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

Advertisements

Easily the best platoon in the Battalion

Sydney Spencer was proud that his platoon won a competition.

Friday 26 July 1918

I rolled clean out of bed in the night & fell whack on to a stone floor & I did not even bruise myself!

Today came the greatly talked of “best platoon in the Battalion competition” consisting – we were told – when we got on to the parade ground – of three tests.

(1) Cleanliness & appearance.
(2) Platoon drill.
(3) A platoon scheme.

Hold your breath, Mr Diary – my platoon won! Points were as follows. 20 points for (1), 20 points for (2), 60 points for (3). My platoon tied with a platoon of A Company for cleanliness with 17 points. My platoon got 17 points for drill, “Easily the best” so the CO said. The scheme was an easy one had we had time for reconnaissance, but it was difficult. I got highest points with my platoon – 30 points, so I had 64 out of 100. I was very pleased, so was the platoon too.

Tomorrow comes the company competition, conference in afternoon. Had to explain dispositions. After tea gave Kemp a riding lesson! Frost did not come to dinner as he went on leave. Rolfe stayed to dinner instead.

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

“It’s wonderful how B. Company is scattered, and sad how many of them have gone under”

Percy Spencer was enjoying a reprieve from the fighting, and looking forward to our American allies making an impact.

July 8, 1918
My dear WF

I expect you are wondering why I haven’t written for so long. Lately I have been working moving, & so often cut off from communication, you must forgive me.

Now I am at a course near the base. It’s such a rest to have definite working hours & playing hours. We work jolly hard but after work I can take a rod & fish or swim, or walk to a fairly civilized town. Last night I fished & all but landed the largest roach I have ever hooked.

My duties with the battalion have involved riding. I had the other day to ride about 20 miles to prosecute in a CM case. As the horse’s name was “Satan” & I hadn’t been on a horse for 3 years you may imagine my feelings. However we went very well together. 2 days later, I had to do a staff ride with Gen. Kennedy as he’s something of a horseman, again I wasn’t very happy. However I didn’t fall off & coming home even ventured upon a few gallops.
I’m sorry about Sydney. I expect it’s the “Flu” or “PVO”. We’ve had an awful lot of it, but I’m glad to say I have practically escaped.

Please keep me posted with news of Stan & Gil. Isn’t it funny how we all focus on you. I hope you realise how flattering it is.
While you have been having November weather, we have been sweltering & wishing for a cool breeze now & then.

I like this part of France – it is so rich in wild flowers, woods, streams, birds and dragon flies. Did I tell you of the beautiful golden birds which used to haunt my bivouac? I have long since found out that they are the famous French Oriel. The dragon flies are marvellous. Never have I seen such numbers or variety.

Do you remember my church door Christmas card? If so you will know about where I am when I tell you I’m just going to have a look at it again.

There are no end of Americans here. All well built fellows and very keen. It’ll be a bad day for the Hun that they take the field in earnest. How many there are I don’t know, but enough to make the necessary weight till our turn comes round again.

We have an American doctor from Philadelphia – a fine big fellow….

Yesterday I met a nice boy from No. 5 platoon who remembered me though I couldn’t place him. It’s wonderful how B. Company is scattered, and sad how many of them have gone under. I was lucky to miss the grand “withdrawal”.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/7/50-52)

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)

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)

“A bicycle made for two”

More from the Spencer brothers.

Will Spencer
15 May 1918

Some French soldiers were resting on the benches on the paved platform between the two buildings of the Blumlisalp Hotel. For the first time I had the feeling that the [interned] soldiers at this hotel were in some respects better off than those at the Waldpark. The hotel has more the unpretentious character of an Inn – is more rustic & more cheerful, with its water trough by the road & its tree-planted space between the two buildings. One of the soldiers was whistling the tune of “A bicycle made for two”, & I was surprised & amused to find that J. knew the words to almost the whole of the tune – which was more than I did.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 15 May 1918

3.30 pm. I am seated now, guess where, my dear diary? At Major Bracey’s working table at his billet! Only 3 kilos from where I at present live. I have just ridden over on Capt. Rolfe’s gee. Major Bracey is out however & won’t be back till 5, so I shall stick here to see him & having the football match I half promised to play in. I hope there won’t be a dust up about it though. It will be splendid to see old Bracey again, it is 14 months since I last saw him. Had a day off today. Dear old Rolfe, he did the straight by me after my two rather thorny days on Monday & Tuesday. Have just written to Father & Mother.

