“We are to use Stokes Guns & bombs from ‘cup’ attachments & ‘umpteen’ rounds of SAA”

Sydney faced another extended journey before being thrown back into the fray.

Wednesday 12 June 1918

Got up at 6 am. Got across to Candas exchange station. A kindly goods RE in the cook house shaved me with a safety razor, with much & very earnest care! Caught a supply train, which got us quite quickly to Puchvillers by 9 am. Here Graham caught a lorry for Toutencourt, so one more ship vanished in the night.

Barker & I got our breakfast at 10.30. Caught a lorry to end of Puchvillers. Lorry jumped from there to Reinecheval, & finally to Argueres where he came & had lunch with us.

Dear old Peyton I find has gone to A Company as 2nd in command. I am very sorry although he well deserves the rise. After lunch saw Barker off, called on Peyton.

After tea went out to range & practiced an attack for a scheme tomorrow morning before our new corps commanders, the ‘23rd corps’. We are to use Stokes Guns & bombs from ‘cup’ attachments & ‘umpteen’ rounds of SAA. After dinner the CO came in & talked about scheme, then to bed.

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

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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)

“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)

Pot shots over the parapet

Soldiers coped with the onslaught in different ways.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 26 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

I came on trench duty at 12.30 am till stand down (normally at 4.30, but as the mist was very strong & heavy we stood to till 7). I then went on strike & had breakfast after 5 ½ hours trench duty!

At 7.30 I found Rolfe & Peyton taking pot shots over the parapet with Mills bombs & rifle grenades. Just for the sake of old times I threw one through the crater. It fell in our wire. At 10 the Bosche started a strafe on the whole of our front. This lasted until 12.30. I & my platoon grovelled on the trench bottom & made accusative remarks about his bad shooting, & Corporal Bindey [?] & I studied an ants’ nest to while away the time!

After lunch I was on duty again from 2 till 4 pm. After tea for about 10 minutes I suffered complete demoralisation, goodness only knows why! I slept for 1 hour & then as no evening hate took place at 6 pm I went to company headquarters & rested till dinner time.

After dinner I got ready to hand over after 9 days in line! Then came orders to stand to as a raid was expected. Discovered a ground search light on our front at 2.35. It played all along our front.

Percy Spencer
26 May 1918

Communion service in grass avenue outside chateau. Went over a tank.

Moved up close to Lavieville. Not bad quarters but well bombed all around & no protection. Hartley joined us.

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

“It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed”

Sydney Spencer had been unable to take his diary with him to the front line, so he wrote up his experiences on 28 May 1918. He was able to delight in the glories of nature even there, despite the horrors of war.

I propose filling in these pages, my dear Mr Diary, by giving you a broad idea of what happened in the line during these days from Whit Sunday [19 May] until Thursday 23, as I am not certain as to details from day to day.

The normal day’s work consisted of short ‘patches’ of sleep at any odd time, sometimes only twice during the 9 days tour 6 hours sleep in the 24 hours, on an average between 2 & 3 hours. Meals were at 4.30 after stand down. Lunch at 12.30 or 1. Tea at 4 pm & dinner (so its name went & for trench life well deserved it too) at 7. For 4 days from 7.45-8.45 we had to wear small box respirators for practice.

Nights were spent on trench duty, wiring, digging, & for me on one evening a calling party. Also patrols. I only took one, a listening post, although I was detailed for 4 of them. The first three were cancelled as the entire regiment did them instead. After three days in my part of the line I was shunted into immediate support just behind 8 & 5 Platoons, about 25 yards behind the front line. This meant that I became a sort of ‘fatigue dance of death’ in the evenings. I had, while in actual front line, a Lewis gun post, and a rifleman’s post. This new position of mine was not the most comfortable as master Fritz was very fond of playing attention to that quarter twice a day, but we got used to that. On our last day we had the biggest strafe, which included an aeroplane at a very low height.

The weather while we were up the line was glorious from the day we went up until we came out, without a cloud with the exception of one day which rained soft, rained on us & made the soil beastly.

Now something about the nature I was able to study during my tour of ‘Narrow streets’. We had times, occasionally we had moments when peace seemed to reign supreme. One day I was able to stand in the W- C- trenches for fully five minutes without hearing guns either near or distant, nor the clack of L. Guns or Machine guns, nor the hum of aeroplanes. It was wonderful that smooth quiet moment or two when the month of summer was allowed to hold full sway. It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed.

Now to talk of the life I saw in ‘Narrow Street’. First of all the butterflies. They were beautiful. Dear old Peyton used to laugh at me and say “Spencer has a lot of little boxes in his bivy filled with butterflies”, but that wasn’t true. I wrote to Florence one morning & just when I was in the middle of a list of butterflies which I had seen, master Boche started and gave us 3 /12 hours of the worst I have tasted, but I finished my letter all the same for that. Here is a list of butterflies.

