An air of sadness as nature reclaims the countryside

Percy Spencer shared his sense of an abandoned countryside with expat brother Will.

15 December 1917

A letter from Percy to us both, which I read to Johanna in the verandah after breakfast. After telling us about his rowing experiences [in Cambridge while training as an officer there], he continues:

“At the moment I am on [sic] a loose end, but expect to be in France or elsewhere by the middle of January. Cookham is very empty & silent. There is some compensation in the re-asserted claims of nature in the quiet corners of the earth as man’s claims have slackened, but altogether there is an air of sadness about the countryside, very depressing. I feel the water rat would much prefer to plop hastily into the water at your approach & the moorhen to scuttle jerkily into the reeds, than to feed unmolested & fearless of disturbance.”

So Percy feels that the water rat & the moorhen wish too, that the old times were back. In this feeling that the wild creatures must feel the same as he does, Percy not only shows a deep love of nature & of man, but also something of the imagination of a poet.

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

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“Lenin was in Bern until this spring”

The shock of the latest revolution in Russia had a special interest for Swiss residents, with one friend of the Spencers even having met him.

2 December 1917

By tram to the [Judge’s], where I found Johanna, & also a Hauptmann Wirz. They were speaking of Lenin, who was in Berne until this spring, & whom Frau Oberst R[eichel] had met at friends of hers, so the latter tell her, but she cannot remember him.

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

Germans “too downtrodden to rise”

Florence Vansittart Neale was glued to every wild rumour about the war, while Will Spencer’s love for his German wife had only grown stronger through their difficult years of exile in Switzerland.

Florence Vansittart Neale
November 1917
[inserted before 23 November]

Hear P. Innes says state of Germany awful. People too weak to rise, able bodied men only able to work half time, too downtrodden to rise.
Hear the Pope instigated the Italians to give up. He encouraged Austrian spies everywhere!

23 November 1917

Hear Boy cannot get Paris leave. Hope for January…. Hear most domestic servants to be requisitioned for work – only allowed 1 servant each person! Counting the gardeners!!!

Hear General Plumer & staff have been in Italy 3 weeks to see how many necessary to keep Italy. Our troops must go over Mt Cenes pass.

Hear through Marga that a Florentine Regiment who deserted was sent back to Florence with “traitors to their country” on their brassades.

Hear many battalions would willingly shoot 1 in 10 of strikers [illegible].

Will Spencer
23 November 1917

During the afternoon I called & had an interview with Herrn Fursprech Engeloch. Father need take no further steps to obtain attestation of my residence in Cookham before Jan. 19/15, as it may not be needed. As soon as the matter comes before the Gemeinde (I told him we had chosen Oberburg [as their official home town in Switzerland]. Herr E. will let Oberst Reichel know, in order that he can then write on our behalf, stating that we are friends of his, as he has kindly offered to do. Probably the best means of letting the German authorities know that I had become a Swiss subject would be to apply to have Johanna’s money sent here, mentioning thereby that I am a Swiss subject, & if that is questioned, to then place the matter in the hands of the Swiss Political Department. My naturalization cannot finally be ratified until the Grosser Rat has met again. It only meets twice a year, & will meet next, Herr E. said, in Feb. or March, or at the latest in April….

I was sorry to have to tell Johanna how long we might have to wait for the ratification of our naturalization. After we had had coffee in Johanna’s room, something moved me to tell her that I had learned to know her better & that she had become more to me than ever during these last years – in some ways years of trial – in Switzerland. Johanna had afterwards to go into the town, but she would not let me go with her, as I was not quite up to the mark, & she thought it better for me to rest. When she returned, she thanked me again for what I had said. I said that I was sorry that they were only words that I had spoken, that I felt such things were better expressed in deeds, but she comforted me with the assurance that what I had said had not been merely words.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

A simple, innocent looking British soldier

Will Spencer was now seeking Swiss citizenship, but still took an interest when he ran into a British soldier interned there. He and wife Johanna were very short of cash, even though Johanna’s sister was sending them what she could from Germany.

