Shell shock and mania

Shell shock could have lasting effects.

Tuesday, the 3oth day of September, 1919

REPORT OF HOUSE COMMITTEE

The Master reported that a man named West had been admitted to the Workhouse under the following circumstances:

West, a soldier suffering from shell-shock, had been discharged from Ashurst Military Hospital to proceed to his home at Exeter, but, whilst in the train, his conduct brought him under the notice of the Railway Authorities, and he was removed from the train at Cholsey Station and subsequently brought to the Workhouse by the Police, suffering from acute Mania. The Master applied to the authorities at Ashurst Hospital to re-admit him, but they refused to do so. The Master had then applied to No. 1 War Hospital at Reading, and they had received the man and stated that they would return him at once to Ashurst.

Your Committee recommend that a full statement of these facts be laid before the War Office.

Minutes of Wallingford Board of Guardians (G/W1/36)

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“The war is ending, it seems, but the misery of it cannot end with it”

More details of Sydney Spencer’s shell shock not long before his final days.

Oldbury House
Tewkesbury
9 Nov 1918

Dear Mrs Image

I was dreadfully sorry to hear of Sydney’s death, & it must have been a bitter shock to you, especially when you knew that there had been no real necessity for him to go back to duty when he did. You will be impatient to hear what Capt Dillon told me – though I fear it is as unsatisfactory as all such information must be.

The MC was given, not for any single piece of bravery, but for continued good work during the battallion’s [sic] attack at Morlanecourt (near Albert) on Aug 8-10 & during the previous period when the company had a difficult time owing to the German attack on the division immediately on its right. Sydney put in a tremendous amount of work – too much, Capt. Dillon says: he was too careless about himself, got quite insufficient sleep & really prepared the way for his break-down & shell-shock. While in this over-taxed state the company got shelled rather badly, & a shell fell pretty close with the result that Sydney succumbed to the trembling kind of shock & had to go to hospital on Aug 10th. He was not actually wounded, except for a tiny scratch on the upper arm, which they put some iodine & a dressing on. When he got to hospital he pretended, for fun, that he had a very bad wound & the nurse took extra care in unbinding it, but enjoyed the joke when the wound was revealed. He told Capt. Dillon on his return that he was only really ill for three days, but Capt. Dillon thought that he had come back too soon & in any case sooner than he need have done.

He was first of all in hospital at Rouen & then spent time at Trouville. On his return he seemed very well & cheerful: Dillon saw him again on Sept 10th. The battalion was then very busy preparing for the attack which was to be made on Sept 18th. On the 17th he & Dillon had a cheerful chat about prospects: & Sydney said they both would get nice Blighty wounds & go back together & be out of it comfortably; he seemed quite confident that he was coming out of the affair with his life. On the 18th Dillon was wounded, & Sydney took his place automatically. The company had a very bad time & almost everybody was knocked out. This accounts for the fact that there is so great difficulty in getting any particulars. The attack took place east of Epehy, & Dillon thinks that in all probability it was there that Sydney was killed. The line was being advanced at the time, & in those circumstances, it is some slight consolation to know, his body would probably be buried decently & the exact spot recorded. If you wished to make any enquiries on that point the Graves Registration people would be the ones to apply to. I am afraid I don’t know their address. Capt. Dillon suggests as possible sources of information Sydney’s batman, the chaplain or the company sergeant-major; but I think you have already tried those people. The other lieutenant who was with Sydney was also killed at the same time.

Capt. Dillon can’t say much about the time Sydney was in hospital, & he does not understand how it is that you have heard nothing about it: for he knew that Sydney was in the habit of writing very full letters about everything. The lack of news from the 5th to 10th was probably due to the amount of fighting that was taking place. Capt. Dillon suggests that you might get some particulars of what was happening from the “Times” of 8th-10th – which however he says is full of mistakes (it was their battalion who took Morlanecourt, & the Americans had no share in it). But I feel that what you want is more personal details, & though I managed to extract some from Capt. Dillon (which I have told you) there are doubtless others which might be pumped out by yourself but hardly could be by anyone else. Capt. Dillon is apparently a very good sort, but rather lacks the faculty of unbosoming himself to strangers. If you do ever meet him you may be able to do better than I have; as to actual historical details I think he gave me all he could. One point he mentioned which may interest you was that Sydney won his MC within a mile or so of the sport where Percy [his brother] was wounded; Percy’s division being the next but one in the line. You may already know this.

