“No better discipline or anything of that sort, I hope”

Percy Spencer wrote to Florence asking for some
Lysol petroleum jelly, an antiseptic. He had recently attended a dinner with old comrades, which had both tragic and comic elements.

May 3, 1917
My dear WF

This is just a few scrambled lines, mostly to ask for things.

I should very much like a tube of Lysall [Lysol] petroleum jelly, or a small bottle of Lysall and some phospherine tablets.

Also some ink to fit my box.

If I have any merino underwear or any shirts, I should like them please!

I’m sorry I can’t think of anything more to ask just now!

Well, I saw the Big Brass Hat yesterday and he said “H’m yes” 3 times, so I expect I’m in for something pretty bad – probably a month’s training in the trenches – or “something worth boiling out in it”.

We had a first rate dinner the night before last – the surviving officers & sergeants of my old Battalion, numbered just 18, 15 of whom were present. It was a right good evening, tho’ it had its tragic side.

By the way I am the only original member of the staff left: also I am the only remaining Staff Clerk in the Division who came out with us. The only original Quartermaster in the Division (of my old Battalion) was at the dinner. In fact so many of us were the only remaining something or other, we felt quite lonely.

Well, dear girl, I’m sending you the souvenir of that event. “Pat” enlisted as a private tho’ in private life he is Paterson of the Home Office – head of the Prisons of England – a fine man with a grand head. Dear old RSM Fisler’s speech was too funny. Private Pat, Corporal Pat, Sergeant Pat & 2nd Lt Pat of No. 4 Platoon was the well beloved of this Battalion of rough lads, and the fine old RSM ran himself high & dry on the rock of affection for the battalion idol: “that’s about all I’ve got to say, I think, sir”, he concluded lamely after a long pause.

The Sergeant Cook was pressed to sing – everyone knew he wanted to sing, and what he wanted to sing, and what he would sing – still he announced as he reluctantly rose to his feet, it would be a sad song. Nobody said, “We know; it’s going to be “Speak not ‘er nime”, tho’ everyone knew that “Speak not ‘er nime” it would be notwithstanding the cheering effect of a [bumper?] of port & Kummel shandy the worthy fellow had mixed for himself under the impression the harmless looking liquor was a sort of Perrier.

And so the evening passed. We talked of the St Albans days & the early days out here, of this good fellow and that, of a stout hearted Sergeant who wouldn’t be put off his game by enemy shelling before the battle of Loos – “What’s that?” exclaimed a jumpy platoon sergeant as a crump landed near. “Spades trumps” replied the other, and as the next one landed even nearer, “Clubs laid, your turn to play.”

But always we got back to Pat – to the early days out here, when as a Lance Corporal he “borrowed” the transport officer’s mount and a local landau & drove his “boys” out, only to run into the Divisional General. Of the Divisional General’s wrath & enquiry as to disciplinary action taken, & the CO’s reply – “This NCO has been promoted to Corporal”.

And I reminded him of the day when talking to the RSM he passed by en route for the guard room, there to comfort one of his platoon with all the food & illegal things he could buy.

Oh, the discipline of No 4 was awful, but they’d follow Pat anywhere.
Pat had to go away for a long time – upon returning he asked how things were with No. 4. “Oh, they’ve gone downhill fast, sir, since you left”. “No better discipline or anything of that sort, I hope”, Pat enquired anxiously. “Oh no” replied his informant in a horrified tone.

And now this same Pat is our Divisional Lecturer on “Discipline”.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/33-35)

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“Things are pretty unbearable here, now”

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence, asking for cigarettes and a treatment for lice. He was clearly greatly appreciated by his commanding officer for his remarkable efficiency, but was thinking of getting a commission.

2.11.16
Dear WF

Don’t worry about sending me anything at all except Fryers – that I can’t get here. By the way, do you get this “out of bond”? If ordered from a tobacconist to be sent out to me regularly, it would of course be much cheaper and save you some trouble.

The difficulties at home are of course unknown to us and I quite understand that you have a good deal of unnecessary worry over me, as you don’t know how well we are provided for or can provide for ourselves.

Thank you very much for the gloves and the helmet – they’ll be most useful, but don’t send any sweaters or comforters or spiritive, etc, as I have plenty of clothing and woollen things – our needs get simpler as we go on.

The dear old ladies of St Albans wrote and congratulated me on my medal.

[Censored]

Captain Holliday is to have 6 months home service. I don’t quite know what I shall do, but if he doesn’t get into something where he can get me with him I think I shall try for a cadet school course with a view to taking a commission. Things are pretty unbearable here, now.
(more…)

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)

‘Ain’t it marvellous’: promotion for Percy

Percy Spencer finally got his transfer – technically a discharge so he could re-enlist as an NCO in the London Territorial Regiment to which he had been informally attached for months just in time to go to the front:

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
[Postcard postmarked 9 March 1915, sent to Miss F Spencer, Kemsworth, Belmont Park Av., Maidenhead]

Dear Florentia

Probably we shall not be going for a few days yet, so send me a few of the photos here, will you.

