“We are enemy aliens”

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer’s German wife Johanna, living with him in Switzerland, missed her family very much. In the autumn of 1917, she hoped it might be possible to meet up with her sister Agnes.

29 September 1917

Johanna having received a letter from [her sister Agnes] yesterday, in which she said that she had heard from the Ohlers, who had heard it from Herrn Rob. Loeliger, in Frankfurt, that persons were allowed to cross from Rheinfelden to Badisch Rheinfelden on showing an Ausweis, asked whether Johanna could not meet her at the other side of the bridge. I despatched a telegram to Agnes for Johanna after breakfast – “Es is nur unmoglich Inez (i.e. Agnes) aufzusuchen”. (We are not Swiss that have business that calls them to the German side of the river, but “enemy aliens”.).

At 4 we had tea … [with friends] to meet Frau de S., a Polish lady, a daughter of a Prince L., who has visited Rheinfelden regularly for 18 years. She lost her only daughter in 1911, her only son in the war.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

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The “Daily Mail” is demanding that Asquith & Churchill should be impeached

Expat Will Spencer had plenty to interest him in the Swiss newspapers – the first news of the Russian Revolution, plus the official enquiry into the fiasco of the Dardanelles expedition.

16 March 1917

Max Ohler’s birthday.

News in the paper of a revolution in St Petersburg. Also a rumour that the Czar is a prisoner, & has abdicated, & that his brother, the Grand-duke Michael Alexandrovitch, has been appointed regent….

Read an article in by the London correspondent of the “Bund” on the report of the Commission which was appointed to enquire into the conduct of the British Dardanelles Expedition. Lloyd George had said in Feb. 1915 that the Army was not there to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the Navy. The responsibility for the land operations(100,000 killed, wounded & missing, & 100,000 sick) being persevered with, rested with Asquith, Churchill & – though one is reluctant to say it under the circumstances – chiefly with the late Lord Kitchener.

My question is, did Asquith know that the chances of success were too small to justify the prosecution of the campaign? Or did he think it best to be guided by the opinion of Kitchener, & was it the expressed opinion of the latter that the chances were good enough. In the latter case, I am sorry for Asquith. The expedition was an expensive failure, but if the attempt had not been made, probably plenty would have said afterwards that it ought to have been made. It is always much easier to judge after the event.

The “Daily Mail” is demanding that by way of a warning to others, Asquith & Churchill should be impeached. Apparently it was from Australia & New Zealand that the demand for an enquiry came, very large contingents from those colonies having taken part & suffered heavily in the campaign.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

It would be a comfort to find his grave

The Spencer family was trying to help Will’s German friends discover the fate of their missing son.

5 March 1917

A letter for me from Florrie. Percy gets my letters, but thinks I do not get his. (If he has written any letter to me since last April, I haven’t received it.) He has therefore written to Florrie to say that he has handed in an enquiry in respect of Max Ohler to the British Graves Commission, & begged that it may be passed on to the French authorities. If we hear nothing, it may add to the hope that he is alive, but if we do hear, Percy said it will even be “some comfort to know that at best the boy has been buried, & his grave registered.”

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

On food rations

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer found that food shortages at home were mirrored by those in Switzerland. His mother Anna, meanwhile, expressed her sympathies to the German family of missing soldier Max Ohler.

17 February 1917

Read in the paper that the hotels, etc, are to give no meat on two days of the week, & never more than one meat course at a meal. Further, land is to be put under cultivation to the extent required to meet the needs of the situation now in prospect….

A letter from Mother…. Mother tells me they are “on food rations” now, but the amount allowed is exactly what “they have of meat & bread, but not so much sugar”. Mr Sandalls, aged 85, saws wood, & says “if anybody wants a boy to saw wood & bring coal, he can do it”. Mother is very sorry for Max Ohler’s parents.

After tea, together to the Hauptpost, from whence I sent money home.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

War between Germany and the USA is in the balance

Will Spencer was still trying to find out news of young family friend Max Ohler, a German soldier reported missing. He was pleased to hear from younger brother Sydney, dong well in army training, but was now well settled in Swiss society. Back in England, Florence Vansittart Neale was keenly interested in the prospects of the US joining the war. Johann von Bernstorff was the German ambassador to America and had been involved in sabotage and intelligence work there, and had just been thrown out.

Will Spencer in Switzerland
12 February 1917

A letter from Sydney. Hopes that we may obtain news of Max Ohler from the War Office Prisoners of War Department, which can find out more than any single enquirer can. He enjoys reading my accounts of Switzerland. Has just passed the exam for “Marksman” with 135 points out of 160 (or something of that sort), none of the 28 men he took up with him scoring more than 113. (130 was required to pass.)…

At 5 I called again on Herrn Fursprecher Hodler (by appointement). My obtaining leave to declare a smaller amount of Kriegsteuer [war tax], after signing for 500 fr., dependent of goodwill of the official concerned, but I might make the attempt. An income of 4,800 fr. represents normally a capital of 120,000 francs, for which the tax would be (class 110,000-120,000) 275 francs. I handed in my short sketch of my career, & signed a declaration which he drew up, that military duty “[illegible word] meinem Falle nicht in Betracht” [is out of the question in my case].

