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 keeps my pecker up”

Sydney Spencer greatly admired his commanding officer, Captain Dillon.

July 31st [1918]
My Dearest Florence

My clothes are literally falling to pieces & my batman is going on strike if I don’t soon do something about it. So here goes. Will you be sweet & send me my trousers & best tunic keeping the brass buttons on it as these brown buttons are an “anathema” in the regiment. Also the tunic will need Norfolk badges put on it if I remember. Don’t send the old trousers but the new ones (they are of the same material as the tunic is barathia)!!!

I have sent so much kit home that things are getting almost to an indecent stage! And I simply refuse to continue this existence in breeches any longer! Also my pyjamas (the one pair I have have parted company in the middle, almost. In a day or two I am expecting to put them on one leg at a time! I have to do that always, but you know what I mean! It won’t be funny much longer however. Also (patience darling, I hang on as long as possible & then ask for lots of things at once so as not to be continually worrying you), I need about 1 dozen dark collars size 14 ½, 6 handkerchiefs, 2 pairs of thin short pants & another thin shirt. Also (!!) my batman orders me to get at once some Proberts mahogany brown polish for my belt & boots. He nearly ticked me off yesterday because I hadn’t written before!

Now to be pleasant & chatty. Since I wrote you I have moved about 30 miles. The best of it is that the flies here are about 75 % less than down where we were. Moving in this broiling weather is very fatiguing. But I keeps my pecker up & there is always something funny or incongruous to be amused or puzzled over. I wish I had time to write you sketches of French life as seen in these funny little villages. Some would amuse, some would make you sad, others not bearing the repeating, being of a nature that although highly amusing, are so essentially ‘not done’ in England, that they would leave you breathless.

When I tell you that there are practically no sanitary arrangements, & that all French cottages possess manure heaps (of which even Job himself could not complain) in their front gardens, you can imagine that [there are] times when life is not only embarrassing but precipitate.

I told you about my platoon being the winner of competitions in my last letter. My skipper – Capt. Dillon to boot – was very pleased as it brought credit on his company. By the way, he has a great love for Gold Flake cigarettes. Would you like just to please me to send him a tin, only putting your name on it, as sending them. He would be delighted & I could tell him they came from you afterwards.

He is such a splendid chap & I would like him to feel that I appreciated him & a tin of 100 gold flakes would please him immensely.

His address is the same as mine. Captain G Dillon MC, 7th Norfolks, BEF.


All love to you both from your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Diary
Wednesday 31 July 1918

Got up at 6.30 & went down to the stream at the bottom of the garden, & had a splash in the cool cold water. On parade at 8 am & did an hour’s march [in] full marching order. Then half an hour’s PT & ½ hour’s gas drill. Cut my foot slightly when bathing this morning. Having a rest surreptitiously on Dillon’s bed. Feel very tired after yesterday.

Letter and diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/59-66; D/EZ177/8/15)

A good billet

Sydney was on the move.

Tuesday 30 July 1918

Was awakened at 6.30 by Home, Dawkins’ batman, with the news that we were moving! So had to get a move on. Paid billets, got packed & ready to march off by nine. Got mess kit packed up & sent off too. At 9.30 inspected billets. At 8.45 am ready to march off. Moved off about 10. Marched to a place called P-z!

Entrained & travelled for about 3 hours north, & slightly west; unloaded & marched here to this pretty village, whose name would make a man turn round if one called it out behind his back! Found the men, then billet after much trouble. A good billet too. Our mess & sleeping quarters as at 44A. A beautiful garden at back & a stream in which I had a bath at bottom of garden. To bed at 10 pm. Feeling very tired after this very hot day!

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

“The cleanest platoon he had seen on parade in this Battalion”

There was more glory for Sydney Spencer’s platoon.

Saturday 27 July 1918

Last night we were informed that the platoon competition would be judged by the CO & Capt Shutes at 7.30 am this morning. So we had breakfast at 6.45 am, on parade by 7.15. My platoon came up to the scratch wonderfully, and after an hour’s minute inspection by the CO & Shutes the CO said to me that my platoon was “easily the best”. He told Dillon it was the cleanest platoon he had seen on parade in this Battalion.

