“Indignant that the Boshe should dare to shell when I was going away to be ill”

Sydney had gone down with the dreaded influenza, and suffered through a horrendous journey to get to hospital.

Written in Base Hospital, Rouen

No one could be more surprised than I am, my dear diary! It is now Saturday afternoon [22 June] & I am lying in a clean green tented ward with pretty chintz curtains at the windows suffering with PVO, this being the common or garden fever of unknown origin.

Here is the history of my movements from when I left off on Wednesday night. I had a curious night. Guns behind us very noisy owing to ‘Chinese Bombardment’ being put up. At 8 breakfast was brought in, & I could not eat it. Took a morning parade but felt mighty seedy.

After lunch lay on my valise & from then on till 7.30 when the doctor came it was one long nightmare. My temperature went up in leaps & bounds. My back ached, I shivered, my head was splitting, I had a hacking cough, & felt extraordinarily weak if I tried to walk. Doctor packed me off. Here is detail how one gets to base-hospital.

1. Doctor sent for stretcher bearers.
2. I was carted off to Battalion HQ.
3. Red X Ambulance car whisked me off to Hedanville.
4. Another car took me to Div. clearing station.
5. Another car took me to 3rd (Brit) Officers CCS at a place called Sezincourt. Here I spent the night between sheets in a massive old chateau looking out over great parklands.
6. At 9 am off in another ambulance car & planked onto an ambulance train.
7. Then 15 long long hours while the train tried its hardest not to get to Rouen.
8. At last the train stopped & a voice from the open called out peremptorily “Ere Bill let’s ‘ave them 21 officers!”

It was raining then. Car brought me here & when I tumbled into these sheets at 12.15 this morning I was not unthankful. I have had my temperature taken umpteen times. It was up to 102.8 when taken at Hedanville but it had commenced abating by then. We were stuck at Hedanville by heavy shelling. I got impatient being of course light headed & felt indignant that the Boshe should dare to shell when I was going away to be ill. However at last after a decidedly near & unpleasing zzzzz bong! our car gathered its legs well under & scuttled, & the next shell rounded far behind by the time it came along.

It is getting on for tea time & I have only just got hold of my kit, & you. I am reading a stupid book called “An Adventuress”! To sleep at about 9 at night. My temperature about normal. 99.

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

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A very unfortunate incident

Sydney was not far back enough from the lines to avoid danger.

Tuesday 18 June 1918

Got up at 6.30 am. After breakfast carried out the following programme with my platoon down in the orchard which I found last night. 7.30-8 inspection. 8-8.30 PT. 8.30-9.30 arms drill & close order drill. 9.30-10.30 musketry including rapid loading & [wealing?] of SBRs, gudging [gauging?] distance etc. 10.30-11 a break & a run. 11-11.30 BF. Back to camp & a sleep, thank goodness, till lunch time.

After lunch another sleep till tea time. After tea my two rifle sections made concertina barbed wire entanglements. They were very successful. During afternoon & evening we were pretty heavily shelled with long range HV for a back area. One landed about 30 yards from my platoon bivys! Later in evening more shelling ensued. This resulted in a very unfortunate incident. Bed in clothes at 11 pm. Raining hard.

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

Sneezing gas or hay fever?

Sydney was plagued by hay fever and thirst.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 17 June 1918

Got up at 6.45. Paraded at 7.45 for inspection. After inspection half an hour’s PT followed by a half hour’s run & then dismissed. Spent a lot of time reconnoitring. It was a scorching hot day, & the scent of clover fields so strong & pollen so strong that 4 out of 8 of us were set to sneezing violently. Some thought that it was sneezing gas as we were shelled pretty closely while on the trench line in front of A-y Wood, but I don’t think so.

This reconnoitring scheme took place from 9.30 till 3.30, 6 hours in a scorching sun with two biscuits & not a drop of drink! ‘No [won?]’ as the troops would say. The landscape was lovely. Saw numbers of swallow tail butterflies, scarlet pimpernels in abundance. A glorious walk if it had been a pleasure walk. A sleep. Dinner at seven. A turmoil of chits & arrangements & bed finally.

Joan Daniels
June 17th Monday

This morning the Austrian report said they had taken 10,000 prisoners, but tonight the paper says that they were completely squashed, which is a good thing. I am afraid the McKenzies will be anxious about Leslie, but trust he is alright.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Joan Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“The men always say we move on a Sunday”

Sydney was on the move again.

Sunday 16 June 1918

And so, my dear diary, once more we make a move on a Sunday! The men always say we move on a Sunday, although I have not specially noticed it.

Got up at 6.45. Went to Holy Communion at ‘Gaspers’ entertainment barn at 7.30. Took church parade for Dillon. An old French peasant kicked up a row. My knowledge of French led me into the task of getting rid of him!

