The greatest of inventions that this war has produced

Percy Spencer was instructed by sister Florence to write to her husband John Maxwell Image about a new kind of weapon – the Stokes mortar, invented by Wilfred Stokes in 1915.

Mar. 13. 1917
My dear John

I’m under orders from WF to write and tell you “all about the Stokes gun”, with a sort of threat that if I don’t I shall forfeit your affection. Do please give her some lessons on the ‘power of command’.

And now to show she needs none, I’ll tell you, not everything, but a few things about our famous little strafer.

I suppose the character of this war was bound to lead to the development of the mortar. For one thing, in a vast number of cases the distance between the opposing trenches is so short that to hit the enemy trench without damaging one’s own demands closer shooting than modern artillery has yet completely achieved. Hence, as I say, the development of the mortar which from its size and easy portability to forward positions was bound to become an important weapon for short range work. But no one who saw the primitive weapons of this kind which we possessed in 1915 had much hope that the “wonderful Stokes gun”, the existence of which was at first a carefully guarded secret from the Huns, would prove the success and surprise to the enemy that was expected by the experts.

Its advance upon old types was at once recognised, but I do not think its unique effectiveness would have been thoroughly appreciated, but for the perseverance and pluck of our men who work the guns.

Of course owing to their weight and difficulties of ammunition supply, all guns, mortars and mechanical contrivances for trench warfare diminish rapidly in value as an attach advances, but for preparing the way for an assault I believe the Stokes gun is one of our most valuable weapons, and perhaps our most valuable trench weapon. I should not be surprised if it were ultimately classed as the greatest of inventions that this war has produced, excepting, of course, the Kaiser’s utterances.

I’m told its rapidity of fire has the most terrorising effect and in one heavy battle last year, when the preliminary preparation had not been thoroughly completed, it was our Stokes strafe (creating I believe, a record for volume of fire) which not only ripened the harvest for our fellows, but actually gathered it in, for the Huns never waited for them, but ran in with their hands up.

Curiously enough, arising out of a discussion in the mess yesterday upon the reward of the great inventor, some said that the joy of personal achievement was his real reward, others that it was determined purely by the extent of his cash profit, and another that his reward was essentially the consciousness of having benefitted humanity, the latter opinion being cited as Mr Stokes’ recompense; and upon its being suggested that the last was rather a matter of point of view, like a true Christian and Britisher, he challenged the suggestion and stood to his statement.

So, altho’ I’m afraid Mr Censor will not pass any remarks as to the principle of the gun, its rate of fire, ranges and kinds, anyway you’ll be satisfied that it’s a bonnie weapon [censored].

A little while ago WF asked me if a report of “our raid” was true. It was indeed a champion affair, never do I remember such a tornado of fire, but as you will have realised, beyond the broad facts that there was a raid, and I believe the most successful one ever made by the British, the newspaper report is sheer nonsense. The gorgeous gentleman who resides in comfort somewhere behind and seems to have the newspaper glory of this Division peculiarly under his care, succeeds only in getting well outside the truth, and making us appear ridiculous in the eyes of those who do know what is and what is not possible.

Recently I have missed 2 opportunities for souvenirs. One, the top of a brass candlestick discharged from a shrapnel shell at us last night – whether Fritz has grown humorous or artistic, I don’t know, but it strikes me as a rather charming idea of conveying “evening hate”. The other was very curious. In clearing the manure refuse etc from a farmyard midden a stone’s throw from here a Uhlan, intact, with lance complete, was discovered standing upright in the mire. Unfortunately he had been completely souvenired before I heard about him, otherwise you should have had a morsel. It would be interesting to know how he met his death.

Well, I think that’s all the news I have to tell you just now. Life is fairly lively, and we still have to do a good deal of shell dodging.

However it’s all towards the end of the war.

With love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

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“All very uncheery – what!”

Percy’s last letter to Florence on 4 February was interrupted by events. He picked up his pen a week later to address their brother Will’s concerns about a young German friend who had been reported missing.

[11 February 1917]

That was 7 days ago. Seven days of perfect weather and comparative comfort. And now I have an hour or so in which I think I can manage to finish.

Garwood has now gone on leave, and if the present idea obtains another couple of months and leave is still open then, I ought to be home again.

Did I tell you that the younger of Mr Lewis’s sons is one of our RE [Royal Engineers] officers. He superintended the building of our mess. We now have 3 snug (for war time) messes in this part of the world, so long as the Bosch don’t shell.