After parade went to range & fired No. 24 rifle grenades with RB Sections. Got back at 10.15. Had some biscuit & cheese, & at 11 o’clock a 2 hour route march. It poured with rain& we got splashed unmercifully with chalk & mud!

After lunch I took my clothes off & tried to sleep, flies preventing it! After tea ‘lazed’ & made up accounts. Bed at 10.30 & read ‘Masterman Ready’.

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

“The bomb went almost as far as I expected it to!”

Sydney Spencer was frustrated by his men’s lack of shooting prowess.

Thursday 25 July 1918

Got up at 6.30. Route march from 7.15 to 8.45. After breakfast rested & played the skipper at double patience. At 11.35 we paraded with company for the range. I took the rifle bombers. Tried the unbulleted round for firing rifle grenades. The bomb went almost as far as I expected it to! About 30 yards & that is being very generous! It is very difficult to get any accuracy from men at present. They don’t seem to grip the idea altogether, of reckoning with wind, personal error, or the use of the gas check.

After parade, a lunch tea combined at 3.45. At 4.30 kit inspection. At 5.15 went with Dillon to Mappin terraces, & helped map out a scheme for a patrol with compasses. Saw my platoon about cleaning up for tomorrow.

Dinner at 7. Saw boxing competition. My observer won the bantam contest.

At 10.5 took out patrol. Very interesting & instructive. Hidden objects all found easily.

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

“If it did not get quite so hot here in the summer Mespotamia would be an ideal place for an Englishman.”

Several Sunningdale men had been taken prisoner, while another man from the village was serving in modern Iraq.

We are thankful to say that none of our men have been killed in recent fighting but the list of prisoners is lengthened for Edward Evans and Walter Day, of Ridge Cottages, Charters Road and Mr. E. Rump have been captured, and also Lt. R. Cowell who was wounded has fallen into the hands of the enemy. Stanley Hind is reported to be in hospital with a severe gunshot wound. We shall be glad if relatives will kindly let us know in all cases of their men being wounded in order that the prayers of the congregation may be offered for them by name.

We give below some letters from abroad, from Roy Lewis in East Africa and Bevis Jerome in Palestine.

Corpl. C. Burrows writes from Mesopotamia his thanks for a parcel from the Sunningdale Red Cross Society.

He says –

‘It will be a trifle strange when I get back to not have anyone to speak to who understands Arabic or the ways of Arabs as I have had 2 ½ years amongst them now and am quite at home with most of them. If it did not get quite so hot here in the summer it would be an ideal place for an Englishman.

I suppose if we continue to hold it they will eventually get it like most places in India.

There is a great prospect of a large flood this year, and I expect it will be like 1916, one mass of water as far as one can see, not deep but very uncomfortable when one has to march through it, knee or waist deep. It is a splendid sight to see the setting sun over the Desert, any artist would love to have a picture of it. It is a pity one cannot get the colours with a hand camera. I sent to Basrah the other day, but same old tale ‘we are expecting it by the next boat’.

Once again thanking you, I remain, etc.

Sunningdale parish magazine, July 1918 (D/P150B/28A/10)

Bad sanitary conditions

Hygiene was not always ideal, with the inevitable results.

Saturday 20 July 1918

When I got up today I found that I was suffering very uncomfortable things from my tummy. Probably it is the water or perhaps the plague of flies or a combination of both, helped considerably by foetid pools of water, the ubiquitous French Muck heap always in the front garden (!) & the bad sanitary conditions.

Morning parades fairly easy although the march rather tried me. After tea I concluded the day’s performance by being violently sick & having other troubles. I had only a couple of cups of tea today and a slice of bread & butter so that I went to be feeling very cheap! Maddison, Knights & Nixon to dinner.

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

“My dear old platoon”

We last saw Sydney marching back from the trenches through the night.

