Shot at dawn for “cowardice” caused by shell shock

John Maxwell Image wrote to his friend W F Smith, who was staying at Hindhead in south west Surrey, not far from the big army camp at Aldershot. Normally very gung-ho in support of the war, Image’s compassion had been aroused by stories of court martials and teenagers shot at dawn. The Revd Thomas Pym (1885-1945), in peacetime the chaplain at Image’s college, was serving as an army chaplain.

29 Barton Rd
6 Dec. ‘17
My very dear old man

The military cars to and fro Aldershot must surely be more or less an interesting sight.

The poor Tommy comes under this [?not clear] penalty quite frequently. Not often from cowardice, poor boy. Most often (I believe) it is from slinking off to some girl in the rear which is called “desertion”, tho’ he would have returned right enough.

Just before I was married there was shown to me a letter from a young Trin. Officer at the Front, describing a visit from one of our Trin. Chaplains, begging this young friend of his to “pray for him”, for he had to pass the night with a boy of 18 who was to be shot at dawn. Pym spoke then of a night with another poor child (of 17!) who had been shot the previous week, for what the CM was pleased to style Cowardice – though he had twice behaved with exceptional bravery, and it was only after seeing his two brothers killed at his side that on this occasion his nerve broke down. In an officer it would have been called “shell-shock”, and the interesting sufferer sent home to a cushy job in England. I know of 2 thus treated. Pym’s words brought the tears to my eyes. I see that he has told the story (slightly altered) in a book that has recently come out by him, Characteristics of the Army in Flanders.

Sir Arthur Yapp at the Guildhall last Friday. The Signora went (non ego) and returned enthusiastic – she and her Cook – over the great man’s dignity and sweetness. That evening he lectured the students (and I believe also them of Girton) in Newnham College – and left by the 9.9 for London.

One remark of his: “The vessels sunk by the U-boats during the week ending Nov. 24 (I forget how many that was) might have carried enough bread to feed Cambridge for nearly 7 years, or enough meat for 8 ½ years, or enough sugar for 64 years.”

He said that Food Tickets have changed Germany to a nation of forgers. He dreaded the like fate for England.

Yours ever
Bild

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

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“The only way interest has been maintained, has been by wagers”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was enjoying his officer training – although he seems to have more out of the camaraderie and sports than the boring lectures on naval and military history. The German warship Emden was sunk by the British in autumn 1914.

Thursday Nov 22, 1917
My dear WF

These few lines to let you know how cheery we all feel in spite of a plague of lectures and the shadow of our final.

Yesterday we rowed a great race. Unprejudiced opinion is that we won: the verdict was a dead heat, and we have to row again. We did enjoy it.

Today we attended our 3rd Naval History lecture. Mr Dykes was there. It’s a terribly slow affair. At the conclusion of tonight’s lecture we had only got to the destruction of the Emden – or rather, to be exact, it was at 6.39 pm. I know, as the only way interest has been maintained, has been by wagers as to the lecture and at what time in that lecture she would be put out of action. Betting was about 6-4 in favour of 6 pm tonight. I think the lecturer must have had a lot of money on the other way.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/72)

“It was a sickly experience being gassed!”

Part of the officer training experience involved practising dealing with a gas attack.

Nov 16, 1917
My dear WF

I was lucky enough to see John on the way back from being gassed on Wednesday. It was a sickly experience being gassed!…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/71)

“We are soldiers”: German prisoners refuse to work beside the Conscientious Objectors

German society was even more strongly opposed to pacifists than their English counterparts.

29 Barton Road
13 Nov. ‘17
Desideratissimo

Today she [Florence] has had [visitors including] … one Oldham, a B.A. engaged in war work for aeroplanes.

A General from the Front was lunching in our Combination-room the other day, and said to us that in his section the German prisoners refuse to work beside the Conscientious O.’s “We are soldiers”, they say.

Ten days or so ago, at one of the dinners which the College gives to Cadets on receiving their Commissions, we had a couple of officers of Zouaves as guests. Mumbo (whose health is much improved) proposed their toast in French. Capt. Marcel (he looked a handsome Englishman) responded in his own tongue, and ended with a shout which sent the Cadets wild, “England for ever”!!