Will wrote me about Max Ohler who is “missing”. Will doesn’t seem to get my very occasional letters. I wish when next you write, you would tell him that I have received all of his, and that I am not now, and may not be again, in a position to make any direct enquiry about MO. I have however been able to put enquiries thro’ the British Graves Commission and made a request for them to be passed on to the French authorities. If he hears nothing, it may add something to Johanna’s hope that Max has not been buried by us or the French, or if unfortunately he does hear, at any rate, even that will be some comfort too, to know at least the boy has been buried & his grave registered.

All very uncheery – what!

I’m sending you a souvenir menu card of a little Xmas dinner we had. The pennant is our sign by day & the lamp by night – the flags are those of the Signal Section. I hope you’ll like my hurried design.

Also I’ve been to see our follies. They’re awfully good & include some professionals – the “girls” are quite edible.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/12-14)

The bravest man in the trenches

Many of the former pupils of Reading School were serving with distinction.

O.R. NEWS.

Military Cross

Temp. 2nd Lieut. F.A.L. Edwards, Royal Berks Regiment.- For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the enemy twice attacked under cover of liquid fire, 2nd Lieut. Edwards showed great pluck under most trying circumstances and held off the enemy. He was badly wounded in the head while constructing a barricade within twenty-five yards of the enemy.

2nd Lieut. (Temp. Lieut.) W/C. Costin, Gloucester Regiment. – For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the enemy penetrated our front line he pushed forward to a point where he was much exposed, and directed an accurate fire on the trench with his trench guns. It was largely due to his skill and courage that we recaptured the trench. An Old Boy of Reading School, he won a scholarship at St. John’s College. Oxford.

2nd Lieut. D.F.Cowan.

Killed in Action.

Lieut. Hubert Charles Loder Minchin, Indian Infantry, was the eldest of three sons of the late Lieut-Col. Hugh Minchin, Indian Army, who followed their father into that branch of the service, and of whom the youngest was wounded in France in May, 1915. Lieutenant Minchin, who was 23 years old, was educated at Bath College, Reading School, and Sandhurst. After a probationary year with the Royal Sussex Regiment, he was posted to the 125th (Napier’s) Rifles, then at Mhow, with whom he served in the trenches.

After the engagement at Givenchy on December 20th, 1914, he was reported missing. Sometime later an Indian Officer, on returning to duty from hospital, reported that he had seen Lieut. Minchin struck in the neck, and killed instantly, when in the act of personally discharging a machine-gun against the enemy. The Indian officer has now notified that he must be believed to have fallen on that day.
2nd lieut.

F.A.L. Edwards, Royal Berkshire Regiment, awarded the military cross, died of wounds on August 10th. He was 23 years of age, and the youngest son of the late Capt. H.H. Edwards, Royal Navy, and Mrs. Edwards, of Broadlands, Cholsey. He was educated at Reading School and the City and Guilds College, Kensington. He had been on active service 10 months. His Adjutant wrote:

“He was the bravest man in the trenches. All the men say he was simply wonderful on the morning of August 8th. We lost a very gallant soldier and a very lovable man.”

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A small block of wood from the Somme

The Battle of the Somme approached its end with the Battle of the Ancre. An acquaintance of the Vansittart Neales had a dramatic story.

15 November 1916

Most successful push. Ancre battle – nearly 6000 prisoners taken.

Ernest Rich brought from France small block of wood, the only thing left of a gun, 20 horses, 4 officers, several men – big shell came in middle – everything gone!

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Shot in cold blood, and now “beyond the reach of human injustice and incompetence”

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image was excited by the new tanks rolling into action; philosophical about air raids – and horrified by first-hand stories of the executions of young men for cowardice or desertion.

29 Barton Road
[Cambridge]

23 Sept. ‘16

Mon Ami!

I share your views about the ghastly War. With its slaughters and its expenditure, where shall we be left after it is over. Any peace that leaves Germany still united – united for evil – is a fool madness that deserves the new War it will render a certainty.

I am in a fever to see the photograph of a Tank in action. I can’t imagine its appearance. I don’t believe them lengthy like caterpillars – but more like mammoths, Behemoths – “painted in venomous reptilian colours” for invisibility – and “waddling on” over trenches.

Today’s paper speaks of a seaplane over Dover yesterday. This is the very general prelude to a Zepp raid: and we expect one accordingly tonight, if their courage hasn’t oozed out. There is a Flying Camp near here – at Thetford, I believe. Daily, Planes soar over us – a sight I view every time with fresh pleasure. Twice we have had an Airship – huge, but not like the pictures of the German Zepps. I may as well tell you of our own experience on Saturday 3 weeks ago. Peaceful and unsuspecting, we were sitting in the drawing room at 10.30 when suddenly the electric lights went down and left the house in darkness. This is the official warning of Zepps. So we went out into Barton Rd. Not a glimmer, nor a sound. Quite unimpressive.

