Oxford engulfed by soldiers and wounded

Sydney Spencer of Cookham was a close observer of wartime Oxford, where he was an undergraduate.

October 20th
Tuesday afternoon at the Union

I have just got time for a scrappy bit of news before I take tea with Billings, one of our men who lives in Newton Road. There are soldiers & embryo soldiers here, there and everywhere. Oxford’s grey & venerable walls reverberate to the imperative urges of the bugle, her sedate quadrangles are the training ground for her soldiers. In gateways where gowned men used to loll & chat, there now stand stiff sentinels. Our men are seen flying off to lectures in [sic] karkai uniforms, & they are allowed to drop the gown. It is curious to see these men off to parade at 9AM lugging note books & Tacitus & Livy’s which soon they will open on a desk before their austere tutors.

There are lots of convalescent wounded men about. Even Belgian and French wounded are brought here. The officers get their poor hands nearly wrung off. Strangers go up and take off their hats & give what little French they have an airing on the Belgian and French officers in their weird costumes, bow & scrape & smile & doff their gold tassled hats & everybody beams, & everybody is pleased, & “poppa” has said ‘bong jourr Camerade’ to a real live officer, & “ma” doesn’t know what to do with herself in consequence of a dilemma in which she is placed, which dilemma being that she wants to swell with pride & not only fears to, but just can’t, and so on.

Oxford bloods swagger up & down looking like wax work figures in their OTC uniforms, & looking as my indignant Kenneth [Oliphant] says “like nothing at all”. I’m not blaming the men, but he says that these new officers are “just too much the limit” for being duffers at their work, but they will soon get into shape, & my dear old Oxford will have sent, like the Spartan mothers of old, many of the brood she so dearly loves, to serve their country & (we hope) their God by fighting a good cause.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Heartily sick of seeing soldiers, thank you

Soon after his Harwich experiences with the YMCA, Sydney Spencer of Cookham paid a visit to Kenneth ‘Jumbo’ Oliphant, the friend he had worked there with, and the latter’s mother, in Woking, Surrey. They had both had quite enough of the army.

Sept 30th
At home in Cookham

I spent from last Saturday tea time till Tuesday at St Margaret’s, Fern Hill Park, Woking, with Kenneth & Mrs Oliphant. It was a most restful time after the stress of Harwich. As soon as we got into the house Mrs Oliphant told Kenneth that the King was reviewing troops in Woking & would we like to go. It was pathetic. We had been seeing soldiers until we were heartily sick of it & here they were again. We declined the invitation smilingly…

Fred Oliphant [Kenneth’s brother] has a commission in the Seaforths and Granville [another brother] in the old Public School & University Corps. Higham of Oriel wrote me that Wright is also in that corps. I expect he will be as merry in that as he was up at Keswick.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

The last of active service?

Having completed his stint with the YMCA, Sydney Spencer thought it was all over. He would, of course, be proved wrong – we’ll be hearing from him again.

Sept 25th
At the Savages’ Shakespeare Hotel, York Road, Waterloo WC
Oliphant and I are sleeping the night here. Our experience at Harwich is over. I have seen my last of “Active Service” I suppose either for good or for a time.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

The YMCA: just a splendid grocery association?

Sydney Spencer tells us more about his work with the YMCA in an army camp. The poem he liked so much is by Henry Newbolt, and is now regarded with more irony.

14th Sept. Monday morning at the Packerton YMCA camp

I am to sleep in the marquee tonight with Hayes. I am only sorry that Jumbo [his friend Kenneth Oliphant] and I are parted. Yesterday I very much enjoyed the day at Gravel Hill. At 6 o’clock I got some tea at Harwich, & then went into the writing & reading room downstairs where I found a Private Russell who had a talk with me which ended by my having an opportunity of giving him a Testament, with which he was not only delighted, but said that he had “mates” who would like some too.

[Section censored in later years by Sydney’s sister and heir Florence]

I went to the Co-operative Hall at 7.30 and played right on without a moment’s break till 9 o’clock. I should think I must have played about sixty hymns or more.