I do hope that Percy’s wrist is making good progress: I had no idea that it was so bad as you say, or that his nerves were so badly upset. The war is ending, it seems, but the misery of it cannot end with it.


Yours sincerely
R. Harold Compton

Letter from R Harold Compton to Mrs Florence Image regarding the death in action of her brother Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/24)

“We have lost men and millions, but these wretched French return to smoking ruins”

Florence Image was devastated by the news that her beloved brother Sydney Spencer had been killed, just after returning to the Front after having shell shock.

29 Barton Road
7 Oct. ‘18

My very dear old man

You and your wife’s thoughts will, I know, be with us. We got home from London last Tuesday evening about 7. I was standing in hat and overcoat, my back to the fire, getting a warm. Florrie, the other side of the table, opened a bundle of letters. Suddenly – in a quiet, toneless voice, I heard her saying, “Sydney is killed”. I did not realise her meaning. It stunned me. And she, poor dear – I knew how passionate was the devotion between the brother and sister – and how he idolized her beyond any other woman in the world. She bore up, but I could not. To spare the old parents in their weakness, he (like his elder brother) had left all to her hands to manage. What a week!

The Major’s letter, scrawled in the hurry of the battle, is all that we have heard – and the pencil scrawl was but a few words.

“I am very, very sorry to have to tell you that your brother was killed on Sept. 24th.” (How matter of fact is the announcement!) “He was commanding B Company at the time. He was, I think, the keenest officer I have ever met. A shell burst near him and he was killed on the spot.”

We have heard no syllable since – nor could I find any mention of the Norfolks in the Times syllabus of those days. Poor boy! I told you how he was blown up by a shell on the fourth day of the advance, and how when he insisted on rejoining, the Colonel sent him down to the reserve, as not healed yet; but he wrote to us that he was less “tired” than those officers who had been years in the field – and he seems to have got his way – to this end.

But an end how glorious! He was BA of Oxford and was meaning to enter the church. Always he was doing something for others. It cheers me to remember that his was such a straight, clean, useful life. To us he is not, and never will be, dead.

Oh how I remember his leaving for the Front. He was staying with us, and went straight from our house without stopping, at so early an hour that I was not up. Florrie was with him to give him his breakfast: but I was abed still, when he came in for goodbye, and at the last moment he lifted to his lips my hand lying on the bedclothes. My last sight of Syd! He was so cheerful and so full of life.

Percy, the elder brother, is still at St Thomas’. The doctors marvel at their success with his left arm but he cannot move it yet: will he ever be able? His letter to her ended: “Thank God you have John, and thank God I have you both”.

The Impudence of the Kaiser! Announcing to the army that this tickling of the President was his own action; that he is still all in all. Wilson won’t be slimed over. We have lost men and millions, but these wretched French return to towns and villages that are smoking ruins – deliberately destroyed by the retiring Hun. I don’t care about a town for a town. We know that our squeamishness would let Germany off half price. No. We should compel them, by the labours of their own populace, to restore every ruined French town, every village, yes, every house: and keep military occupation of Germany until this has been done, and to France’s satisfaction.

Also, we should demand ample fines and indemnities.

Florence begs to join me in sending love to Mrs Smith and to you.

In all affection.

Yours
Bild

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

“I thought the Military Cross was only given for bravery but apparently they still have a habit of coming up with the rations”

Conscientious – and modest – Sydney Spencer had been so keen to get back to duty he had not allowed enough recovery time after his experience with shell shock.

Sept 7th 1918

My Dearest Sister

When I ‘caught up’ with the regiment I was immediately ordered back to the transport lines for a few days as they considered I had not given myself enough time to rest enough! Voila! So I am here instead of there! Now in your ear, & John’s ear & Percy’s ear only a secret. Of course I was burning to put this on the first page but thought I would try & look or rather appear on paper bashful. Well I have been – now what do you think? I think I must try & hold out this sentence till I get
[on second sheet:]
on this side of the paper.