We turned in to bed – all standing (in Navy language) – and I into the deepest slumber, from which I was eventually shaken to hear an agitated voice, “they’re here”. I bundled out, lit a match and read on my watch 2.50. There was no mistaking – a thunderous drone, such as I had never heard before – and, seemingly, exactly overhead. We hurried down into the road. The roar grew fainter, and then began – deep and dignified – the guns. I guessed them to be on the Gogmagogs – then sharp explosions, which we took for bombs, thrown haphazard by the Zepp which was undoubtedly fleeing for the coast.

Robinson’s Zepp had come to earth at 2.30. Possibly ours was the wounded bird, which dropped a gondola or something in Norfolk when making its escape?

At 4.5 our electric lights went up again, and we to bed. Decorous night-rails, this time.

The Signora has a wee aluminium fragment from the Zepp that was brought down at Salonica. It was picked up by a young soldier who had been in her Sunday School Class. We had a sudden visit from her youngest brother, Gilbert, home on 6 days leave from Salonica. You have heard me speak of him as the rising artist who at 20 years of age sold a picture for £100, and is now a Tommy at 1/- a day. I fell in love with him on the spot. So simple, so lovable, – above all, such a child – going about the world unprotected!

By the way Gilbert saw the Zepp come down in flames at Salonica.
He had many yarns. The one that most made me shudder was of the announcement at a morning parade, “Sergeant So-and-so of the Connaught Rangers was shot this morning by sentence of a Court Martial for refusing to obey an order”. Just that! I have heard of these shootings in cold blood, several times, at the Front in France. Always they made me feel sick. A boy (on one occasion) of 17 ½, who had fought magnificently at Hill 60: and then lost his nerve, when his 2 brothers were killed in the trench at his side. Pym (our TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge] chaplain) sat with him all night and gave him the Sacrament. He

“could only feel what a real comfort it was to know that the boy was now beyond the reach of human injustice and incompetence”.

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

The difference between fair terms & absolute surrender

The son of the vicar of Radley, Captain Austin Longland was serving in Salonika with the Wiltshire Regiment, where he struggled with the heat, but hoped the Germans were about to give in.

Thursday July 6th [1916]

Temperature in here continues at 95-105 degrees I’m told by the doctor. Also I’ve just had my 2nd dose of typhoid & perityphoid inoculations & have a day off duty in consequence. Twice clouds have gathered, & once we had a violent storm of thunder & lightning but never a drop of rain. Needless to say all beauty’s gone. The sun glares down, trying the eyes, and our view of the town is blurred by a continuous cloud of fine grey dust. I have told you that from the sea up to the hills the ground rises steadily till the last steep ascent, & we’re therefore, tho’ considerably below the level of the actual hills, some height above the town which is about 5 miles away. We are to the left of the road this time, but we can see the sites of our 2 early camps and get a rather different view of the town & the citadel. You remember the shock I had on returning our bivouacs last Sunday fortnight & finding them gone and all my kit packed. My first idea then was that we were going forward – first stop Nish or Sofia, but when it was known that we were to march back over the hills no one knew what to expect.

The men were more cheerful than I’ve seen them in this country – all firmly persuaded that they were going back to France – an opinion which I hadn’t the heart to discourage, but did not hold myself.
Since then nothing has happened. From about 6 to 6.45 each day in the morning the battalion does its old physical drill, & parade which the officers, except Waylen who takes it, do not attend, going out instead to study tactics with the NCOs, each company by itself. This lasts 6 till 9. Three days a week we go a route march from 5-8 a.m. In the evening we parade from 5.45 till 6.15. doing physical exercises gain, officers & all – & that is the day. The NCOs class was ordered by the Brigade & is most useful – tho’ of course it’s what we ought to have done at Marlboro’. So from 9 till 5.45 every day & from 6.30 onwards we have nothing to do except sit in our hut.

Wood as usual is scarce, so there’s not chance to make a chair. At present I am seated on 2 sand-bags, which raises one off the ground a bit. We have a hut for a common room, but tho’ it has forms and a table, it’s very hot & full of flies. Here the flies grew so unbearable that I ordered yards of muslin from the town & with its aid we ae at last at peace. We feed in a hut off a sand bag table & seated on sand bag seats. I’ve just been busy trying to make that fly-proof – harder but even more necessary. If you sit still for a moment you can always count over 50 on the plate in front of you.
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The sterner side of warfare and the moral support of blankets

More from T Guy Rogers, the army chaplain who was a former vicar of Reading St John.

