‘Two of my great pals have been killed. Oh well, ‘C’est la guerre’, that is all one has time to think of these days’

Sydney Spencer was on his way back to Front after his shell shock experience.

Sept 4th 1918

My Dearest Florence

Am getting up to the Battalion by degrees …

Had great fun helping to build the mess here which was shelled & splinted & fallen to pieces. We patched it up (it is a hut) & put sacking on the walls, found tables & chairs. I went off last night to an old German trench & found two small tables & chairs & some felt. After dinner I went out in the dark to fetch in one table, stepped into a trench & fell forward on to the edge of the table firmly “grasping” the said table with my left eye. The table caught hold of some of my eyebrow as a sort of souvenir I suppose & at present my eye looks comically as though I have had a fierce fight.

Very few of our officers have been killed I hear, two however of my great pals have been killed. Oh well, ‘C’est la guerre’, that is all one has time to think of these days. I have a strong conviction that I shall be in England soon!

All love to you my sweet sister & to John

from your always affectionate
Brer
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/74)

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“Just after I had written to say the Hun had not got us yet, he came over & buried us”

Percy Spencer sent his sister a postcard to let her know the Germans had got him at last.

7/8/15
My dear WF

Don’t worry.

Just after I had written you yesterday to say the Hun had not got us yet, he came over & bombed our mess & buried us. I myself escaped with a fractured left wrist & slight scalp wound. I feel quite fine under the circumstances.

Yrs ever
P J Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/64)

“If only Fritz would drop a bomb on it, it would save further argument”

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence to let her know how he was getting on. The following day he was to be wounded.

Aug 6, 1918
My dear WF

Almost I’ve forgotten how to write a letter. Lately I have been so busy picking up the threads and so on that I haven’t had time to write a line since July 14, I think it was – not even to write and wish you many happy returns of the 4th. However I’ll put the clock back a couple of days and do it now.

My diary has gone during the last few weeks and I’m racking my brain for news.

To go back, I finished my course on the 17th. My section, 4/7 of which was my Division, won the School cup. The runners up were also 4/7 my Division. So we set our caps at the Canadians, Australians & our friends from USA and swanked. Also individually my section scored highest marks in the examination. My own report read –
Qualifications Very good
Power of command Ditto
Keen

So there was much rejoicing and our [HLI?] instructor got very tipsy at our expense and insisted on singing all the Scotch songs ever written, and some which I believe had before scarcely escaped the boundaries of his “wee bit hoos ben” or some such foreign place.

After that I returned “here” – that’s interesting. From here I went up the line once or twice, and then went “there” and billeted the Battalion. With the aid of 200 men, made the area reasonably clean, and HQ habitable. There was even a piano and one evening we had our string trio over to play to us at mess, and afterwards the doctor (from USA) with a fine voice, sang to us and made us all homesick. And the adjutant begged for Raff’s [Cantina?] and got it, and wondered how I knew when I turned to him during the piece and said, “Your wife plays this”.

And then I came here again & the adjutant being inoculated & sick, I had to ride up the line and take over. And now I am here again (and it’s pouring with rain) in an abandoned cottage with an earth floor and leaky roof and really very comfortable. To a newcomer it would be startling to go round a battalion’s “billets” and hear our boys tell the visiting officer that they were quite comfortable in a tumbledown outhouse or barn. Someday again I expect we shall get luxurious again.

Had one very bad night here during an event I expect you are now reading about. Fritz bombed all night and generally played the devil. A few days before a billet of ours was gutted by fire due to another unit’s fault. Luckily overnight I had organised our people for such an event, and in 25 minutes we had it out and a large farm saved. The other unit having at last accepted liability, rebuilt the place. I remarked that if only Fritz would drop a bomb on it, it would save further argument. He did, but not till it had been rebuilt & occupied and the farmer was gloating over new buildings for old.

The CO has just turned up so I’ll close while I have the opportunity.
With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/58-60)

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)

“News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids”

Sydney Spencer, who oped to train for the Anglican priesthood, disapproved of vulgar songs.

Thursday 18 July 1918

Got up fairly early. News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids. This we did & gave my platoon a talk about maps & did musketry & gas drill in the billet. The men were very pleased with the talk about maps.

