“Far away from my battalion and the plague of khaki”

Percy had gone on ahead of his unit to arrange billets in the French countryside.

June 19 [1918]
My dear WF

I like this place. Far away from my battalion and the plague of khaki, here I am billeting – at least I was yesterday.

Today I’m just waiting for my people to turn up.

I like the chateau with its monster lime trees – one, the largest I have ever seen. And I like the big farmer who took me into a direct current from his styes and there held me in lengthy conversation – and the old ladies apparently born in strait waistcoats who hold one spellbound for hours in a flood of patois out of which one thing only is clear – they require an exorbitant price for what they are pleased to call an officers’ mess.

The postman, fat & aged, is refreshing too. His cheerful announcement of letters & postcards with all details and contents of the letter is good to the heart. His cheery good day to me as I passed and request for a cigarette & explanation that tobacco is very scarce went straight to my cigarette case.

And then there is M. le Maire, schoolmaster & umpteen other things, who left his overalled charges to show me billeting matters and give me lengthy explanations only pausing to hurl corrections across the courtyard to the schoolroom, where one of the boys was reading aloud.

And then there is Madame at the estaminet where I have my temporary headquarters, who provides me with an interminable reserve of eggs and coffee, and constant shocks. The climax was reached when I asked for milk, and taking a homely bedroom utensil [a chamberpot!], she drew therein a supply from her little goat and served me liberally therefrom.

And that’s my village.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/47-49)

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“No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist”

Percy told sister Florence about a day off – visiting friends in the trenches.

June 17, 1918
My dear WF

I must have written you a pippy letter – a poor return for all you do for me. I’m sorry.

Many thanks for the splendid tinder lighter and the other items in the parcel. I think I must have left several pairs of socks at 27 Tattray Road, as I do not recognise those you have sent. You are quite right, it wasn’t eyelets but “the things you twist the laces round” I wanted.

I’m still here amongst the strange insects. Never have I seen such a variety of dragonflies, and just now a pair of very large gaudy yellow birds I can’t give a name to came & had a battle outside this bivouac.

Yesterday I had a rather hard but jolly holiday. I got up about 6 am, nightingales singing gloriously, had brekker, and started off up the line with my batman. Just as I started the Huns commenced to shell the village nearby I was going through, which I thought was very thoughtful of them as it gave me an opportunity to go by another route and avoid the place. After a couple of hours walk through charming scenery and peaceful valleys I arrived at my destination. I had only intended stopping an hour, but eventually stopped all day. To lunch so that I could first go round the trenches and see the boys. To tea so that I could play bridge with the CO. Walking across country, taking short cuts and dodging unhealthy places is awfully tiring so I slept gloriously last night and got up late.

Enclosed for John’s edification I send you a note from my rough diamond No. 6 [not found in the archive]. No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/45-46)

One long delicious 24 hours of dolce far niente, carefully mapped out by me into periods of rest, sleep, reading, letter writing, hot bathing, shampooing & all those other little etceteras which make life glorious for a while

Sydney took advantage of his quiet day to write to his sister and her husband.

June 7th 1918
My Dearest Florence & Mr I

Turmoil is nearly always followed by peace, & the peace of this present is well worth the turmoil of that past. No Florence, it was not a case of stormed at by shot & shell bravely he fought & well, the turmoil herein referred to, is merely that of a 24 hour journey – nay a 36 hour journey in a truck on a railway line over a distance of 108 miles to get from somewhere to here (thus does the censor hamper & roil our English!) a distance of 33 miles.

My last letter [does not appear to survive] told you of my going to a gas school. Well, I am here. We arrived yesterday afternoon & the course does not start till tomorrow morning, so that today is just one long delicious 24 hours of dolce far niente, carefully mapped out by me into periods of rest, sleep, reading, letter writing, hot bathing, shampooing & all those other little etceteras which make life glorious for a while.

From your ever affectionate brother
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/41, 43)

The German prince who refused to demobilise the British Navy

Prince Louis of Battenberg, the father of Earl Mountbatten and grandfather of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, lived at Lynden Manor in Holyport, Bray. Despite coming from a princely German family, he had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. His son is the inspiration behind the name for the new Prince Louis.

