“I keeps my pecker up”

Sydney Spencer greatly admired his commanding officer, Captain Dillon.

July 31st [1918]
My Dearest Florence

My clothes are literally falling to pieces & my batman is going on strike if I don’t soon do something about it. So here goes. Will you be sweet & send me my trousers & best tunic keeping the brass buttons on it as these brown buttons are an “anathema” in the regiment. Also the tunic will need Norfolk badges put on it if I remember. Don’t send the old trousers but the new ones (they are of the same material as the tunic is barathia)!!!

I have sent so much kit home that things are getting almost to an indecent stage! And I simply refuse to continue this existence in breeches any longer! Also my pyjamas (the one pair I have have parted company in the middle, almost. In a day or two I am expecting to put them on one leg at a time! I have to do that always, but you know what I mean! It won’t be funny much longer however. Also (patience darling, I hang on as long as possible & then ask for lots of things at once so as not to be continually worrying you), I need about 1 dozen dark collars size 14 ½, 6 handkerchiefs, 2 pairs of thin short pants & another thin shirt. Also (!!) my batman orders me to get at once some Proberts mahogany brown polish for my belt & boots. He nearly ticked me off yesterday because I hadn’t written before!

Now to be pleasant & chatty. Since I wrote you I have moved about 30 miles. The best of it is that the flies here are about 75 % less than down where we were. Moving in this broiling weather is very fatiguing. But I keeps my pecker up & there is always something funny or incongruous to be amused or puzzled over. I wish I had time to write you sketches of French life as seen in these funny little villages. Some would amuse, some would make you sad, others not bearing the repeating, being of a nature that although highly amusing, are so essentially ‘not done’ in England, that they would leave you breathless.

When I tell you that there are practically no sanitary arrangements, & that all French cottages possess manure heaps (of which even Job himself could not complain) in their front gardens, you can imagine that [there are] times when life is not only embarrassing but precipitate.

I told you about my platoon being the winner of competitions in my last letter. My skipper – Capt. Dillon to boot – was very pleased as it brought credit on his company. By the way, he has a great love for Gold Flake cigarettes. Would you like just to please me to send him a tin, only putting your name on it, as sending them. He would be delighted & I could tell him they came from you afterwards.

He is such a splendid chap & I would like him to feel that I appreciated him & a tin of 100 gold flakes would please him immensely.

His address is the same as mine. Captain G Dillon MC, 7th Norfolks, BEF.


All love to you both from your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Diary
Wednesday 31 July 1918

Got up at 6.30 & went down to the stream at the bottom of the garden, & had a splash in the cool cold water. On parade at 8 am & did an hour’s march [in] full marching order. Then half an hour’s PT & ½ hour’s gas drill. Cut my foot slightly when bathing this morning. Having a rest surreptitiously on Dillon’s bed. Feel very tired after yesterday.

Letter and diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/59-66; D/EZ177/8/15)

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Tug of war

Sydney Spencer’s Sunday was a mix of attending church with the locals and sports with his platoon.

Sunday 28 July 1918

Had a glorious ‘louze’ [sic] in bed this morning until 8 am. After getting up so early lately it was strange to be able to lie in.

Took a gas parade at 10.15. Church Parade at 11.

At 12.15 heats for tug of war. No 6 platoon beat No. 5. No. 7 beat No. 8. At 4 pm No. 6 pulled No. 7 platoon, No. 6 winning, after losing the 1st pull.

After tea went to church with Kemp. French service was peculiarly noisy, all sorts of people continually moving & walking about. Little girls took the collection. An old man with a stick thumping vociferously on the floor with a heavy cane before them to remind us they were near us. Father Thompson dined with us.

In the evening after tea rode out to B- Y- with Dillworth & Dawkins a cheval [on horseback].

Diary of Sydney Spencer

“The cleanest platoon he had seen on parade in this Battalion”

There was more glory for Sydney Spencer’s platoon.

