Nothing but wire between us and the enemy

Percy Spencer described the part of France he was based in to his sister Florence – and the musical backdrop of nightingales and mouth organs (harmonicas), not far from the hellish mud of the trenches.

Apl 25, 1916
My darling sister

[Censored, probably by Florence]

It’s the most lovely day that ever was. I’ve strolled out of our chateau straight up into a scrubby copse at the top of a very steep hill and here I am lying on quaker oats, eggs and bacon, writing to you and listening to a nightingale. He’s not quite in full song but for wartime he’s very good indeed and I’m grateful.

Already the sun was getting too hot so I have shifted into the breeze and an even wider view. This is a lovely corner of France. Everything is beautiful and only man is vile – that’s because the women left the corn during a very “unhealthy” period. But that’s not quite true for the lady owner has motored up from the south for a couple of days to settle a few business matters and she’s rather nice. Garwood says she’s “a decent bit of stuff” so taking the acme of perfection in womanhood as being “a posh bit” (Major Trevor’s wife reached that standard), you’ll be able to arrive at this lady’s position.

There’s a mouth organ playing in the valley beneath me, and being played remarkably well – “despise not the mouth organ”. As I think I have already told you, Ian Hay has my hearty endorsement to that remark. Many months ago I remember being largely amused at one of our boys’ letters home – “One thing I’ve been longing to ask you for, but I know how things are at home, and don’t like to bother you, but now Sis has got a job could you send me a mouth organ, a 1/- linnet is the best, but I expect they’re more expensive now owing to the war”. But after April 1915 when one mouth organ played a dozen or so of our weary fellows in from their 3 days cellar and shell experience, I made up my mind that the mouth organ was a noble instrument.

I told you, I think, I went round the line the other day. To complete my experience I went round the remaining portion by night with the General, that being the only time it can be approached with any degree of security.

It was an eerie experience and a fearfully wet one, the ground being as torn and riven with shell fire that it seems to slide away under your feet, and in the trenches, mud and water – water up to your thigh if you were unlucky, and mud that wrestled with you at each step for possession of your gum boots.

We went right out into the open (it’s a curious line about here) and with nothing between us and the Huns 100 yards away but a couple of frail curtains of wire – ours and theirs. Here the officers stood for a little while discussing points. I stood anxiously watching the enemy lights soaring into the sky towards us like evil eyes searching for victims to disclose to the German rifles, and behind me crouched an orderly also frightened to death at his exposed position murmured thro’ his chattering teeth, “C- this is all right”.

Well, we landed home safe and sound at 2.30 a.m. By 3.30 a.m. I’d scraped half of France off my clothes and turned in for an hour; turned in again then for another 2 hours when I got up for good, scraped the other half of France off my togs and “carried on”.
About my commission. There was a strong suggestion that being a sergeant I should probably only get six weeks training out here and then be chucked into some line regiment. That’s not good enough and unless I can see my way to getting a reasonable period of training that would enable me to take command of a platoon with confidence and also give me an opportunity of showing my administrative abilities, I’m not going to proceed any further.

Well. Time’s up.

On the right there’s a dear old chateau, dating back to William I’s time, with many grey limestone towers. To the left stretch the everlasting hills clothed with the wooded promise of summer. Overhead a couple of aeroplanes are humming and Hunning and right at my feet in the hollow stands “my chateau” and there I go – to work.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/8-14)

“There is no glory in this war except the glory of sacrifice and friendship”

An anonymous army chaplain shared his experiences seeing off troops headed for the front line with the parishioners of Windsor.

A Draft: A Sketch. By a Chaplain to the Forces at the Front.

Mud and rain and darkness! I looked out of my hut. The station was four miles off. My bicycle was heavy. I was not sure that my lamp was in order. I had already got thoroughly wet. Should I give the train a “miss”?

There were five or six hundred men going from “my” camps. Part of my task is to see men off to the Front. Some chaplains do it, and some do not. One gives out Woodbines and Prayer-card from England, one says something. I am usually reduced to saying “Good luck,” even though I do not believe in luck. (more…)

The YMCA: just a splendid grocery association?

Sydney Spencer tells us more about his work with the YMCA in an army camp. The poem he liked so much is by Henry Newbolt, and is now regarded with more irony.

14th Sept. Monday morning at the Packerton YMCA camp

I am to sleep in the marquee tonight with Hayes. I am only sorry that Jumbo [his friend Kenneth Oliphant] and I are parted. Yesterday I very much enjoyed the day at Gravel Hill. At 6 o’clock I got some tea at Harwich, & then went into the writing & reading room downstairs where I found a Private Russell who had a talk with me which ended by my having an opportunity of giving him a Testament, with which he was not only delighted, but said that he had “mates” who would like some too.

[Section censored in later years by Sydney’s sister and heir Florence]

I went to the Co-operative Hall at 7.30 and played right on without a moment’s break till 9 o’clock. I should think I must have played about sixty hymns or more.

I said I had not a break, but now I remember that Hindle spoke to the men for about ten minutes, & they very much appreciated his really good address which he gave. I was surprised at the way in which the men had turned up to the service. There were about 300 of them and they sang with the greatest gusto imaginable. They sang hymn after hymn & their choice of hymns was really good. They had for one, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”. This hymn went best of all, I think on the whole. Hindle works himself to death & does, I think, splendid work, although I think that it is a great pity that he frivols so on his table conversation. Conversation has been of a better kind lately & I am very glad of it. I am waiting just outside the YMCA canteen in the lobby place of the guard house, & one of the prisoners inside is playing a flute & is playing Home Sweet Home in a slim melancholy way which makes it comic. I begin to doubt of its being a flute, I should imagine it is a mouth organ by the sounds of the chords put in which I had not before heard. Hayes roasted Daldy splendidly last night saying that he thought we were a splendid grocery association & that we ought to chuck the YMCA. I am glad he did for he – Daldy – seems to think of nothing except the money part of the affair, & it absolutely disgusts me. I am very glad that Hayes is shewing his colours to such an extent, I shall get on much better for it. (more…)