German soldiers returning from the front marching across the Rhine

German soldiers were retreating en masse. Will Spencer heard the Germans’ side of the story via his wife’s family.

24 November 1918

Johanna read to me letters of Nov 20th & 21st which she had received from Agnes. In her letter of Nov. 17th she had spoken of soldiers returning from the front marching through the town & across the Rhine, & now – on Nov. 21st – they had six soldiers in the house for one night, & expecting six more the next night.

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

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Bonn shelled by aeroplanes

Will Spencer’s German in-laws lived in a town affected by British air raids.

2 November 1918

After dinner a telegram from Agnes: “Mama ist gut, wir auch. Gruss.” [Mama is well, so are we. Greetings.] Johanna regarded the telegram as an answer to that which she had sent on the 31st, to say that we were in Thun, but I was rather surprised, as Johanna’s telegram had not been to enquire after her mother, that Agnes had thus telegraphed. A little later, the Bonner Zeitung for Nov. 1st (yesterday’s paper!) arrived for Johanna (the first up to date copy she had received since ordering it here). It contained the news that Bonn had been shelled by aeroplanes on the afternoon of the 31st, & many people in the town killed or wounded. We now understood why Agnes had telegraphed, & also now saw that her telegram had been handed in in Bonn at 6 o’clock on the evening of the 31st.

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

“We must seek comfort in remembering what Sydney was, & in remembering him as he was”

The news of Sydney Spencer’s death in action reached his eldest brother Will in Switzerland.

Will Spencer
23 October 1918

After breakfast I played [the piano] a little. I had just gone to my room to finish my note to Director Eppler [a potential employer], when Johanna came in & sat down on the sofa opposite me with a troubled face. I was afraid that she had had bad news from [her sister] Agnes, but the news which she had to tell me was that dear Sydney had fallen. She shed a few tears in telling me, & handed to me the letters which she had received from Mother & Father last night, but had not told me about it until this morning, to avoid the danger of the news affecting my night’s rest. But she would probably have had a better night than she did if she had not still had the breaking of the news to me to look forward to.

My feeling, in thinking of Sydney, is one of thankfulness for what his life was.

Mother’s & Father’s letters were both dated Oct. 3rd. Sydney had suffered no pain, having been killed instantly by a shell on Septe 24th (?) (the date had been almost obliterated, but it looked like the 24th. His Major had written that he was one of the keenest officers he had known. Father wrote that he had never known Sydney to speak an unkind word to or of anyone. Mother quoted a loving message which he had written to her from the front on Sept. 15th.

As it was a beautiful morning, Johanna & I afterwards went for a stroll through the wood together. After dinner, Johanna produced a bundle of photographs, & found the photo of Sydney which she had thought of this morning – the one which he sent us from Epsom [where he had been studying before going to Oxford in 1914]. On the back of it Sydney had written “An amateur photo taken by my friend Willie Birch last Sunday week, Nov. 5th, 1911.” During the latter part of the day, Johanna & I both wrote to Mother & Father. I wrote that we must seek comfort in remembering what Sydney was, & in remembering him as he was.

Florence Vansittart Neale
23 October 1918

Heard cases of flu & some deaths in Marlow. Mabel wired for for Jack, but rather better.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/9)

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)

Distressing news

A German-American family whose son was serving with the Allies faced the tragic loss of a daughter.

23 July 1918

About 11, as I was about to descend to the library with Johanna to play to her, came two postcards from Robert, dated June 16th & 17th. They were written from Brooklyn….

The card also contained the distressing news that Frau Dressler, whose only son is with the American Army in France, had lost their only daughter (whom we met with them in Zurich) & their son-in-law, the German doctor whom she married & with whom she was living in Stuttgart, both of them having been killed by a bomb thrown from an aeroplane. Their little two-year-old child was apparently spared.

Diary of Will Spencer, 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)

The epidemic of influenza now spreading on the Continent

Neutral Switzerland was ravaged by the new virulent form of influenza.

8 July 1918

J[ohanna]. tells me that she had heard from Fraulein Emilie that the woman who had died in Geissental (Frau Schneiter), had died of influenza. A son of hers, a soldier, had come home on leave a fortnight ago & then sickened with influenza (“Grippe”), & she had then caught it from him. The epidemic of influenza now spreading on the Continent first appeared in Spain.