Saturday 27 July 1918

Last night we were informed that the platoon competition would be judged by the CO & Capt Shutes at 7.30 am this morning. So we had breakfast at 6.45 am, on parade by 7.15. My platoon came up to the scratch wonderfully, and after an hour’s minute inspection by the CO & Shutes the CO said to me that my platoon was “easily the best”. He told Dillon it was the cleanest platoon he had seen on parade in this Battalion.

After parade went to range & fired No. 24 rifle grenades with RB Sections. Got back at 10.15. Had some biscuit & cheese, & at 11 o’clock a 2 hour route march. It poured with rain& we got splashed unmercifully with chalk & mud!

After lunch I took my clothes off & tried to sleep, flies preventing it! After tea ‘lazed’ & made up accounts. Bed at 10.30 & read ‘Masterman Ready’.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“The bomb went almost as far as I expected it to!”

Sydney Spencer was frustrated by his men’s lack of shooting prowess.

Thursday 25 July 1918

Got up at 6.30. Route march from 7.15 to 8.45. After breakfast rested & played the skipper at double patience. At 11.35 we paraded with company for the range. I took the rifle bombers. Tried the unbulleted round for firing rifle grenades. The bomb went almost as far as I expected it to! About 30 yards & that is being very generous! It is very difficult to get any accuracy from men at present. They don’t seem to grip the idea altogether, of reckoning with wind, personal error, or the use of the gas check.

After parade, a lunch tea combined at 3.45. At 4.30 kit inspection. At 5.15 went with Dillon to Mappin terraces, & helped map out a scheme for a patrol with compasses. Saw my platoon about cleaning up for tomorrow.

Dinner at 7. Saw boxing competition. My observer won the bantam contest.

At 10.5 took out patrol. Very interesting & instructive. Hidden objects all found easily.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!”

Sydney Spencer’s unit practiced their technical skills behind the lines.

Wednesday 24 July 1918

Got up at 6.45. Route march from 7.15 to 8.30. Dillon went to see tanks so that Dawkins was in charge of company. Parade at 10 am. My platoon did a stunt with Dawkins on a strong point watching an attack. By coincidence I worked the oracle in exactly the way he did, rifle section working down at side of the field, bombing section at corner of a copse, L Gunners on left. Remainder of morning in squad drill.

After lunch spent a long afternoon playing patience, & censoring letters. Likewise after tea I did not do a great deal. Managed to get a letter to Florence after a struggle. Her article in Punch has not appeared. It is called “Or Both”. Went to bed fairly early tonight. These nights I get no time for reading so it takes me a long time to get to sleep!

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

‘D’you remember’

Sydney Spencer had a nostalgic evening with old comrades.

Tuesday 23 July 1918

We had an early parade this morning, consisting of a march which lasted till 8.50. Parades after that were of a more or less easy character, so leaving me a certain amount of time free for preparing a dinner for the CO this evening.

Most of my morning being free I went round trying to get all sorts of goodies, with varying success, at any rate when the CO & Adjutant came to dine at 8 pm we had a very nice dinner waiting for them. The CO was very tired & did not play cards, so we sat & talked. Principally, each subject started with ‘D’you remember’! Tapley stayed till quite late.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

Once one of the most lovely cities of France, now a vast loneliness

Many officers were not far removed from their schooldays, so it is not really surprising that some of them behaved like children at times, as a relief from the horrors they witnessed.

July 23rd (really 22nd!)
My Darling Florence

As there are 6 officers sitting at the table & we have all sworn to put a penny in a tin mug for every sentence spoken, there is for the moment a few minutes silence while we letter write. Alas this scheme while I write is broken! Everyone is being ridiculous & writing comic messages on paper & passing them round for inspection. So fat there is only a penny in the cup & it was not I spoke. Good heavens what babes we are!

