Sneezing gas or hay fever?

Sydney was plagued by hay fever and thirst.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 17 June 1918

Got up at 6.45. Paraded at 7.45 for inspection. After inspection half an hour’s PT followed by a half hour’s run & then dismissed. Spent a lot of time reconnoitring. It was a scorching hot day, & the scent of clover fields so strong & pollen so strong that 4 out of 8 of us were set to sneezing violently. Some thought that it was sneezing gas as we were shelled pretty closely while on the trench line in front of A-y Wood, but I don’t think so.

This reconnoitring scheme took place from 9.30 till 3.30, 6 hours in a scorching sun with two biscuits & not a drop of drink! ‘No [won?]’ as the troops would say. The landscape was lovely. Saw numbers of swallow tail butterflies, scarlet pimpernels in abundance. A glorious walk if it had been a pleasure walk. A sleep. Dinner at seven. A turmoil of chits & arrangements & bed finally.

Joan Daniels
June 17th Monday

This morning the Austrian report said they had taken 10,000 prisoners, but tonight the paper says that they were completely squashed, which is a good thing. I am afraid the McKenzies will be anxious about Leslie, but trust he is alright.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Joan Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

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A new star

Always interested in the natural world, Sydney Spencer was excited by news of a newly discovered nova.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 15 June 1918

I was orderly officer today & got up at 5.45, & saw the men’s breakfasts. Came back to mess, washed & dressed. After breakfast I wrote to some Scotch firm about shortbread. Looked round billets, then gathered up officers’ advance pay books & orders for pay for Battalion. Dillon let me have his horse ‘Charlie Chaplin’ & I rode to Acheux & got the money. A glorious morning. Saw Barker’s batman & sent message to him. Got back at 12.30. Dished money out.

After lunch took drummers up to range & picked up clips & ‘empties’. After tea wrote letters. After dinner a staff parade. Capt. Weave is back with Battalion. Dillon taught me double patience & we played a game, up till 11 pm. I used my new field glasses to try & find the new star in Aquila but I couldn’t find it.

End of 10th week [at the front].

Florence Vansittart Neale
15 June 1918

Expected 2 officers but they did not come.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Almost a great success

It was another practice day for Sydney.

Friday 14 June 1918

Got up at 6. Paraded at 7 am for Inspection. After Inspection marched to range. Here we practised an attack. Field firing practice viz platoon advancing under orders of platoon commander. Ten section commanders took over. Lewis Guns were used. First attempt of mine a bit of a failure. Second attempt I think almost a great success. My platoon got best average for shots on target. 118 on section targets & 17 over jumping jimmys.

After dinner a rest. After tea nothing much was doing & I wrote sundry letters. After dinner most of officers in B invaded our mess & had a merry time. Rumours of move on Sunday, just down south.

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

“Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose”

Sydney Spencer continued his gas course.

Sunday 9 June 1918

Got up at 7.15. After breakfast wrote up some of my notes. On parade. A long lecture on yellow cross shelling. A very good lecture. After a break, we each had to give details for different drills. Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose. Then a talk by SSOI training Lt Col Porrit Morris. A lecture on cause of casualties in yellow cross. Then we dismissed.

After lunch, during which we had a few contretemps owing to bad mess waiting, a lecture on gas poisoning. After tea lolled about a bit. Wrote notes until 7 pm & then down to Hesdin to dinner with Barker. Noticed a French Major at dinner. He was a curious old man & had curious manners.

After dinner walked back to mess & wrote up my notes until 12.30. Then to bed and read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. A highly entertaining book. A lot of ‘sweet’ rain today to cool the atmosphere. A fine night.

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

Gas masks of all nations

Sydney was instructed in the use of gas masks and translating for fellow trainees, while Percy had a bad day.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 8 June 1918

Another beautiful day after the light rain we had last night. Got up at 7.30. After breakfast lolled about a bit & then on parade by 9.30 am. First parade consisted in [sic] a lecture by Lieut. Ash on Warfare generally, followed by the Projector Gas attack, a very interesting part of the lecture to me as I had not heard more than vague rumours as to how it worked.