18 November 1917

To the English Church. Sat in the second row, in order to be out of danger of draughts from the door, as I have not yet quite got rid of my cold. Only two persons in the choir – one on each side – a lady on the left & on the rights a simple, innocent looking British soldier who seemed to have a tenor voice – he was at any rate singing the melody….

After Johanna had entertained me to tea in her room (she had already had tea at the Judge’s) she told me that the matter that she had been speaking to the Judge about was the question of our borrowing money until I am a Swiss citizen, in order that Agnes may run no further risk in sending to us. The Judge kindly offered us the help of his name, but Johanna will write to Direktor Loeliger first. She did so this evening.


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

“We are enemy aliens”

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer’s German wife Johanna, living with him in Switzerland, missed her family very much. In the autumn of 1917, she hoped it might be possible to meet up with her sister Agnes.

29 September 1917

Johanna having received a letter from [her sister Agnes] yesterday, in which she said that she had heard from the Ohlers, who had heard it from Herrn Rob. Loeliger, in Frankfurt, that persons were allowed to cross from Rheinfelden to Badisch Rheinfelden on showing an Ausweis, asked whether Johanna could not meet her at the other side of the bridge. I despatched a telegram to Agnes for Johanna after breakfast – “Es is nur unmoglich Inez (i.e. Agnes) aufzusuchen”. (We are not Swiss that have business that calls them to the German side of the river, but “enemy aliens”.).

At 4 we had tea … [with friends] to meet Frau de S., a Polish lady, a daughter of a Prince L., who has visited Rheinfelden regularly for 18 years. She lost her only daughter in 1911, her only son in the war.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

Seeking citizenship overseas

Will Spencer was still on holiday at Meiringen, but he and his German wife were hoping to obtain naturalisation as Swiss citizens.

16 August 1917

By the first post a letter – the expected one – from Herrn Fursprecher Mosimann, enclosing letter from Inner Political Department, stating that my application [for citizenship] would be re-considered if I would send it in again after I had got a fixed residence in Berne (residence in hotel or boarding house is no longer a sufficient qualification), & after I had received the appointment as Professor at the Berne School of Music which there was a prospect of my obtaining. (This was the first I had heard of this last – I suppose Dr Hodler had spoken of my having some prospect of this sort – I had not said anything of the kind.) Johanna decided that she would go to Berne next week, & speak with Herrn Mosimann & with Judge Reichel.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

The British Munition Office in Switzerland

Cookham expat Will Spencer met a fellow Englishman with foreign connections in Switzerland.

15 May 1917

While J[ohanna] was busy in her room, the English gentleman who arrived here on Saturday or Sunday came onto the terrace with his little girl. He expressing the hope that his little girl did not disturb me, I asked him whether he wouldn’t sit down, & he did so & we chatted for a few minutes, until it was about time for lunch. His little girl, aged 5, was born in Venice. His wife died, after three or four years illness, in January of this year. He has now found something to do at the Munition Office (British) here. His wife’s mother was a German, & he himself has been much in Germany – in Marburg & Bonn.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

“Just now on the threshold of a good roll up of the Huns I’m afraid there’ll be no time for reading in the army”

Percy Spencer and his colleagues had the opportunity to socialise with French girls behind the lines – and some romances developed, as Percy told his sister.

April 17 1917
My dear WF

Circumstances have prevented me from writing sooner, but please don’t ever imagine just because I sometimes cease my very occasional letters for a while that therefore I’m fighting in every battle on the Western front. I have always made a point of sending at least a field card whenever I am in any danger or you may have reason that I may be.

