major at dinner. He was a curious old man & had curious manners.

After dinner walked back to mess & wrote up my notes until 12.30. Then to bed and read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. A highly entertaining book. A lot of ‘sweet’ rain today to cool the atmosphere. A fine night.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

Gas masks of all nations

Sydney was instructed in the use of gas masks and translating for fellow trainees, while Percy had a bad day.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 8 June 1918

Another beautiful day after the light rain we had last night. Got up at 7.30. After breakfast lolled about a bit & then on parade by 9.30 am. First parade consisted in [sic] a lecture by Lieut. Ash on Warfare generally, followed by the Projector Gas attack, a very interesting part of the lecture to me as I had not heard more than vague rumours as to how it worked.

After lecture a break, then gas drill till 12.30. Adjustment of box respirators by members! Lunch, & afterwards parade till 4.30. Lecture on gas masks of all nations, ie English, French, German & Russian. The Russian is a hideous [sic] affair. After the lecture a talk from the QM Staff man on Inspection. A rotten exhibition. Then through lachrymator gas to test the masks. At 4.30 we dismissed.

After tea, walked to Hesdin with Barker. Made sundry purchases. Barker wanted anything from ninepins to elephants. He taxed my French noun vocabulary to the last ounce. After dinner a loll in the garden. Then writing up gas notes.

Percy Spencer
8 June 1918

Went up to Battalion HQ. A very pleasant walk up. Fireworks everywhere. An awful journey back. Horses bolted as we tore thro’ batteries shelling & being shelled.

Florence Vansittart Neale
8 June 1918

Better news in France. We retaking few places. Heard Boy [her son in law Leo Paget] 3 months more in England & has an MC.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“A chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace”

Sydney enjoyed a pleasant day off.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 7 June 1918

After a most beautiful night’s sleep I got up at eight o’clock. Took breakfast at my leisure & am now lying under an apple tree in an orchard with the four other men. We are sprawling on the grass in the warm sunshine & a chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace.

We are now going into Hesdin.

Went into Hesdin & bought some gloves. 22 francs. Also some cherries. Afterwards got my hair cut, & had a delicious bath in camp commandant’s enclosure. Returned to mess at 1 pm. After lunch wrote a long letter to Bertha Lamb & also to Florence.

After tea went over churchyard & church with Major Knights & Graham. Then a short walk. Finally we lay in orchard & read. I read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. Have got half way through it.

Now it is dinner time. The army chemical adviser & gas instructor has just rolled in. We start work tomorrow morning. After dinner, went to bed & read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. To sleep by about 10.30 pm. (After dinner a short walk to Barker’s billet.)

Will Spencer
7 June 1918

A letter … for me from Mother, from Florrie’s. …

Mother’s letter contained the news that Percy had received still further promotion, – that he and Horace and Sydney had not yet met in France, but hoped to do so later, – and that Stanley’s name had been suggested to undertake war pictures, & he had “accepted the offer”, & would be leaving his present position.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/29)

Battalion HQ in very deep dugout

Sydney had a sightly better journey today, and paid more attention to the controversial Billing case at home.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 6 June 1918

Rose at 5 am. Got breakfast, & into the train for Hesdin by 6.30. It is now 9.30 & we haven’t yet started. Another glorious morning, all sunshine.

Billing has been pronounced ‘not guilty’. Justice Darling makes use of the following expression, ‘I tell you now that I do not care a bit for you or anyone like you, or what you say about me’ seems ridiculously childish. A street boy would have pulled a face & said ‘yar ‘oo cares for you’ & would have called for more conviction with him!

Started for Hesdin (30 miles) at 9.30. Got there 11.30. Wonderful. Lorry jumped to Marronville, arriving at 12 noon. Graham & I billeted at the mead, a long low white cottage facing the church. Mess will be started tomorrow morning.

Had lunch at the Hotel de Commerce. Walked back to billets. Slept. Got some [illegible] out of the sergeant. Walked down with Graham & Barker to Hesdin. Had dinner at the Hotel de France. Back by 9.15 & to bed. Started reading Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet. A very droll book.

Percy Spencer
6 June 1918

17th relieved us and we went into support. Battalion HQ in very deep dugout.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 June 1918

Early church – dog walk – then fussed to find rooms for farm workers till lunch. Heard another officer coming today & one tomorrow. Captain Petcher AFC Maidenhead called on Miss Areson.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)