At 5.30 pm.
Major Bracey did not turn up. I waited till nearly 6 pm. Rode back. Watched football match between officers & men – a drawn game. After dinner walked over, saw dear old Bracey who cheered me up immensely. He walked back part of the way with me. To bed at 10.30 & read more of my book.

Percy Spencer
15 May 1918

A glorious sunshiny day. A good deal of trouble over billets. Trying to hang on in Warlos for a night at least. Division to be relieved tonight. Up half the night sorting details. Eventually turned in at 3 am after champagne supper & slept on floor in a company mess. Fritz bombed outskirts of village.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

“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)

Learning to ride in the army

Sydney Spencer was training at Doncaster, and receiving riding lessons, a traditional officer’s skill.

Nov 7th [1916]
By order 1804 I am detailed with Ferrier, Brierly & Clemence to join Lt Col Simpson’s (Yorkshire Dragoons) equitation classes on Fisher Park on Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays.

Florence Vansittart Neale
7 November 1916

Our submarine hit 2 dreadnaughts.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Whizz! Bang! Life is too dangerous under fire to be pleasant

An army chaplain with links to Stratfield Mortimer wrote to the vicar with more news of his work in France. He was now right at the Front in constant danger.

25th Brigade,
8th Division, B.E.F.
22nd February, 1916.

Dear Vicar,

With much regret I have had to leave my work at Wimereux to come ‘up the line’ right to the battle front to minister to two battalions of regulars of the 1st Army – one from our own county. And also to look after the patients at an advanced Field Ambulance. I am now continuously in the danger zone, and my work takes me into the trenches, and to the reserve billets just behind the lines. I spent a week with the General at Brigade Headquarters, but now have a billet of my own nearer the hospital, but still under shell fire, indeed my room is rather unpleasantly situated, being just between the railway station, a large ordnance workshop, and a battery of 6-in. guns, all of which are being constantly shelled. Last Sunday afternoon I was lying down for half-an-hour after a strenuous morning – a Celebration and four Parade Services, all at different places – when twelve shells roared over my billet, I could tell by the noise and vibration that they were fairly low down, so thought I had better get a move on. I had just stepped into the street when whizz! bang!! and a 4.9 shell burst almost under my nose, making a huge hole in the roadway, and bowling over two Frenchmen who were passing – fortunately for me the whole force of the explosion was away from me, so I escaped without a scratch, but it was a near thing! A little further along another shell dropped, while overhead 16 aeroplanes were straffing [sic] one another, and as some of us were gazing upwards watching the fighting a Bosche let loose two bombs which exploded with a terrific noise near by, but didn’t hurt anyone. They were shelled out of the hospital, which has been evacuated, and the patients taken to a farm further back. A man was being operated on when a shell burst over the roof of the building, and patient, doctor and sisters were smothered with glass and debris, but none were badly hurt.

This sort of thing goes on more or less every day, and the noise of the guns is hardly ever out of one’s ears. I am continually in the saddle and often get into warm places, one never knows where the shells are going to drop next, so it is little use trying to dodge them. Nearer the lines one has to go on foot, and it is well to go along with an eye open for grassy hollows into which to tumble if a shell comes too close or the bullets begin to fly around. The other day a Colonel, with his 2nd in Command, found themselves in the way of a shell and promptly rolled into a ditch by the roadside, unfortunately, it was full of water, and very cold, and they rather regretted they hadn’t taken their chances of being blown into a warmer clime.

