Very sad at leaving my Pussycat

Phyllis Vansittart Neale was still suffering.

10 December 1918

Up to London 9.45. Straight to Hospital. Saw P[hyllis] was feverish. Has pleuro patch in middle of lung. Cough bad but coughs up something now. Read to her in afternoon & left at 4 when motor came. Down with it. Felt very sad at leaving my Pussycat.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/9)

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Veritable hell: “We knew that some one had blundered, but obedience is the first rule of the army”

Here is a dramatic account of life in the Army Service Corps taking water to the thirsty troops one terrible day in Mesopotamia.

(We publish the following account of an exciting adventure in Mesopotamia in justice to the gallant men of the A.S.C., in case there should still be any who are liable to despise the man not in the front line. ED)

“A Stunt.”
(By a FORD Driver in Mesopotamia)

We had just completed an eleven days’ continuous run, and were expecting a day or two’s well earned rest, but such was not to be.

We reached —— at midnight and “parked up” our cars outside the old Turkish Cavalry Barracks. I “clicked” for guard, and at 3.30 a.m. took a telegram from a despatch rider, containing instructions to move off and load up immediately, So at the first streak of dawn, amid much “wailing and gnashing of teeth”, we “wound up,” and after picking up supplies we started off on a joy ride across the desert to an unknown destination, for a journey of indefinite duration.

We arrived at ——, and to our great joy were informed that we were to rest for the remainder of the day. What hopes!

For the next two days we had barely time to eat the necessary “bully,” so busy were we rushing supplies of all descriptions to an advanced position.

At the end of the second day, thinking we had earned a little sleep, we had just got into our blankets when the whistle announced “fall in.”

This time (about 8.30 p.m.) it was to pick up troops, under sealed orders. For the first fifteen minutes all was well, then we pulled up, and the fun commenced. All lamps out, no smoking, talking or blowing of hooters, the greatest precautions to be taken.

Of course, you should know that we were on the desert, following a track which we had never travelled before, everything pitch black, laden with troops, with the knowledge that with us rested the success of the action planned for the following day break.

When returning the following morning, we could hardly believe our eyes, when we saw the route we had taken in the dark, deep, yawning precipices and huge boulders of rock, and the places of danger which we passed but “where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise.” Anyhow, after about an hour’s ride or so, during which time we had relieved the tension on our nerves by smashing a few radiators, losing the column and sundry other mere “inconveniences,” it was decided to pull up for one-and-a-half hours till the moon should show just a glimmer, for progress under the circumstances was absolutely impossible.

This hour-and-a-half was even more nerve racking than driving, as we hardly dared to whisper, for here we were, stranded in “No Man’s Land,” where, apart from the actual enemy, viz.:- Johnny Turk, the great nuisances were the hostile and cunning Arabs, who do not at all object to using us as targets for practical jokes of a serious nature.

At last we started off again, and after many and indescribable difficulties, we parked up under the shelter of a big hill to drop our men and to wait for dawn and further instructions.

The day broke and with the dawn our brave men went over the top of the hill, but Johnny was not asleep this time, for he soon started throwing a few shells over, and we, being somewhat interested, stood on top of our cars to watch the proceedings, until one of the enemy’s aeroplanes “spotted” our “place of rest” and gave information to his artillery, who got our range to a nicety, and we (reckless, daring spectators) began to discover, a few at a time, that the underneath parts of our cars needed attention, but I freely admit, that to stand and allow someone to throw 6in. shells into our midst, while powerless to reply or defend ourselves, did not greatly appeal to me at least.

However, our time of idleness was brief, for word came through, even in the early dewy hours of the morning, that the only water available for our advancing troops was from the salt lakes.

Then we got busy, packets, tanks, buckets, petrol tins, canvas water carriers, everything capable of holding water is flung aboard and we dash off by two’s and three’s from our “park” to gain a river some few miles across the desert.

But Johnny had anticipated our movement and had the river banks nicely covered with snipers and machine guns, so instead of running “en bloc” and filling up altogether, we had to dash up one or two at a time and fill up our receptacles.

When all the difficulties were overcome, and we were ready to commence our return journey, it was approximately 10 a.m., with a temperature of 110° in the shade, when we regained sight of our troops it was practically midday, with a temperature of 128° in the shade.

Then came a veritable hell, the water had to be got to the troops and orders came through that the M.T.’s were to “carry on.”

We knew that some one had blundered, but obedience is the first rule of the army.

The M.T.’s had never been under fire in Mesopotamia before and never since, except in cases of single cars on special detail, but here we were, about eighty cars in column, ordered to practically reach the front line trenches, shells bursting right and left. Did someone mention “Brooklands?”