At 12 noon we knew nothing about moving. At 1.45 Dillon & I were playing double patience. At 2 pm we marched off for a camp between F-c-v-e & H-d-v-e. Arrived there at 4.30 pm. Men under ‘Arab’ bivouacs in a corn field at edge of trench system, ourselves, 4 of us in a tent near road. A rest & bed by 10 pm. EA [enemy aeroplanes] heard overhead but no shelling except of V-ns.

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

“Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X – a lamentable sight.”

Civilians were among the victims of German poison gas.

Tuesday 11 June 1918

Got up at 7.45 am. Got my kit packed by Fox [his batman]. Had breakfast, & then Jones stropped my razor & got a really good shave. After breakfast got down to Hesdin station. Train was due to leave at 10.15 so Graham & I bought biscuits, strawberries & bananas to eat if no food was available. Started at 11.45. Got to St Pol at 1.15. Lunch at the EFC canteen. Town has been fairly well shelled & bombed. Saw some poor old ladies who have been gassed with yellow X. ‘De profundis’ a lamentable sight.

7.30 pm Candas. We stay the night here at Candas as we cannot go further until tomorrow morning at 7.30. Tea at Café’ [illegible] Henly. Then kits to RTO office, a walk and dinner at same café’. Just discovered that I have left my advance pay book & my cheque book, ‘horribili dictu’, at Marronville!

After dinner I made paper frogs for French officers who thought them ‘tres gentils’. To bed at rest camp at 10 pm.

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

“Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose”

Sydney Spencer continued his gas course.

Sunday 9 June 1918

Got up at 7.15. After breakfast wrote up some of my notes. On parade. A long lecture on yellow cross shelling. A very good lecture. After a break, we each had to give details for different drills. Rather boring but a necessary part of a course I suppose. Then a talk by SSOI training Lt Col Porrit Morris. A lecture on cause of casualties in yellow cross. Then we dismissed.

After lunch, during which we had a few contretemps owing to bad mess waiting, a lecture on gas poisoning. After tea lolled about a bit. Wrote notes until 7 pm & then down to Hesdin to dinner with Barker. Noticed a French Major at dinner. He was a curious old man & had curious manners.

After dinner walked back to mess & wrote up my notes until 12.30. Then to bed and read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. A highly entertaining book. A lot of ‘sweet’ rain today to cool the atmosphere. A fine night.

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

“The line is a very different country now to what it was when I was here in September 1916”

Percy Spencer, as a single man, relied heavily on his sister Florence for the supply of toiletries and other things, and even asked her to do his mending. He was pleased to hear that former art student brother Stanley had been asked to join the War Artists scheme. As Percy proudly predicted, it was to be the first step in a starry career.

June 5, 1918

My dear WF

Thank you for the long letter, battery, key ring and tinder ‘lighter’, the lighter however does everything but light and the battery is the wrong shape. I think I said tubular. However I’m trying to get one here.

I got the last parcel – in fact all you have sent I think, dear. But letters do seem scarce when one’s only correspondents are a dear sister and one’s mother and father.

Can I give you another wants list –

6 eyelets for field boots
1 pair long laces (field boots)
2 pairs mohair laces (ankle boots)
Cake Wrights coal tar soap
Tube Kolynos tooth paste
Socks

3 or 4 pairs of socks I have, want mending. May I send them back to you on receipt of some from you?

I can’t remember whether I left any at my diggings. If you have none I’ll write to Mrs Curtis.

I’m having a lovely time camped in a wood by a stream. Worked pretty hard, as the orderly room has run downhill badly and I’m applying ginger.

We generally get a few hours bombing each night and occasional shelling and gas shelling, but nothing very near. Had a lucky escape further back a week or so ago. The Huns shelled our camp and dropped a shell close to the tent the doctor and I were in and between 2 bivouacs. Luckily we were all sleeping at the time and the force of the explosion and another from the shell went over us.

Last night I went for a walk up the line as I was feeling rather bilious. It was about 8 miles up from here. A very different country now to what it was when I was here in September 1916. It was a very quiet trip, no shelling or machine gunning. Arrived back at 2.30 am and feel all the better for my walk this morning.

Have you seen that Gen. K has got a CMG?

Your news about Stanley is the best that has reached me for many a day. Of course it’s a terrific compliment to his work and an appreciation which may be the making of his name.

I rather think that Sydney is north of me.

Yours ever
Percy


Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/41-44)

All is peace during the day

Both Sydney and Percy were now back from the main fray.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 2 June 1918

We paraded for church parade at 9 am. Marched in full marching order up to range. Church parade was at 9.45. Padre preached on depending on ourselves & not on the ‘Chariots & Horses’! Did he refer to! [sic] I wonder!