29 Barton Road
2 June ‘18

My very dear old man,

Before I forget, I must tell you of a thing that has happened in the last few days.

At Duxford (do you know it?) a village a few miles off, I have seen it – there is a large aerodrome. Its machines are eternally flying over our garden, more than a dozen a day. It is a training school for USA aeronauts.

Yesterday the Hon. LL.D. was conferred on President Wilson by proxy
(didn’t he write a most flattering letter of acceptance? Surely I read such a one), and also upon L. of B. [Prince Louis of Battenberg] – now called Louis Mountbatten, Marquis of Milford Haven: – who was immediately afterwards to deliver the Rede Lecture. Subject, the British Navy 1814 to 1914. You may guess that drew me… Such a tall majestic man – but so simple and kindly looking. It wasn’t an able lecture (me judice) – but, all through, I was reflecting the fact that this was the clear head which refused to demobilise the British Navy after the manoeuvres, as the Admiralty purposed, and the Hun had counted on: so that the outbreak of war found every ship fully manned and prepared.

Ever yours,
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“I was the veriest coward inside”

Sydney Spencer’s experience with battlefield dentistry offers a reflection on courage.

May 31st [1918]

My Darling Florence & Mr I

No other news except that I had a huge tooth drawn two nights ago! A sort of duel between myself & the American doctor as to whether I should scream or not. I didn’t murmur so I won. But I was the veriest coward inside. I simply yelled myself hoarse mentally, which gave me much comfort & relief. Sitting on a box in an orchard with a solemn American doctor with large round glasses making desperate dashes as a refractory tooth with horrid instrument, & no freezing mixture & no gas, these things are anathema!…

From your always affectionate Brer
Snippets

Letter from Sydney Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/40)

“Looking more or less like an Englishman, instead of a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather”

Sydney and Percy Spencer both took the opportunity to write to their sister.

May 28th [1918]
My Darling Florence & Mr I.

Now it is really a time of rest & once more I can sit at a table again looking more or less like an Englishman & feeling very much like one too, instead of looking like a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather. Your parcel of toffy & chocolate was very much enjoyed

May 29th
I am simply bursting to tell you of a frightful row between my platoon & the villagers who possessed the little orchard in which they live. Suffice it to say that, broken bottles, language, shovels, dogs, tent mallets, myself, 4 sergeants & the town mayor (an aged full colonel) were chief actors in the scene, to say nothing of a goat which eats my men’s soap and children who steal their rifle oil to put on boots & other little etceteras! Happily we decamped before anything more than threatened warfare had taken place.

The cause of the quarrel? I was ordered to make my tent bombproof which meant digging up the floor of the tent & heaping up round it. This raised the ire of Monsieur et Madame et les petits!…

Your always affectionate

Brer
Sydney

May 29, 1918
My dear WF

Wants as usual.

6 pots of Properts MAHOGANY polish & invoice, please.

1 bottle of fountain pen ink. Boots have some Watermans boxes if you cannot get Swan. Everyone borrows mine & then complain that it’s bad ink!

The polish is for the CO so I hope Thrussells will come up to scratch. He can’t get it from his wife. Thrussells can pack it no doubt. Rather elliptic, but you’ll understand.

Well dear, it’s a lovely day – the planes have been doing stunts over the line and all’s merry & bright. Our quarters are good shelter but no cover against fire so I wasn’t particularly happy last night when the Hun commenced shelling. We have also had a fairly consistent bombing stunt nightly – very pretty to watch but too near to be pleasant.

The other day – Sunday in fact – I went all over one of our tanks. Life inside one must be pretty cramped and unhappy [censored].

My quarters on Sunday were in the guest chamber of a ruined chateau. A shell had had an extraordinary career through the next room but except for windows my room was all right. We went there as our previous quarters were stiff with guns of all sizes firing into our back doors. When some 9 1/2s began to arrive we moved. The concussion of those beggars is terrific.

Yours ever
Percy

Letters from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/38-39); and Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/40)

Edible offal versus falling into a sewer

Food rationing had now hit the universities, accustomed to lavish tables. But if John Maxwell Image felt dismayed, he also knew of the privations at the front, and those suffered by French civilians, courtesy of his brothers in law.