Never before had Ford cars travelled at such a speed, sixty pounders make excellent accelerators. There were many miraculous escapes, cars riddled with machine gun bullets and shrapnel, some cars put out of action, here and there was a man putting on a spare wheel under fire, but marvellous to relate, not one of our men was touched. I shall not forget a shell dropping and rolling under a car about two yards away.

Thank God, ‘twas a “dud.”

Eventually the trenches were reached, the sight was almost beyond description, dead and dying, troops mad with thirst, they had been drinking salt water, and more men had been “laid low” by sun and thirst than anything else.

Disregarding discipline, our cars were raided, the water speedily drunk, and all craving for more. Then we drove, hither and thither, picking up wounded and dying, and made our way to the field hospital. By this time it was “every man for himself,” and we practically worked individually, using our own discretion. During this time, two of our men gained Military Medals, and one of our officers was “mentioned” and has since received promotion.

Night was now drawing near, but it made no difference to us. Half was ordered to move the Casualty Clearing Station and then drive thirty miles (this time in safety) across the desert for more ammunition.

On the return journey, I, personally, and several of my “pals,” I know, fell asleep over the wheel, to be suddenly and rudely awoke by a “gentle” drop into a hole or a bump against a sand bank.
When we got back we found that our troops had retired about seven or eight miles, and while we were fetching the stores and wounded back, the Arabs had great sport “sniping” at us, and some of us nearly got into trouble for stopping to reply to their “overtures of good will.”

But we successfully completed the retirement, and Johnny did not follow up, so the “stunt” s finished, and we returned to —- for a rest, — what hopes, we were dead beat, no sleep for over fifty-six hours, but within twenty-four hours we were again on our ordinary work of carrying supplies from one dump to another, to be forgotten until the next stunt, but don’t forget, — when the M.T.’s are wanted again, they will be there.

The Newburian (magazine of St Bartholomew’s School, Newbury), July 1918 (N/D161/1/8)

The Austrian offensive seems to have vanished into mid air

Officers were well treated on their visits home, on leave or wounded.

Florence Vansittart Neale
22 June 1918

I & two officers motored to Oxford. Saw Dorchester, had lunch en route. Saw Magdalen, New College & Christ Church. Two MO Canadians here for Sunday, Captains Johnston & Reay. They out all evening. We brought Phyllis home. She left Oxford.

Joan Daniels
June 22nd Saturday

Bruce McPherson has come for the weekend… Bruce has had a very nasty wound in the back of his head which he got last October.

The Austrian offensive seems to have vanished into mid air.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Joan Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“Even here aeroplanes are more ubiquitous than motor cars and went droning thro the blue at a great height like beetles”

On an antiquarian trip to his home region in the Vale of White Horse, William Hallam took the time to pay his respects at a war shrine.

18th May 1918

Got up at 7. Went to Challow sta. at 20 past 9. Walked thro’ Goosey across the fields – then onto Charney. Here I looked in the church as a young woman was cleaning it and getting ready for a wedding she told me. Notice that queer carving in chapel. Then I copied down all the Inscriptions I could decipher. The I went to a cottage and enquired the way to Cherbury Camp but the old man said I meant Chawberry. He told me the nearest way but I mistook it and went a devil of a way round. However I enquired again and got there alright about 1 o’clock. I was surprised to find such a perfect camp still existing in the midst of agricultural land. I sat on the bank and ate my lunch of bread and butter and a hard boiled egg and revelled in the sun. The cuckoo had been on all day long. The first day I’ve heard him this spring. There was not a cloud in the sky and even here aeroplanes are more ubiquitous than motor cars and went droning thro the blue at a great height like beetles. I sat here and thought for an hour. I looked over the ploughed field in the encampment and found one flint chip.

I came back into Charney the way I should have come – much nearer- and went into the Pub and had a pint and a ½ of ale. This landlady Shepherd knew me by seeing me regularly at St. Paul’s as they lived at Swindon until 3 years ago when they took this Pub. Her husband a smith now working she told me at Cheltenham in aeroplane works and rides on a bike to & from every week end- 45 miles. I asked about this old house near the Church. She told me a lady had bought it 2 or 3 years ago and spent a lot of money on it – then before she had finished it got tired of it and sold it to a Col. Colmes for 1800£ and now he is spending as much as he gave for it in restoring it. Fortunately in antiquarian lines the chapel & all being put back as it should be. When I started back I sat on the Oak bridge and saw the wedding – not a khaki one – party came out – quite a village wedding – all walking.

It was a scalding hot day and as I sat on a heap of stones resting and having a smoke 2 Swindon men passed by and had a chat on their way to Longworth. Further along the road I turned off and went to Denchworth & looked over the Church & churchyard and here I saw the first war shrine. A frame with a crucifix and list of the names of all the young men gone from the village with a prayer for the passer by to offer up for them so took off my hat and said it. Before it on a ledge were 2 brass vases of fresh flowers. I got back to Challow St. at 6 o’clock and got up home here at ½ past 7. The Country is at its best now especially the Vale.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/25)

The honourable list of those who have laid down their lives for their country and the right

A Burghfield woman volunteered to help behind the lines in wartorn Serbia.