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

“Wounded in the back. Hope it is not serious. Poor boy”

Elisabeth, a German relative of Johanna’s had been visiting Will and Johanna Spencer in Switzerland. She was planning to sneak some gifts through customs inspection. This ruse proved successful and the gifts passed muster when Elisabeth returned to Germany on the 29th.

Will Spencer
21 June 1918

During the afternoon Johanna was wearing the shawl which she is asking Elisabeth to take with her for Mutter [Mother]. She wears it, in order that it may have a better chance of passing the Customs House as a worn article of apparel. Johanna also dried some lemon peel today, for Elisabeth to take with her.

Joan Daniels
June 21st Friday

Mummie had a PC from Gerlad saying that they had received a telegram from the War Office to say that Leslie [McKenzie] was wounded in the back. Hope it is not serious. Poor boy.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“A bicycle made for two”

More from the Spencer brothers.

Will Spencer
15 May 1918

Some French soldiers were resting on the benches on the paved platform between the two buildings of the Blumlisalp Hotel. For the first time I had the feeling that the [interned] soldiers at this hotel were in some respects better off than those at the Waldpark. The hotel has more the unpretentious character of an Inn – is more rustic & more cheerful, with its water trough by the road & its tree-planted space between the two buildings. One of the soldiers was whistling the tune of “A bicycle made for two”, & I was surprised & amused to find that J. knew the words to almost the whole of the tune – which was more than I did.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 15 May 1918

3.30 pm. I am seated now, guess where, my dear diary? At Major Bracey’s working table at his billet! Only 3 kilos from where I at present live. I have just ridden over on Capt. Rolfe’s gee. Major Bracey is out however & won’t be back till 5, so I shall stick here to see him & having the football match I half promised to play in. I hope there won’t be a dust up about it though. It will be splendid to see old Bracey again, it is 14 months since I last saw him. Had a day off today. Dear old Rolfe, he did the straight by me after my two rather thorny days on Monday & Tuesday. Have just written to Father & Mother.

At 5.30 pm.
Major Bracey did not turn up. I waited till nearly 6 pm. Rode back. Watched football match between officers & men – a drawn game. After dinner walked over, saw dear old Bracey who cheered me up immensely. He walked back part of the way with me. To bed at 10.30 & read more of my book.

Percy Spencer
15 May 1918

A glorious sunshiny day. A good deal of trouble over billets. Trying to hang on in Warlos for a night at least. Division to be relieved tonight. Up half the night sorting details. Eventually turned in at 3 am after champagne supper & slept on floor in a company mess. Fritz bombed outskirts of village.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

“Master Chaffinch sings near by me despite the swish of shells through the air or craaack of shrapnel”

Sydney Spencer took comfort in nature surviving the battlefield, but the nice weather meant easy pickings for the German artillery. Meanwhile their brother Will was in touch with a former pupil in Germany.

Percy Spencer
9 May 1918

A lovely day again, worse luck. Huns shelled our boys with 8” & gas. 14 gassed.

Dr Caux had tea with us & told us pretty story of old lady who refused to leave until her children left, asked how many she had, she replied that she didn’t know, & pointing to the yard crowded with Tommies, exclaimed, “These are my children”.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 9 May 1918

I was very cold in the night so felt rather cheap when I got up this morning. A glorious spring morning. The grass on which I lie now at 12.30 pm is sweet May scented. All around are the ubiquitous dandelions, daisies & buttercups, & here & there graceful patches of delicate green & white, made by the greater sketchwort. Master Chaffinch sings near by me despite the [illegible] and swish of shells through the air & the angry snip of 18 pounders, or craaack of shrapnel.

Now for some lunch. Saw a beautiful little ‘copper’ butterfly today. The last I saw was at dear old Thoresby Camp, Worksop, only 8 short months ago. After lunch a read or sleep & then worked out mess accounts. After tea continued on mess accounts. At 8.30 ‘stand to’. No 5 platoon dug my fire positions in new battle positions. Bed about 10 pm. Oh happy day. A long night’s sleep.

