Little details of war

This is the fascinating account written by Sydney Spencer in hospital recovering from shell shock of his experiences at the front line in August 1918.

I have read many a glowing account of deeds & doings up there when men know each other as they are. Not one of these accounts gives for me at any rate, more than a very sketchy idea of the innumerable happenings which may take place in a few days. War is made up, so far as I have seen in my short experience, of little details done, undone, to be done, or to be undone, and unless these things are truly & patiently portrayed, the great with the little, the brave with the craven, then for those who yearn to know how things really happen there is little hope of arriving at an understanding of the atmosphere which surrounds warfare.

Before going any further, do not for one moment mistake me. I am not the old war worn man who has been out there for 3 years or more. My service out here is still in its babyhood. All I wish to do is to set down here as much in detail as possible the happenings of some eight days ending for me in the morning of August 10th, in the hope that should my ain folk ever read this, they may enter a little into what we do out here. Let the papers speak for themselves of vast movements, of cavalry, tanks, army corps, air fights, massings of troops, forward or retrograde movements, strategy & tactics. I mean to talk about much more humble things. How to get men’s socks changed. How to get shovels with which to dig in, under fire when no shovels are obtainable, how to carry the burden of 11 Lewis Gunners, when you only have four gunners left. How to walk that last kilometre when men are almost asleep as they walk. How to buoy men up when they are down. How to sympathize & yet be firm. How to be grim with the craven, & gentle with the exhausted ones.

I want to get away from the newspapers’ broad sweeping view of things & come down to little things, nay, at times to talk of a yard or two of ground or an individual man. The yard or two of ground will not be one necessarily where deeds were done, the individual will not be a budding VC.

And so let us get away & follow these 8 days through. We had had a day’s rest at [censored], after coming up from down south, & then at an early hour of the 1st, Dillon had orders to reconnoitre line in front of [censored], & I was to go with him. (more…)

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“I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!”

Sydney Spencer’s unit practiced their technical skills behind the lines.

Wednesday 24 July 1918

Got up at 6.45. Route march from 7.15 to 8.30. Dillon went to see tanks so that Dawkins was in charge of company. Parade at 10 am. My platoon did a stunt with Dawkins on a strong point watching an attack. By coincidence I worked the oracle in exactly the way he did, rifle section working down at side of the field, bombing section at corner of a copse, L Gunners on left. Remainder of morning in squad drill.

After lunch spent a long afternoon playing patience, & censoring letters. Likewise after tea I did not do a great deal. Managed to get a letter to Florence after a struggle. Her article in Punch has not appeared. It is called “Or Both”. Went to bed fairly early tonight. These nights I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

‘D’you remember’

Sydney Spencer had a nostalgic evening with old comrades.

Tuesday 23 July 1918

We had an early parade this morning, consisting of a march which lasted till 8.50. Parades after that were of a more or less easy character, so leaving me a certain amount of time free for preparing a dinner for the CO this evening.

Most of my morning being free I went round trying to get all sorts of goodies, with varying success, at any rate when the CO & Adjutant came to dine at 8 pm we had a very nice dinner waiting for them. The CO was very tired & did not play cards, so we sat & talked. Principally, each subject started with ‘D’you remember’! Tapley stayed till quite late.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“Rather tired of this ceaseless tramping from one place to another”

It was a hot and dusty day in France.

Sunday 7 July 1918

11.30 am. Lying under a tree in the shade alongside a hot dusty track between Harponville & Hedanville on my way to Battalion headquarters. Had a fine lazy night’s sleep. Got up at 8.30 & breakfasted while dressing. Started this 12 kilo walk to BHQ under guidance of Pte Killick & another chap. A tragically hot & dusty day for such a march. I did so hope for a day or two’s rest at Transport, but it was no go!

1.30 pm. On the Hedanville Forceville road. Have had a long rest here, & got some RFA men to make us some delicious tea.

Arrived Battalion HQ at 3.30. Up to front line straight away. Joined Ferrier in a wood. Thick undergrowth with occasional drives. In front of B Company’s posts only 10 yards between lines!

July 7th [1918]

I am on the way now to B in Head Quarters. I am lying under a tree for a few minutes rest from the almost tragic heat of the hot July day. I have about 16 kilometres to go along a track through acres of cornfields & the dust is about 3 inches thick & there is nary a bit of shade for miles except for this welcome elm tree now. I must pack up & get on trek again. I envy you your bungalow in Norfolk.