THE WAR

Honours and Promotions

Mr J Rapley has been appointed “Warrant Mechanician” (HMS Superb)

Casualties

Captain G O W Willink, MC, 2/4th Berks, killed in action, 28th March

Private J W Cox, 1st Royal Berks, died under operation for wounds (April)

William Duffin, Royal Berks, died in hospital (pneumonia)

Albert Hathaway, Royal Berks, killed in action

Corporal Arthur J Pearse, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, wounded (April)

The parish will have learnt with sorrow that Captain George Willink was on 5th April reported “missing, believed killed, 23-3-18”. No further official notification has been published at the time of writing; but a telegram has been received from records, and private inquiries confirm it, removing all hope. His name must therefore be added to the honourable list of those who have laid down their lives for their country and the right. A fuller statement will be made in the June Magazine. Meanwhile his father and the family are well assured that they have the sympathy of all their neighbours in this fresh trouble.

Mrs Howard, so well known in the parish for her good work at Holiday House and with the Boy Scouts, has gone out as a motor driver with the Scottish Women’s Unit in Serbia. We wish her a safe return.

Burghfield parish magazine, May 1918 (D/EX725/4)

During the war we all have to make ourselves responsible for more than we could rightly undertake in time of peace

The new vicar of Wargrave took on a new role as school inspector for church schools, mainly because his ownership of a horse meant he had transport denied to others.

Diocesan Inspection

There is one General Diocesan Inspector in this diocese who gives his whole time to the work, but the area of the three counties is so large that he can only visit one in each year. He is therefore assisted in each Deanery by an Honorary Inspector, appointed by the Bishop, who examines the Schools in two out of every three years.

The Vicar resigned this office when he left the parish of Medmenham in the Deanery of Wycombe. He has been asked to resume it in this Deanery. There are twenty-six schools to be inspected in the sixteen parishes of this Sonning Deanery. Somebody must do the work and it requires somebody with a horse, (even motor cars cannot run without petrol). So the Vicar has felt that it would not be right to decline. It is very congenial work, but acceptance of any additional task seems to require a word of explanation when we are shorthanded here and the things already left undone are evidence that the Vicar has no time to spare.

The fact is that during the war we all have to make ourselves responsible for more than we could rightly undertake in time of peace. And if we happen to have experience which makes a particular task lighter than it would be to a new hand it is not fair to decline it, unless it is an absolute impossibility. This work is done in the morning in the Schools and late at night at home so it will not much interfere with parochial visiting.

Wargrave parish magazine, February 1918 (D/P145/28A/31)

Tanks break the Hindenburg Line

Personal tragedy was alleviated by the success of the British forces.

21 November 1917

Henry at committees all day Maidenhead, so motor brought back Dottie & took her to the station. She spent the day with me. We talked & worked.

I have undertaken 2 pr socks & 2 mufflers a week for France.

Heard Willie Parker missing, fear killed. It’s awful!

Brilliant success of our Western Front. “Byng”, tanks & cavalry – broken Hindenburg line. Great surprise to enemy – nearly to Cambrai.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Bright moon, bad air raids

The Vansittart Neale girls were both home for the first time since they started nursing the troops.

28 September 1917
Waited [at Maidenhead station] for both girls who had been to London for day’s shopping. All motored home. First time we all 4 together. Bad air raid nearly every night this week – bright moon.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

To Windsor to see the Queen

The Vansittart Neales’ Australian guest, a wounded hero, got a royal audience.

14 August 1917

Captain Yates & I went dog walk – then golf and croquet. We all motored to Maidenhead, I to meetings about work – new secretary…

Captain Y[ates] to Windsor & saw Queen.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Ill and frightened in a strange land”

A Bracknell woman who had the opportunity to visit her seriously ill soldier husband was full of praise for the medical staff and volunteers caring for the sick and wounded.

THE WAR

Our readers will be glad to know that Corporal Michael Fox who has been very ill indeed with pneumonia in France is now on the high road to complete recovery. The following account of his wife’s visit to him will be read with interest:

“I feel I must let the people know of the great kindness shown towards me while I was in France. I was sent for a visit to my husband who was dangerously ill. I started away at once; on getting off the boat, feeling very ill and frightened in a strange land, to my surprise a gentleman came to me and took my luggage and papers and saw me through the signing of them, and through to the Customs, and then put me in a motor, and I asked him if I could go straight to the hospital, although it was very late then, he said ‘certainly you shall go at once.’

