“No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist”

Percy told sister Florence about a day off – visiting friends in the trenches.

June 17, 1918
My dear WF

I must have written you a pippy letter – a poor return for all you do for me. I’m sorry.

Many thanks for the splendid tinder lighter and the other items in the parcel. I think I must have left several pairs of socks at 27 Tattray Road, as I do not recognise those you have sent. You are quite right, it wasn’t eyelets but “the things you twist the laces round” I wanted.

I’m still here amongst the strange insects. Never have I seen such a variety of dragonflies, and just now a pair of very large gaudy yellow birds I can’t give a name to came & had a battle outside this bivouac.

Yesterday I had a rather hard but jolly holiday. I got up about 6 am, nightingales singing gloriously, had brekker, and started off up the line with my batman. Just as I started the Huns commenced to shell the village nearby I was going through, which I thought was very thoughtful of them as it gave me an opportunity to go by another route and avoid the place. After a couple of hours walk through charming scenery and peaceful valleys I arrived at my destination. I had only intended stopping an hour, but eventually stopped all day. To lunch so that I could first go round the trenches and see the boys. To tea so that I could play bridge with the CO. Walking across country, taking short cuts and dodging unhealthy places is awfully tiring so I slept gloriously last night and got up late.

Enclosed for John’s edification I send you a note from my rough diamond No. 6 [not found in the archive]. No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/45-46)

“We might have to go back to the front line”

Sydney’s baptism of fire came to an end.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 27 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

At 12.15 this morning No 8 platoon of E Y relieved my platoon in immediate support. Lance Corporal [Denness?] brought them up like a steam engine & before one could say knife we were out on the top & [retreating?] for Ocheux. We went over the New B-t Rd via old HQ, M- My, the track to A—r.

We arrived in the woods at 2.10. Delightful to see woods in leaf again & on the outskirts of the wood we found the clear song of the nightingale. At two twenty the ‘war’ started again on a two divisional front. We got wind that we might have to go back to the front line. No 8 platoon got caught in yellow cross shell gas. No one gassed. Sleep rent & breakfast in woods at 5 am.

Arrived A-ques at 9. Washed, shaved, second breakfasted, bathed, slept, paid out at 1, saw CO at 1.30, slept, walked. Paraded platoon at 4. Conference 4.50. Dinner 7.15 & then bed.

Percy Spencer
27 May 1918

A quiet day followed by noisy night. Bombed as usual. 12 tanks observed in Hun lines. Warned against attack.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15) and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

A very sketchy but very jolly time – perpetual movement and precious little sleep

Percy Spencer shared his latest doings with his sister.

May 21, 1918

My dear WF

I don’t appear to have written you a letter since the 13th. And there has really been no reason why not except a mass of work. I’m very glad to say that I can see the results of my labour, anyway, so that should console you, even if you don’t see many letters.

Well my dear girl, I’ve lately had a very sketchy but very jolly time – perpetual movement and precious little sleep. We’re in lovely surroundings in a wood on one side of a steep valley. The days are quiet and very hot and the night is filled with the roar of guns. On the other side of the valley from another camp every evening a very fine trumpet player amuses all the world with cheery music and beautiful clear toned calls. And when he ceases, the nightingales improve upon his performance and sing all through the night whatever the guns are doing.

We’re all more or less on tiptoe and I’m getting rather fed up with it, one gets so little time to oneself and the night has a nasty way of turning itself into day. Nevertheless even that sort of life has its compensations.

For instance on Whit Sunday I arose at 2 am and didn’t turn in again until I had strolled around our wooded hilltop with our padre (a delightful fellow) and watched the sun rise and heard the birds sing praises to his glory.

On the 16th I met Anderson. You will remember him at the Boarding House at St Albans. Did you meet his wife? He told me you did. The war has made him look sterner but he has not lost his delightful smile.

On the 18th we had a terrific thunderstorm and life was moist. I had a painful toothache and got our dentist to haul out a wisdom tooth. A very trying performance as the tooth had an unauthorised prong. However I daresay the extra prong accounted for my extreme wisdom, so that problem’s settled, and now I suppose I shall be very foolish.

On Monday (yesterday) our Follies gave an open air performance on the hillside. I was unable to get away to it, but it was very jolly to view from a distance.

Will you let everyone who ought to have a photo have one. If possible I should like to see one of each myself.

Could you send me a tinder lighter some time, and a refill for my short tubular torch. I also badly need a key ring. I’m so sorry to bother you about these things, but they are unobtainable out here….

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/37)

“All through the bombardment, nightingales sang”

Percy Spencer endured a German attack.

19 May 1918

2 a.m. general alarm. Stood to & prepared to move. 3.40 a.m. stood down. Had tea & smoke. Strolled round wood on hill top with Padre and watched sun rise. Turned in 4.45 a.m. Slept till 7.30 a.m. All thro’ bombardment, nightingales sang. Bosch again expected to attack tomorrow.

Diary of Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

Feeling is bitter against the strikers at home

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence on a rare quiet morning at the front with instructions as to the kind of things he wanted her to send – and the ones he didn’t. He also shared some views on strikes at home.