Yesterday I had a long ride round & saw some lovely country. Glorious fields of ripe or unripe corn interspersed with lurid bands of poppy & laughing stretches of blue cornflower & chicory. Last week I came through a large city, once one of the most lovely cities of France, now a vast loneliness, pathetic, terribly pathetic, gaunt streets with closed houses, looking out with blind eyes on a dead vista, long avenues of trees, on either side of deserted boulevards, a great lovely cathedral seen for miles, looking down on this sleeping city. And only a few weeks ago, this city was instinct with life. The horrors of war came upon it & now nothing of that which makes habitations sweet is left for the people are gone & the ‘household Gods’ are gone too. Nothing is left but the shell.

From miles back this city is seen lying in a laughing valley. The hills round it are clothed with swaying corn, long avenues of trees lead with almost an atmosphere of eagerness down into this city & seen from a distance the city with its warm tinted roofs & clustering streets looks instinct with life! And then to enter it! A pall, grey & pallid, seems to hang over it & sunshine seems to vanish.

Tuesday! afternoon [23 July]

No more time, am off on parade. Just to tease the officers I read a word or two of this high faluting stuff. Result absolute collapse of everyone.

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/57)

The NCOs do not seem to know a great deal about bombs

Sydney was battling through his digestive issues – not to mention his self confidence.


Monday 22 July 1918

As I had had a hard day yesterday, what with the reconnaissance & my indisposition, I did not attend the first parade but went to aid post & there obtained some castor oil for inspection uses.

Went on 9.45 parade. Did platoon training which included some interesting fire orders work. After lunch rested & censored letters.

At 5.15 gave a lecture to all NCOs on bombs, chiefly about the mills bomb. The NCOs do not seem to know a great deal about bombs. I hope I didn’t bore them stiff. After the lecture there were no other parades.

Spent remainder of day in writing, playing patience etc. To bed fairly early. Feeling better after castor oil!

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

Bad sanitary conditions

Hygiene was not always ideal, with the inevitable results.

Saturday 20 July 1918

When I got up today I found that I was suffering very uncomfortable things from my tummy. Probably it is the water or perhaps the plague of flies or a combination of both, helped considerably by foetid pools of water, the ubiquitous French Muck heap always in the front garden (!) & the bad sanitary conditions.

Morning parades fairly easy although the march rather tried me. After tea I concluded the day’s performance by being violently sick & having other troubles. I had only a couple of cups of tea today and a slice of bread & butter so that I went to be feeling very cheap! Maddison, Knights & Nixon to dinner.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“The weather & the flies are very trying”

The heat was almost as troublesome as the enemy.

Wednesday 17 July 1918

Got up at 7.30 am. Flies were a nuisance. Air raid on village during night, about a dozen bombs dropped. 1 soldier killed, 5 wounded. A good parade this morning from 9-12.30. Inspection, Platoon & Section drill, PT, & BF. Break ½ hour. Rifle grenadiers from 11.30-12.30. Company arms drill. Marched home. Censored letters after lunch. Another broiling hot day.

The weather & the flies are very trying. After tea I began to fret. I wonder whether the photographer would turn up to take the officers of the Battalion. We were all at the orderly room at 7.30, but as a storm intervened he did not come. So I was unmercifully ragged by the CO who thought that it was my bad French which had made the muddle!

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A good example of a good defensive position

Sydney Spencer and his men practiced tactics before meeting the locals.

Tuesday 16 July 1918

All the servants were very late this morning & we were not called until 7.55. It meant a rush! At nine on parade. Did a good morning’s work consisting of platoon drill, a very thorough inspection, I took the rifle bombers in cup discharge work, then we did a scheme from 11-1. Hervey took out his platoon to a hill with trenches. Kemp attacked. I was in reserve. A good example of how [sic] a good defensive position.

After lunch censored letters. Then went down to Kemp’s billet & played on an atrocious piano. A mademoiselle charmante [charming young lady] spoke pretty broken English, & prettier French. Madame gave me some flowers. Spent a pleasant evening – a really decent one. Acted as interpreter for a photographer who took our drums. The village crier, a pale looking youth with plaintive voice demanded after beating his drum that we should declare the boites de foin [haystacks] gathered in during the [illegible] in the morning.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A horrible plague of flies

Sydney Spencer was busy preparing for a return to the trenches.