29 Barton Road
5 May ‘18

My VDB

Your letter arrived on Friday, and I can’t tell you how it rejoiced me to find you writing in such good spirits. Cheltenham is the place for you, evidently… I am prostrated before… a Communal Kitchen that provides edible food. (So does NOT ours here.)
I am flooded with printed notices from Trinity “in consequence of a change in the Meat Control Regulations”. Butchers’ Meat will, from May 6 (tomorrow), be served in Hall only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. On which days a whole Coupon will be required from each diner.
If he dines without one, or is absent, sans notice, the Fellow incurs a fine of 5/-.

On Mondays and Thursdays, Poultry, Game, Bacon or “edible offal” (!!) will be served instead of Meat. (Note, every item headed with a capital, except “edible offal”.) “And on these days a half coupon only will be required.”

Anyhow, it is “for the period of the war”.

What is to be eaten on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday we are not informed. More “edible offal”?

But the word “Fish” is not mentioned once on these Bills of Fare!

Florence is a genius of a Food Provider. I don’t feel the pinch of hunger. Indeed she and Ruth (the Cook) dish up food that is distinctly “edible”. Salmon, Sole, Bloater, Woodpigeon, etc, and ‘made dishes’ that do the pair credit.

Florence’s two officer brothers write very cheerfully and much oftener than one would expect. Two of their epistles came with yours on Friday, both are in the middle of the great Push, and keep their tails up well.

One had difficulty in getting there. He and his men were stranded within 5 or 6 miles of the British line by the French “borrowing” their “train complete with kits and rations and half their men”.

“The climax (he went on) came when at 2 a.m. this morning one of the party pitched into a ditch which was really the outfall from a sewer. The proceedings were trying for the victim. However he’s quite scraped down now. We dried him in sections before some boilers, and if one keeps up-wind, he’s all right. The worst is, if his kit doesn’t turn up, he has nothing else in France to escape into”.

The other brother sent a very mixed bag. He had been out on a raid the night before. He spoke of cuckoos, housemartins, song birds – lying on his back in an orchard reading the Lady of Shalott, white and blue and tortoiseshell butterflies, – and “when the battery behind us ceased fire for the moment, chaffinches making melody on the trees above” (he must have read Chaucer as well as Tennyson) – then, more sadly, of a “poor old badly crippled woman” who sobbed, in patois, pouring out her troubles to him, and “pathetically asked me whether I would do her the kindness of shooting her! My Captain, who says that he is a well-seasoned soldier, was quite overcome by the incident, so you can imagine that I had to take very great care to preserve an outward calm.”

Most affec.
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“In this wretched country, in these wretched conditions, I’m very happy”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was having a good time.

May 5, 1918

My dear WF

The CO has borrowed my pen so you’ll have to put up with pencil.
I’m having a fine time working hard re-organising our office, and in the mess enjoying the society of gentlemen.

2 colonels are living with us (having a rest), one has commanded this regiment and the other does. They’re like a couple of schoolboys and spend a lot of time pulling each other’s legs.
John would love one of them in particular. As each of our shells hurtle over he counts the seconds to the burst and describes the damage to the Hun. If only each shell did the damage described, the war would be over.

[censored]

The Padre is a perfectly delightful fellow. In short, in this wretched country, in these wretched conditions, I’m very happy.
All the boys of my old staff are here and seem to take a mighty pleasure in saluting me.

Last night we dined in state with the Regimental Band playing. The CO had invited M. Le Maire [the local mayor] – an ancient old fellow with flowing whiskers. It was a great affair, especially the wine drinking and tasting when the French & our own National Anthems were played.

I told you how I ran into 2 of the fellows we rowed against at Cambridge.

Well, yesterday my rough diamond (No. 6) found me out and we had a long talk together.

Sydney has written me again. He doesn’t seem to like shells, curiously enough, but appears quite happy.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/7/33-34)

“10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames”

Sydney Spencer revealed life behind the lines in France in his diary, and wrote to his sister with more details.

Diary
Sunday 21 April 1918

Men bathed today from 9-4. So ‘Beer’ company officers had a rest in bed. Got up at 8.30, had a cold bath. After breakfast wrote to Mother & Father & Florence. It is now 11.15 am. A sunny morn & I am in a bit of pretty woodland. We parade at 11.30 am so I must go.