After lunch little or nothing doing. I helped Plant with his Battalion dinner for tonight. It was not very successful, I thought. I hate big messes. There were 33 of us there. I rather deplored the songs which were sung after dinner.

I walked home with Kemp & Sergeant told us great news of a big French victory. Some 20,000 prisoners & 300 guns in all, south of us.

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

A city of silence

Sydney Spencer was cautious about revealing place names in his diary in case of capture by the enemy, but it is clear that he was now at Arras, whose cathedral was severely damaged by German bombs.

Sunday 14 July 1918

Got up at 6.15. Breakfast 6.45. Am orderly officer today. We move at 9. Parade at 8.30. Marched off at 9. Got to busses [sic] (carrying 23 & 2 drivers) & embussed at 11.20 on RVS Road. Started at 11.35…

12.45 A..s a ruined city from the point of view of inhabitants. A fine cathedral. A city of silence. Left A-s at 1.15. D-y at 1.20. Now lying on road between D & St- awaiting orders. It is now 4.15 pm.

Got into village of “Holy Refuge” at 5.30. Saw men into billets. Found officers’ mess no. 38 ‘La Route de Paris’. Dawkins & I found a bed at no. 39. Mounted guard at 7 pm. Conference at 7.30 pm. Had dinner at 8.15. Saw staff parade at 9.30.

Lights out at 10. Turned guard out at 10.45, & then to bed. Had a bed to sleep on but flies were a great nuisance. Dawkins & I in same bed.

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

A right royal time buying stuff for mess

It was a red letter day for Sydney.

Friday 12 July 1918

Have had my commission 3 years today.

So I have had my three years commission today! & only 95 days in France, woe is me!

Had a delicious night’s sleep & got up at night. A big barrage seemed to have been put up on the left front from 7-4. First parade at 11.30. Men fairly clean but Rolfe rightly found many faults. After lunch Dawkins & I started out for D-ns.

We are now on crossroads to T-s. Here we got hold of an ambulance lorry which took us to Doullens, then we had a right royal time buying stuff for mess, other officers & stuff for our platoon. Tea at officers rest house. EFC could not supply us with anything we wanted.

Had dinner with two NZ Majors at EFC Club. They got great fun out of the London waiter who was shocked at their asking for a ‘follows’ as he called it. Lorry jumped back & got back at 11.

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

“A man knocked down another & smashed his head open!”

More from Sydney Spencer behind the lines.

Thursday 11 July 1918

Got up at 7.15 this morning after a good night’s sleep. Felt much rested & contented but my tent mates were ratty & objected to my good temper.

Very few parcels today. 1st parade at 10.30. Small kit inspection, followed by ½ hour’s gas drill & then wearing gas masks for an hour. After lunch wrote up my diary & read papers. Lolled about during afternoon until 4 pm & then we had a conference. After tea I worried out mess accounts with Kemp & Dawkins until 7.30. Managed to put them straight after a fearful scramble.

After dinner we had a long conference with Rolfe about reorganizing the company. This lasted until about 10.15. I then spent more time squaring up accounts. A row took place outside mess. A man knocked down another & smashed his head open! To bed at 11. A lot of rain today.

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

“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)

Almost a great success

It was another practice day for Sydney.

Friday 14 June 1918

Got up at 6. Paraded at 7 am for Inspection. After Inspection marched to range. Here we practised an attack. Field firing practice viz platoon advancing under orders of platoon commander. Ten section commanders took over. Lewis Guns were used. First attempt of mine a bit of a failure. Second attempt I think almost a great success. My platoon got best average for shots on target. 118 on section targets & 17 over jumping jimmys.

After dinner a rest. After tea nothing much was doing & I wrote sundry letters. After dinner most of officers in B invaded our mess & had a merry time. Rumours of move on Sunday, just down south.

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

“Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose”

Sydney Spencer continued his gas course.

Sunday 9 June 1918

Got up at 7.15. After breakfast wrote up some of my notes. On parade. A long lecture on yellow cross shelling. A very good lecture. After a break, we each had to give details for different drills. Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose. Then a talk by SSOI training Lt Col Porrit Morris. A lecture on cause of casualties in yellow cross. Then we dismissed.