I’ll try and pack up my things here, & perhaps Gil [younger brother Gilbert, an art student] will come over and see about their despatch.

The War Office has granted my discharge – in fact I’m out of the army – tonight at 7 p.m. I shall be Private Spencer, & at 7.1. p.m. Sergeant Spencer, not Lance Sergeant – ain’t it marvellous!…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/4/8)

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)

Torrents of rain but not a drop to drink

Percy Spencer reports on his continuing training in Hertfordshire:

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans

Decr 12.14

Dear Florrie…

I had a rushing day of it yesterday. Unfortunately at the climax of our attack, the rain poured down in torrents and operations ceased. But forewarned by previous experience I had invested in a suit of motor overalls, and so rode home, outwardly very wet, but inwardly very dry – not a drop to drink all day…

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/30)

‘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)

Training for mobilization: clerical accuracy is essential

Two days earlier, Percy Spencer had planned to return some knitted socks his siter Florence had sent him. But he found they were just too cosy to leave behind:

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Herts
Nov. 22nd, 1914

Dear Florrie…

In a weak moment I tried the bed socks on, and succumbed to their comfort, so they are not going back to Maidenhead, thank you…

Today, all the troops in the division have been out as if for entrainment – that is to say, exactly as if we were off to the front. Of course, all that sounds very simple, and so it looks, but while you remember that the distance occupied by each unit has to be calculated, and the rate of movement arrived at to determine the times of starting of each section so that each will fall into the column in its right place at the right moment (each of the sections, by the way, coming from a different point) you will begin to understand that my simple little statement at the beginning of the paragraph implies a lot of labour and clerical work, accuracy in harrassing conditions is essential, and I’m looking forward with some anxiety to writing orders for advances or retirements on the field, when a clerical error may mean a hitch and subsequent misfortune – it’s as well to look on the gloomy side of things (our operations today were right on time, and successful).

Sunday, and I’ve done a hard day’s work, so I’ll say goodnight, and promise a longer letter soon.

Yours ever
Percy
Lance Sergeant

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/25)

The importance of administration in an army

Before heading to the Front, Percy Spencer’s brigade was sent to Essex to dig trenches. He revealed to his sister Florence that army censors were not just keeping sensitive information secret – they were getting clues about how soldiers saw the Front, and making use of that information:

c/o Mrs Spurgeon
Rose Cottage
Bocking Place
Braintree
Essex

Nov. 1st, 1914

Dear Florrie

I’ve just written a fairly long letter home, which no doubt you will see, and as for news, therefore, I’m afraid I’m about spun out.

We are down here to dig about 20 miles of trenches and lay some hundreds of miles of barbed wire. This may be merely practice for the men in soil similar to that in France, or a precautionary measure in a particularly vulnerable point. The work won’t take us very long, and when it is finished I believe we are to return to St Albans for a time before we go out – if ever we do.

My work at the orderly room is really a farce. Of course there is a certain amount to be done, but it is quite amusing to me to listen to my superior, a quartermaster sergeant who thinks we are “rushed”. I suppose the explanation is, he is a solicitor’s clerk in private life, and doesn’t know what work is.

It is very interesting to read the private observations of officers at the front giving the lessons they have learnt for the benefit of the troops training at home. These observations are circulated and acted upon by officers here, as our men should know better how to go on out there when we do arrive on the field. The administration of a moving force is a wonderful piece of work – in fact I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the domestic side of the business and field discipline are very important, if not the most important factors.

We were all at St Albans. In less than 12 hours, 3000 of us (1) had received orders to clear out, (2) had entrained and armed at Braintree, and (3) settled down there and got going there, as though no move had taken place. It’s wonderful.

Yours ever

Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/20)

‘Knowing nothing about a rifle, they can’t put me in the firing line’

The camping stove Florence Spencer sent to her brother Percy had one flaw – he couldn’t make it work! The time of his going to the Front seemed to be approaching…

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Oct 28.14

Dear Flo

How do you work your stove – should there be a wick or a piece of gauze over the oil well? Or should the oil well be filled with a wad soaked with methylated?

I’m off to Essex on Friday for a short time. Then back to St Albans, and then I am informed, to France.

That last will be a jolly game for a raw recruit who hasn’t handled a rifle yet – it will at least reassure you that I shan’t run any risk, as, knowing nothing about a rifle, they can’t put me in the firing line.

Excuse this brief note.

Yours ever Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/18)

‘If the Germans have a cut at this coast, we may see service here’

Florence Spencer had an unusual but most useful gift for her army brother to take to the Front when he was eventually deployed there – a portable camping stove. He writes to thank her and keep her updated with his situation.

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Oct. 26.14

Dear Florrie

Thanks so much for the stove. My Quartermaster and I hope to take it in our mobilization stationery box, and tomorrow I am depositing it with my kit at our headquarters here.

Tomorrow, in all probability we shall all be leaving here for another station in this country for certain work.