I said I had not a break, but now I remember that Hindle spoke to the men for about ten minutes, & they very much appreciated his really good address which he gave. I was surprised at the way in which the men had turned up to the service. There were about 300 of them and they sang with the greatest gusto imaginable. They sang hymn after hymn & their choice of hymns was really good. They had for one, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”. This hymn went best of all, I think on the whole. Hindle works himself to death & does, I think, splendid work, although I think that it is a great pity that he frivols so on his table conversation. Conversation has been of a better kind lately & I am very glad of it. I am waiting just outside the YMCA canteen in the lobby place of the guard house, & one of the prisoners inside is playing a flute & is playing Home Sweet Home in a slim melancholy way which makes it comic. I begin to doubt of its being a flute, I should imagine it is a mouth organ by the sounds of the chords put in which I had not before heard. Hayes roasted Daldy splendidly last night saying that he thought we were a splendid grocery association & that we ought to chuck the YMCA. I am glad he did for he – Daldy – seems to think of nothing except the money part of the affair, & it absolutely disgusts me. I am very glad that Hayes is shewing his colours to such an extent, I shall get on much better for it. (more…)

Talking to the men, and enemy vessels spotted: Sydney Spencer’s adventures at Harwich continue

Sydney Spencer writes about his work with the YMCA at an army camp in Harwich:

Sunday September 13th

This morning we have been to Gravel Hill – that is to say Dr Marks and myself – as he was shorthanded & wanted help. I enjoyed going with him as I had an opportunity of getting into conversation with some half dozen of the men, & a very nice talk it was too. From the window where we were (the YMCA abode here is a four roomed house) we could see right out to the North Sea…. Last night just before we closed up, I had a little talk to one of the guards, who gave me some very interesting information. The River Stour goes by just below our canteen at Packerton, & he pointed out to me 15 destroyers lying in the harvour. They are distinguished by the cross at the mast heads. They had torpedo tubes at the stern, & also ship maxims like small cannon – which the guard described as being like bears, & so they are too. Also he shewed me the Austrian trading vessel which was captured & fired through the middle, & which turned out to be a mine layer, also a German boat a little nearer to us, & close at hand a large German trading boat which had on it a cargo of boots – he stated their value at £2,000,000, but that with a very little thought appears obviously impossible.

I am up at Gravel Hill again this afternoon. There is a “Tommy” here who is struggling with a letter to his mother. He is a finely built man, young & brown & boyish. He is sprawling in his chair & obviously finds the writing a greater nuisance than trench digging! His face is intensely serious, his pen travels up & down each letter laboriously …

Outside there hangs on a piece of wire a large iron ring. This is used as a clock, which unfortunately gives no other time than the hour. A man has just struck two upon this weird bell. The men have just been having their dinners. The tins they have them in are kit shaped, & the meat they have! It is simply lumps of meat clipped up & boiled in pots. The grease & fat & smell are really when blended together something too awful. Poor old Percy, that is all I can say. He must be having a beastly time of it all round. I only hope that he has accepted a post with Mr Holliday.

Business is slack here & I have a little time to spare for writing. Right out to sea I can see a couple of ships which look like destroyers although I can only see smoke as from one funnel.

I am to go oout to Packerton & sleep with Hayes in the marquee. That will be splendid work as we shall have a chance of knowing and talking to the men. The only thing is that I should have loved to have “Jumbo” with us too.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 13 September 1914 (D/EX801/12)

‘Transported into a Zulu village’: Sydney Spencer describes an army camp

Sydney and his friend “Jumbo” Oliphant were disappointed by the lack of a religious atmosphere at their YMCA camp, but he felt he was doing good work. He paints a colourful picture of the army camp he was serving in his diary:

Saturday September 12th

Saturday night after the Packerton work I went to the Co-operative Hall & banged the piano for two mortal hours for the men collected there. There were about 300 of them & the noise when they were all shouting was deafening in the extreme. I do not feel – neither does Jumbo – that the atmosphere which is allowed & tolerated is by any means what we expected or desired. When an institution sets out to be definitely Christian, & then seems to drop the matter of religion entirely into the background, – well – then one cannot but be disappointed & disgusted too. We don’t, when we get home at night, even have prayers or grace at meals or any other than vapid & even superficial conversation. Perhaps Jumbo & I are too anxious to see the deeper side of men’s religious convictions come uppermost. At any rate the work is jolly good work & it is a great pleasure to do this for the men, for the pleasant manners & simple jokes do one good.