After lecture a break, then gas drill till 12.30. Adjustment of box respirators by members! Lunch, & afterwards parade till 4.30. Lecture on gas masks of all nations, ie English, French, German & Russian. The Russian is a hideous [sic] affair. After the lecture a talk from the QM Staff man on Inspection. A rotten exhibition. Then through lachrymator gas to test the masks. At 4.30 we dismissed.

After tea, walked to Hesdin with Barker. Made sundry purchases. Barker wanted anything from ninepins to elephants. He taxed my French noun vocabulary to the last ounce. After dinner a loll in the garden. Then writing up gas notes.

Percy Spencer
8 June 1918

Went up to Battalion HQ. A very pleasant walk up. Fireworks everywhere. An awful journey back. Horses bolted as we tore thro’ batteries shelling & being shelled.

Florence Vansittart Neale
8 June 1918

Better news in France. We retaking few places. Heard Boy [her son in law Leo Paget] 3 months more in England & has an MC.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

A bolt from the blue

Aeroplanes overhead were becoming common both in France and on the home front.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 4 June 1918

I am seated in a waggon for 40 hommes or 8 chevaux at Candas! How do I come to be here? Well, hear my story with patience, my dear diary!

I rose at 6.30 as usual, on parade etc at 7 as usual, company training as usual till 10 am, & then a bolt from the blue! In other words a note from Mark Tapley to the effect that I would report Marronville for a gas course on the 7th, taking at least 36 hours to get there!

I promptly made up mess accounts. Came to P[u?]chvillers by mess cart with Fox, my batman. Caught a train at 4.30 & have now been waiting nearly 2 hours for this train to start!

The train started and we moved on in fits & starts. How many miles we moved I do not know, as I slept by fits and starts. Just before midnight, however, I woke to the tune of Fritz aeroplanes. He dropped sundry bombs starting a fire not far off to N. West.

William Hallam
4th June 1918

Last night I heard an aeroplane going over. I got up and looked out of the window and saw it drop a star light.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and William Hallam of Swindon (D/EX1415/25)

Officers vs sergeants: sergeants won hands down

Sydney Spencer had a busy day. The Maud Allan affair referred to was a contemporary scandal in which a well known actress was accused of being a lesbian spy for the Germans, and sued for libel. One of her persecutors was Harold Sherwood Spencer, an American with no connection to the Berkshire family.

Monday 3 June 1918

Got up at 6. Paraded at 7. Inspected my platoon. Went to range from 7.30 to 9.15. Fired in sweepstake, officers vs sergeants. 15 rounds rapid was the shoot (mad minute). Sergeants won hands down. Top score sergeants = Sergeant York with 43. Top score officers myself with 31 only! Peyton 2nd with 30.

Took my platoon for a time in fire orders, & then scuttled off to O.14 C7.5 to a demonstration in wiring double apron fence. Knights was there & I enquired after his battle position affectionately. No wire cutters or gloves were to be found so I toddled back & fetched them. The Brigade Major wanted to know if I was any relation to Spencer in the ‘Billing’ Maud Allan affair!

After lunch slept till 4. Took company for march at 8.30. Had a nice ride on Charlie Chaplin [his commanding officer Dillon’s horse].

To bed at & read for a while.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

All is peace during the day

Both Sydney and Percy were now back from the main fray.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 2 June 1918

We paraded for church parade at 9 am. Marched in full marching order up to range. Church parade was at 9.45. Padre preached on depending on ourselves & not on the ‘Chariots & Horses’! Did he refer to! [sic] I wonder!

At 10.30 the CO inspected us. At eleven GOC Brigade inspected men. He has a fine face & fine manner too. A long inspection which lasted till 1 o’clock but very thoroughly carried out.

