Nothing to indicate war but the sound of the guns

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence with various requests, and dropped a few hints that he was soon to go to the front lines.

April 18 1915

Dear Florrie

Before I forget it, will you send me a tube of KOLYNOS toothpaste, and can you get me a diary pad (Letts) … a week on a page.
Also before I forget it, do you want any money? I haven’t drawn any pay at all yet, and do not in any case propose to draw more than a [score?] or so francs per month. Shall I send any to you periodically, or shall we square later on? If possible I should prefer the latter.

By the way, in case of accidents, I am entitled to 2.6 per day from Marks and may be entitled to 3/6 per day – for this I have applied. The sum of money due to me can be ascertained from my pay book, which shows all payments made to me.

I expect to be very busy for the next fortnight, so don’t expect to hear much from me.

Today it’s perfectly glorious.

I’m sitting in the farm – or one of the farms belonging to the house – in the sunshine, with the chickens scratching around and nothing to indicate war but the sound of the guns…

Yours ever

I’ve just received another parcel from you with tobacco, torch & chocolate.

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/24)

‘Unhappily he is American!’ – more on the YMCA at Harwich

Sydney Spencer took the opportunity of his 26th birthday to reflect further on his work with the YMCA with soldiers at Harwich, and record his impressions of some of his co-workers – and one ordinary soldier – for posterity. His brother Will, also mentioned here, was a refugee from Germany, where he had been teaching the piano at Cologne Conservatory.

Sunday October 4th
My birthday!…
Dear old Will has just come in to wish me many happy returns & would make me accept a gift of 5s, which I would much rather he had not given me at such a time!…

There is so much about my experiences at Harwich which I want to write on, but as I have written some pages & must just read them over & see what has been left out. I have just read through the 20 pages of my diary at Harwich & find that there are a fair number of little anecdotes which I wanted to chronicle, also I find that I have not written my impressions of Hayes yet, and I promised him he should not be let off but would go down to posterity – or oblivion – according as my diary should [illegible] in the future! I will begin with him first. He is a man 6 ft 2 ins in height; a finely built man, ruddy brown with grey blue eyes & a small moustache. He strikes one as being a splendid specimen of a full grown & well proportioned Englishman. Unhappily he is American! His people left England somewhere about 1727. His parents are missionaries in China. He studied first at a college in America & afterwards as a Rhodes scholar at Merton College, Oxford. He has just finished his course at Oxford taking “greats”. He is a Leander Club man, & just missed getting his “blue” for the sake of getting “Greats”. In fact in Oxford the name “John Hayes” of Merton was a name of one of the “Bloods” of Oxford. He was a remarkably refined and sensitive man. He was alive to every wind of thought, & his sarcasm was of that refined & polished order which made me almost long to offend him so as to be subjected to some of his sarcasm. I used to just hug myself with delight when I saw him put on a lazy sleepy expression for I knew then that the game was up and someone was in for it. The fun he had in his “study” of the officers was delicious & I can see him now marching up and down our marquee with his fingers on his chin or viciously biting his little fingernail, thinking out in the dim light of our post-9.30 candle, just precisely the right message & its exact wording to boot which he should send over to the mess the next morning in return for a rather enigmatic one received by us during the evening…

After I had played at the service in the Co-operative Hall on the first Sunday night I was there, on coming into the body of the hall I was accosted by one of Kitchener’s men who wanted me to have a cup of tea with him at his expense, as a mark of his appreciation of my work. This of course I willingly did & we drank mutual goodwill to each other in cups of tea. I was delighted with this expression of his goodwill. On the night of our concert, that is the Wednesday night, after the preparations for the concert had been made, I found at 6.45 that the tent was already filling with men, while I was in a desperately begrimed condition & needed to find a place to wash & clean myself up. This operation had to take place on the concert platform & I had the curious experience of making my ablutions before an audience of some thirty or forty men! In the middle of these ablutions Captain Watson walked in & chuckled with delight over my idea for footlights, which by the way if I have not before mentioned it were 8 or ten candles placed in saucers on a form.

Dr Marks whom I mentioned in connection with Gravel Hill was a dear old man. A child psychologist – I think a professor of Sheffield University, he had a very beautiful character, & spent himself in his eagerness to do all he could in this YMCA work.

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

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)