April 1st, 1916

The sterner side of warfare is very much to the fore. I am kept very busy getting about among the troops, with a good deal of night work up till 12 o’clock…

I am getting some interesting ‘souvenirs’ – one a steel arrow, dropped with many others, from a German aeroplane, on the town last night; another a piece of shrapnel stuck in the sand bags of our dug-out rocked with the concussion of the shells all round us…

It is wonderful what moral support is to be got from blankets, and lying warm and comfortable where shelling is going on.

My Sunday Services – I wonder how they will work out – I am just going out to arrange: little companies in cellars and dug-outs I expect – one cannot march men about.

Reading St John parish magazine, May 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

How to make a working fireplace when housed in a hovel

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence with his latest reports from the Front.

Mar. 6 1916
Dear WF

Our QMS, who is not very bright in the morning, gives as the reason that his bed being too short to lie full length in, he requires a longer rest.
[Censored section, probably by Florence]

The weather has been simply awful, and awfully simple – snow frost rain – rain snow frost. And I’ve had a wretchedly cold wet time. However I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my old St Albans outings on a larger scale in grander country and feel all the better for it.

We were housed (when we weren’t out in the snow covered hills) in a hovel with a stone floor, a broken window and a fireplace. Plenty of room for ingenuity, and we didn’t miss the opportunity. Four different kinds of fireplaces we invented and tried – each one smoked more than the last. The fourth, a domed affair carried out in brick bats and mud mortar, was certainly the most impressive – especially in its smoking capacity. Our ingenuity in stopping the cracks was only beaten by the ingenuity of the fire (which seemed to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing) in finding other and bigger outlets.

But personally I preferred the ingenious construction of our first effort – a neat thing in biscuit tins, with a sporting rifle case chimney. For acrid smoke producing, it easily beat the band – and the artistic lines of effort no. 2, a sweet scheme in brewery copper covers and heavy fire bars with a broken bucket chimney. It went to my heart to part with it.

Yours ever
Percy

Thanks for the sausages. They were fine and much enjoyed. Glad you got the sandbags. Rather a souvenir, don’t you think?

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/5)

Now they know what war means

Meg Meade wrote to her brother Ralph in Egypt. She was staying with their parents in Peterborough, and had heard from her naval husband.

Peterborough
Jan 26th [1916]
My darling Ralph

I hear that the beautiful Lady Loughborough was an Australian called Miss Chisholm & she married out in Egypt the other day.

I sent the Gallipoli bomb to Miss Jackson at that Irish address. I have not yet heard if it’s arrived alright.

I sent £1 to the Home Office for permission for you to wear those foreign orders, & they have acknowledged the money without saying where the warrants have been sent to…

How I envy you in beloved Egypt, & near the Nile!

Jim writes very well, but they have no news. His destroyers are joining up every day, & the gales never stop blowing for an hour…. Jim sent me really a heavenly rhyme about Royalist & her officers which I am copying out for you. Isn’t it priceless.
Maysie will tell you all her news. Poor John has got to have his jaw cut again before it can heal.

The parents seem very well, & Mamma has a thousand irons in the fire as usual, & sometimes get her fingers burnt, but she always retaliates! She’s started a first class Red X workroom in the Knights Chamber which of course infuriates the other Cross Red women who aren’t Red X here!

There is no chauffeur & no gardeners. We live in the hall & dining room & Dad’s study. Mr Green & the housemaids are supposed to run the garden!! So Dad & I had a morning’s weeding today, one had almost to push one’s way along the Monastery Garden through the weeds. But the War has reduced all gardens to that. Dad busy with the hoe, poking, pushing & destroying, muttered pathetically, “Poor dears” & I found he was addressing the weeds!

PS I went to see Aunt Syb who is wonderful, & Joanie, who is the same, but she seemed to me so altered in the face. Something has happened to her eyes, & they seem shattered by the sorrow and shock, & who can wonder. It is so awful.

[On a separate sheet is the poem:]

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Thank you for the Turkish bomb

Ralph Glyn’s sister Meg Meade had passed on a souvenir he had sent her to a friend in Ireland.

Ballykuran
Athlone

Jan 24, 1916

Dear Mrs Meade

So many thanks for forwarding the Turkish bomb, it arrived quite safely this morning, & looks so nice, it seemed to have been unpacked en route, but most of our parcels seem to be inspected by someone.

We had such a cheery letter from my brother about a fortnight ago, is not it delightful to feel they have left that awful Gallipoli.

Again thanking you so much for sending the bomb.