Yesterday I went across to the trenches to see about our new marquee just being put up for us. The whole place, trenches & camp & all is surrounded by barbed wire fences. An ordinary fence of wood – posts about four feet apart & barbed twice are set-up & from each post wires are stretched, on either side to a distance of about 5 feet & then barbed wires are set along these at intervals, so that to the one trying to get through the obstruction there are some twelve or more stretches of barbed wire to obstruct him. Trenches are dug some feet deep. They appeared to be a good five* feet deep or more & about three feet wide. But why they should be so deep I do not see, since the soldiers have to be on a level so that though their bodies are hidden, yet their arms should be on a level with the surface of the ground so that they can level & use their muskets. Of course these trenches are protected in front by stacks of [sic] karkai coloured sandbags through which there must be holes so that they can fire through them. The insides of the trenches are lined with fine chicken gauge wire doubtless to keep the earth from falling and crumbling from the sides. There seem to be networks of these trenches all over the place. I was thunderstruck when I got into the camp itself. I expected to see a huge vista of white tents like flocks of geese on the landscape & suddenly I seemed transported into a Zulu village. The whole ground was covered with straw & hay & rushes. Huts were built all over the place. Simply posts driven into the ground, with cross pieces on the top. Sacking formed the basement of the covering in some places, & then straw, hay & even unthreshed barley & rushes are employed & are tied in bunches all around these erections, forming huts which are altogether the native Zulu huts. Some are quite open in front; & the ground is strewn with straw & hay, others are three parts enclosed, & even have a sacking doorway which completely encloses them. Those long sashes of reeds, which grow up the strand at home in Cookham are employed quite a lot as there are quantities of them in the freshwater ponds & ditches round here. Out of one of these huts – a large completely enclosed one – stumbled a boy of about 19, he had thick black hair & a turn-up nose, & small eyes. He was late for his drill, & he stumbled along, rubbing his eyes & screwing up his eyes in the daylight & looking distinctly not happy. That same young man visits our canteen pretty frequently & the cakes & pork pies he consumes are uncountable.
* correct depth is 6ft 11 ins. (note added 13/10/14)

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 12 September 1914, D/EX801/12)

First impressions: Sydney Spencer’s first evening in Harwich

Sydney Spencer starts work for the YMCA at Harwich alongside his friend Kenneth “Jumbo” Oliphant, and reports on his first evening:

Friday 11th
At the Royal Naval Sailors Home: Harwich

I arrived at Russell Square to meet Oliphant at 11.30 but he did not turn up till 12.30, as the telegram which I sent him stating the hour as 11.30 had arrived to him stated as 12.30. …Harwich is a very dirty squalid place from what Jumbo & I saw of it last night when we arrived at 9.30. There are nine of us here altogether counting the leader Mr Daldy with whom we came down from town. … Both Jumbo and I are a little disappointed at the fact that we are housed instead of being under canvas. I was looking forward to the tent sleeping just as an experience. All our bedding which we brought with us is now of course not wanted as beds are supplied us. Also the early hours which I was expecting are not kept here, the members of this house apparently not getting up till 5 o’clock for breakfast. Jumbo & I sleep in separate rooms which makes it impossible for us to have our quiet times together.

I begin my work today under the care of a Mr Hayes (who is an Oxford man), & I go with him about a mile out of Harwich for a place I think called Pontisbury. It is right among the trenches so I ought to see some interesting sights as well as just sell “pop”. The man who sleeps with me is from a college in Manchester and he knows a lot of Hindus at Oxford, among them Raju, having lived with him for a fortnight. He is heavily interested in Hindus and was to have gone off for the YMCA to India to a hall in Calcutta which has about 16 Hindu students, & work among them.

Friday evening
I have spent the day from 9.30 right on till 6 pmbehind the counter at the camp at Packerton. It has been a weird sort of day full of extraordinary experiences. In this room there were collected sometimes about thirty or more “tommies”. It is extraordinary how quiet and orderly they all are. They sit & write their letters, read the papers and have their refreshments, and give not the slightest bother at all. They all seem to be aware of the benefit they receive from having this Y.M.C.A. shelter to come to, & accordingly respect the institution and do all they can by natural and almost pretty little courtesies to show their appreciation. One or another with a sheepish smile will bring a few cups back left on the table, or will say, when teaspoons are scarce, “never mind that, I’ll use my mate’s”, & so on. Studying the faces of these men, one sees a great deal more which indicates latent intellectual abilities than one might expect. Some have a native charm about them & the expressions on their faces sometimes show keen intelligence or lively interest & appreciation. We sell here to the men, cakes and buns, tea & coffee, and the ubiquitous “ginger pop”; paper and envelopes are supplied free of charge, & we sell stamps & postal orders to those who want them.