Well as I was saying – & I hope by now I have got you into a perfect fervour of impatience – I have been recommended for an MC!! Heavens what a shock it was to me. I thought it was only given for bravery but apparently they still have a habit of coming up with the rations. Mind not a word. I don’t say I have got it, I am recommended for it. So I demand silence on your part until you see in the Times that among some 50 million or so other names of MCs, mine too appears.

All love and affection to you both from

Your always loving Brer
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/75-77)

“Your brother did most excellent work in the last show, but unfortunately tried to accomplish more than a human being can out here”

Sydney Spencer had asked his sister Florence to send some cigarettes to his senior officer.

22 Aug 1918
Dear Mrs Image

I was astonished to receive a large parcel of cigarettes from you this morning.

In thanking you very much indeed, I realise the presence of your brother’s guiding hand. Further you must know that I am unable at present to share the cigarettes with those whom he would wish me to share with, for about five days ago I got a mouthful of gas & at present I am in bed in a Rest Camp behind the lines. I am ever so sorry that your gift did not go straight up to the fellows in the line for we have been on starvation rations for cigarettes lately & I’m sure they would burst into tears at a box this size.
However, as I expect to return in a few days I will see to it that some of the crumbs reach their hungry mouths.

Your brother did most excellent work in the last show, but unfortunately tried to accomplish more than a human being can out here. I felt sure that as a result he would break down as I could not prevail on him to take much rest. I am sure you will be glad to know he commanded the best platoon in the battalion, & we shall all be eager to see him back again but, as I wrote him, it must not be until he is really fit this time. However, a spell at Trouville should do him all the good in the world if this lovely weather continues.

I heard that another brother had been wounded by a bomb – I hope he got to Blighty & is making good recovery.

Please let me thank you again for an almost priceless gift as things are at present, though I fear I receive it under false pretenses.

With kind regards, I remain
Yours sincerely
G E Dillon

Hearty congratulations on your article in Punch – much appreciated by “the troops”.

Letter from Captain Dillon (D/EX801/78)

“I loved my men & they followed me wonderfully & I longed to remain with them, but I was for the time being the led & not the leader”

Sensitive Sydney Spencer had found the experience of hard fighting had led to shell shock.

August 19th 1918
73rd General Hospital
BEF France

My Darling Sister

Just this line or two to say that I am much much better. Thank goodness the effects I dreaded – sleepless nights & ugly dreams – have passed away quickly like a mist & although I don’t like to look back upon one or two incidents which I witnessed in the push of Aug 8th, 9th & 10th in which I took part, a merciful providence has given me a spirit with which to fight those weary thoughts which at first crowded my mind & spoiled my chances of getting well. As it is, I am quite normal & perky again & my happy old self except that I want to get back to the B[attalio]n & see how things are.

The history of my affair roughly is this. We were on a high plateau taken the day before. We were moved – I think unwisely – slightly forward (after having dug ourselves in & camouflaged ourselves too!) to dig in, in broad daylight. There was no place to dig in, so the co[mpan]y got into shell holes scattered here & there. A German aeroplane saw us, & then the shelling started. 7 of us were in one hole. Myself & a c[or]p[ora]l & 5 others. At last a shell landed right in the hole.

A man not a yard away from me was killed instantly being horribly smashed up. 5 were wounded. One wasn’t at all. I had a wee wee splinter cut my left arm. I held up for a time, then the effects of 8 days work with about 4 hours sleep, little food, & existing on a cup of whiskey every 5 or 6 hours told their tale, & I broke up, & was sent down.

Bitterly disappointed I was, I loved my men & they followed me wonderfully & I longed to remain with them, but I was for the time being the led & not the leader.

All love to you my darling Sister

Your always affect
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/70)

Shaken in body but in spirit still quite perky

Not only had Percy Spencer been wounded, but younger brother Sydney had suffered shell shock.

