A strange looking man who looked ill, got into a trench & started making charts

Sydney Spencer was obviously a suspicious looking character! Halma is a strategy board game involving constantly moving pieces across the board.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 10 May 1918

Got up at 7 am and went over to my platoon front to make out my range charts. I was taken for a spy and questioned by an Essex officer. The sentry had described me rather comically. I was to him a strange looking man who looked ill (!!) & wandered about, & finally got into a trench & started making charts!

At 9.45 gave evidence in a case at the orderly room & then had a bath at old brewery. Met Forster & another chap with whom I walked back.

Found that once made, our battle positions were to be changed! We seem to be sort of playing at Halma! After lunch I had a long sleep from 2.15 pm till 4.30 & much I enjoyed it too. Now I am writing to dear old Jumbo [Kenneth] Oliphant who wrote me last night. His address is St Margaret’s, Fern Hill Park, Woking.

Stand to tonight is at 8.15 pm. I took out a carrying party. Two journeys down a road you wot of, master diary. We had one casualty from machine gun fire. A C Company man. Got back at 11.30.

Letters from Florence, Broadbent & Father. Wrote a long letter to Florence.

Percy Spencer
10 May 1918

A glorious day. Paterson lunched with us. The Lance Corporal who was no good – only offence apparently that he plastered tracts on latrine seats.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

Heartily sick of seeing soldiers, thank you

Soon after his Harwich experiences with the YMCA, Sydney Spencer of Cookham paid a visit to Kenneth ‘Jumbo’ Oliphant, the friend he had worked there with, and the latter’s mother, in Woking, Surrey. They had both had quite enough of the army.

Sept 30th
At home in Cookham

I spent from last Saturday tea time till Tuesday at St Margaret’s, Fern Hill Park, Woking, with Kenneth & Mrs Oliphant. It was a most restful time after the stress of Harwich. As soon as we got into the house Mrs Oliphant told Kenneth that the King was reviewing troops in Woking & would we like to go. It was pathetic. We had been seeing soldiers until we were heartily sick of it & here they were again. We declined the invitation smilingly…

Fred Oliphant [Kenneth’s brother] has a commission in the Seaforths and Granville [another brother] in the old Public School & University Corps. Higham of Oriel wrote me that Wright is also in that corps. I expect he will be as merry in that as he was up at Keswick.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Sydney Spencer considers his future

Sydney Spencer of Cookham agonised over what service he should offer his country, and wrote to an Oxford mentor for advice.

Wednesday August 12th
Yesterday I made up my mind after a week’s thinking it over, & pausing. This letter which I sent to Dr Pope at the Delegacy will of itself explain what I made up my mind to. I wrote as follows

Cookham on Thames
August 11th 1914
Dear Sir
Feeling that I cannot but offer whatever service I may, in the cause of my country, I write to you in the hope that I may be useful in some way or other. I am a student for Holy Orders at Oxford. I am aged 25, and am 5 ft 4 ½ ins in height & my weight is 8 stone. My chest measurement in 32 ins. My recent weight 8 stone 1 lb 5 oz. Physically I am by no means strong but am constitutionally very healthy. Of course I should be willing to undergo medical examination to satisfy authorities on that point. I have had no sort of military training either at Oxford or elsewhere. The only assets which I feel might be of use are a good experience in all sorts of horse work, & straightforward cooking, & a natural aptitude for attendance on sick people, when hands for the work have been wanting. I feel that these are lamentably poor assets, but hoped that they might be of use in a hospital where probably an odd job man would be of use. Also I have gone in for music a good deal & this might be helpful to men in the wards. Also at such times men may like help in the spiritual way & I feel that my future vocation should allow me to do all in my power. If a short course of training in nursing was possible, & I know where to get it, I would willingly do so, if it means making a useful instrument for my country. If I am of no use, you will excuse my troubling you on the grounds of anxiety to do my duty hoever small it might be.
Yours truly
Sydney Spencer

Of course Dr Pope knew a good many of the details of this letter but I felt it best to put in all details in case he had to send the letter on elsewhere. I have had no answer yet & only hope that some work may be found for me to do. I have started on “mods” work but it is not very spirited as yet; I had a long letter from Willie Birch this morning & he tells me that although he longs to enlist, he has hesitated for the sake of his mother. I am glad that he as been so thoughtful & not been headstrong & anxious to rush off at once regardless of consequence. Dear old “Jumbo” [Oliphant] may be gone to the front by now, but I have a good mind to write him a line at Wycliffe Hall just to find out. Mrs Raphael sent me a long letter this morning in answer to mine. She is full of sympathy as usual, & expresses great sympathy with Will in his position. She enclosed a poem which Hopkins once recited to me. It rings true & expresses a great deal of what I feel just now.

