“God forgive me if I have not played the man”

Sydney Spencer of Cookham visited Oxford, where he was an undergraduate, to investigate his options for service. His diary tells the tale of his anguished debate with hinmself.

September 3rd
Oxford

Now dies the saying ‘No news is good news’! I have had to keep away from you, Mr Diary, for a very long time, but because I have not been able to give you any news it does not mean that it is all good news. Red war still rides her bloody way, & the noise of her chariot wheels is dread & fearful. In her course she ruthlessly runs down thousands of poor men, ruining at the same time hearts & homes, puffing out the one little flame that lit the home, & snatching away the one pair of hands which earned the bread. Oh War, War, when will your end come? On all sides one hears “cursed Germans, wicked Kaiser! Oh that they were all butchered!” Who will find me a man to get up into the chariot of dread war & cast her down & trample her to the ground? That is what we want cursed in its cruelty, cursed in its cold modern methods, cursed root & branch is War, & yet here we are in modern Europe, in the civilized (?) twentieth century, making the whole of Europe shake, making a ghastly field of battle of miles of smiling country, devastating, destroying, wounding killing, yes & even Murdering! Louvain, the loveliest of cities, mellowed by its ancient buildings, beautiful for its memories of the past, [rivalling] Oxford for its traditions & its university; is no more. It has been ruthlessly levelled with the earth. It is almost unthinkable that all those homes – private citizen homes – beautiful for their memories of childhood & young married days, & days spent around the fires by hallowed old age, all, all gone! The spirits of hundreds of homes wander over desolate spots & find no habitation for themselves.

It is just striking three & I am seated on the Union Lawn to write. To write what? The chronicle of perhaps the greatest mental strain I have ever passed through. I came up here to Oxford to find out what work I could do. I did not for one minute think that service might be a point now. It came as a terrible shock & brought me up dead against “self”, when Hudgel of St John’s Street suggested that I should join as a private in the 2nd Bucks Light Infantry Territorials, which are offering to go out on active service. I passed through such a two hours from 9.30 till 11.30 this morning as I never hope to pass through again. It seemed that everything pointed to my going to the office in 20 Magdalen Street, & offering to be medically examined. Every nerve in my body & mind was at breaking tension, & I had determined to throw up all “thoughts” & join, when, passing by Keble College I saw the men I should have to join. It was terrible. My whole power of reasoning & my whole religious feeling cried out, “Play the man, & go in & take the consequences”. But my mind & self kept edging out that it would be unendurable to be always always in the company of those men. The hard living I can endure, the drilling I would have done my best to satisfy, in the dying even for my country & my God I could even support & endure, rather than the hourly & daily torture of being in the company of men whose minds although ennobled by willingness to serve their country, would be for ever grating on mine by their coarseness or even worse than that. God forgive me if I have not altogether played the man, but I have done my all at present.

Last night I was refused altogether by Colonel Ranking at the Hospital (the Examination School). This morning Dr Allen said he would see if there were [sic] any sort of work I could do on the Emergency Committee. Then came the proposal to join the body of men, & I went, confessedly to myself almost distracted by doubts & longings, by thoughts pulling & pushing me one way & another – to Dr Pope. He advised me to go to a Mr C Cookson of Magdalen College, so I went to his rooms. He told me that it was utterly foolish to think of doing such a thing as Hudgel suggested, that I was altogether unfitted for it, & that I should not only be useless but be in the way & do harm. He did not even suggest that I should do any such thing as join this new battalion for ex-public school men or university men, but that I should go home & rest quietly till term commenced & then join in the OTC at once. By this I found that according to him – I should be doing not only what was best for myself, but also the best thing all round. So my next step is to go home & get some drill from Maidenhead in preparation for joining the OTC next term. No one who has not passed through what I have passed through this morning can know what a relief it is to me to feel that I have done what I could possibly do, & that I know my duty plainly – having it set before me by men who are purposely chosen to give advice to such as myself. Dr Pope was very sweet & kind to me & I feel deeply grateful to him, as also to Mr Cookson, for the way in which they helped me through this terrible ordeal. If I want to get further information re the Public Schools & University Corps I can write to the Secretary of the Public School & University Force Committee, 46 Victoria Street, Westminster SW.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)