I am well & fit although rather tired of this ceaseless tramping from one place to another….

Your always affectionate
Brer
Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/54)

A million Americans – good fighters

America’s Independence Day was marked by a baseball match between teams from their Navy and Army at Chelsea football ground.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 4 July 1918

Train supposed to start at 8.30. Started at about 10.30. Arrived Domleger 11.30. Marched through Gramont to Domqueur. I found that all the Norfolk Details were gone up the line. In fact I saw Shute & Knights & Sergeant Major Fuller & others, who got into the train which I left! So I am OC Norfolk details – only 11 of us & have before me the prospect of a few days of the most charming place.

To bed at 9. Lt Pratley of 7th Norfolks my bed companion.

Florence Vansittart Neale
4 July 1918

1,000,000 Americans in France – good fighters. Baseball match.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“I am deeply in love with the world & the inhabitants thereof”

Sydney had emerged from his post-illness depression in high spirits.

Tuesday 2 July 1918

Got up at 4 am feeling cross with myself for feeling cross at having to get up so early! Got breakfast at 11.45. Took over my draft of 29 at 5.30. Drew an iron ration! Marched to station. Tucked my men away & saw they had their rations. Train started about 1 hour late, 8 am.

Got to Etaples at 12. Bagged a tent (& put up a bed!). Got a bath, shave, shampoo & wave at Fichet. Lunch & a talk with a long [serving?] [other?] ranker who was with Col. Harris in India. Have just had a bath & went busking with no things at all on.

I spent the rest of the day writing letters to Florence, OB & Col. Harris. This day’s rest is doing me untold good. After dinner for a long walk with an ASC chap. A most interesting conversation.

EFC Officers Rest House and Mess
June[mistake for July] 2nd 1918

My Dearest Florence

Yet another rest house & yet another place. I am gradually getting back to my B[attalio]n. I expect I shall be back by tomorrow night or Thursday morning at the latest. I went into hospital on Thursday 20th June, came out on Tuesday 25th & here is July 2nd & I am still wending my way back.

I have just had, here at the Club, a delicious hot bath, a hair cut, a shave & a shampoo. Small talk did I hear you say? Really Florence I am surprised at you. Why, these things are red letter days in our career out here. One gloats over it for days. There one does not get a shave every day, one gets a bath of sorts quite occasionally, but all on one day & done by a professional man, why, one feels frightfully clean & composed in mind & spirit.

I suppose a reaction is setting in after my depression. I am full of high spirits, nothing annoys me, I am deeply in love with the world & the inhabitants thereof, & the sun is shining “as hard as he knows how” for me. …

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/50)

“A seething mass of Chinese & Prisoners of War”

Much of the behind the scenes work was undertaken by Chinese labourers.

Monday 1 July 1918

I did not have to get up very early as my duty for today consisted of taking 50 other ranks to Vendroux at 11 am. We had a long march of 6 kilos to get there, a hot & dusty road. Arrived at Vendroux, found it a seething mass of Chinese & P of War.

A desolate waste of burnt out hay ricks! About £300,000 damage by a spark! Party worked at filling trucks from 1.30 till 4. Tea & started march back.

A man named Nicker taken ill with PVO. It took 3 hours to see him into hospital. He kept almost ..[illegible due to bleed through from other side]…

Leave Calais tomorrow.

End of 12th week.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“Dreaming incessantly that I had lost my platoon Lewis Gun Section & could find it nowhere”

It was a frustrating day for Sydney.

Wednesday 19 June 1918

It was raining hard when we got up this morning at 7.30. I had a very bad night of it, dreaming incessantly that I had lost my platoon Lewis Gun Section & could find it nowhere.

I took some of men [involved] in last night’s escapade for some arms & close order drill till 10.30. Camp cleaned up & kits packed by 11.30, ready to move to S-n-s, where we go today.

1 o’clock order came in that we should not move till tomorrow. Had two or three hours of quiet & rest.

At 5.30 was informed that company would march to new area. Am now doing my utmost to get on with the move as the skipper has not yet returned. Now I have to go to orderly room.

6.45 pm. No. 5 & 6 platoons moved off. Dillon returned, thank goodness. Got into new area at 10 pm. Dillon & I shared mattress in a dugout.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“The men always say we move on a Sunday”

Sydney was on the move again.