At 10.30 the CO inspected us. At eleven GOC Brigade inspected men. He has a fine face & fine manner too. A long inspection which lasted till 1 o’clock but very thoroughly carried out.

Although there were supposed to be other parades during the day these were washed out & we got a fair amount of rest during the rest of the day. The weather still remains fine & warm & sunny.

We still continue to get a high velocity shell or two in the village occasionally. Two men were wounded tonight.

Percy Spencer
2 June 1918

Fritz bombed during night. The copse we are in is delightful. A swift flowing stream runs by the mess and all is peace during the day.

Joan Daniels
June 2nd Sunday

The Germans arrested on the Marne.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“My platoon beat No 5 platoon at football”

Sydney was enjoying time away from the front line.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 31 May 1918

Today I went on parade again. Paraded at 7 o’clock. Inspected platoon & then we went for a route march under Capt. Rolfe. A glorious morning again & I very much enjoyed the march. The country round here is glorious. We are already at high summer, dogroses are all out & trees in the first beauty of summer foliage, before the dust dims their shrill green.

After lunch to the range. My platoon shot well. I got an 8 inch group and a possible at the application.

By the way my platoon beat No 5 platoon at football 5-4. We are very anxious to take on Mo 7 platoon which beat No 8, 2 nights ago. Got to bed fairly early & read for a time.

Bombardment fairly heavy which disturbed me somewhat in so far as I had a night full of dreams!

Percy Spencer
31 May 1918

A lovely day. Fritz shelled near 17th a little, relieved 24th in front line, and bombed us at night.

Joan Daniels
May 31st Friday

Mummie had a letter yesterday from Auntie Lavinia. Her brother was killed at the front. Also a letter about Eina Furness. He is getting on better than was hoped for so that is great. He was on the third floor of the hospital, & was the only one on that floor who was left alive, falling from there to the basement. Besides having a piece of shell in his head he was injured in the back & arm. Mr Douglass is back from France.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Joan Evelyn Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“Looking more or less like an Englishman, instead of a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather”

Sydney and Percy Spencer both took the opportunity to write to their sister.

May 28th [1918]
My Darling Florence & Mr I.

Now it is really a time of rest & once more I can sit at a table again looking more or less like an Englishman & feeling very much like one too, instead of looking like a walking mole heap in damp weather & a dust bin in dry weather. Your parcel of toffy & chocolate was very much enjoyed

May 29th
I am simply bursting to tell you of a frightful row between my platoon & the villagers who possessed the little orchard in which they live. Suffice it to say that, broken bottles, language, shovels, dogs, tent mallets, myself, 4 sergeants & the town mayor (an aged full colonel) were chief actors in the scene, to say nothing of a goat which eats my men’s soap and children who steal their rifle oil to put on boots & other little etceteras! Happily we decamped before anything more than threatened warfare had taken place.

The cause of the quarrel? I was ordered to make my tent bombproof which meant digging up the floor of the tent & heaping up round it. This raised the ire of Monsieur et Madame et les petits!…

Your always affectionate

Brer
Sydney

May 29, 1918
My dear WF

Wants as usual.

6 pots of Properts MAHOGANY polish & invoice, please.

1 bottle of fountain pen ink. Boots have some Watermans boxes if you cannot get Swan. Everyone borrows mine & then complain that it’s bad ink!

The polish is for the CO so I hope Thrussells will come up to scratch. He can’t get it from his wife. Thrussells can pack it no doubt. Rather elliptic, but you’ll understand.

Well dear, it’s a lovely day – the planes have been doing stunts over the line and all’s merry & bright. Our quarters are good shelter but no cover against fire so I wasn’t particularly happy last night when the Hun commenced shelling. We have also had a fairly consistent bombing stunt nightly – very pretty to watch but too near to be pleasant.

The other day – Sunday in fact – I went all over one of our tanks. Life inside one must be pretty cramped and unhappy [censored].

My quarters on Sunday were in the guest chamber of a ruined chateau. A shell had had an extraordinary career through the next room but except for windows my room was all right. We went there as our previous quarters were stiff with guns of all sizes firing into our back doors. When some 9 1/2s began to arrive we moved. The concussion of those beggars is terrific.

Yours ever
Percy

Letters from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/38-39); and Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/40)

Guerilla warfare

Sydney Spencer kept busy regrouping after his spell in the trenches.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 28 May 1918

After a good night’s sleep in pyjamas in my beautiful old flea bag, I got up at 8 am. A glorious day with the earth & air all aglow with spring leading onto high summer. Paraded at 9 am for platoon inspection. The company & battalion then proceeded to rest for the whole of the day, i.e. men were medically inspected, kits were inspected, Lewis Guns were inspected, 24 magazines cleaned. Lunch.