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
12 February 1917

Took dogs a walk again in afternoon – discussed War Savings & digging with Martin & Willie.

Bernstorff given safe conduct. So Gerard left Germany – war with US in the balance. Ag went to Boulogne.

We continually advancing on Somme & Avere. Constant raids.

Diaries of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27); and Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“All very uncheery – what!”

Percy’s last letter to Florence on 4 February was interrupted by events. He picked up his pen a week later to address their brother Will’s concerns about a young German friend who had been reported missing.

[11 February 1917]

That was 7 days ago. Seven days of perfect weather and comparative comfort. And now I have an hour or so in which I think I can manage to finish.

Garwood has now gone on leave, and if the present idea obtains another couple of months and leave is still open then, I ought to be home again.

Did I tell you that the younger of Mr Lewis’s sons is one of our RE [Royal Engineers] officers. He superintended the building of our mess. We now have 3 snug (for war time) messes in this part of the world, so long as the Bosch don’t shell.

Will wrote me about Max Ohler who is “missing”. Will doesn’t seem to get my very occasional letters. I wish when next you write, you would tell him that I have received all of his, and that I am not now, and may not be again, in a position to make any direct enquiry about MO. I have however been able to put enquiries thro’ the British Graves Commission and made a request for them to be passed on to the French authorities. If he hears nothing, it may add something to Johanna’s hope that Max has not been buried by us or the French, or if unfortunately he does hear, at any rate, even that will be some comfort too, to know at least the boy has been buried & his grave registered.

All very uncheery – what!

I’m sending you a souvenir menu card of a little Xmas dinner we had. The pennant is our sign by day & the lamp by night – the flags are those of the Signal Section. I hope you’ll like my hurried design.

Also I’ve been to see our follies. They’re awfully good & include some professionals – the “girls” are quite edible.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/12-14)

War tax in Switzerland

The Swiss had introduced a new tax to cover rising costs in wartime. Expat Will Spencer made arrangements to pay it.

25 January 1917

Letter from Swiss Friedensburo for Johanna. (Have not been able to obtain any news of Max Ohler from France. Have not yet heard from England.)

Then to Steueramt in the Junkerngasse to enquire about Kriegsteuer [war tax]. I was referred to No 1 Herrengasse, the elderly clerk who gave me the direction, telling me, in an apologetic tone, that I should find the office in the cellar, but that was “only a temporary state of affairs”. As a patriotic Swiss citizen I suppose he felt that these subterranean arrangements were not quite consonant with the dignity of the state.

Arrived at No. 1 Herrengasse (one of the houses on the southern side of the Munsterplatz), I found, just inside the entrance, a carved stone stairway expected to lead to a series of gloomy dungeons, but which led in fact to a passage from which a young junior clerk summoned me into a small well-lit room overlooking the river. The house stands, of course, on the slope descending to the latter. After conducting an amateur enquiry into what my business was on his own account (in which I humoured him, not being pressed for time), the junior clerk went to speak with his chief, & returned with the news that the latter was engaged – could I call again in half an hour’s time? A welcome suggestion, as it was a freezing cold afternoon, but I acquiesced, & made use of the half hour to go & have a look at the outside of Ex-President Motta’s house in Kirchenfeld.

After my return to the “War-tax office” I found myself signing a declaration to pay 500 francs war-tax. I was expecting it to be as much, but Johanna wasn’t, so I shall speak to Herr Mosimann before paying it.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

Missing since battle on 7 October

Will Spencer, the elder brother of Percy and Sydney who was living in Switzerland with his German wife, still had many friends in Cologne where the couple had lived before the war. The 18 year old son of one of those friends had been reported missing, and Will agreed to use his British connections to see if any news could be obtained of the young man.

27 December 1916

By the afternoon post a letter to Johanna from Max Ohler. They are still without news of young Max. (Johanna wrote to Fraulein Lochliger on Sunday, asking for the particulars which she has with regard to young Max, in order that I may send them to Percy & Sydney.)

By the evening post a letter from Arlesheim, from Fraulein Lochiger, sending us the particulars with regard to young Max Ohler. He has been missing since a battle at the southern edge of the Pierre Vaast Wood, near Sailly, on Oct. 7th. During the evening I made an English translation of the particulars (but leaving the “last address” as it stood) & afterwards made two copies of it (one for J. to take with her to the German consulate tomorrow.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1916 (D/EX801/26)