1. Small white.
2. Green veined white.
3. Tortoiseshell.
4. Red admiral.
5. Peacock.
6. Small fritillary.
7. Large fritillary.
8. Small Heath.
9. Meadow brown.
10. Small blue.
11. Swallow Tail.
& I think but am not certain
12. The Painted Lady.

I did not see the large white nor orange tip, nor brimstone, which is passing strange, don’t you think, master diary? Of other insects, the handsomest was a glorious heavily built yellow gold & black bodied dragon fly. One morning, in the cool of the hour after stand down, I found one asleep & he went about contentedly on my [illegible] sleeve until the warm sun kissed him into life again. This seemed to highly amuse the men, especially when I shewed them his huge maw, which he opened when I blew on him gently: they also thought me very intrepid, as they thought all dragon flies stung! Frogs there were in abundance, & myriads of dusty coloured running spiders. Also many beautiful beetles. I saw one black & red fly busily hauling off the dead body of a spider! Had he killed it, I wondered? A turning of the tables. Also I found a beautiful emerald green ladybird, who when turned on its back opened its wing casts, prised itself onto its head, turned a somersault & landed on its feet in a tick! That is about all I have to relate.

For the rest, the usual round of wiring parties, water carrying, etc.

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

“Started my first adventure in the front line”

Sydney Spencer was at the real front line at last.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 18 May 1918

At stand to this morning, i.e. 4 am. Started my first adventure in the front line. My bit of line was on the extreme right flank, being a straight portion facing due east, & running north & south. On my left was No. 8 platoon. From my front I could see the crater 250 yards away slightly to my right. It had a great coil of French wire all round it. The hill on which it stood sloped down to a valley along which runs the New B Hand road. At the end of a patch of withered tree stumps & behind out of sight, the site of BH on the left of the road, the hill rose up again & went over the crest on which was line of NZs, C & D on our left.

[Illegible] front ran north & south, while the remainder of B Company was in a weird sort of re-cutment like a horse shoe, a very curious position as posts of Peyton’s platoon could fire at posts of Hervey’s platoon if they faced their direct front. The day was spent in settling on fire positions, sleeping & eating. Company HQ was in a dugout in the local support line…

Percy Spencer
18 May 1918

Another lovely day. Heavy thunderstorm in afternoon. I went down to Warlos and had to wade. Rathorn & party from Wing arrived. Awful toothache. Had wisdom tooth drawn. A painful business – a 4 pronged beggar. One prong too many, aid the dentist.

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

“I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding”

Poor Sydney Spencer felt discouraged.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 14 May 1918

Got up at 7 am. Took charge of company out beyond wood & railway for digging trench. Started work at 9 am. Went on till 3.30. CO not pleased! I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding. But still I shall win through alright you see, my dear diary.

When I got back from working party at 4 pm, to find that Major Bracey had been over here to see me. He is at V-rs and I wanted this chance of going over to see him after lunch & tea which were welded into one meal. I mucked about, acted OC to company for a time, while Rolfe & Peyton were out temporarily riding, then dinner & bed, with very strict instructions from Rolfe that there were no orders for me & that I was to go to bed & rest long in the morning. I took a book to bed with me to read. It is called The Courtship of Mollie somebody or other, and is by A E W Mason. The ordinary sort of stuff, but good reading for me at the moment.

Percy Spencer
14 May 1918

A very fine day. Bosch shelled a bit. Enemy plane got over a balloon here and caused both observers to parachute down. Plane flew low and was well shot at but got away. Sent a bottle of whiskey to the boys of the 14th & bought 3 bottles of Hock and Chandon for Davis’s party coming out tomorrow.

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

Horribly mutilated by shell fire

Animals were among the many victims of the war.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 13 May 1918

Got up at 6.50. Breakfast at 7.30. Peyton & I took company along the line to M- M-. Men walked along. I took first tack from 10-12.20. On way there a dead mule lay on track. Neck & chest horribly mutilated by shell fire. Poor beast. Our tool cart mules for a long time refused to pass it! They knew!

It rained from 10 on till 2.30 when we got back to A-n. After lunch I to bed as Pepys would have said. It is now 4.45 pm & I am just going to dress. A very ‘Novembery’ day. Yesterday I found some interesting old bills & receipts, dates 1782 & 3. I sent them to Florence. I hope she gets them.

After tea called down to interview with CO. I had let my men straggle a bit in the mud when coming home. Bad for discipline. After dinner to bed & lay awake reading till about 1.30 when I at last got some sleep. Finished reading Rupert of Hentzau, & this week’s Punch.