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 11 September 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Sydney Spencer continues to think about his future

Sydney Spencer was still considering his future plans as he headed off to help at a YMCA camp serving the armed forces:

Thursday 10th September
I am in a GWR train on my way to Paddington to meet Oliphant with whom I am gong to Harwich for a fortnight to work for the YMCA. I do not yet know whether we go to soldiers or sailors. I go to Russell Square to meet him & we get to Harwich at 2.30. I shall pop into the Coxes just for a few minutes on the way. Percy was accepted for the Regulars and has been put into the Gloucester Regiment & sent to Bristol. A letter came this morning from Holliday & Greenwood, offering to make Percy an orderly-clerk for Mr Holliday. I do not think perhaps that he will accept such a position. Last night I wrote a letter to the Oxford Grant people & placed my position before them, as follows.

Dear Mr Reade

This letter must be a rather long one, as necessity compels me to make a very clear statement of my present position. My last letter to you was to say that my allowance was made up to £108. Almost immediately after my sending you that letter, this terrible war broke out & my position is now, so far as I can at present tell, this:

Until the war is over and affairs can be looked into, my allowance is practically nothing, and my return to Oxford even as an unattached student is – as matters now stand – highly improbable. With regard to the war and my actions concerning it, I feel that I may, in justice to myself, say that I have tried all means in my power to get some work to do, & finally having offered myself as a private in the Old Public School and University Corps, I was refused on account of my chest measurement. Mr Cookson of Magdalen, whom I saw last week, advised me to join the OTC next term. This in the event of my returning to Oxford I should of course do.

Hence for the time being I cannot but turn my thoughts to my private affairs. These being as I have above stated, I feel that I must write to you to ask your advice as to my best course, since my whole future may be irrevocably checked & broken by this present state of affairs unless I try to improve my position. I of course am aware that at this juncture I am by no means the only man who is placed in the position I now find myself, hence I find it particularly difficult to make my plea, & foresee that this letter cannot but be one among many such. As you said, however, when I last saw you, that provided I was successful in Responsions my case might be reconsidered, perhaps in this present crisis there may still be a chance that I may look to my diocese for help.

If it were not asking too much of you, I should be so glad if you would write me your very frank advice as to my best course. I feel sure that you will see that it would be tantamount, metaphorically speaking, to suicide, if I did not do my best – being useless for the army – to continue my studies at Oxford, especially as the smallness of my exam I have just passed would make it of little value, were I forced to give up my studying for Holy orders – which I hope may never have to be – and take to other work.

There is but one other alternative – which I will place before you, & concerning which I should be grateful to you for advice – and you will understand how singularly disagreeable such an alternative must be – I could place my position before several wealthy friends interested in my future at Oxford & in the Church, & beg!

Yours truly

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 10 September 1914 (D/EX801/12))

Too refined for the rough army?

The saga of Sydney’s attempts to join the army continued, as he was contemptuously turned down for being too weedy:

Sept 7th
Fernlea [Cookham]
In answer to my letter to the Secretary of the OPS&U Force I received the following letter this morning

Victoria Street
Westminster SW
Sept 6th 1914

Dear Sir
In answer to your letter, we regret to say that you would have no chance of passing the medical examination on your chest measurement.
Yours faithfully
Hector J Boon

When I got home from Epsom yesterday – I started at 2 pm, called at the Birches, went as far as Ewell with Willie Birch, & saw the Stevens, & got home here to Cookham at 5 o’clock – I found a letter from Jumbo [Sydney’s friend Kenneth Oliphant] proposing that I should join him in a YMCA camp for three weeks. As I have just had this letter from the OPS&U Force people I feel free to take on such work which not only will be doing something, but will be much more in my line of work.

Dear old Willie Birch is by now gone off to do his drilling. I am so sorry that he has joined the East Surrey as it is the most rough of all the corps – so Percy tells me! Percy [Sydney’s older brother] volunteers today & will soon telegraph us as to whether he will be accepted, & whether he has passed his medical examination. God go with him if he is accepted. I must write a line or two to the Ruscoes, & to the Birches. Poor Mrs Birch, I fear she will be very unhappy – her only son being gone. Am I wrong to hope that he will be invalided out? He is so refined a boy, as is also dear old Percy, to bear the brunt of being thrown among such men so vastly differing from them.

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 7 September 1914 (D/EX801/12)