What think you of Ll. George’s speech in today’s paper? It is depressing but not depressed. I personally have no fear of any harm except what the English baser natures can induce our Government to do. Surely Russia teaches what must be the result to a nation of slaves who are suddenly emancipated from control. So will it be in Germany until they have settled down. Meanwhile it’s the present English people worth dying for?

Our love to you both.

Always affect. yours Bild.

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

“A couple of hares which ran across our line added a good deal of vim to a bayonet charge”

Percy Spencer reported on his activities in officer training.

Wednesday Nov 7, 1917

My dear WF

Tomorrow evening we do a night march by compass bearing, tonight and Friday night we have lectures. So I am sorry I shall not be able to come up before Saturday evening.

To my surprise I have passed my topography examination with a margin of twenty points.

Today we played the final of the soccer against a very cocksure team. We won 2-0 altho we lost our best forward in the first few minutes through a wrenched knee. So we’ve started on the way to winning the platoon cup.

…Today on the range, a couple of hares which ran across our line added a good deal of vim to a bayonet charge – no casualties, however.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/70)

Camouflage with a vengeance

The Images experienced a power cut as a result of an air raid, and heard some interesting Navy news.

29 Barton Road
22 Oct. ‘17
My Most Dear Old Man

On Friday evening we were at dinner – the clock, I remember, was in the middle of striking 8 – when, in a flash, down went the electric light, and up bounced Florence to find whether it was so all through the house. It was! and we had in a candle, to the accompaniment of bombs and anti-aircraft guns, seemingly 2 miles away to the north. I wonder, were they trying for the aerodrome at Hardwick? for they are reported to have attempted that at T in Norfolk. Well, we went unconcernedly to bed, and were awakened by a glare at 2.10 – sign that the raiders were clear of England. But oh how humiliating! They can drop bombs at will, and unharmed, in England. Once cross to France, and they are chivvied and hustled, go wherever they attempt. The French can bring them down. Never has there been such a field day before, for Zepps.

Some friends, fresh from Liverpool, told me the other day of the steady silent inundation of Americans now overflowing the place. Especially of the hundreds upon hundreds of Yankee aeroplanes, beautifully packed, daily landed on the quays.

In one dry dock these people came across a large Yankee man-of-war, painted blue with pink spots (or was it, pink with blue spots. Those were the colours anyhow.) Camouflage with a vengeance: but it has the effect of destroying outlines and muddling them up at a distance. This they observed especially in the case of HMS Ramillies lying out in the stream – a battleship, painted the most bizarre horror, chiefly black and white stripes.

All this is very fine – but as today’s Daily Mail asks, in Italics, ‘Who commands the North Sea?’ The British navy may be the ‘incomparable’ weapon we hear it called, but it is bluffed by the Huns and its convoys and their escort snapped up by a small force of 2 raiders, almost in hearing of the Grand Fleet. The Kaiser’s vaunt of Germany’s future being on the water looks justified – Nelson went to the Gulf of Riga – but we can’t.

Our united love to you both.
Ever yours,
Bild

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

“Hold your hand out naughty boy”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about his experiences training to be an officer in Cambridge, and getting ticked off.

Oct 9, 1917
My dear WF

Our examination tomorrow is at 5.30 pm, so I am sorry I shall not be able to come up to tea….

Captain Louis has been talking “rowing” to me. He proposes making me Company stroke. I hope to get out of it, but may not as he very flatteringly describes my boat as easily the best, and the best they have seen here for a long time. Goodness knows what the others were like!

Today my platoon talked when marching to attention, so it was punished by being ordered to march a quarter of a mile really at attention. When ordered by the officer at the end of our punishment to “march at ease”, half the platoon immediately sang, “Hold your hand out naughty boy”, and the remainder, “And I don’t suppose we’ll do it again for months and months and months”.

With love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/67)

“I wish I had a hundred like him”

It was good luck that Percy Spencer’s officer training was taking place in Cambridge, at the very college where his brother in law was a don.

