“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)

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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)

Temporary apparent chaos

The Spencer brothers were both subject to a temporary reprieve.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 8 May 1918

After a good sleep from 4.30 till 9.30 I was called to go with Dillon to BHQ, to speak for 2 lance corporals (vide April 29). This was postponed so I washed, shaved & had a thorough good clean up after yesterday night’s escapade. Felt much lighter round the nether regions after I had removed the mud from trousers & boots. Had a short snooze after lunch. Then viewed scene for new bivys.

At 3 pm this afternoon we were informed that the company would move up a bit – consequence temporary apparent chaos while everyone ‘scrounged’ bits of wood & corrugated iron, old doors etc lying about for making new bivys. Finally we got the men fairly settled in by about 7 pm. Had dinner at 6.30 so as to give the men a chance of getting mess stuff away. While cutting ‘broom’ for our bivy, men from D Company passing by, not knowing me: “Hullo George, what yer doing… [remainder illegible but seems to be vulgar].

Percy Spencer
8 May 1918

A lovely day. Huns didn’t come up to time. Field cashier who had no cash – aide to contrary. Walk up to Hunancourt. Saw 1st shell hole for 10 months. Haven’t heard them shell again yet.

A jolly evening. Col. Parish gloating over leave & going down walks in various parts of London. Me le Maire [the local mayor] again dined with us & collared lots of bread. Fitzclarence lunched with us & told good stories of 3rd degree trial re loss of 5000 francs. Also of Mrs R- of Rouen.

Hun attack reported postponed 3 days.

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

“The shell-holes where so many of our boys are fighting must be drying up – an unspeakable boon to them”

A Reading man providing rest facilities for soldiers behind the lines reports on his first few days.


News from France

We are sorry not to be able so far to give much information as to Mr. Harrison’s doings.

The Army regulations and censorship of correspondence is now so very strict that such news as is let through is of the scantiest. We shall, however, all be glad to read the following :-

“I arrived safely at my destination on August 15th after a good journey. The Hut is certainly A1, and everything promises well. I am in charge with one helper, a young Church of England clergyman, and we have three orderlies under us.

Herbert Longhurst has just been in to tea. I was delighted to see him, and hope soon to come across some more of “our boys,” as I am told that several enquiries have been made for me during the last few days.

We are having perfectly lovely weather here now. The roads are hot and dusty, and the shell-holes where so many of our boys are fighting must be drying up – an unspeakable boon to them. Our great difficulties are the shortage of supplies and the insufficiencies of change, but we get along, and have crowds of men in.

Yesterday I was invited to tea with the Captain and Officers in their mess hut, and had a very good time with them. I am in excellent health.”

Trinity Congregational Church magazine, September 1917 (D/EX1237/1)