“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)

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“I feel no end of a fellow”

Percy continued to make progress.

Bed 8, Florence Ward
St Thomas Hosp[ital]
SE1
Sep 5, 1918

My dear WF

This morning I strolled upon the balcony and admired the view, and as I got out of bed, clothed and lung myself without assistance. I feel no end of a fellow.

My kit has just arrived, so tonight I shall have all the excitement of going through it and seeing of how much I have been robbed.
Mrs Curtis came to see me yesterday, and dear Mrs Hunt the day before, with gifts of grapes and heather. Marjorie, who is going to Horace in Scotland, is coming to see me on Saturday, after which I must somehow deny myself the pleasure of that family’s society. Really my nerves are not strong enough to stand it.

Will you send me Will’s address when you have time. I want to write to him.

Sister went away on leave today for a month. On Monday she became engaged to one of the doctors here. She half told me as much yesterday, and having observed a slightly more professional attitude to us all these last few days I’m not surprised – only heartbroken. At present it’s a great secret, so don’t do any congratulating when you meet again – Nurse Kirby simply told me so that I might release part of my affections for investment elsewhere.

Did I tell you I have got past the continual thermometer stage – now I only have to hold one on my mouth at breakfast time and watch my porridge grow cold. However as I’m to be operated upon next week I am again a pulse, and once more enjoy the privilege of having my hand held each morning.

A most unsatisfactory letter. Never mind.

With my dear love to you both
Yrs ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/89)

Blown into the air

While his wife Johanna was in Germany visiting her sister, expat Will Spencer heard that two of his brothers had been wounded, while a third had had a narrow escape.

2 September 1918

A letter from father. Percy in St Thomas’s Hospital with an injured wrist; Horace in a hospital at Edinburgh, suffering from exhaustion; Sydney in hospital at Rouen, suffering from “Debility, slight” – had written a cheerful letter home. Percy had been buried in the ruins of a building in which he was having supper with other officers when a bomb came through the roof. Sydney had been blown into the air by the explosion of a bomb in his immediate vicinity, but had not been wounded!


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

“What glorious War news! It fills me with chastened joy”

The Spencers’ patriotism was moderated by their affection for Will’s German wife.

Fernley
Cookham

July 21, 1918

My Dear Sydney, …

Your birthday letter to Nan [Sydney’s elder sister Annie] was accompanied by one from Gil [brother Gilbert, later a well known artist]. He is training for the Infantry, not as I feared for the Air Corps. Letter was dated June 9. He does not think much of Cairo. Is about to visit the Pyramids.

Flo’s ‘On Both’ has not yet appeared in ‘Punch’.

We are all well at Fernley. Horace [another brother] is in a base hospital with malaria.

Harold [yet another brother] expects to be transferred to a military band which will I hope put an end to his grousing.

Write soon.

With our united love, Father.

P.S. What glorious War news! It fills me with chastened joy. Chastened for we are not yet out of the wood. Besides Johanna [his German daughter-in-law] whom I dearly love! I can’t help thinking grievingly of her. F.

Letter from William Spencer of Cookham to his son Sydney at the front (D/EZ177/1/6/2-3)

“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)

“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)

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)

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)

‘The old buffers are those good “christian” people unable to realise there is a war on or to get a move on’

Percy Spencer enjoyed his brief visit home on leave at Christmas, staying with one of his brothers in London and visiting his workplace.

Decr 29, 1916
Dear WF

These few lines are just to let you know that I have “arrived back safely in the trenches” after a very uncomfortable and tiresome journey. However, c’est la guerre.

I did not go down to Cookham again.

After walking over to Victoria and arriving nearly an hour late on Xmas Eve, I was sent back with a day’s extension, this day I spent very quietly in the armchair at my digs and at Mrs Hunt’s flat. Others more virtuous were held up at port of embarkation and [sic] this side and had a worse – much worse time than I.

I was very happy at 37 Dumbarton Rd. [Brother] Horace’s wife is all that is simple and charming; moreover she plays and sings very delightfully – she has temperament. I do hope you’ll soon have the luck to meet her.

Captain Holliday did not get leave and I didn’t see him. But I saw all the directors at N&G as a Board meeting was in progress when I arrived, which they suspended to have a chat with me. They were all very charming to me. Benny Greenwood who you may remember at Howard’s occasionally is now a Major in the RFC. I suppose he would now be about 23 or 4.

I had lunch with Mr Devlin and all the old foggies [sic] of the firm. Poor Mr Devlin – I’m sorry for him as the old buffers he has remaining with him are those good “christian” people unable to realise there is a war on or to get a move on: he told me with despair that they jogged along at the same old rate, or slower, and expected all the ancient pre-war facilities and privileges. Roll on the day when I can get back and re-introduce some ginger.

Garwood is just slicing the OXO and asks me to thank you for it. Earlier this evening he ventured the opinion that OXO was better than rum – it wasn’t very heartily received. He asks me add a PS that more sausages when next you are sending me anything would be very welcome.

With love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/5/43-44)

‘He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika’

Will Spencer had news of several of his brothers. Stanley and Gilbert, both art students and a year apart in age, were very close to one another, and both had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.

31 August 1916

Letters from Mother & from Florrie. Both contained the news that Gilbert had recently written from a hospital ship at Marseilles. He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika. Stanley hopes he may be going to Salonika, as he so much wants to be with Gilbert. Horace better, & making himself useful by making tables & chairs.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Saying goodbye to a beloved son

Will Spencer kept in touch with his Cookham family, and had news of two of his serving brothers.

24 August 1916

Letter from Father… Had been to Aldershot to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘dear old Stan’, who had been home while Father was away, ‘& expects to be leaving England in two or three days’. Horace has had an attack of malarial fever, & is still in hospital.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

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)