All right, in a topsy turvy world, but assaulted by vermin

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence with a blackly comic description of dealing with vermin at the Front.

Decr 7, 1916
My dear WF

A few lines to let you know that if the rest of the world is topsy-
turvy, I’m all right.

This in spite of a very troublesome day yesterday.

To begin at the beginning, by the simple expedient of obtaining new blankets and jumping into a complete new change of clothes, I solved the vermin difficulty. At least I thought I had until yesterday when a persistent irritation of the left forearm led to investigation with unhappy results. However I was cheered to think that here at last was a chance for Aunt Margaret’s shirt. So I took the treatment thro’ all its stages, defended my cubicle with a “box barrage” of Keating’s cum sulphur and retired to roost in a whirl of asepso, brimstone and virtue – the first result was to get rid of the [illegible], who sniffing the Keatinged atmosphere, decided that “outside was good enough for him”. I was just dropping off to sleep when I found his place had been taken by a large rat who perched on the cigar box which had contained Aunt Margaret’s shirt, just above my head, was devouring the stump of a candle by which I had been reading a few pages of The Lost Tribes.

From that moment I got no peace – encouraged by the comfortable warmth of my bed the little centipedes attacked in force at all points – but the Asepso – Keating’s – sulphur – Aunt Margaret’s shirt was too strong a defence, and baffled and exhausted they fell back upoj their original line, there to hold a concert of war. Apparently the result was a decision to evacuate – anyway my person seemed for the next hour or two to be reckoned a sort of tram centre. However the evacuation completed I slept until, awakened to receive a very late or very early post. Previously I glanced thro’ the various papers until I got to orders – nothing on the front page; turned over and there staring me in the face I read – 1345 – The Louse Problem on the Western Front. With a yell I hurled the hudget at the orderly and retired beneath the blankets there to solve the problem from the sure defence of Aunt Margaret’s shirt.

This and the rat problem are all about [sic] we have to worry about – the rat problem I shall solve with an air pistol I am going to get.

[Censored]

I’m as glad to get all your letters and parcels – the letters are often my only contact with home, and they are so refreshing in these monotonous surroundings.

[Censored]
Sorry this is such a verminous monograph.

My dear love to JMI.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/37-41)

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“The White Comrade” reminds us of self-sacrifice and intercession

The church of St John the Baptist in Windsor now had a special area dedicated to the war. It was dominated by a print of the popular painting The White Comrade, by George Hillyard Swinstead, which depicted a wounded soldier being helped by an orderly, with Jesus (clad in white) looking on. Two real wounded soldiers were the artist’s models.

War Corner

Many members of our congregation will have noticed the War Corner which has been formed in the Parish Church, but there may still be some who do not yet know of it.

At the east end of the north aisle, against a dark blue background, is placed the Cross, and below it, on each side of a wooden shield on which is the picture “The White Comrade”, are the flags of the Allied Nations, and round these are hung the lists of those who are serving or who have given their lives in the war, and for whom our prayers have been asked.

The War Corner is meant to remind us of two of the great needs of today, self-sacrifice and intercession, and it is hoped that very many – children as well as adults – will, when passing the church, spare a few minutes to come and pray for God’s protection and guidance for ourselves and our Allies during the war.

It is thought that some people, particularly those who have friends serving, may like to undertake, in turn, to supply flowers or money with which to supply flowers, for the War Corner. Will any who would like to do this, kindly communicate with the vicar or with Miss Claudine Smith, 4 Claremont Road.

Mrs Trotter is very kindly giving the flowers to the end of November.

New Windsor St John the Baptist parish magazine, November 1916 (D/P149/28A/21/5)

Night duty – alone with one orderly

Elizabeth “Bubbles” Vansittart Neale of Bisham was struggling nursing.

1 October 1916

Heard from Bubs. She on night duty – very low bout it. 60 beds in ward – she alone with one orderly. 2 months!…

Another Zepp raid – one came down in flames at Potters Bar – all crew burnt.

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

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
Percy

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

A very hot time

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister with vivid descriptions of the French countryside behind the lines.

Feb. 14 1916
My darling sister
(Don’t tell John!)

Another jolly parcel has arrived, and I feel I must once again say how much I appreciate all the thought and labour these milestones of sisterly affection mean.

You’ll be glad to hear that you needn’t worry about me for some time now. Today I’ve chosen to cycle, or rather to tramp against a gale, rather than to travel by train. There’s a bit of country hereabouts that is really pretty, and I never miss a chance of going thro’ it.
The rain cleared and the sun shone out just as I was passing a pit, very like Cookham Dean Chalk-pit, only not so steep, and red iron ore earth instead of the white chalk. And half way up, resting easily from his quarrying stood a splendid boy in a sky blue shirt and russet cord breeches. These peasants and miners know how to dress.
At another place I was passing a flying ground. A biplane staggering in the gale, coming in from a flight, made two long swoops and steadying beautifully landed gently on the earth. The orderly, however, failed to catch the left wing, and the wind catching the machine sideways, instead turned it completely over. Luckily the airman was not hurt.

…One of our boys got hit when last I was in the trenches – we had a very hot time, and the Huns put in some awfully good shooting – I’m hoping he goes to Cambridge [for nursing] for he’s a “duck of a boy” with the bonniest legs – but of course you’re a girl – sorry. Well, if he comes to Cambridge I’ll send you his name & regiment.

Oh, when in the old German trenches, I cut these samples of German sandbags. You’ll see their tastes are many – and I have seen them a kind of cheap wallpaper pattern….

Yours, Percy

No batteries next time. Then one each parcel, please. Parcels better packed than any. Less packing would do, if it would lessen cost.