Although there were supposed to be other parades during the day these were washed out & we got a fair amount of rest during the rest of the day. The weather still remains fine & warm & sunny.

We still continue to get a high velocity shell or two in the village occasionally. Two men were wounded tonight.

Percy Spencer
2 June 1918

Fritz bombed during night. The copse we are in is delightful. A swift flowing stream runs by the mess and all is peace during the day.

Joan Daniels
June 2nd Sunday

The Germans arrested on the Marne.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“May it please God that the Germans may advance no further”

As the need for men at the front continued to increase, older men were now being called on.

Joan Daniels
June 1st 1918

The news is not too good today, the Germans are advancing and are now 47 miles from Paris again. However, may it please God that they may advance no further….

Daddie went to be medically examined & is in Grade 1. Of course it is nice to know that he is healthy but I would rather he had been in Grade 3. Oh may it please God to leave him with us.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 1 June 1918

Today I took over a large platoon – for me. Under the new arrangements there are 3 platoons per company, Nos 5, 6 & 7. No 5 is under Dawkins & Hervey. No 6 under myself. No 7 under Peyton & Kemp. I have now 2 LG sections, 2 Rifle sections & an employed section only shewing on paper. Sergeant Timby & Sergeant Seeley are the two additions to my platoon as NCOs.

Parades for today. Company training in morning & march in evening, or rather afternoon from 2 till 3.20. CO’s inspection at 3.30. After inspection paid out company with Dillon. Had a guest night. Knights & Cook came in. After dinner A company came in in force & my duties as Mess President became fast & furious to say the least of it.

Percy Spencer
1 June 1918

Another fine day. Battalion relieved 24th in line. I went to depot near [Coutary] with Gray. Bailey got kicked & went to hospital.

Diaries of Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1); Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“My platoon beat No 5 platoon at football”

Sydney was enjoying time away from the front line.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 31 May 1918

Today I went on parade again. Paraded at 7 o’clock. Inspected platoon & then we went for a route march under Capt. Rolfe. A glorious morning again & I very much enjoyed the march. The country round here is glorious. We are already at high summer, dogroses are all out & trees in the first beauty of summer foliage, before the dust dims their shrill green.

After lunch to the range. My platoon shot well. I got an 8 inch group and a possible at the application.

By the way my platoon beat No 5 platoon at football 5-4. We are very anxious to take on Mo 7 platoon which beat No 8, 2 nights ago. Got to bed fairly early & read for a time.

Bombardment fairly heavy which disturbed me somewhat in so far as I had a night full of dreams!

Percy Spencer
31 May 1918

A lovely day. Fritz shelled near 17th a little, relieved 24th in front line, and bombed us at night.

Joan Daniels
May 31st Friday

Mummie had a letter yesterday from Auntie Lavinia. Her brother was killed at the front. Also a letter about Eina Furness. He is getting on better than was hoped for so that is great. He was on the third floor of the hospital, & was the only one on that floor who was left alive, falling from there to the basement. Besides having a piece of shell in his head he was injured in the back & arm. Mr Douglass is back from France.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

The two predominant results to be obtained: Discipline & Esprit de corps

Sydney’s delicate health was beginning to catch up with him.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 30 May 1918

Last night good old Dillon told me I was to see the doctor today & get a rest. So I sent a note round to the Adjutant to say I was seeing the doctor. I saw him at eleven o’clock & he apologised for having hurt me!

I did light duty during the morning & after lunch had a very long sleep, also inspected the guard before it paraded for guard mounting. Censored the letters. Got a tent in my platoon camouflaged, & did several other ‘no matter whats’ of no import practically, but of regimental vital importance. I think I see the end for which all these small things are done. One has always to keep one’s eyes on the two predominant results to be obtained: Discipline & Esprit de corps.

Rowell the TO comes to dinner tonight. He came & we had a fairly good mess night.