Aug 12th [1918]

My Dearest Florence

Just this line. I am safe but in hospital, unwounded. Was blown up with my men when sheltering in a shellhole. Am suffering from slight debility. Am shaken in body but in spirit am still quite perky.

Your affec Brer
Sydney

Note from Sydney Spencer written in pencil on scrap of paper (D/EZ177/8/3/68)

Little details of war

This is the fascinating account written by Sydney Spencer in hospital recovering from shell shock of his experiences at the front line in August 1918.

I have read many a glowing account of deeds & doings up there when men know each other as they are. Not one of these accounts gives for me at any rate, more than a very sketchy idea of the innumerable happenings which may take place in a few days. War is made up, so far as I have seen in my short experience, of little details done, undone, to be done, or to be undone, and unless these things are truly & patiently portrayed, the great with the little, the brave with the craven, then for those who yearn to know how things really happen there is little hope of arriving at an understanding of the atmosphere which surrounds warfare.

Before going any further, do not for one moment mistake me. I am not the old war worn man who has been out there for 3 years or more. My service out here is still in its babyhood. All I wish to do is to set down here as much in detail as possible the happenings of some eight days ending for me in the morning of August 10th, in the hope that should my ain folk ever read this, they may enter a little into what we do out here. Let the papers speak for themselves of vast movements, of cavalry, tanks, army corps, air fights, massings of troops, forward or retrograde movements, strategy & tactics. I mean to talk about much more humble things. How to get men’s socks changed. How to get shovels with which to dig in, under fire when no shovels are obtainable, how to carry the burden of 11 Lewis Gunners, when you only have four gunners left. How to walk that last kilometre when men are almost asleep as they walk. How to buoy men up when they are down. How to sympathize & yet be firm. How to be grim with the craven, & gentle with the exhausted ones.

I want to get away from the newspapers’ broad sweeping view of things & come down to little things, nay, at times to talk of a yard or two of ground or an individual man. The yard or two of ground will not be one necessarily where deeds were done, the individual will not be a budding VC.

And so let us get away & follow these 8 days through. We had had a day’s rest at [censored], after coming up from down south, & then at an early hour of the 1st, Dillon had orders to reconnoitre line in front of [censored], & I was to go with him. (more…)

Future shell shock cases

A precedent was set for dealing with shell shocked patients who ended up in the workhouse back home.

9 July 1918

G. J. Dubock

Mrs Hawker and Mr Alleyne, the Secretaries of the Newbury Sub Committee, Berks War Pensions &c Committee, being in attendance, were interviewed by the Board on the matter of this man and as to the procedure to be taken in any future similar case, and it was resolved on the motion of Mr Hill recorded by Rev. Kefford that the Master notify the above Committee immediately on admission to the House.

Newbury Board of Guardians minutes (G/N1/39, p. 79)

Delay dealing with shell shock case

George Dubock had been discharged by the army due to his severe shell shock.

26 June 1918

George J. Dubock

This man having been interviewed by the Board it was resolved that he be now discharged from the Institution. The Clerk was instructed to write Mrs Hawker, Secretary of the Newbury Sub Committee, Berks War Pensions &c committee, enquiring the reason of the delay in dealing with this case and on what authority he was said to be insane.

Newbury Board of Guardians minutes (G/N1/39, p. 75)

“Not bad enough for an asylum but should go to some special hospital for shell shock patients”

A west Berkshire man was suffering from severe shell shock.

14 June 1918

G. J. Dubock

The Clerk, was instructed to reply to the Secretaries, Naval & Military War Pensions Committee, Reading, that this ex-soldier patient is not bad enough for an asylum but should go to some special hospital for shell shock patients and that the Board trust he may be removed soon and are indignant at the delay in the case.

Newbury Board of Guardians minutes (G/N1/39, p. 71)

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)

Shot at dawn for “cowardice” caused by shell shock

John Maxwell Image wrote to his friend W F Smith, who was staying at Hindhead in south west Surrey, not far from the big army camp at Aldershot. Normally very gung-ho in support of the war, Image’s compassion had been aroused by stories of court martials and teenagers shot at dawn. The Revd Thomas Pym (1885-1945), in peacetime the chaplain at Image’s college, was serving as an army chaplain.