When I got there Matron and Nurses told me all about my husband, then took me in to see him. He was unconscious and did not know me. I went away, the Matron telling me to return early in the morning. Then the kind gentleman who had waited for me took me to the Y.M.C.A. Rooms. There a lady welcomed me as though I was a sister, also the gentlemen of the Y.M.C.A. My husband was like that for three days and I sat with him three or four times each day; all the time the Nurses and men of the Medical Corps bringing me refreshments.

If only people could see what the Nurses, Doctors and the Medical men are doing! They never get impatient and a smile is on their faces all day even when they are on the go hour after hour. I cannot say enough of all they do, and did for me and mine. All the ladies out there, in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Rest Home, do all sorts of dirty work, washing up cups and dishes, cleaning up the places, and one lady I saw, her hands are worse than mine who have had to work for my living all my life. She does all this in the morning, then in the afternoon visits the hospital and gives to the Soldiers games, English papers, cigarettes, note paper and envelopes, and is always cheering them up and doing all she can for them. There are many more who do the same. How they must miss all the comforts they have been used to!

Then there are the Red Cross Nurses waiting about the harbour to rescue any poor soul who has been missed off the boat, in the rain and snow all hours of the night, and then take them to the Y.M.C.A. where the gentlemen make them comfortable. The ladies and gentlemen of the Y.M.C.A. never get a minute’s rest, even when they are having their meals they are called away to attend to someone. I think the work out there is splendid.

When my pass for the seven days was up the doctor would not let me return, so he extended my pass for another five days, he said I was doing my husband such a lot of good. The kindness I received over there overwhelmed me, and I feel I must let everyone know what the Nurses and Medical men and Ladies are doing for our Soldiers and Sailors, and I am unable to express my thanks enough, also to all the ladies who are making the wadding jackets for the sick, my husband had one up to his chin, which he said was a comfort to him.”

Bracknell section of Winkfield District Magazine, December 1915 (D/P151/28A/7/12)

No man can stand aside

Sydney Spencer’s elder brother Percy was a clerk at a big building firm in London. He writes to sister Florence, living in Maidenhead, with his thoughts of possibly volunteering. Mr Image, referred to in the letter, was John Maxwell Image, an elderly Cambridge don who was a friend of the family, and especially close to Florence. He had helped Sydney get into Oxford, and his brother Selwyn taught younger brothers Stanley and Gilbert at the Slade School of Art.

27 Rattray Road
Brixton
London SW
August 6. 14
My dear Florrie
Don’t be so dismal.
It is amusing the reasons one hears on all sides for not volunteering. Four of our fellows (trained territorials) would all rejoin the colours if –
“Well, I should volunteer, but –”

As Mr Image [Florence’s future husband] says, I have a problem to settle – Am I essential to my family? By Sunday, I hope to be in a position to answer that question in the negative, and on Monday it is my intention in that case to join the territorials – that is to say, volunteer for home service.
This would probably expose me to very little risk; that will comfort you.

It seems to me that if I now volunteer for home service, untrained though I am, as the danger here is for the moment rather remote, this would enable the authorities to send one more efficient fighting machine into Belgium, if necessary.

And, of course, if this affair lasts, when efficient, and when necessary, I should have to volunteer to take my full share of the brunt.

Don’t think this brutal, but I must point out to you that no man at my time of life can stand aside and let his fellow fight for him, without having an adequate reason for so doing.

Will, yesterday, was talking to me of the serious reproach it might be to our family of 7 sons, if none volunteered. You had better write to him or he may be off to the wars. He was most indignant at my suggestion that he isn’t built for carrying a rifle and roughing it – dear old fellow, fancy him charging across the plain, and asking the enemy to wait a moment, while he regained his breath!

As you’re under martial law, I feel sure you won’t worry me to neglect my duty. I promise you, I will not volunteer for foreign service until I am efficient (I don’t intend to waste my services), and so I shall not volunteer at all, if I decide that home affairs are all-important. It is not the solider only who fights for his country.

[Percy was taking his brother Will, a refugee from Germany, around London.]

Probably Will will be able to change his German notes tomorrow.

Possibly the Home Office or Foreign Office will make some provision for people in his position.
Will came here to write to the Home Office, subsequent to our perambulations (if that letter isn’t perfect in accuracy and style, it ought to be), and he is writing too to J Burns.

Other things settled were that no money, telegraph or letter business was being done with Germany, so discussions on those points are ended.

Mr R Holliday [Percy’s boss] is a staff captain. Mr B P Greenwood (you may remember him) has taken service under the Belgian Govt as a motor scout, and comes tonight.

Cheer up. Britain is lucky in this affair. Think of the poor townsfolk and villagers where the fight really rages.

Yours ever
Percy

PS I’ve just remembered your ways. Don’t take my suggestion that Will might enlist seriously. If he did, rest assured they wouldn’t have him.

Letter from Percy Spencer of Cookham to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/1-2)