We had our parade on some fields near to billets. Only a short inspection & a talk and organization of platoon. I take over No 6 Platoon. After lunch took out company for football. After tea went to church in ‘flying fox’ lecture hall. A good service with a band and some solos from Elijah. A lovely day with plenty of sunshine.

After dinner I tried on my field boots which came today. They fit well. To bed at 10. Read Tennyson.

Letter

7th Norfolk Regiment
BEF
France

Sunday
21.4.18

My Dearest Florence & Mr I

Just a short line to let you know that I am very well & quite happy. Nothing exciting has yet taken place. The great pleasure at present is coming across lots of men who used to be in our regiment, who shew in their slow Norfolk way a keen relish at meeting a man of the old (help! I nearly got within reach of the censor I believe!) regiment. Also I have come across two men who were up at Oxford with me, one yesterday & one last week. …

Yesterday night a man was ‘stunting’ in his plane just above us. One moment he was like a calm serene bird floating down the wind. 10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames. I only hope he escaped a horrible death!

All love to you both
Your affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to his sister and brother in law (D/EZ177/8/3/20)

“It is incredible the difficulty of getting food here” – are piglets the answer?

One way around savage food restrictions was to buy your own piglet, and fatten it up on table scraps. Florence Image (nee Spencer) was inspired.

29 Barton Road
15 April ‘18
Beloved Signor

The Signora’s ambitious soul now requires Pigs! She learns that ownership of the unclean animal will entitle you to his entire carcase – (at all events, my lord R[hondda] is said to have granted so much to your first pig. She is full of hope and daring, has already purchased 2 little beasts, one white and one black. I, who am of soberer anticipation, went one day to see them – 10 weeks old. How horrible to feed and pamper creatures, not for their good but for their early death! Callous man!

She is just now in from a cycle flurry, thro’ howling wind and drenching rain, to Comberton, 5 miles off – in search of wood for the finish off of her stye for these two little beasts. It appears that the Meddlesome Food Tyrant demands permission and tickets for any member of the Middle or Upper Classes who wants to buy such a commodity as wood – unless it be old tarred wood. She rode first to Barton, where she had no success, but was directed to Comberton 2 miles further away. Her purchase is promised for delivery tomorrow. We won’t boast till it has actually arrived. But it really was a spirited expedition on a day like this.

It is incredible the difficulty of getting food here. We are fresh from a week of it in this house. Two of Florrie’s brothers, hurriedly recalled to the front, have successively been staying here to say goodbye – sickly that! (The most affectionate letter came here from the Colonel of one: he wrote like a father to his son. And another letter to the other brother from his Brigadier, equally flattering. Alas, since that was written, the whole brigade staff has been wiped out, except the Brig.-General himself, who is recommended for the VC.).

Then there was a cousin and godchild of my own – and my sister is staying with us. Finally a friend and his wife from next door – a Fellow of Caius, going out as Botany Professor to Capetown – when their house, No. 31, was gutted of all furniture, spent 4 days with us…

Well, we have 4 one-and-threepenny cards, per week, for meat. You may guess how thorny our task to feed these numbers. Fish we could get, tho’ not good, but, for meat, we had to bow our pride and accept help from our guests…

With our love to you both.

Affec.
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

The most appalling voyage

Percy Spencer had now returned to France after his training as a =n officer. He wrote a brief note to beloved sister Florence as he adapted to dry land.

15.4.18
My dear WF

After the most appalling voyage we arrived safely today.

Thank you so much dear for your wire.

I bought some field glasses at six guineas and have made out John’s cheque accordingly. Will you please thank him very much for the gift. It’ll be good to carry now close reminders of you both….

This is a very scrappy note, but you must forgive more until I have got over the Channel trip.

If you are writing home, you might say you have heard that I am in France.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/28)

“A Pacifist peace means Armageddon for our children”

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image struggled with the newly implemented food rationing. John Rawlinson, an Old Etoniam and alumnus of Image’s college, Trinity, was MP for Cambridge University (a constituency specifically to represent graduates across the country). A former international footballer, he was patriotically dieting.