Percy Spencer
13 May 1918

A nice dirty day, promising trouble for the Hun tomorrow if he tries his luck against us. Dreamt of Gil last night. Somehow he got down a narrow shaft and I had to haul him out. He was in a pretty bad way.

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

“At last I am going to the wars”

There was time for baths all round before Sydney Spencer’s platoon headed to the front line.

Wednesday 1 May 1918

Got up at 8 am. At 9 took the company down to bath at brewery. Had a delicious bath. Men had a huge brewery vat & enjoyed themselves immensely. Baths lasted from 9 am-11.30. Had a long sleep from 12 to 1.

After lunch we had a company conference, I have to take my platoon to south of B-w-y. It seems strange to me that I am going up the line tonight. Proud I am sure, my dear Diary, that at last I am going to the wars.

It is now 9 pm, & I start off at 9.25 pm to Suffolk HQ, to pick up a guide for my platoon post. Arrived at my destination at 10.45. Took over left platoon of ‘C’ company Suffs, under Rowles. Found that there was another platoon of Suffs between myself & Peyton’s platoon. Net result temporary chaos, & a double journey to CHQ in the dark & mud! Got 20 mins sleep before stand to, & ½ an hour before inspection of men’s feet.

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

“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)

The work of vandal hands

Sydney Spencer was distressed by the signs of looting and damage by the enemy, but could still delight in natural beauty.

Friday 26 April 1918

I got up at 7.30 & Peyton & I went into the cook-house, & we sat by the fire & talked about Oxford & had a cup of tea, & then we had breakfast. Morning spent in gas drill, rifle inspection & mouching [sic] round & lying about.

After lunch we went down to the platoons & O ticked them off about camouflage. Then went for a ‘scrounge’ with Harvey through the town. Very pathetic. In one house I found beautiful books, furniture & china all pelmel [sic] smashed & broken & torn by vandal hands on the ground. Upstairs large cupboards ruthlessly torn open, quantities of women’s apparel lying thick on the floors, & [illegible] lying full sprawl on the apparel a massive black dog with weak brown eyes, also looked long & sadly at me. In a ruined chateau I found a curious letter written on Sept 25 1915 from here.

After tea rations came. While I was away at D company HQ, 2, 15 point 9 shells got used. B company HQ. No damage to life but a hole in wall just outside the cellar. Tonight Rolfe and [illegible] have gone on working parties.

I gathered some lovely apple blossom from an apple tree blown up by a shell today. Also some forgetmenots, wallflowers, [peonies?], cowslips & bunches of blossoming branches of Tulip Tree.


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

“Today I have had my baptism of fire”

Sydney Spencer found a damaged churchyard highly symbolic.

Thursday 25 April 1918

Well, my dear diary, today I have had my baptism of fire, this morning. At nine [Harvey?], I & NCOs of our platoon went round our brigade front & we came under very light shell fire.

Saw lots of curious & a few distressing sights. In a cemetery, a large vault burst open at the bottom of the vault, an oak coffin within, ‘les Immortelles’ on the top. At the end of the cemetery a larger old cross lying broken on the ground, & underneath the figure of the ‘Great One’ lying with arms clutching the ground & the great face buried in [illegible] clayey mud. Emblematic! He seemed to feel the load too much. The wooden cross still crushes Him into the earth. We are of the earth, earthy.

Peyton & I took a working party up to best support trench about 30 yds behind front but of course under covering gunfire…

We got back at 2 am.

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

The position today is internationally fluid

Lt Alexander Muir McGrigor may not have got the job for which he was recommended here (to relieve Ralph Glyn for other work), but he later served as ADC to Sir Ian Hamilton and then General Birdwood.

Private

GHQ
MEF
26/8 [1915]

Dear Glyn

I am sorry it could not be arranged for you to get away tonight.
Gen Maude is of course entitled to 2 ADCs and in these strenuous days I think he will not find 2 too many – as one may easily be out of action any time from indisposition or other causes. He has one coming out from England. To make suggestions to anyone about their personal staff is an act so tactless that I hold it in horror – but I may mention to you in case Gen Maude were looking for a temp or perm. ADC – the name of 2/Lt A M McGRIGOR – Glos Yeo. He is about 24 or 25 – not sure – but has been in India, knows camp life & tropics, also business training & would do well for mess, camp & other arrangements.

Whether Gen Peyton can spare him I do not know, but you could easily ascertain. He is out with 2/Mountdiv. If you were by chance to find a relief & Gen Maude could free you, let me know.

The position is today – internationally – fluid. Into what mould it will be cast, & crystallise, will greatly depend on the next few days. They are momentous. I know you think with me.

Yours ever
G H Pollen

Letter from G H Pollen to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C31/16)