Men of my platoon ordered to dig out floors of tents. Started. Guerilla warfare ensued, i.e. shovels, broken bottles, language, myself, 4 sergeants, dogs, a goat, Monsieur, Madame et les petits, mallets, & the town mayor (a decrepit full colonel) took part. It ended in my decamping with my platoon. I was dumped by the DOC (above) on the parade ground of an army school. Thence we backed to another place & finally got the platoon settled in.

Thus we rested for a whole day! Wrote a letter to Florence. After dinner went down to platoon to see them settled in. Made up mess accounts & so to bed at 11.30 pm.

Percy Spencer
28 May 1918

As yesterday. Bosch shelled top of bank under lea of which we live. Major P[arish] dined with 141.

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

“Those lovely old 5.9 shells do make me feel skittish when they land near the parapet”

The Germans were shelling Sydney in the front lines, and Percy some way back.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 25 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

This night I had a certain amount of good sleep from 3 am, but stand down wet & rained until about 10 am, then we had the usual strafe on my platoon front. No casualties, although those lovely old 5.9 shells do make me feel skittish when they land near the parapet.

We had a quiet time then for the rest of the day & the mud dried up pretty well. Tours of duty during the day very exhausting owing to the heat & drying mud. Master Hun kept quiet until 6 pm when he sent over his usual short hate on our front. Mostly 4.2 & block shrapnels. This evening I had a quiet night. No working parties & no patrols to do. I managed to get to my bivy and get sleep from about 12 till 3. A clear morning.

Percy Spencer
25 May 1918

Some 9.2s turned up to help make me unhappy. Struck camp at 2 pm as Bosch began shelling & moved to Bazieux ruined chateau. [Spring?] in cellar. Slept in gorgeous chamber sans fenetres [without windows] on the sunny side of the house.

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

“One slithered up & down the trenches & could keep nothing dry”

Sydney had his first experience of a patrol.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 24 May 1918
[written retrospectively on 28 May]

A very wet day after all the lovely weather. The trenches soon became muddy & one slithered up & down them & could keep nothing dry. But there are worse troubles than rain, & we have been very fortunate in the weather. Usual strafe in the morning & evening did not take place. No aeroplane work by either enemy or ourselves. During my patrol as seen below I mention dandelions. Effect of wiring made by squeak of leaves! Man seen = the head of a dandelion bud seen out of focus.

Started on on my patrol at 2 am, accompanied by Sergeant Ewing, my man Fox & two men from No 8 Platoon. I had mingled feelings at this my first experience of patrolling at first, a suppressed excitement, then a few minutes of unvoiced chuckling as I did my best ‘crawl’ as in the old days of studying nature. A listening patrol. Heard nothing, dandelion & a bush produced (!) sounds of wiring (!!), a man moving, bush & wind produced effect of men moving.

Percy Spencer
24 May 1918

Moved to camp of 8th E Surreys. Nasty quarters, surrounded with guns, & of course it rained. However we got under cover at last.

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

Shelled at dawn

It was a dramatic day for Percy Spencer.

22 May 1918

Shelled at dawn. Doe & I dressed hurriedly as we were getting a lot of backwash. Marvellous escape of 2 bivouacs due I think to AP shell. Horses moved. Bankes hit & died of wounds. All officers out except me. Went down to Bd. and was strafed re claims.

Went to Follies in evening with Davis.

Diary of Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“I wonder what England would say to a dozen tanned fellows nonchalantly stripping & dressing up in feminine attire”

Percy Spencer told his sister Florence about the cross-dressing entertainment on offer behind the lines.

May 22, 1918
My dear WF

Letters do take a long time these days.

However I got one from you yesterday though apparently you had not got mine of the 13th when you wrote it.

I’m writing this now because I don’t suppose I shall be able to write later on or for a day or two. But don’t imagine I’m going into action.

Just at the moment every officer but me is out so I have a whole battalion under my command. The only snag about it is that Brer Hun turned us out of bed at 6 am this morning with a few 8” – one of them dropped unhealthily near me by the way – and if they start again I shall have to move the men to a safer spot, so I’m sort of listening for the next shell.

It’s a perfect day succeeding a perfect day. Last night I went into the valley below to watch the Follies perform. Transport arrangements broke down so they were 2 hours late. I wonder what England would say to a dozen tanned fellows arriving at an improvised stage by the roadside and nonchalantly stripping & dressing up in feminine attire, and making up as charming damsels & so forth. The dress of members of the audience was no less extraordinary. About the most decent was a Varsity bathing costume.
Mind you, let me know about the Punch sketch.

With my dear love to all at 29

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/39)