Monday 15 July 1918

Flies – a scourge of them – woke me up at 5 am & gave me beaucoup d’ennui until 7.30. On parade by 9 am. Had a platoon inspection which lasted an hour. PT for ½ an hour, then got new SBRs, anti [dumming?] composition etc. Had a talk about men’s rations etc. [Illegible] cleared up. Arranged for hair cutting. Got shoulder [illegible], water bottles covered etc, caps changed etc ad infinitum!

Returned to billet. Mended breeches. Got my surplus kit ready to send to Florence. Saw the men’s dinners which were really bad today. We had lots of difficulties in getting water for cooking. Sanitary arrangements in village filthy. Result a horrible plague of flies. The French here seem pleased with us & treat us more courteously than those further north.

Looked round my platoon in afternoon & rested most of evening. There was a fear of our being turned out by N. Hants but this did not come off.


Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A city of silence

Sydney Spencer was cautious about revealing place names in his diary in case of capture by the enemy, but it is clear that he was now at Arras, whose cathedral was severely damaged by German bombs.

Sunday 14 July 1918

Got up at 6.15. Breakfast 6.45. Am orderly officer today. We move at 9. Parade at 8.30. Marched off at 9. Got to busses [sic] (carrying 23 & 2 drivers) & embussed at 11.20 on RVS Road. Started at 11.35…

12.45 A..s a ruined city from the point of view of inhabitants. A fine cathedral. A city of silence. Left A-s at 1.15. D-y at 1.20. Now lying on road between D & St- awaiting orders. It is now 4.15 pm.

Got into village of “Holy Refuge” at 5.30. Saw men into billets. Found officers’ mess no. 38 ‘La Route de Paris’. Dawkins & I found a bed at no. 39. Mounted guard at 7 pm. Conference at 7.30 pm. Had dinner at 8.15. Saw staff parade at 9.30.

Lights out at 10. Turned guard out at 10.45, & then to bed. Had a bed to sleep on but flies were a great nuisance. Dawkins & I in same bed.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A right royal time buying stuff for mess

It was a red letter day for Sydney.

Friday 12 July 1918

Have had my commission 3 years today.

So I have had my three years commission today! & only 95 days in France, woe is me!

Had a delicious night’s sleep & got up at night. A big barrage seemed to have been put up on the left front from 7-4. First parade at 11.30. Men fairly clean but Rolfe rightly found many faults. After lunch Dawkins & I started out for D-ns.

We are now on crossroads to T-s. Here we got hold of an ambulance lorry which took us to Doullens, then we had a right royal time buying stuff for mess, other officers & stuff for our platoon. Tea at officers rest house. EFC could not supply us with anything we wanted.

Had dinner with two NZ Majors at EFC Club. They got great fun out of the London waiter who was shocked at their asking for a ‘follows’ as he called it. Lorry jumped back & got back at 11.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“A man knocked down another & smashed his head open!”

More from Sydney Spencer behind the lines.

Thursday 11 July 1918

Got up at 7.15 this morning after a good night’s sleep. Felt much rested & contented but my tent mates were ratty & objected to my good temper.

Very few parcels today. 1st parade at 10.30. Small kit inspection, followed by ½ hour’s gas drill & then wearing gas masks for an hour. After lunch wrote up my diary & read papers. Lolled about during afternoon until 4 pm & then we had a conference. After tea I worried out mess accounts with Kemp & Dawkins until 7.30. Managed to put them straight after a fearful scramble.

After dinner we had a long conference with Rolfe about reorganizing the company. This lasted until about 10.15. I then spent more time squaring up accounts. A row took place outside mess. A man knocked down another & smashed his head open! To bed at 11. A lot of rain today.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)