Sunday 16 June 1918

And so, my dear diary, once more we make a move on a Sunday! The men always say we move on a Sunday, although I have not specially noticed it.

Got up at 6.45. Went to Holy Communion at ‘Gaspers’ entertainment barn at 7.30. Took church parade for Dillon. An old French peasant kicked up a row. My knowledge of French led me into the task of getting rid of him!

At 12 noon we knew nothing about moving. At 1.45 Dillon & I were playing double patience. At 2 pm we marched off for a camp between F-c-v-e & H-d-v-e. Arrived there at 4.30 pm. Men under ‘Arab’ bivouacs in a corn field at edge of trench system, ourselves, 4 of us in a tent near road. A rest & bed by 10 pm. EA [enemy aeroplanes] heard overhead but no shelling except of V-ns.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“My platoon beat No 5 platoon at football”

Sydney was enjoying time away from the front line.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 31 May 1918

Today I went on parade again. Paraded at 7 o’clock. Inspected platoon & then we went for a route march under Capt. Rolfe. A glorious morning again & I very much enjoyed the march. The country round here is glorious. We are already at high summer, dogroses are all out & trees in the first beauty of summer foliage, before the dust dims their shrill green.

After lunch to the range. My platoon shot well. I got an 8 inch group and a possible at the application.

By the way my platoon beat No 5 platoon at football 5-4. We are very anxious to take on Mo 7 platoon which beat No 8, 2 nights ago. Got to bed fairly early & read for a time.

Bombardment fairly heavy which disturbed me somewhat in so far as I had a night full of dreams!

Percy Spencer
31 May 1918

A lovely day. Fritz shelled near 17th a little, relieved 24th in front line, and bombed us at night.

Joan Daniels
May 31st Friday

Mummie had a letter yesterday from Auntie Lavinia. Her brother was killed at the front. Also a letter about Eina Furness. He is getting on better than was hoped for so that is great. He was on the third floor of the hospital, & was the only one on that floor who was left alive, falling from there to the basement. Besides having a piece of shell in his head he was injured in the back & arm. Mr Douglass is back from France.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“All of a tremble: I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire”

Sydney Spencer and his battalion were on the move, and getting ever closer to the action.

Tuesday 23 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. Got kit packed & mess kit packed. No parades today. Went for short walk in woods. A lovely morning. The young trees looked their lovely ‘shrill green’. Violets & cowslips everywhere. After lunch we had a mess meeting. Drink bills were settled up, thank goodness. I paid in for B company 160 francs. It is now time to get ready for our route march to Lillevillers, so we is off [sic] 5.45 pm.

10.15 pm. Arrived at Lealv-s at 8 pm. Have had supper. Papers have arrived. We move on tomorrow & dig in behind Mailly-Maillet by daylight. So I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire. I am all of a ‘thremble’ [sic] at the idea and as Aunt L would say, here’s a nice kettle of fish. Hervey and I are billeted at No. 75. Artillery is making some row just at present.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

“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)

“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)

Guns as thick as blackberries in September

Army chaplain T Guy Rogers reported his latest experiences to his old friends in Reading.

LETTER FROM T. GUY ROGERS.

August 15th, 1916.
My Dear Friends,

I wish I could give you some idea of all the wonderful sights one see on the march. It is true one only sees under difficulties. Great clouds of dust half blind and choke us as we go. The blazing sun makes even the hardiest warrior droop his head a little as we traverse the rolling hills. Sometimes we become too preoccupied with mopping our faces to do any justice to the landscape. But when the ten minutes’ halt comes- ten minutes to the hour – when ranks are broken, and we lie down on the bank, or in the ditch, or on the heap of stones by the road, we find ourselves in more observant mood. Perhaps we have halted near some bivouacs and see hundreds of naked forms bathing in some tiny stream which would have been utterly despised in days of peace. The British soldier is not proud like Naaman! If he cannot find Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, he is content with any trickling or shallow Jordan which come his way.

Perhaps we have halted near some batteries and admire the cleverness with which they have been screened from aeroplane observation. The whole country is stiff with guns. Though there may be good reason to smile at some statements made by politicians, believe all that you hear about the guns. They are as thick as ‘leaves in Vallombrosa’ or blackberries in September. Whole batteries of – spring up like mushrooms in a night; our old eighteen pounders are, like silver in the days of the great King Solomon, ‘nothing accounted of’ for their number.