I’m enclosing a few souvenirs just to show that all our times are not anxious ones. The photos were taken in the rain in a quiet little village on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. You’ll note that all married and attached have vanished from the “mascot” group. We have had a very good, if strenuous time. The fellow who is understudying me against my departure (if that ever happens) and our mess mascot were mutually smitten, and altho’ I have done my utmost to persuade him from making the lady an alien, he is in daily correspondence with her, getting frightfully absent minded, and goes around humming her favourite tune until we put up a solid barrage of the same tune in the lady’s Anglo-French style.

As for my Benjamin (“Miss Mary Jones”, the junior clerk) the case is indeed desperate. All thoughts of his first love Lily of Clapham Common seem to be banished at the mention of “Jacqueline”, the blue-eyed maid at the second estaminet on the right. Her winsomeness was a great trial to me, as “Mary” was dangerously enchanted by her charms. On the day he was inoculated and should have kept very quiet, he was missing – sitting at the shrine of his goddess, drinking benedictions and secret smiles: as I find him out to his billet he assured me with tears in his eyes, “I’ve only had 2, sergeant”. Of course he ought to be dead, but he isn’t – and Jacqueline regards me as an ogre. However I think she judged me a little bit better before we left, for on the day we went away Mary had a scrawly pencilled note as follows –

My dear Dolly
I must see you at once. Tell your sergeant that if you no come quick I finish with you for ever.
With love & kisses
XXXXXX
from your
Jacqueline

He went.

And every now and then I see him take out an old passport and look at the left hand corner, and smile at her miniature there.

Dear old Will has sent me a long letter enclosing a photo of Johanna & himself and offering a selection from a number of books as a birthday present. I’ll let you know later what I’d like, but just now on the threshold of a good roll up of the Huns I’m afraid there’ll be no time for reading in the army.

I believe my affairs are going thro’ all right, but it may be some time yet or not at all before my promotion comes through – I hope it will be very soon or not at all. Further promotion would be very remote, if the job hung fire for long.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/26-28)

News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

Switzerland is still neutral

British/German expat couple Will and Johanna Spencer found their Swiss hosts were keen to remain neutral.

16 February 1917
Found J[ohanna] waiting for me in the shop on leaving [probably a music shop where Will practiced his piano daily]. The young lady in the shop had expressed the opinion that the new government regulations in Switzerland were out of place in a neutral country. When Johanna spoke of Switzerland being so dependent on foreign countries for supplies, she replied “Die Schweiz is eben ein neutrals Land”.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

16 Feb 1917
War Savings Association started at Bisham. Edie secretary, Mr Gray treasurer.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“All very uncheery – what!”

Percy’s last letter to Florence on 4 February was interrupted by events. He picked up his pen a week later to address their brother Will’s concerns about a young German friend who had been reported missing.

[11 February 1917]

That was 7 days ago. Seven days of perfect weather and comparative comfort. And now I have an hour or so in which I think I can manage to finish.

Garwood has now gone on leave, and if the present idea obtains another couple of months and leave is still open then, I ought to be home again.

Did I tell you that the younger of Mr Lewis’s sons is one of our RE [Royal Engineers] officers. He superintended the building of our mess. We now have 3 snug (for war time) messes in this part of the world, so long as the Bosch don’t shell.

Will wrote me about Max Ohler who is “missing”. Will doesn’t seem to get my very occasional letters. I wish when next you write, you would tell him that I have received all of his, and that I am not now, and may not be again, in a position to make any direct enquiry about MO. I have however been able to put enquiries thro’ the British Graves Commission and made a request for them to be passed on to the French authorities. If he hears nothing, it may add something to Johanna’s hope that Max has not been buried by us or the French, or if unfortunately he does hear, at any rate, even that will be some comfort too, to know at least the boy has been buried & his grave registered.

All very uncheery – what!

I’m sending you a souvenir menu card of a little Xmas dinner we had. The pennant is our sign by day & the lamp by night – the flags are those of the Signal Section. I hope you’ll like my hurried design.