Yours truly

Ada B Jackson

Letter to Meg Meade (D/EGL/C19)

“The great sacrifice”

In Thatcham locals had an idea for a special gift for those who had lost loved ones in the war: individual prints of a painting called “The Great Sacrifice“, the work of James Clark (1858-1943). The original painting was purchased at an auction raising funds for war relief, and is now at the Battenberg Chapel on the Isle of Wight as a memorial to Prince Henry of Battenberg, a grandson of Queen Victoria who was killed at Ypres.

A gift to Relatives of those fallen in the War.

It is proposed to give a copy of the picture called “The great Sacrifice,” to the near relatives of Thatcham men who have fallen in the War. This gift would come as a momento [sic] from the Parish Church, signifying not only our sympathy but also our gratitude to and remembrance of the departed in our prayers.

A notice of this with a copy of the picture and a box will be found on the table at the south door of the church, and it is hoped that all who can will contribute something so as to take their share in the gift. It is by such little acts as these that we are bound more closely together in bonds of sympathy and mutual regard.

Thatcham parish magazine, January 1916 (D/P130/28A/1)

Bloodstained souvenirs – and undefeated nightingales

Percy Spencer wrote occasionally to his sister’s friend John Maxwell Image, an elderly Cambridge don. In May 1915 he also sent him some rather gory war souvenirs.

May 19, 1915

Dear Mr Image

I have just sent you these souvenirs – a slim German cartridge, a stout French one and a piece of German shrapnel. I am afraid the bloodstain on the German cartridge has nearly worn off in my pocket, but hope there is still sufficient of it to satisfy your ferocity.

At our last resting place but one the owner of the house showed me his souvenirs and gaining confidence in my discretion as we went along, eventually removed a cabinet and withdrew from behind it a newspaper. Carefully unwrapping it he fairly purred with delight as a British bayonet bloody to the hilt was revealed. I’m sorry you weren’t there, but someday we must all go there together and you & the jolly good fellow who lives there can gloat over all his gory relics. Mademoiselle will join you, I’m sure – a most bloodthirsty damsel.

We captured a couple of Huns the other night and I was at the entertainment we had about 1 a.m. cross examining the fellows. One, a youngster, spoke English very well indeed, and was most interesting. He told us that the Germans didn’t “strafe” England half so much as the papers – in fact it was just a newspaper phrase! [see 10 May for the story being taken seriously].

We’ve had to put up with a good deal of shelling lately and yesterday a couple of 8 lyddites nearly found us. They burst outside the garden of this house but huge chunks of metal were hurled against the walls and over our fellows in the open who threw themselves flat down upon the earth.

Every now and then there’s a hellish bombardment and our house shakes and the papers lying about jerk [illegible] the table. But there’s never too great an inferno to stop the nightingales’ song or to wither the glory of our garden sweet with the scent of lilies of the valley and happy in the joy of sunlit daisies & forget-me-nots. Thank God for that.

On May 9th within 1000 yards of the battle and amidst the most awful din an old farmer strutted out solemnly smoking his pipe and commenced weeding the ground near our dugout where we were hiding from well directed shell fire! Man’s a wonderfully adaptable animal.

Thank you for the token. The play cut is a very nice tobacco, but I’m not to be weaned from my Fryer’s.

Yours ever
Percy J Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/10)

“Feeding and clothing excellent; only need peace and fine weather”

Florence Vansittart Neale has more news of the war, and is given an explosive souvenir:

Another aerial raid – 40 over Zeebrugge-Ostend. 4 French helped. Guarded German aerodrome. Another French despatches.

Hear Kitchener has commandeered 120,000 boats. In France by May 1st.

Received bit of German shrapnel & German high explosive from Harry Paine. Says feeding & clothing excellent. Only need peace & fine weather.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Winston Churchill is admired in Bisham

Florence Vansittart Neale gets a souvenir and considers the war news. She was an early fan of Winston Churchill, then First lord of the Admiralty. Here is the Hansard report of the speech which impressed Florence.


Had piece of shrapnel & explosion from Harry Paine. Very good speech of W. Churchill about Navy….

See about Albert Paine, he to Southampton tomorrow! Also our farm boy (now in house) going off tomorrow!…

Heard Jack Farrer badly wounded.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Blood stained souvenirs

William Hallam sees a gory souvenir from the Front:

7 October 1914
I was shown to day a German officer’s small book sent home from a soldier at the front. It had a bullet hole through the upper part and the edges all stained with blood.

Florence Vansittart Neale was depressed by the war news:

7 October 1914
Heavy fighting going on. Nothing definite. Antwerp to be bombarded. Feel low about it all. So long to hear of a victory!

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22); Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)