29 Barton Road
30 Sept. ‘17

My very dear Old Man

Your school friend, Whitworth, came with two daughters to call upon me the other day. They seemed to take to the Signora – but oh for me! quite casually for he made sure I knew, during tea he mentioned that dear Willy Dobbs [later note by Florence – ‘Brother of Sir Henry Dobbs – son of my husband’s beloved friend’] was dead – killed in action on July 31st. He had in his pocket a letter from the mother, quoting kind phrases – “The best officer in the Regiment” was how they spoke of him. Poor dear Willy! I was mentioning how he had given me the tea-tray on my wedding: and had caused it to be made specially to his pattern – and then Whitworth told me!!!

Florence has a brother of hers [Percy] in No. 5 cadet battalion – quartered in Trinity. You can guess what it is to her – and I love him. The Colonel said to me, “I wish I had a hundred like him” – so modest, so clearheaded – how his men will rely on him! The Company had boatraces last week (they have use of TBC boat house and slips) and Percy Spencer stroked his platoon’s Eight, and won the final.

JMI

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

“Now what’s up? Well, I have been up! Yes, up in an aeroplane!”

Sydney Spencer was enthralled with the experience of flight.

At The Race Course
Doncaster
Sunday Sept 24 [1917]

My Dearest Sister Mine

Now what’s up? Well, I have been up! Yes, up in an aeroplane! I am part of an advance party for our B[riga]de & am billeted with the 41st RS Flying Corps for about 3 weeks & well I got round a delightful flying pilot of the name of Hirst to take me for a joy ride! This morning I walked into the aerodrome & looked charming & when Hirst came along & said that he thought the air was not fit for flying but he would just go up & test it, I smiled & said let me go too, & lo & behold, yes in a quarter of an hour I had been for a flight over fields & woods & seem people down below (only 500 feet though) & cows & trees & roads looking like a nursery Noah’s ark affair.

I have never had such a sense of exhilaration in my life. In the last few seconds when we seemed to make a clean dive for the earth & one looked over the nose of the car & saw the great earth loom up & such to met you, as it were, I could have clapped my hands with delight like a foolish child.

One confession however. I was not strapped in, preferred not to be. The Pilot said, “when we come down you will want to grab at something I expect, so grab at the struts on either side”. Well, I thought to myself, Pah, who wants to grab at struts? But at the first dive, what do you think I did? Well, I made a momentary grab at the struts, but only momentary. I felt wild with myself for shewing ever such a small show of feeling.

My dear lady, what do you think of that now for an experience?

All love to you both from
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/2/22)

A German commander with a sense of humour

On their trip to Cornwall, Florence and John Maxwell Image heard an entertaining if unlikely tale.

29 Barton Road
27 Aug. ‘17
My most dear old man

On Thursday to Landsend, stopping our car for tea at the famous Gurrend’s Head. Here was current a pleasing myth. It is a desolate scene, with one tiny farm house and a shabby aleshop calling itself an Inn. To this latter came, recently, an affable stranger in mufti, who called for a drink, wrote his name in the guest book, and went. Not until afterwards was he discovered to have been the Commander of a U-boat in the sea below! That man had a sense of humour.

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

Holidaying dressed in khaki, with a string of medal ribbons

Holidaying in Cornwall with his Cookham born wife Florence, John Maxwell Image noted a senior officer on leave.

Polpurrian Hotel
Mullion
S Cornwall
12 Aug. ‘17
My most dear old man

The Hotel is becoming abominably full. This morning we beheld, in khaki, and a string of medal ribbons, a Brigadier General…

Very affect.
Bild

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

The chemistry of the gas helmet

After a period training at Kinmel Park in Wales, studying such matters as the workings of the gas helmet issued to troops, Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence Image with good news.

Aug 10, 1917
My dear WF

Thanks to John my address is
Cadet P J Spencer
B Company
No. 5 Officer Cadet Battalion
Trinity College
Cambridge

All the bad men from Kinmel are here too, so at any rate I feel I shall have a moral advantage.

I’ve just been trying to get the rules and regulations into my head. Luckily I realised early that it couldn’t be done and gave it up….

