“The role of platonic friend is too difficult for me to sustain”

Percy Spencer found life at his parents emotionally challenging, so fled to his peacetime home in London, which was equally wearing.

27 Rattray Road
Brixton
SW

Decr 15, 1917

My dear WF

Cookham was a nightmare so I fled to London, and there I have been taking Dot out to lunch almost daily. She, I am happy to say, is quite normal again, but still very dependant upon her friends, so I think it has done her good to have me to talk to and detach her thoughts from the Battle of Cambrai. But the role of platonic friend is too difficult for me to sustain for long together, so just as your letter arrived I was writing to tell you that I am returning to 29 and peace on Monday 17th, please.


Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/74)

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An air of sadness as nature reclaims the countryside

Percy Spencer shared his sense of an abandoned countryside with expat brother Will.

15 December 1917

A letter from Percy to us both, which I read to Johanna in the verandah after breakfast. After telling us about his rowing experiences [in Cambridge while training as an officer there], he continues:

“At the moment I am on [sic] a loose end, but expect to be in France or elsewhere by the middle of January. Cookham is very empty & silent. There is some compensation in the re-asserted claims of nature in the quiet corners of the earth as man’s claims have slackened, but altogether there is an air of sadness about the countryside, very depressing. I feel the water rat would much prefer to plop hastily into the water at your approach & the moorhen to scuttle jerkily into the reeds, than to feed unmolested & fearless of disturbance.”

So Percy feels that the water rat & the moorhen wish too, that the old times were back. In this feeling that the wild creatures must feel the same as he does, Percy not only shows a deep love of nature & of man, but also something of the imagination of a poet.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

“The news of her boy’s death seems to have quite deranged her”

Percy Spencer, visiting his parents in Cookham, found a neighbour depressed by the death of a loved one.

Fernlea, Cookham
Decr 6, 1917

My dear WF

I find Dot [a neighbour?] very down and dismal. Poor girl, the news of her boy’s death seems to have quite deranged her for a while.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/73)

“The only way interest has been maintained, has been by wagers”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was enjoying his officer training – although he seems to have more out of the camaraderie and sports than the boring lectures on naval and military history. The German warship Emden was sunk by the British in autumn 1914.

Thursday Nov 22, 1917
My dear WF

These few lines to let you know how cheery we all feel in spite of a plague of lectures and the shadow of our final.

Yesterday we rowed a great race. Unprejudiced opinion is that we won: the verdict was a dead heat, and we have to row again. We did enjoy it.

Today we attended our 3rd Naval History lecture. Mr Dykes was there. It’s a terribly slow affair. At the conclusion of tonight’s lecture we had only got to the destruction of the Emden – or rather, to be exact, it was at 6.39 pm. I know, as the only way interest has been maintained, has been by wagers as to the lecture and at what time in that lecture she would be put out of action. Betting was about 6-4 in favour of 6 pm tonight. I think the lecturer must have had a lot of money on the other way.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/72)

“It was a sickly experience being gassed!”

Part of the officer training experience involved practising dealing with a gas attack.

Nov 16, 1917
My dear WF

I was lucky enough to see John on the way back from being gassed on Wednesday. It was a sickly experience being gassed!…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/71)

“A couple of hares which ran across our line added a good deal of vim to a bayonet charge”

Percy Spencer reported on his activities in officer training.

Wednesday Nov 7, 1917

My dear WF

Tomorrow evening we do a night march by compass bearing, tonight and Friday night we have lectures. So I am sorry I shall not be able to come up before Saturday evening.

To my surprise I have passed my topography examination with a margin of twenty points.

Today we played the final of the soccer against a very cocksure team. We won 2-0 altho we lost our best forward in the first few minutes through a wrenched knee. So we’ve started on the way to winning the platoon cup.

…Today on the range, a couple of hares which ran across our line added a good deal of vim to a bayonet charge – no casualties, however.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/70)

“The musketry results are out”

Percy Spencer was fairly happy with his progress training to become a officer, he told his sister Florence.

Oct 17, 1917
My dear Florence

The musketry results are out. 14 of our platoon failed. Tubbs was top with 77. I am marked V. Fair with 60. Below 50 failed.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/69)

“Hold your hand out naughty boy”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about his experiences training to be an officer in Cambridge, and getting ticked off.

Oct 9, 1917
My dear WF

Our examination tomorrow is at 5.30 pm, so I am sorry I shall not be able to come up to tea….

Captain Louis has been talking “rowing” to me. He proposes making me Company stroke. I hope to get out of it, but may not as he very flatteringly describes my boat as easily the best, and the best they have seen here for a long time. Goodness knows what the others were like!