Percy Spencer
30 May 1918

2 a.m. moved at 21st camp after x-country trip thro’ bush and a mix-up with 9.2’s.

A lovely day. Mess cut into bank – earth seats.

Moved again to camp behind Franvillers in Bezieux rear defence line. Fritz shelled Franvillers and near us and bombed during evening. I dug trench round hut.

Florence Vansittart Neale
30 May 1918

Have lost Soissons.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Guerilla warfare

Sydney Spencer kept busy regrouping after his spell in the trenches.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 28 May 1918

After a good night’s sleep in pyjamas in my beautiful old flea bag, I got up at 8 am. A glorious day with the earth & air all aglow with spring leading onto high summer. Paraded at 9 am for platoon inspection. The company & battalion then proceeded to rest for the whole of the day, i.e. men were medically inspected, kits were inspected, Lewis Guns were inspected, 24 magazines cleaned. Lunch.

Men of my platoon ordered to dig out floors of tents. Started. Guerilla warfare ensued, i.e. shovels, broken bottles, language, myself, 4 sergeants, dogs, a goat, Monsieur, Madame et les petits, mallets, & the town mayor (a decrepit full colonel) took part. It ended in my decamping with my platoon. I was dumped by the DOC (above) on the parade ground of an army school. Thence we backed to another place & finally got the platoon settled in.

Thus we rested for a whole day! Wrote a letter to Florence. After dinner went down to platoon to see them settled in. Made up mess accounts & so to bed at 11.30 pm.

Percy Spencer
28 May 1918

As yesterday. Bosch shelled top of bank under lea of which we live. Major P[arish] dined with 141.

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

“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)

Moving from billet to barn, from barn to billet

Sydney Spencer hosted a big dinner.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 16 May 1918

I was orderly officer today so that today’s diary means: Reporting B HQ at 8.45, inspecting billets from 9.30-11.30, censoring letters from 11.30 till 12.30, inspecting dinners. After lunch a lie down, a short read, mounting guard at 3.30. Dismounting old guard. 4 pm tea.

After tea preparation for dinner guest night. Dinner a huge success. Consisted of soup, choufleur au gratin [cauliflower cheese], salmon mayonaize (don’t know how to spell it!), pork with baked potatoes & cauliflower, and sweet of plum pudding & custard – savouries of hard boiled egg etc on toast, coffee, biscuits, chocolate & cheese, port, sherry, whiskey & lime juice, & smokes. Do not think, my dear old diary, that I am a gourmand! I hate remembering what I have eaten. But I just put it down as a curiosity in this year of the war 1918!

Took staff parade, visited guard. Mess crowded with officers & all company & when I got to bed they had a jolly time.

Percy Spencer
16 May 1918

Cash. I went to Beaucourt to draw cash. Met Anderson who asked to be remembered to WF [Percy’s sister Florence Image]. Spent day in moving from billet to barn, from barn to billet.

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

“At last, Sir, I’ve got my blighty”

One of Sydney Spencer’s men was quite pleased to receive a mild wound – it meant going home to England.

Monday 29 April 1918

Got up early and had a cup of tea & smoke in the cook house. Washed & shaved etc before breakfast, being the only one up! At 9.5 I took usual parade with my platoon. I also inspected No 7 platoon. At 12.30 shrapnel came over & a man in No. 8 platoon got a small wound in the back.

2.45 pm. Just going for a hot bath at the brewery. This did not come off as the rations came & I had to wait & send a note down to Sergeant Green. Had a letter from OB, & one from Cubitt.

After tea went over & had a chat with my men. Made a map of our position.

After dinner, Hervey & Peyton took out working party. My platoon got lost under an NCO who had not been out, and there were some casualties. Some arrived home & some went to dressing stations. I went down to them & saw the casualties. [Cheney?] was one of them and he beamed on me & said, “At last, Sir, I’ve got my blighty”.


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