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/5/4)

A dark year, full of perplexities and sadness

The Congregational Chapel in Broad Street, Reading, was entertaining soldiers and war hospital staff every Sunday evening.

Most of our readers will know that each Sunday, after evening worship, the men of the RAMC, now serving as Orderlies in the various Reading War Hospitals, and other men in khaki, are being entertained at a social gathering in the Schoolroom. Different members of the congregation are acting as host and hostess. And by this we mean that they are paying for the refreshments, which are being supplied each week by Mr Tibble. The ladies and gentlemen who have generously helped in this way, thus far, are:

On Nov. 28th, Mr and Mrs E Taylor Malley
Dec 5th, Mr and Mrs Nott
Dec 12th, Mr and Mrs H J Pocock
Dec 19th, the PSA Brotherhood

BROTHERHOOD NOTES
All our brothers who are on active service have received a splendid Christmas parcel from the church, and a letter from our Presidents, and we are receiving most grateful replies.

1915 has been a very dark year, a year full of perplexities and sadness. We are looking forward to 1916 with every hope that it may be brighter, and that this worldwide turmoil may have come to an end.

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, January 1916 (D/N11/12/1/14)

A real spirit of reverence: an army chaplain’s first Sunday at the Front

T Guy Rogers, former vicar of Reading St John, wrote back to his former parishioners to describe his new life as an army chaplain.

EXTRACT FROM A LETTER FROM Mr. ROGERS.

Dec. 6th

…My first Sunday at the front… I had several strenuous days trying to make arrangements, sometimes riding up and down a street or locality for about half an hour, trying to find a particular headquarters, or officer. My job was to arrange services for all units of the Division (as far as was humanly possible!) – quartered in my particular neighbourhood- the place where the dressing station is. That meant not only for my own Brigade (such part of it as would be out of the trenches) but engineering sections, pioneers, machine gunners, artillery and anything in the way of Divisional troops round me. No one seems to have had the job before, as the Guards have only recently come here. At any rate I was left to sink or swim. However, all my arrangements came through and I had a successful Sunday…

I started off at 8 a.m., with my servant, both walking, carrying communion bag, robes, hymn-books for the congregation etc. After about 20 minutes we reached a big barn, in the loft of which I was to take a parade service, followed by a celebration for a company of Engineers. When I arrived, men were sleeping and dressing, hanging up their clothes and sitting by the braziers making their breakfasts.
It was really rather an awful moment, but we soon got a fatigue party to sweep up the place. I got some forms, rather dirty I’m afraid, and fenced them round a rough table for communion rails; put on a white tablecloth and got ready. The bunks were pushed well back and we got a clear space, though rather a wet one, in the centre. Then the officers came in and we had a very happy little parade service of about 30 or 40. Everybody stood all the time. Of course we had no instrument but some of the men started some of the well known hymns. This was service number one. Then I took a short form of celebration for about 7 or 8. The surroundings were very odd, but there was a real spirit of reverence. (more…)

“One of the most wicked things ever used in warfare”

Parishioners of St John’s parish in east Reading got an insight into life at the front when the young men from the parish who had joined up wrote to the vicar. They shared their experiences of the trenches, hospitals just behind the lines, and being gassed.

Letters From The Front.

My Dear Vicar,
I have just received the good old Parish Magazine, sent to me by my mother. Well, throughout the numerous hardships I have endured, I am pleased to say I am still quite well and happy. At the time of writing I am out of the trenches with my regiment resting, which I think we all honestly deserve; you cannot imagine the hardships and endless duties we have to perform.

While in the trenches you are working throughout the whole night and practically all day. At night the first duty commences at 8 o’clock, that is two hours’ sentry, which is very monotonous and tiring to the eyes, having to rivet them on a certain object the whole time while the booming of the enemy’s guns is deafening and bullets whistle over your head. After two hours you are relieved, feeling tired and sometimes wet through; you wish you could enter your dug-out and have minutes’ sleep. But no! you are at once detailed to join either a working party or a ration-carrying party, there you keep on hard at work till day break.

Sometimes we are given the job of repairing the barbed wire between ours and the Germans’ trenches; my job one wet night was to climb over the parapet of our trench and crawl up within a few yards of the enemy’s lines and to lie down for four hours listening for any signs of an advance by them; I could hear them singing and talking quite plain. I can assure you I was very pleased when I had finished. At about 4.30 a.m. we partake of breakfast consisting of a piece of salt bacon about four inches square, a small piece of bread, and a mess-tin of tea (?). This meal is looked forward to as much by us as the school treat is by the children.

After this you at once enter your dug-out and snatch a few minutes’ sleep; you generally settle down and are at once told to leave your dug-out and ‘stand to arms’ as Fritz is sending over a few more ‘Whistling Willies.’ You can imagine how very tiring and strenuous this sort of business is day after day, but still we keep a stout heart, trust in God and pray for the time when we can return home victorious, with the knowledge that we have performed our duty both to God and to the nation.

While I have been out here I am pleased to say I have had the opportunity of partaking of Holy Communion. Last Sunday my pals and I walked about four miles to attend a very rough and ready celebration held by our Chaplain in an old stable.

Well, I must now close, hoping you will please excuse this hurried letter and to receive a line from you whenever opportunity afford.

I remain, Rev. Sir,
Yours very respectfully,
ALBERT J. BECKETT
(more…)

Wounded soldiers on the Thames

Not all the patients at Bisham Abbey were helplessly confined to bed. It was rather a concern when two of the young Belgians decided on an impromptu boat trip on the Thames.

17 December 1914

Patients went on river! Caught by orderly.

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