What have I to do with idols?
I have heard Him, and observed Him (Hosea XIV.8)
Hast thou heard Him, seen Him, known Him?
Is not thine a captured heart?
“Chief among ten thousand” own Him
Joyful choose the better part

Idols once they won thee, charmed thee
Lovely things of time & sense
Gilded thus does sin disarm thee
Honeyed, lest thou turn thee thence

What has stripped the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth?
Not the sense of right or duty
But the sight of peerless worth!

Not the crushing of those idols
With its bitter void and smart
But the beaming of His beauty
The unveiling of His heart

Who extinguishes his taper
Till he hails the rising sun?
Who discards the garb of winter
Till the summer has begun?

‘Tis that look that melted Peter
‘Tis that face that Stephen saw
‘Tis that heart that wept with Mary
Can alone from idols draw

Draw, and win, and fill completely
Till the cup o’erflow the brim
What have we to do with idols
Who have companied with Him?

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)

Is the anguish of war a message from God?

Sydney Spencer, who hoped to become a clergyman some day, confided to his diary his wish to assist with nursing the wounded, and his concern for them.

10th August 1914
I called at Mr Street’s on the way home [from playing at Stubbings], & stopped chatting till about 9.15. Mrs Frank Street’s son Roland has volunteered. The more one thinks of things the more incredible does it seem that Europe is in the throes of a huge war. Today’s paper tells of a great battle in Liege between Germany & France where thousands have been lost on either side. Yesterday I had a letter from dear old “Jumbo” (Oliphant of Exeter Coll), & he tells me that most of the colleges are now barracks & the Examination Schools are turned into hospitals. Also he tells me that rumours are floating that Oxford will not meet next term but that nothing official has yet been announced. Soon we must expect to hear of an engagement between England and Germany. So far naval engagements only have occurred between us & even those were of that cold deadly slaughtering type – the hidden mine type – but soon the armies must meet & then our hospitals must be filled with men wounded & dying. How I do long to be able to go to them & help them. I am no good as a fighter: I have no strength in my arms, but I long to be able to attend to the sick & wounded, & to help them spiritually.

I do feel so strongly the desire to talk to them of those deeper things of life. There is so much talk nowadays of practical help. You must attend to the bodily wants. Yes that is true, but is there not a deep want & hunger for someone to cure these mental disorders too? What does it profit a man if he save his body & lose his soul? I am sure that underneath all the bluff & “don’t care” of the ordinary man there lies hidden a very real desire to learn of spiritual things. I feel that the harvest is truly plenteous but the labourers very few. This war with all its horrors & its terrible tale of desolated homes & death, now seems like a message from God, not now a gentle pleading, but the Voice of his Trumpet commanding attention. How long Oh Lord hast thou pleaded in gentle tones, can I now feel bitter that Thou dost command? No. It is only the warning noise for a loving Father who so yearns for his wayward children that he may stop at nothing in His determination to make them feel His presence.

Oh England, my England, how I love your hills & vales, your softly flowing streams, your smiling pastures & meads, your “burding” brooks & tumbling waterfalls, your mountains wrapped in mystery! How too I love you, my English countrymen with your breezy English atmosphere, & your big hearts full of the potentiality for good! My Oxford, over which I seem to see hang a cloud of golden softness, my Alma Mater in whose soft arms I have been caressed for a short time, & may be again if God so wishes it! Men of Oxford who have so kindly treated & so manfully despised all those things in me which wanted altering! My heart goes out, & out to all, to My England, & I feel very sad, for the very love I have for her & for Oxford & for her people, is made sad by the vapid frivolity, the utter selfishness, & the endless whirligig of pleasure seeking which I see all around me. Shallow superficiality masquerades as “practical optimism”, vapid pleasure seeking as common sense, healthy mindedness & serious thought is dubbed morbidity, & religion “mere weakmindedness”. When are people going to wake up to their utter need? Will they do so now in this time of dire distress & anguish?

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)