I wish too, I could repeat for you some of the stories I have heard of the tremendous fighting of the last six weeks. All honour to the armies we call by the name of the great Kitchener. To-day I hear of a boy under age for military service, who, with a handful of men, has held a position for three days against German attacks, when the rest of their Company was killed. The deeds of heroism are without number. Alas we say for those who have fallen. Such sad news comes to me from home of our brave fellows from S. John’s who have laid down their lives in the great advance. But our last word must not be ‘Alas.’ I like that custom of the French Government which consists in congratulating as well as commiserating with the relatives of the fallen. And even though from constant reiteration those fine phrases ‘The Last Debt,’ ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’ may have lost something of their pristine glory, the simple testimony still remains, ‘Greater love hath no man than this- that a man lay down his life for his friend.’

My own life is full of the kaleidoscopic changes of an army in motion. This evening I am in a chateau with ample grounds. I lunched (is the word permissible?) to the roar of a 9-inch gun. Last night I slept in a cellar, full of empty wine bottles, and most inconveniently damp; another night a little farther back in a dug-out in the front line, after burying some poor bodies lying out upon a recent battlefield.

Nearly all my services of late have been in the open air. I can recall so many which could not but touch the least sentimental, and which leave behind unforgettable memories – memories of men kneeling on the slopes of a hillside in the early morning to receive the sacrament, memories of services held between long aisles of waving pines, and on the tops of downs swept by the evening breeze.
Amidst all the sadness – and there is much – when friends (and one has so many now) are struck down by shot or shell, there is an uplifting sense of God’s presence, and we can feel it even in the valley of the shadow. And even if called upon to face sterner ordeals in the immediate future, ‘out of the depths’ shall we still praise our God.

Your sincere friend,

T. GUY ROGERS.

Reading St. John parish magazine, September 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

The difference between fair terms & absolute surrender

The son of the vicar of Radley, Captain Austin Longland was serving in Salonika with the Wiltshire Regiment, where he struggled with the heat, but hoped the Germans were about to give in.

Thursday July 6th [1916]

Temperature in here continues at 95-105 degrees I’m told by the doctor. Also I’ve just had my 2nd dose of typhoid & perityphoid inoculations & have a day off duty in consequence. Twice clouds have gathered, & once we had a violent storm of thunder & lightning but never a drop of rain. Needless to say all beauty’s gone. The sun glares down, trying the eyes, and our view of the town is blurred by a continuous cloud of fine grey dust. I have told you that from the sea up to the hills the ground rises steadily till the last steep ascent, & we’re therefore, tho’ considerably below the level of the actual hills, some height above the town which is about 5 miles away. We are to the left of the road this time, but we can see the sites of our 2 early camps and get a rather different view of the town & the citadel. You remember the shock I had on returning our bivouacs last Sunday fortnight & finding them gone and all my kit packed. My first idea then was that we were going forward – first stop Nish or Sofia, but when it was known that we were to march back over the hills no one knew what to expect.

The men were more cheerful than I’ve seen them in this country – all firmly persuaded that they were going back to France – an opinion which I hadn’t the heart to discourage, but did not hold myself.
Since then nothing has happened. From about 6 to 6.45 each day in the morning the battalion does its old physical drill, & parade which the officers, except Waylen who takes it, do not attend, going out instead to study tactics with the NCOs, each company by itself. This lasts 6 till 9. Three days a week we go a route march from 5-8 a.m. In the evening we parade from 5.45 till 6.15. doing physical exercises gain, officers & all – & that is the day. The NCOs class was ordered by the Brigade & is most useful – tho’ of course it’s what we ought to have done at Marlboro’. So from 9 till 5.45 every day & from 6.30 onwards we have nothing to do except sit in our hut.

Wood as usual is scarce, so there’s not chance to make a chair. At present I am seated on 2 sand-bags, which raises one off the ground a bit. We have a hut for a common room, but tho’ it has forms and a table, it’s very hot & full of flies. Here the flies grew so unbearable that I ordered yards of muslin from the town & with its aid we ae at last at peace. We feed in a hut off a sand bag table & seated on sand bag seats. I’ve just been busy trying to make that fly-proof – harder but even more necessary. If you sit still for a moment you can always count over 50 on the plate in front of you.
(more…)