Today my platoon talked when marching to attention, so it was punished by being ordered to march a quarter of a mile really at attention. When ordered by the officer at the end of our punishment to “march at ease”, half the platoon immediately sang, “Hold your hand out naughty boy”, and the remainder, “And I don’t suppose we’ll do it again for months and months and months”.

With love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/67)

“I wish I had a hundred like him”

It was good luck that Percy Spencer’s officer training was taking place in Cambridge, at the very college where his brother in law was a don.

29 Barton Road
30 Sept. ‘17

My very dear Old Man

Your school friend, Whitworth, came with two daughters to call upon me the other day. They seemed to take to the Signora – but oh for me! quite casually for he made sure I knew, during tea he mentioned that dear Willy Dobbs [later note by Florence – ‘Brother of Sir Henry Dobbs – son of my husband’s beloved friend’] was dead – killed in action on July 31st. He had in his pocket a letter from the mother, quoting kind phrases – “The best officer in the Regiment” was how they spoke of him. Poor dear Willy! I was mentioning how he had given me the tea-tray on my wedding: and had caused it to be made specially to his pattern – and then Whitworth told me!!!

Florence has a brother of hers [Percy] in No. 5 cadet battalion – quartered in Trinity. You can guess what it is to her – and I love him. The Colonel said to me, “I wish I had a hundred like him” – so modest, so clearheaded – how his men will rely on him! The Company had boatraces last week (they have use of TBC boat house and slips) and Percy Spencer stroked his platoon’s Eight, and won the final.

JMI

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

Living at an awful rate

Percy Spencer told his sister Florence about his experiences training as an officer.

No 5 OCB
Room G8
New Court
Trinity College
Cambridge

Aug 18
My dear WF

We’re living at an awful rate and feel very used up at the end of the week. No doubt as soon as we have the rough edges taken off, it won’t be such a physical strain and we shall all be as fit as fiddles.

At the Cadet Club my first cup of coffee was handed to me by the girl you introduced me to. I can’t think of her name.

A wounded soldier has recognised me. I couldn’t remember his name, but being reminded by him that he belonged to the 4th Welsh Fusiliers of our Division, I plunged desperately, addressed him as Sergeant Jones and won….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/65-66)

The chemistry of the gas helmet

After a period training at Kinmel Park in Wales, studying such matters as the workings of the gas helmet issued to troops, Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence Image with good news.

Aug 10, 1917
My dear WF

Thanks to John my address is
Cadet P J Spencer
B Company
No. 5 Officer Cadet Battalion
Trinity College
Cambridge

All the bad men from Kinmel are here too, so at any rate I feel I shall have a moral advantage.

I’ve just been trying to get the rules and regulations into my head. Luckily I realised early that it couldn’t be done and gave it up….

You are quite right about Kinmel. I was awfully well and jolly there, and look and feel very fit. Even the lectures were entertaining, no matter how dry. For instance one lecturer (a schoolmaster before the war) taking us in musketry, and looking very brainy, explained (in fact he was so pleased with the idea, he explained it twice) that “an explosion is the immediate or spontaneous transition of a solid into a gas. Q.E.D., which those of you who have studied Euclid will know means Quod erat dictum!!!”

We also had some very interesting lectures on the gas or PH ‘Elmet. Really they were not so much lectures on the helmet as they were upon methods of dodging learned recruits. If I am unlucky enough to get hold of some recruit who evinces a knowledge of chemistry, I am to switch off on to the mechanism of the helmet, of which he’ll probably be ignorant, and vice versa. Presumably if one is unlucky enough to be landed with a recruit who knows both the mechanism & the chemistry of the helmet there is nothing to be done but to lead him gently to the gas chamber….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/62-64)

“All right, now mind all you – will attend the next – parade”

Back in the UK as he undertook officer training, Percy Spencer was amused by a sergeant particularly keen on ensuring religious observance.

July 29, 1917
My dear WF

Sunday, and if there could have been any doubt about it, this was settled by the burly orderly sergeant who appeared in our hut at 9.50 am and in stentorian tones demanded all Nonconformists on parade. Nobody moving, he added. “All right, now mind all of you – will attend the next – parade, C of E. Doesn’t matter a – what you are. Understand?” and I’ve no doubt he sings hymns beautifully.

There are strong rumours that we should be away from here by Friday next at latest. But I have nothing definite to go upon.

If I get 3 or 4 days I shall run up to London and get my kit together. Here I have nothing but army clothes. At the cadet school I shall want quite a lot of civilian things I have.

I am writing on the front at Abergele, a very quiet little place, charmingly situated north of St Ormes Head. On Tuesdays we come here to bathe – a great privilege but rather spoilt by the march here which the officer who takes us tries to do at 150 paces a minute, a frightful step.