Will Spencer
9 May 1918

Was pleased to receive a long letter from Fraulein Hildegard Vogel from Cassel, telling me of her musical studies under Dr Zulauf (is now studying the Chopin Fantasia!) & enclosing a photograph of herself with her fiancé. J. thinks, from his uniform, that he is an officer in the Artillery. As the elder of her two brothers (aged 18) is in a Cadet School, & the younger, who is physically & mentally weak, is just going to a Waldpaedagogium in Berka in Thuringen, they (the mother and two daughters) are leaving Cassel next month & going to live in a smaller house in Naumburg a/d Saale, where they will be near Berka.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

Peppered all along our line

Sydney Spencer was under fire and trying to catch some sleep, while brother Percy was behind the lines and Will’s wife was trying to get permission to visit her sister in Germany.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 4 May 1918

I started tour of duty at 10 pm [last] Saturday night. Finished at 4.30 this morning. Took on again at 5.30-7.30 so as to get a long morning’s sleep.

Was on Tour duty till 4.30 this morning. At 2.45 enemy sent over a few shells into village behind us. Rain set in at 2.15 am & continued to drizzle until 4 am. Had a half hour ‘kip’ till 4.30, then ‘stand to’ till 5.30 & I took tour duty till 7.30. Examined rifles & feet. Saw gun sections issued & [tried?], then sleep till 8 am. After breakfast more sleep till 10.

Brigadier came along at 10.30 just when I was rubbing my feet & getting my boots cleaned. He had a good deal to say, looked severe, but it struck me he had very kindly eyes. Got some more sleep in after lunch.

On duty 3.30-5.30. Many enemy aeroplanes came over. A glorious day with a little rain early in the day. At stand to the Neuglanders did a strafe & bombing raid, & we were peppered all along our line, particularly my platoon front. No casualties however. No 7 had one slight one.

Took a wiring party along New Broad & put up a tangle barrier on road & obstacle on right.

Percy Spencer
4 May 1918

Another hard day. Got some useful work done. Office in a chaotic state still. Col. Parrish’s band played at mess. Col. P constant anxiety about “Paddy” the Irish Terrier.

Will Spencer
4 May 1918

I was playing in the library after breakfast when the taller of the two Canadian ladies [staying at the same hotel] (their name, by the way, is Thompson) came in. … She left at 10.30 to meet a tall young Belgian soldier on the hotel terrace. She distributes Bible reading cards among the soldiers.

[It seems that the hotel was used partly for the accommodation of interned soldiers from foreign nations.]

By the morning post letters for Johanna from her Engeloch (enclosing form of application for her to travel into Germany for her to fill up), & from Agnes…

Before dinner J. wrote to Agnes asking for medical testimony that her mother was ill, & after dinner she filled up the above mentioned form of application.

[She eventually got permission to go in August.]

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

“Sydney has crossed to France at last”

In Switzerland, Will Spencer heard the news that younger brothers Sydney and Percy were now both fighting in France.

1 May 1918

Shortly before eleven Johanna came & handed to me a postcard from father, then a letter from him & a letter from Mother. These were dated April 18th, 16th & 13th respectively, & the card which I received from father yesterday, April 11th…

Johanna read in yesterday’s paper that a “Briefsperre” on the French frontier had just come to an end.

The letters contained the news that Sydney had crossed to France at last, & that Percy had also just returned thither.

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

A lost Iron Cross from 1916

Will Spencer and his wife had an unexpected discovery on a walk at Lake Thun in Switzerland.

25 April 1918

Farther up the [Goldiwil] road Johanna picked up a small round brooch bearing a representation of the Iron Cross, with an initial W and the date 1916. She was the more surprised to find it, as this is not a district in which German soldiers are interned. This was the first time J. had walked up to Goldiwil from Thun.

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

About to leave for military training

The divided loyalties of international couple Will and Johanna were poignantly underlined when Johanna’s 17 year old nephew was called up in Germany – ready to face Will’s brothers on the British side.

27 March 1918

Wrote a ppc [picture postcard] to [Johanna’s nephew] Kurt for his birthday on the 31st. He is about to leave Bonn for his military training. Will be eighteen on the 31st.

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

“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)