Wednesday 10 July 1918

We were marching still when Wednesday came in. Arrived at our first long resting place between W & V at about 3 am. We had a cup of tea & a biscuit on the wet ground for which I am very grateful. Slept with my head on my pack after discovering that my batman had left my burbury behind & brought with him an old one!

Started off again at 5.30 & got here to H…t at 7. Saw men into tents. Then wandered about rather unhappily not knowing whether I belonged to C Company or not, at last orderly room let me come back to B Company at 11.30 on parade. Saw my dear old platoon again.

After lunch took my clothes off & got into my valise in the sunshine. Slept until rain caught me. Slept till 5. Dressed & tea. Spent evening lolling etc.

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

A sweet oblivion

Another long journey for Sydney, still not all that well.

Thursday 27 June 1918

A lovely morning. Got up at 6.30 after breakfast. Saw the MO then got packed up & rested a time. 10 am to Adjutant. I go by a train which leaves I suppose somewhere about 4 pm.

Got into train for Calais at 4 pm. Had to march down here. It was very tiring. Saw Jourdain who left 208th Brigade for Egypt in February. He was only in Egypt a week or two at base!

Train started at 4.45. I am pt in charge of front half of train. Just my luck.

Journey was a good one. I didn’t worry about the men. Was too tired & they behaved decently. Besides we did not wait at stations long enough. We passed through Acherecourt & Darnetal en route for Etaples. I slept by about 10 pm & the rest of the hours of darkness were a sweet oblivion.

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

Officers vs sergeants: sergeants won hands down

Sydney Spencer had a busy day. The Maud Allan affair referred to was a contemporary scandal in which a well known actress was accused of being a lesbian spy for the Germans, and sued for libel. One of her persecutors was Harold Sherwood Spencer, an American with no connection to the Berkshire family.

Monday 3 June 1918

Got up at 6. Paraded at 7. Inspected my platoon. Went to range from 7.30 to 9.15. Fired in sweepstake, officers vs sergeants. 15 rounds rapid was the shoot (mad minute). Sergeants won hands down. Top score sergeants = Sergeant York with 43. Top score officers myself with 31 only! Peyton 2nd with 30.

Took my platoon for a time in fire orders, & then scuttled off to O.14 C7.5 to a demonstration in wiring double apron fence. Knights was there & I enquired after his battle position affectionately. No wire cutters or gloves were to be found so I toddled back & fetched them. The Brigade Major wanted to know if I was any relation to Spencer in the ‘Billing’ Maud Allan affair!

After lunch slept till 4. Took company for march at 8.30. Had a nice ride on Charlie Chaplin [his commanding officer Dillon’s horse].

To bed at & read for a while.

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

“May it please God that the Germans may advance no further”

As the need for men at the front continued to increase, older men were now being called on.

Joan Daniels
June 1st 1918

The news is not too good today, the Germans are advancing and are now 47 miles from Paris again. However, may it please God that they may advance no further….

Daddie went to be medically examined & is in Grade 1. Of course it is nice to know that he is healthy but I would rather he had been in Grade 3. Oh may it please God to leave him with us.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 1 June 1918

Today I took over a large platoon – for me. Under the new arrangements there are 3 platoons per company, Nos 5, 6 & 7. No 5 is under Dawkins & Hervey. No 6 under myself. No 7 under Peyton & Kemp. I have now 2 LG sections, 2 Rifle sections & an employed section only shewing on paper. Sergeant Timby & Sergeant Seeley are the two additions to my platoon as NCOs.

Parades for today. Company training in morning & march in evening, or rather afternoon from 2 till 3.20. CO’s inspection at 3.30. After inspection paid out company with Dillon. Had a guest night. Knights & Cook came in. After dinner A company came in in force & my duties as Mess President became fast & furious to say the least of it.

Percy Spencer
1 June 1918

Another fine day. Battalion relieved 24th in line. I went to depot near [Coutary] with Gray. Bailey got kicked & went to hospital.

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

Advance section “got lost through not obeying my orders”

Sydney Spencer was on the move.