Life is very rough and comfortless up here, but there are opportunities for us which make it all worth while, and certainly the Padres always find a warm welcome from both officers and men. I hold services wherever and whenever I can – in barns and dug-outs and tumbledown houses, often with the guns booming and shells falling all around. Funerals are the worst part of our duties – apart from the sadness of them, there is always a most unpleasant amount of risk as the cemeteries are close to the lines and often very exposed – we wait for nightfall when possible, but often they have to be taken in broad daylight and in full view of the Huns’ observers. Life is very exciting and interesting, but too dangerous and nerve-racking to be pleasant. I often wish myself back in the comparative security and quiet of Wimereux.

I mustn’t close without a word about the Cinematograph. I spent a couple of days of my week’s leave in buzzing around the cinema firms, got the whole apparatus together and brought it out with me on the leave boat, by special permission of the War Office. It should be in full swing by now, but I haven’t yet had word to that effect from my successor at the Hut at Wimereux. I applied for permission to remain till I had it all fixed up and working, but was told that senior men were badly needed at the front, so felt I couldn’t press my claim.

With best wishes to all friends at Mortimer.
Yours very sincerely,
W.S. Bowdon, C.F.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, April 1916 (D/P120/28A/14)

Invaluable (except to the War Office)

Percy Spencer was still awaiting his formal transfer to the Territorial Division he was temporarily attached to in Hertfordshire. Army bureaucracy was still holding things up, even though Percy’s services were evidently in great demand:

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Feb 7.1915

My dear Florrie…

I’ve been awfully busy the last 10 days both in & out of the office. One day on a long march of the Division, when I passed Mrs Plunkett & Miss Barton, and two other days motoring round with the Staff on staff rides. I was only there because Lord Robertson, the officer commanding our Signal Section, was thrown from his horse last Saturday and was unable to do his work. Mrs Plunkett invited me to dinner one night last week but I [didn’t] get away from the office any evening before 8.30….

My fate is still in the balance, but General Willoughby has made a personal application to a chum at the War Office, saying that they must let me remain here as I am “invaluable” to him – i.e. worthless.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/2-3)

‘I can ride a horse all right so long as it goes straight’

Percy Spencer continued to practice his riding while training with the Territorials:

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Decr 10.14

Dera Florrie

Thank you very much indeed for the mittens. The day they arrived I wore them out riding. It was a soaking wet afternoon, and I got them wet through, but they have quite recovered, and will be doing duty again tomorrow when I am to go out on a Divisional affair.

That was an unlucky day – the day I wore your silk lined mittens. I was riding with another sergeant and a corporal of the police, when in a side road, in a soaking rain, the corporal’s pony let him down badly. He was in a pickle, but being of an amorous nature, and there being a charming daughter in the house we carried him into, he soon bucked up and was sorry to be taken back to his billet where he now is nursing a bad ankle.

Yesterday I rode another (a big horse) with a police patrol, and pleased the police sergeant very much.

I think now I can ride a horse all right so long as it goes straight, doesn’t stumble, swerve, back or rear…

The Brigadier General went shooting on his estate last week and some of us (including myself) have been presented with a brace of pheasant apiece as a result…

Yours ever

Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/29)

‘Thank goodness she’s only been married once’

Percy Spencer was still stationed at St Albans, and seems to have been enjoying himself. He writes to sister Florence about recent exploits – and his lachrymose landlady:

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Decr 6.14

Dear Florrie…

Fortunately for my health’s sake, going out on manoeuvres has been added to my duties. Twice last week I was out all day urging a bicycle over ploughed fields & steep hills, and through hedges I should at any other time have admired. On Thursday we had a splendid day – and won handsomely…

This next Friday we are to have a slap up fight with a “skeleton army”. So you see that’s all we are good for at present, and we shan’t be going to the front for ages….

Yesterday I rode round town on a horse I hadn’t ridden before – it was a most exciting experience for both of us. I’m glad to say we finished up together. It was a grand diagonal race, the wonder of the populace and the fear of all cyclists.

Tomorrow is Mrs Everest’s [his hostess] wedding day. Poor old lady, she is in rather a lachrymose condition and has been for some days. Arthur’s birthday, her birthday, Arthur’s funeral week and their wedding day are all sacred days, kept with tears and misery. I sympathise but – thank goodness she’s only been married once.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/28)