I’ve heard from Will this week. He seems very well and still deep in the heights of mountains and size of lakes.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/58-61)

The “Scroungers’ Retreat”

Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence to tell her about his experiences in officer training. His fellow trainees were mainly NCOs with experience of the worst of the war, and were not easily corraled by their superiors.

Attd C Company
58th TRB
Sergeants Mess
No 9 Camp
Kinmel Park
Rhyl

July 26, 1917
My dear WF

I’m very fit indeed, working very hard and always hungry. We are exceptionally well fed, I think, and conditions are good.

It’s very difficult to write as several of the boys are telling their experiences, and every now and then they touch ground I know and I have to join in. One man has just been minutely describing the bundling and labelling of corpses for the fat factory as seen by him, and another the manacling of maritime gunners to their guns, also as seen by him. Both descriptions are so minute and definite as to be convincing. I’ve only to meet someone who has actually seen a corpse factory and I shall be a confirmed Kadaverite.

The battle of wits – the staff v. us continues with varying success. The routine is changed daily to put us off our stroke and get ahead of us, but the same crowd who lay themselves out to “dodge the column” successfully carry on just as usual, appearing on parade, answering the roll call and vanishing into the blue before any work is done with consistent ability. This rather large section of our number have a discipline of their own. Backsliders are dealt with by courtmartial. Absence from the “Scroungers Retreat” (a quiet marquee in the neighbourhood) seems to be the most seriously looked upon offence, and is dealt with very harshly, the punishment being I believe to attend next parade and answer for all the others from their hut who are not there.

Of course, being out of training, I find the work very hard indeed, quite apart from my ignorance of it which is another difficulty with me, but I can feel myself growing straighter and stronger every day and look forward to being a Samson soon.

By the way I’ve had 2 days trench digging. It’s extraordinary how difficult such a menial job as digging earth and throwing it out of the trench is. An experienced man will throw his shovel of earth intact 10-20 feet away in any direction. The novice finds it difficult to throw and direct and very hard to keep together.

I can see I shall very soon be nailed down to drill and books – that is, as soon as I get to a cadet unit. Until then I’m not taking this business too seriously, and simply concentrate upon breaking myself in physically. You’d scacrcely credit how absurdly soft my hands and feet were. They are hardening up rapidly, but I’m still a pretty blistered object.

Well my dear girl, I feel this is a very uninteresting letter, but conditions are very trying for letter writing so you’ll have to please excuse it.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/53-57)

“There are some very tough and rough customers among us”

Percy Spencer thought his old boss might be able to pull a few strings for him. Meanwhile, he was enjoying training with other NCOs selected for promotion.

July 22, 1917
My dear WF

Captain Holliday has just written to tell me he has got a job at Whitehall – a rather private & special job apparently, and he asked me if he could do anything for me. I’ve asked him to try & get me sent to Trinity. I don’t think it is desirable to bother Col Ready any further, do you?

I’m having quite a good time here: the place is very healthy and well organised.

If it’s a question of breeding and education, I shall be all right as there are some very tough and rough customers among us, and very few of them would pull muster in the drawing room.

My room mates are respectively a collier boy, a student for the Baptist Ministry, an accountant, a jeweller, a regular soldier. The last is a fine fellow. Very badly educated and terribly worried by his inclination to swear. Nevertheless he’s a man’s man.

There’s a lot of ragging here. You see we are all pretty senior in rank and a Sergeant Instructor on parade has to stand an awful lot of quiet impudence. However we shall no doubt settle down when we get to our Cadet units.

With my love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/50-52)

“Their language is of the bluest, but their hearts are sound enough”

Percy Spencer reported on his experience in officer training. Most of his fellows had, like himself, been at the front in the other ranks, and been selected for promotion based on merit, rather than the traditional pre-war gentlemen only.

July 17, 1917
My dear WF

My address is No. S/4/087268 Sgt P J Spencer, ASC, Attd C Company, 58th TRB, Sergeants Mess, No 9 Camp, Kinmel Park, Rhyl. That’s all.
And really I think that sums up the horror of this place.

From my very short experience, it seems to be an exceedingly well organised place – the staff are pretty stiff on parade, but jolly good fellows off it.

Just how long I shall be here it is difficult to say. It depends apparently on the needs of Cadet units. Probably I shall not be here more than 2 ½ weeks. But I may be here 6 weeks.

I am told the War Office issues orders as to when and where men are to be sent. So I may possibly still go to Cambridge. Application to the GOC 13th Training Reserve Brigade from Col Ready might possibly be useful, but I don’t think so, as rumour hath it that we ASC people do a special course somewhere in this part of the world. There is also a rumour that some men get 4 days leave from here before joining their Cadet School.

There is an extraordinary mixture of men here. Their language is of the bluest, but their hearts are sound enough….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/46-49)