Sunday 5 May 1918

7.15 pm. Now what do you suppose, my dear diary, has happened? Why, we are being relieved at some time tonight. I am now in my dugout, a new one today, and it is most comfortable, plenty of room.

I came on duty this morning after stand to, but was unable to do a lot owing to the fact that I am helping Bradley of C Company find ‘bivys’ for his men. Managed to get them settled in by about 7 am.

At 5 I went down Beaumont Road to look at our wiring which we did last night. It was better than I expected. The 150 lbs guncotton used to blow up road behind us failed to wake me at about 2.15 am. At 9 this morning I did a tour of D Company’s front line returning via CT to south of Capt. McCullam’s Company HQ.

At 10.15 am we were relieved & we marched off by platoons to our new position. I sent one section in advance. It got lost through not obeying my orders! The wrong map reference was given as so [sic] that we had a difficulty in finding these bivys.

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

“It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war”

Sydney Spencer was now very close to the action, as he confided in both his diary and a letter to sister Florence (written in pencil on a scrap of paper). His fluency in French meant he was the recipient of the sorrows of an elderly Frenchwoman.

Diary
Wednesday 24 April 1918

After a very peaceful night I got up at 7.30. after breakfast had a rifle inspection. Made up mess acocount. Wrote to OB. Sent cheque to W H Smith & Sons. We march off & dig in at 2 pm. We go to M-M. We arrived here at 8.45 pm. Our platoons dug in & made cubby holes. Before one could say knife they had scrounged any mount of loot & made cubby houses! One was named Norfolk Villa, another “Tumbledown Nest”. Another “Home sweet home”.

Two pathetic incidents, an old lady horribly crippled finished her plaint weeping, “Vous me donnerez, M’sieur, [meme?] grand service si vous tirez a moi”! [You will give me great service, sir, if you will shoot me.]

Another, outside our cellar here in the yard lies a cross with grave number & the legend ‘A British soldier’. Tonight Frost found some flour someone else went to move. Brought back some sort of [lime?]. The two were mixed before I discovered the mistake. Result chaos!

Guns are behind us now firing considerably in “crashes on suitable targets”!


Letter

24.4.18
My dearest Florence

A cellar in a ruined village, straw on the floor, 4 candles, a brazier, a table ‘scrounged’ from somewhere with glasses, table cover & supper in preparation. Artillery getting ever louder & nearer. And that is how I approach nearer the real thing. It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war. I suppose it is a case of fools & angels again!

Only twice have I been made to feel the effect of war. Outside leaning against the wall is a small wooden cross torn up from goodness knows where & on it the legend “A British Soldier” and a grave number. An old lady, very crippled, who wept & spoke patois, poured her troubles into my ears, seated on a pile of wood & earth. I was the only one who could understand her so I had to bear the brunt of all her troubles. I will not tell you all she said, but when I told her gently that there was nothing I could do, she wept 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 touched by the incident, so you can imagine that I had to take very great care to preserve an outward calm.

But still my darling Florence I am as I have repeatedly said, very perky & as well & vigorous as ever I have been. My tootsies are just a little weary after much walking about today, but otherwise c’est une bagatelle.

All love to you my darling sister &
Cheer Ho

Your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Same address
I am Mess President of my Company. Tonight my [illegible] discovered some flour in a disused mill, another went for more & brought back some lime, both were mixed before I discovered mistake. Result chaos!!!

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/22)

“It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months”

Sydney Spencer was still some way behind the front line.

Wednesday 17 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. A better morning, warmer, but wind.

Went on parade at 9. A march of about one mile up on to a trench system where … I did platoon’s drill for a time. It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months.

After lunch fine again till 3 when it poured with rain. I gave a lecture to ‘B’ company on Gas. Paid company at 3.30.

After tea got my clothes dry, changed, made out mess and [illegible] for A and B companies. After dinner, all officers paid me so that I was able to make things square.

To bed at 9.30 & read In Memoriam for a little while. A fine night.

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

“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)