After lunch, during which we had a few contretemps owing to bad mess waiting, a lecture on gas poisoning. After tea lolled about a bit. Wrote notes until 7 pm & then down to Hesdin to dinner with Barker. Noticed a French Major at dinner. He was a curious old man & had curious manners.

After dinner walked back to mess & wrote up my notes until 12.30. Then to bed and read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. A highly entertaining book. A lot of ‘sweet’ rain today to cool the atmosphere. A fine night.

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

“A chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace”

Sydney enjoyed a pleasant day off.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 7 June 1918

After a most beautiful night’s sleep I got up at eight o’clock. Took breakfast at my leisure & am now lying under an apple tree in an orchard with the four other men. We are sprawling on the grass in the warm sunshine & a chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace.

We are now going into Hesdin.

Went into Hesdin & bought some gloves. 22 francs. Also some cherries. Afterwards got my hair cut, & had a delicious bath in camp commandant’s enclosure. Returned to mess at 1 pm. After lunch wrote a long letter to Bertha Lamb & also to Florence.

After tea went over churchyard & church with Major Knights & Graham. Then a short walk. Finally we lay in orchard & read. I read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. Have got half way through it.

Now it is dinner time. The army chemical adviser & gas instructor has just rolled in. We start work tomorrow morning. After dinner, went to bed & read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. To sleep by about 10.30 pm. (After dinner a short walk to Barker’s billet.)

Will Spencer
7 June 1918

A letter … for me from Mother, from Florrie’s. …

Mother’s letter contained the news that Percy had received still further promotion, – that he and Horace and Sydney had not yet met in France, but hoped to do so later, – and that Stanley’s name had been suggested to undertake war pictures, & he had “accepted the offer”, & would be leaving his present position.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/29)

Battalion HQ in very deep dugout

Sydney had a sightly better journey today, and paid more attention to the controversial Billing case at home.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 6 June 1918

Rose at 5 am. Got breakfast, & into the train for Hesdin by 6.30. It is now 9.30 & we haven’t yet started. Another glorious morning, all sunshine.

Billing has been pronounced ‘not guilty’. Justice Darling makes use of the following expression, ‘I tell you now that I do not care a bit for you or anyone like you, or what you say about me’ seems ridiculously childish. A street boy would have pulled a face & said ‘yar ‘oo cares for you’ & would have called for more conviction with him!

Started for Hesdin (30 miles) at 9.30. Got there 11.30. Wonderful. Lorry jumped to Marronville, arriving at 12 noon. Graham & I billeted at the mead, a long low white cottage facing the church. Mess will be started tomorrow morning.

Had lunch at the Hotel de Commerce. Walked back to billets. Slept. Got some [illegible] out of the sergeant. Walked down with Graham & Barker to Hesdin. Had dinner at the Hotel de France. Back by 9.15 & to bed. Started reading Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet. A very droll book.

Percy Spencer
6 June 1918

17th relieved us and we went into support. Battalion HQ in very deep dugout.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 June 1918

Early church – dog walk – then fussed to find rooms for farm workers till lunch. Heard another officer coming today & one tomorrow. Captain Petcher AFC Maidenhead called on Miss Areson.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

A bolt from the blue

Aeroplanes overhead were becoming common both in France and on the home front.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 4 June 1918

I am seated in a waggon for 40 hommes or 8 chevaux at Candas! How do I come to be here? Well, hear my story with patience, my dear diary!

I rose at 6.30 as usual, on parade etc at 7 as usual, company training as usual till 10 am, & then a bolt from the blue! In other words a note from Mark Tapley to the effect that I would report Marronville for a gas course on the 7th, taking at least 36 hours to get there!

I promptly made up mess accounts. Came to P[u?]chvillers by mess cart with Fox, my batman. Caught a train at 4.30 & have now been waiting nearly 2 hours for this train to start!

The train started and we moved on in fits & starts. How many miles we moved I do not know, as I slept by fits and starts. Just before midnight, however, I woke to the tune of Fritz aeroplanes. He dropped sundry bombs starting a fire not far off to N. West.

William Hallam
4th June 1918

Last night I heard an aeroplane going over. I got up and looked out of the window and saw it drop a star light.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and William Hallam of Swindon (D/EX1415/25)

“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)