May 20, 1915
My dear Florrie

It’s a truly peaceful morning; the guns are practically silent; I’ve had five hours undisturbed rest, and moreover being situated in the section of the line known as the “rest cure” I’ve time enough and inclination enough to write.

Thank you for all the things you have sent me. For the present don’t send any more spiritive (while we are stationary I can’t use it except wastefully). Also don’t send matches – we have plenty, and don’t send much café’ au lait. If you send any of the latter, send the smallest tin you can get; it’s difficult to carry an opened tin about. Don’t send refills for torch quite so frequently – if you are now sending at intervals of a week, for the future send at intervals of ten days. But always have the refills treated before sending. The last but one was absolutely “dead” when it arrived.

Fruit is very difficult to obtain and so sometimes is bread, so if you can send me a little tinned or dried fruit occasionally it will be very welcome.

I like the “broad cut” Fryers but it’s very funny you should have tried so hard to get it and refused the “original” as I prefer the latter. I always seem to have plenty to smoke – perhaps a little less tobacco wouldn’t be a mistake.

It’s a fine day, suitable for aeroplanes and I hear the anti-aircraft guns at work, so soon I expect the big guns will begin to roar, and this lovely spring morning full of promise of happiness will be sullied. Well, we’ll enjoy it while we can, and I mean to stroll out directly into the brilliant sunshine and have a look at a bank at the end of the garden which is a mass of double daisies and forget-me-nots. There too I’m sure to find a nightingale singing in the branches of an ash tree undisturbed by the awful events in its neighbourhood.

There is a good piano in perfect tune in this house, and in the evening the Brigade Major usually sings a few of Boney Gray’s of Chevalier’s songs, or some of the soldiers’ ditties which I understand years ago he went to the trouble of collecting & publishing. He’s very much like Mr Ray in many ways and can sing his kind of song very well indeed….

Is Sydney taking a commission right away? I shall be glad to hear if so. He has written to me several times and must think I have forgotten him as I haven’t replied at all I believe. But I really haven’t had the time. Give him my love and tell him I’ll write when I can. Tell dear old Will the same. I have received his letters all right enough [from Switzerland] and you can tell him that very curiously they pass through the hands of an A.E. postal corporal somewhere at the base. This corporal prior to his promotion was attached to us, and he has sent me a message on the envelope of each of Will’s letters.

How are they all at home? I hope well. Father seems to be worried by the course of events at home. I do hope our nation won’t make itself a byword by losing its head and sanity.
Feeling here is very bitter against the strikers at home. Of course the men at home may be enduring hardships; but the men at the front are enduring even greater ones, and the time for adjustment is après la guerre [after the war].

I continue to astonish the natives with my French. Most of them understand me. Those who don’t, I enquire, “Do you speak English?” “No.” “Do you speak German?” “Of course not.” “Then what language do you speak? For you don’t speak your own.” They always take that as a huge joke and the domestic commissariat is generally immediately at my disposal….

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/28-29)

Bloodstained souvenirs – and undefeated nightingales

Percy Spencer wrote occasionally to his sister’s friend John Maxwell Image, an elderly Cambridge don. In May 1915 he also sent him some rather gory war souvenirs.

May 19, 1915

Dear Mr Image

I have just sent you these souvenirs – a slim German cartridge, a stout French one and a piece of German shrapnel. I am afraid the bloodstain on the German cartridge has nearly worn off in my pocket, but hope there is still sufficient of it to satisfy your ferocity.

At our last resting place but one the owner of the house showed me his souvenirs and gaining confidence in my discretion as we went along, eventually removed a cabinet and withdrew from behind it a newspaper. Carefully unwrapping it he fairly purred with delight as a British bayonet bloody to the hilt was revealed. I’m sorry you weren’t there, but someday we must all go there together and you & the jolly good fellow who lives there can gloat over all his gory relics. Mademoiselle will join you, I’m sure – a most bloodthirsty damsel.

We captured a couple of Huns the other night and I was at the entertainment we had about 1 a.m. cross examining the fellows. One, a youngster, spoke English very well indeed, and was most interesting. He told us that the Germans didn’t “strafe” England half so much as the papers – in fact it was just a newspaper phrase! [see 10 May for the story being taken seriously].

We’ve had to put up with a good deal of shelling lately and yesterday a couple of 8 lyddites nearly found us. They burst outside the garden of this house but huge chunks of metal were hurled against the walls and over our fellows in the open who threw themselves flat down upon the earth.

Every now and then there’s a hellish bombardment and our house shakes and the papers lying about jerk [illegible] the table. But there’s never too great an inferno to stop the nightingales’ song or to wither the glory of our garden sweet with the scent of lilies of the valley and happy in the joy of sunlit daisies & forget-me-nots. Thank God for that.

On May 9th within 1000 yards of the battle and amidst the most awful din an old farmer strutted out solemnly smoking his pipe and commenced weeding the ground near our dugout where we were hiding from well directed shell fire! Man’s a wonderfully adaptable animal.

Thank you for the token. The play cut is a very nice tobacco, but I’m not to be weaned from my Fryer’s.

Yours ever
Percy J Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/10)