Also I’ve been to see our follies. They’re awfully good & include some professionals – the “girls” are quite edible.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/12-14)

War tax in Switzerland

The Swiss had introduced a new tax to cover rising costs in wartime. Expat Will Spencer made arrangements to pay it.

25 January 1917

Letter from Swiss Friedensburo for Johanna. (Have not been able to obtain any news of Max Ohler from France. Have not yet heard from England.)

Then to Steueramt in the Junkerngasse to enquire about Kriegsteuer [war tax]. I was referred to No 1 Herrengasse, the elderly clerk who gave me the direction, telling me, in an apologetic tone, that I should find the office in the cellar, but that was “only a temporary state of affairs”. As a patriotic Swiss citizen I suppose he felt that these subterranean arrangements were not quite consonant with the dignity of the state.

Arrived at No. 1 Herrengasse (one of the houses on the southern side of the Munsterplatz), I found, just inside the entrance, a carved stone stairway expected to lead to a series of gloomy dungeons, but which led in fact to a passage from which a young junior clerk summoned me into a small well-lit room overlooking the river. The house stands, of course, on the slope descending to the latter. After conducting an amateur enquiry into what my business was on his own account (in which I humoured him, not being pressed for time), the junior clerk went to speak with his chief, & returned with the news that the latter was engaged – could I call again in half an hour’s time? A welcome suggestion, as it was a freezing cold afternoon, but I acquiesced, & made use of the half hour to go & have a look at the outside of Ex-President Motta’s house in Kirchenfeld.

After my return to the “War-tax office” I found myself signing a declaration to pay 500 francs war-tax. I was expecting it to be as much, but Johanna wasn’t, so I shall speak to Herr Mosimann before paying it.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

Music and chess on leave

Will Spencer heard the details of a family Christmas at Cookham, with Percy and Sydney both on leave.

22 January 1917

Letters for us both, from Mother – a long one for me. When Florrie & Percy & Sydney were all at home, Annie played to them after supper, & they all enjoyed it. Annie practises every day, & plays “very well indeed” now. Percy played chess with Sydney, & afterwards Percy was Mother’s partner & Sydney Father’s in a game of whist. Percy visited “the Hunts & Captain Holliday” while he was over. (Is Captain H. no longer with Percy at the Front?) Mrs Raverat had sent 60 lbs of apples to Mother, & one of the officers’ wives had made an exquisite white wool shawl for her (Sydney paid for the wool). Mrs Philip Wigg had made some white wool bed socks for her.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

Missing since battle on 7 October

Will Spencer, the elder brother of Percy and Sydney who was living in Switzerland with his German wife, still had many friends in Cologne where the couple had lived before the war. The 18 year old son of one of those friends had been reported missing, and Will agreed to use his British connections to see if any news could be obtained of the young man.

27 December 1916

By the afternoon post a letter to Johanna from Max Ohler. They are still without news of young Max. (Johanna wrote to Fraulein Lochliger on Sunday, asking for the particulars which she has with regard to young Max, in order that I may send them to Percy & Sydney.)

By the evening post a letter from Arlesheim, from Fraulein Lochiger, sending us the particulars with regard to young Max Ohler. He has been missing since a battle at the southern edge of the Pierre Vaast Wood, near Sailly, on Oct. 7th. During the evening I made an English translation of the particulars (but leaving the “last address” as it stood) & afterwards made two copies of it (one for J. to take with her to the German consulate tomorrow.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1916 (D/EX801/26)

A present to the interned Germans

The Spencers found out more about the interned Germans in Switzerland. They had also been in contact with Johanna’s brother in the USA.

26 August 1916

J[ohanna] read that the recent steamer-trip of the soldiers (of Aug. 23) & two others, one of which yesterday – we saw the steamer in Lucerne – were a present to the interned German soldiers from Freiherr v. Brunig (of the Hochst Farbwerke) – 600 were taken each trip. Johanna this afternoon forwarded Robert’s letter to Bonn (as he desired). It contained the news that Erich had gone to Texas with the Militia.


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