29 Barton Rd
6 Dec. ‘17
My very dear old man

The military cars to and fro Aldershot must surely be more or less an interesting sight.

The poor Tommy comes under this [?not clear] penalty quite frequently. Not often from cowardice, poor boy. Most often (I believe) it is from slinking off to some girl in the rear which is called “desertion”, tho’ he would have returned right enough.

Just before I was married there was shown to me a letter from a young Trin. Officer at the Front, describing a visit from one of our Trin. Chaplains, begging this young friend of his to “pray for him”, for he had to pass the night with a boy of 18 who was to be shot at dawn. Pym spoke then of a night with another poor child (of 17!) who had been shot the previous week, for what the CM was pleased to style Cowardice – though he had twice behaved with exceptional bravery, and it was only after seeing his two brothers killed at his side that on this occasion his nerve broke down. In an officer it would have been called “shell-shock”, and the interesting sufferer sent home to a cushy job in England. I know of 2 thus treated. Pym’s words brought the tears to my eyes. I see that he has told the story (slightly altered) in a book that has recently come out by him, Characteristics of the Army in Flanders.

Sir Arthur Yapp at the Guildhall last Friday. The Signora went (non ego) and returned enthusiastic – she and her Cook – over the great man’s dignity and sweetness. That evening he lectured the students (and I believe also them of Girton) in Newnham College – and left by the 9.9 for London.

One remark of his: “The vessels sunk by the U-boats during the week ending Nov. 24 (I forget how many that was) might have carried enough bread to feed Cambridge for nearly 7 years, or enough meat for 8 ½ years, or enough sugar for 64 years.”

He said that Food Tickets have changed Germany to a nation of forgers. He dreaded the like fate for England.

Yours ever
Bild

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

“The War is a terrible thing, but it has brought out many splendid qualities in those serving their King and Country”

The parish of Newbury was proud of its young men.

THE WAR

We are very sorry to hear that two of our young men are reported missing – Ernest Edward Cooper, of 17, Waterloo Place, and Albert James Geater, of 2, Wellington Terrace. We trust that their friends may yet hear better news about them. Also Walter John Pocock, of Waterloo Place, is said to be suffering badly from shell shock in hospital in France.

Sergeant E Sivier, formerly of Newbury, has been awarded the Military Medal for bravery on the field, and Harry, son of Mr and Mrs Bright, of West Mills, has received a like honour. These things make us very proud of our young men, and should lead us to be all the more earnest in our prayers for them. The War is a terrible thing, but it has brought out many splendid qualities in those serving their King and Country, and our Nation will be all the richer for these things in the years to come.

The Rector has been hoping to obtain another colleague in the person of Mr C T Lord, son of the Vicar of Chaddleworth, who was to have been ordained by the Bishop of Oxford this September: but those hopes have now been disappointed, as Mr Lord has been claimed by the Military, and so will not be ordained at present.

Newbury St Nicolas parish magazine, October 1917 (D/P89/28A/13)

“The return to the hell of war must be to our brave fellows a terrible wrench, far more than going out for the first time”

Winkfield men received a sympathetic hearing on their rare visits home on leave.

OUR MEN WHO ARE SERVING.

We regret to report that Pte. George Streamer has been very badly gassed and is now in Hospital in England. It is feared that he may be invalided out of the Army; his sight is badly affected.

Pte. Frank Brant has been seriously ill for several weeks. He is hospital in France and we trust that the anxiety of his relatives will still be relieved.

Pte. James Winnen has been suffering severely from shell-shock, but is now convalescent.

We are glad to welcome home on leave this month Lance-Corporal Edwin Gary, who recently won the Military Medal, Lance-Corporal Hartly Golding, and Privates G. Chaney, W. Harwood, W. Fisher and N. Town.

After the peace and quietness of a few days at home, the return to the hell of war must be to our brave fellows a terrible wrench, far more than going out for the first time. May they have a very real place in our gratitude and prayers.

Winkfield section of Winkfield District Magazine, October 1917 (D/P151/28A/9/10)