The heavy cloud of impending war

Our first glimpse into the attitudes of Berkshire people to the First World War comes a day before the formal declaration of war by Great Britain, but when it was obvious that we would be engulfed. Sydney Spencer of Cookham was a 25 year old undergraduate at Oxford, studying with the intention of being ordained as a Church of England clergyman. A sensitive and religious young man who had just returned from the Keswick Convention, an annual religious conference held at Keswick in the Lake District, his initial response is thoughtful and shows not everyone was swept away by jingoistic fervour. One particular concern for the Spencers was the position of Sydney’s eldest brother Will, a musician who lived in Germany with his German wife Johanna. Will was visiting the family when war was declared – but Johanna was at home in Cologne (Koln). Sydney’s diaries and letters will be a recurring theme in the story of Berkshire at war, together with those of his more secular-minded brother Percy, and this entry comes from his diary:

Cookham August 3rd 1914
War! When I was a boy I used often to try to imagine to myself what must be the sensation & knowledge of war. I brought up to my mind the utter dislocation of civilised continuity of progress in Europe at large, & tried to imagine the probability of being called on to fight for our own country, in fact I called up in those vivid colours of boyhood’s fancy all the outstanding horrors of war – & more particularly war of a general character in Europe. Suddenly like a great storm swamping over a swelling landscape blotting out all present ease of mind & casting heavy shadows on all the future, comes this trumpet blast “War in Europe”. All my boyish fancies came sweeping over me, all those carefully imagined horrors & terrors came up to my mind, & also, no longer can I smile to myself & say, “Ah but it’s only pretence”. Instead I and all of us are conscious of a great & heavy cloud which overhangs us, & we know that we cannot shake ourselves free from it till it has burst over us & scattered its bitter waters over rich & poor, high & low. Every hour brings its full quota of dread news, the atmosphere of sombre dread & painful eagerness for more cheerful news, is almost unbearable. I find myself sometimes having a terrible desire to awaken & find that all is a dream. But no, like a dread octopus the tentacles of this great monster of war seem to survive & stretch above us, ever threatening, ever closer & closer, & we feel that we can but wait & pray & be patient. It is not as though I or one or two others, may suffer, for that would be a very hard cross to bear for some, but it is as though God had lain a huge cross upon the face of Europe, & that the whole of Europe is having to help bear it.

In these last few days, a thought has grown up in my mind & increases day by day. It is highly probable that this terrible war, which threatens to convulse the whole of Europe, may mean for me the sudden collapse & end of my university career. War means financial ruin, & I have to face the matter calmly & steadily & see Oxford, my Oxford, dying away as a golden dream of the past. Last week, coming home from Keswick by train I looked out for a few moments over the vista of my past life, & could not but murmur, “Why, oh Lord, hast thou so abundantly blessed me, why have all my wants & desires been satisfied, why have I had so deep a draught of the cup of earthly & spiritual happiness, where is that cross I was promised if I would follow thee; Oh God, is this to be my cross? Is this thy purpose with me? Have I reached the parting of the ways? Is bitterness to be at last my cup? How then am I to meet it? With bowed head & trembling knee? No, I thank God that the victory may be mine. If all my days of sunshine have not strengthened me for what may come, my religion was worth very little. I have often prayed that I might learn the Gospel of bitterness & pain that I might be closer in touch with other men, & could say with St Paul [quotes from Bible in Greek]. Is this to be the test? Has God heard my eager cry to even be honoured with a cup of bitterness, & is he about to send me one brimming over & full of all the bitterness & gall of shattered hopes for the future? I may not yet know. My whole being goes out to God, & I dare but pray, ‘<ay this pass from me’, but I pray to be able to bear what may come. God has decreed – may my vry be ever ‘Thine not mine Oh Lord, in the ordering of my footsteps. My will not thine be done on earth as in heaven.’ Let the future hold what it may for me, ill or disappointment, or the reinstatement of affairs as they have been, the lesson of the present is that I must learn more of my utter dependence upon God & see how he works his way in me, & try to put no barrier in the way of a full working out of that purpose. That then may be the future that I have to look upon. What is the future of others?

With universal war in Europe there is no knowing what the future may have in store. One feels the awful powerlessness of oneself in the face of this universal solemnity. With Germany declaring war on France & Russia, with Austria against Servia [sic], & the prospect of England’s having to step in and aid France, one wonders how it will all end, & what will be the vista of carnage & destruction that we may have to look back upon.

Will is over here in England with us, & there is now no possibility of his getting back to Germany to Johanna. All steamers to France & Germany are cut off, & one is not even sure that letters can be got backwards & forwards. We are all very anxious here, for Will’s position is indeed a most uncomfortable one, & one which we are all anxious to relieve as far as we are able to. It is now certain that it is impossible for Will to get back to Germany & it is not at all certain as to whether Johanna can get to England. This cloud of war has swept over the sunny landscape of my mind & has almost made me forget those many happy hours which I spent up in Keswick a fortnight ago. It would be hard to say in a few words all that Convention meant to me, with its teaching & its atmosphere of spiritual thirst. I think perhaps that the greatest good which I derived comes from the companionship of those nine days, with those 15 other men coming from different colleges, all of them so different in nature & outlook, all so willing to give and take, all so manly in their religion & displaying that finest of all characters, a Christ man. It was so refreshing to see tall stalwart athletic men full of youth & vigour & fun, eagerly looking for spiritual benefit, & searching for a Living Christ, & finding him too! I made a great chum of Higham of Oriel College & he & I had many walks and talks together, & I got to like the fellow immensely. He is only 20 & is just entering on his last year in Oxford. He is 6 foot [2?] ins, & we must have presented a comical appearance when we went off together for our walks. He opened his mind fully to me, & I was so glad to find that he was really & deeply moved to search after those higher & nobler things in life & religion instead of being satisfied with a superficial knowledge, & having a thirst lamentably easy to quench.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Sydney’s friend Reginald Higham was ordained in 1919. He later served as vicar of Branksome, Dorset.

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