29 Barton Road
25 March ‘18

This morning have arrived our Food Tickets. Oh, I gape! Florence professes to understand them. All I can utter is ‘Pests’. Cnspuez Rhondda!

Yesterday, in the Bowling Green, we met Rawlinson, MP, who vowed that he had for weeks been existing on a hebdomadal 1/3 of meat (so at least, he seems to say), and that he found the Fellows far too fat and well liking to have been loyal.

A Pacifist peace means Armageddon for our children. Who in honesty denies that?

Veni sancta Columbia.

And you prefer Margarine to Butter? I haven’t yet, to my knowledge, tried it. Devonshire Butter I count the noblest relish on earth. We can’t get Cheese, off which I regularly used to lunch.


Ever yours
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“A renewal of the war when the Teuton wolf has once licked his sores dry”

John Maxwell Image foresaw something like the third Reich.

29 Barton Road
4 March ‘18

Most VDOM

When I study the words and actions of England’s public men, “Can I discern between good and evil?” I begin to truly doubt: Will these suffer the Allies to defeat and CONQUER Germany? We boast of keeping them off Paris. But Germany today is a Continent within the Continent. She and her vassal states stretch in unbroken line from the North Sea to Mesopotamia and over a third of Russia.

If America “stick it”, this “Continent” may be broken up. Yet even America professes unwillingness to interfere with a nation’s right to choose its government – which means a renewal of the war when the Teuton wolf has once licked his sores dry.

Our love to you both
Bild

Letters from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“Orders have a way of descending from the blue and we may get ours at any moment”

Percy Spencer anticipated his return to the Front would come at any minute. The battle of Bourlon Wood had occurred at the end of 1917. Captain Walter Stone won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his heroics.

21st (Res) Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Feb 24. 1918

My dear WF

It seems ages since I wrote to or heard from you. So I’ve filled my pipe (my nicest & foulest one) with the fragrant Mr Fryers and sat myself down to write you a line.

My principal news is that I’m still here with no news of going. It occurs to me that the cadet course having been lengthened there should be a gap in home recruits which we may stay at home to fill for a few weeks. On the other hand orders have a way of descending from the blue and we may get ours at any moment, and incidentally a few days leave.

Did you read of the 47th at Bourlon Wood and the gallant fight put up by Capt. Stone & Lieut. Burgeery? The man next door to me was Capt. Stone’s CSM. I think he almost wishes he was with him, altho’ he would now be dead.

Well, I suppose we shall soon have another chance of doing real things, and none of us will be really sorry. Life here is frightfully destructive and only endurable by fighting for reforms. So far as I can see the main return a grateful country has obtained from me to date is the issue of overalls for mess orderlies.

We’re having pretty mixed weather. Thursday was glorious and I thoroughly enjoyed our route march – once away from the camp, the country is delicious.

I’ve had a letter from the red haired Australian (No. 6) and the cox; what’s happened to the rest, I don’t know.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/14-16)

The ceaseless rush & tumble of a soldier’s nomadic life is transient, unreal & arid

You may remember that before the war, Sydney Spencer had been at Oxford studying theology with a view to a call to the Anglican ministry. The war had changed him, but it had strengthened his vocation, as he told his sister Florence and her husband after a weekend’s leave at her home.

In the Train, 5.23 pm, Feb 23rd 1918

My Dearest Florence & Mr Image

I do not feel that I can adequately express what my stay with you has meant for me. The quiet & ease of your home life & companionship has an effect upon me which only those who know what real life is and means, can appreciate.

The ceaseless rush & tumble of a soldier’s nomadic life may possess a brilliant element of excitement, but books, & thought & companionship such as yours is, have an irresistible attraction for me which make all this military life something transient, unreal & arid. The soul of Alma Mater has breathed upon me once and for all & I Have no other wish in life than to follow her dictates & live up to her ideals in spirit. A life such as Dr Glover teaches is what I want, & rash though it may seem to make such a statement I am absolutely convinced that, if I go to France, which please God I shall do, I have many years still left in which some small way to follow the dictates of a spirit in me which cries out to be the reciprocal of other men’s needs.

The Church has only this one attraction for me. It will give me those innumerable opportunities to minister to those needs of men – it’s men I want to get at – which become more patent to me every day.

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/4)