You are quite right about Kinmel. I was awfully well and jolly there, and look and feel very fit. Even the lectures were entertaining, no matter how dry. For instance one lecturer (a schoolmaster before the war) taking us in musketry, and looking very brainy, explained (in fact he was so pleased with the idea, he explained it twice) that “an explosion is the immediate or spontaneous transition of a solid into a gas. Q.E.D., which those of you who have studied Euclid will know means Quod erat dictum!!!”

We also had some very interesting lectures on the gas or PH ‘Elmet. Really they were not so much lectures on the helmet as they were upon methods of dodging learned recruits. If I am unlucky enough to get hold of some recruit who evinces a knowledge of chemistry, I am to switch off on to the mechanism of the helmet, of which he’ll probably be ignorant, and vice versa. Presumably if one is unlucky enough to be landed with a recruit who knows both the mechanism & the chemistry of the helmet there is nothing to be done but to lead him gently to the gas chamber….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/62-64)

“Scalps” secured by our airships

Even an idyllic seaside holiday for the Images was interrupted by the war.

Polcurrian Hotel
Mullion
S. Cornwall

Monday, Aug. 6, 1917

My very dear old man

O but this is a heavenly morning! Brilliant sky, such as I never saw in England before, in August – and the bay underneath my window of such glorious dazzling blue as I think would equal – or put to shame – South Seas or Tropics – and underneath it all, the sneaking deadly submarine. One came in here ten days ago, but had to quit re infecta, without any murders.

But a couple of young ladies from this hotel actually saw, last week, at the Lizard, 6 miles away, a U-boat torpedo strike a steamer and heard the explosion. And a man, who had cycled over, described to me the passionate race of 3 English destroyers to the rescue and our own Mullion airship hovering overhead. They did not get that submarine, though: or at least will not own to it. Discipline makes them very reticent. Still, in less guarded moments, hints are dropped as to several “scalps” secured by one or other of the airships….

Letters tell us … of two raids there – raids never mentioned yet in any newspaper!

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

‘I shall probably have to do the common or garden “over the bags” stunt one merry morning’

Percy Spencer’s hopes of a commission seemed to have been dashed, but now at last he was going to get the opportunity – although he would have to undergo extra training, and would probably not get the administrative job he was most suited for.

June 11, 1917
My dear WF

You’ll think I’m a dreadful correspondent, but you’ll have guessed the reason of my silence – I’ve been terribly busy.

My commission papers went up with an application for a direct commission to be granted to me from the OC of the Battalion I was and am wanted for. (By the way this CO is now a Brigadier.)

Well, there is a rule that no direct commissions are to be granted. So altho’ my application was recommended by the Divisional Corps & Army Commanders & a special application was made to the war Office, the WO has refused to allow me to hold commissioned rank, unless I first come home for a cadet course. The reason given being that it has been found undesirable to grant direct commissions whatever the circumstances to men who have been mainly engaged upon clerical work. Isn’t it funny – and isn’t it a nasty sort of reflection upon “clerks”?

Just then was not an opportune moment for going into such matters. So it was put on one side until today.

Tonight my papers have gone up again for a cadet course in England; and if I dodge the shells & the submarines I ought to be in England within 3 weeks for a cadet course somewhere.

The crab of the business is that it will only be by the veriest luck that I shall get an administrative appointment at the end of it, and shall probably have to do the common or garden “over the bags” stunt one merry morning.

Anyhow, I feel I ought to hold commissioned rank, whether as a fighting or an administrative officer – and this stigma upon clerks must be removed, what!

If and when I come home I shall have some long stories to tell, some of which I’m sure John will wholly approve….

Yours ever
Percy

The asparagus was great. Never was it eaten with such relish or in such extraordinary circumstances.

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/38-40)

Food ships from America

John Maxwell Image was hopeful that food restrictions might soon be a thing of the past now that the USA was a fully fledged ally.

29 Barton Road
3 June ‘17

Mon frere

Here’s a good news [sic] though (so it be true) which I heard yesterday from young Mike Foster’s American wife – the town holds no other such causeuse – she is a good deal too in the know, and she is quite recently back from the States – well, she told me that things are moving so briskly that by July 1st the American foodships will be coming over to Europe two or three every day…

With all love
Bild

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