In about a month or so we expect to return here, prior to going to France. Or, of course, if the Germans do have a cut at this coast, we may see some service here. Anyway, I think we have had sufficient time to prepare, supposing our fleet can’t stop them.

I shan’t know until tomorrow or Wednesday if there is any secrecy about our destination, but if not, I will write as often as I can.

I’m sorry to hear of the attack on Miss Holland, but we all anticipated it – I’m afraid she’ll be forced into war, if she does not promptly take sides.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/17)

Miserable digs – but song and dance by the keenest soldier enlivens life

Percy tells his sister some of the lighter side of army life.

St Albans
Oct. 22.14

My dear Florrie

… Last night I learned that Dean Bleaken does not arrive until the 28th. By then I should have commenced my training, and have more regular hours than at present, which will enable me I hope to use Mr Image’s introduction. It will be rather funny if I meet our Brigade Major there. His name is Capt. Shenton of the Somerset Light Infantry. A fine fellow with a most musical voice. He is apparently a great friend of Canon Glossop here, so it is quite possible that I may therefore meet my Brigade Major outside the office later on.

I expect to change my billet on Saturday (of this I will give you prompt notice) as the condition of affairs where I am is too miserable and hopeless for words, so do not write to me at the above address after you receive this until I write again.

Every other night I am sleeping at the Brigade office, so that, in the event of a night alarm there will be an intelligent fellow here to get the Brigade together!!

There are all sorts of rumours as to our next move, but I really don’t think anyone knows what is going to happen to us. Probably it will depend upon how the war goes, and if it goes favourably, I don’t suppose we shall see foreign soil this side of Christmas.

I dare say you know, the men of this Brigade belong to the lower classes of South London. There is a sprinkling of swells and decent fellows, but mainly they are rough – very rough.

One fellow, “Dave” is a hefty baker’s lad for whom I already have a great fondness. As Capt. Holliday says, no matter what you ask him to do, he’ll have a dart for it – he’s a kind of Horace, only much more boyish. If he hasn’t anything to do, he’ll find a job. Today I found him voluntarily scrubbing the doors and paint generally, just to pass the time away, pausing now and then to execute a vigorous sand dance to the music hall ditty he was singing in the real Bermondsey style.

Now I am just off to try and fix up my new diggings, so I’ll say good night.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his siter Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/13-14)

Ridiculously soft conditions – but rumours are rife

Percy continued to worry about the permanence of his transfer. He wrote to his sister to tell her about his situation, and thank her for what was to be the first of many articles of warm clothing.

Kildare
Hart Road
St Albans
Oct. 6.14

Dear Florrie

How rapidly my future changes. I forget whether I have told you that my transfer will not be confirmed, and I may therefore have to return to Kitchener’s Own. But Capt. Holliday is most anxious to retain me, and if I cannot get a discharge either free or by payment (and I do not think I shall) the Brigadier General is going to apply for me to be attached to Headquarters Staff here.

There are all kinds of rumours rife as to our destination and the date of our departure, but altho’ I have been given “definite information” on the point, I really believe no one here knows anything reliable on the point.

Whenever, and wherever, I go, you may rely upon it, I shall try and give you good notice.

It is good of you to knit me a muffler, and very kind of Mrs Fuller too to make me one. Just at present these welcome comforts when I really go on active service, or if I have to return to camp, make me smile. The conditions here, so far as I am concerned, are ridiculously soft. But, as I say, I should be glad enough to have them when later on the conditions will be more soldierly.

Lord Roberts is coming this afternoon to have a look at the troops at work. He is coming to my office so I shall have a good view of the old fellow.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer of Cookham to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/7/3/10-11)

Too soft a time in St Albans

Percy Spencer reports the latest on his situation to John Maxwell Image, a Cambridge don who was a close friend of the family.


Kildare
Hart Road
St Albans
Oct. 5, 1914

Dear Mr Image

Thank you so much for your letter.

I am having a very soft time here at present – too soft altogether, but if I am allowed to remain, I have been promised that ample opportunity will be given to me to do my training and musketry.
Unfortunately the GOC Salisbury District has refused to confirm my transfer, and I am supposed to return to Bristol.

Captain Holliday is most anxious to retain me; in fact he has made such representations to me that I feel bound to stay with him if it is at all possible.

All day long we have been deep in the “Army Act”, “Manual of Military Law”, “Royal Warrants” etc, until I am beginning to think in sections and sub-sections.

The result of our researches is not at all promising, but I am tonight making an application for a discharge for the purpose of re-enlistment. It is very doubtful indeed that I shall get a discharge either by “indulgence” or by payment, and failing these, it is intended to apply for my attachment to the 22nd C of London Battalion, 6th London Infantry Brigade. Failing all these expedients, I shall have to return to Bristol. But in that case, I think I shall be able to transfer to the Bristol Battalion of my regiment, which is composed of Bristol professional and business men – anyway I shall try.

The impression here is that the Territorials will see more service than Kitchener’s Vagabonds, and certainly they should do, as they are practically equipped, and their training is well advanced. But I feel there is an afternoon feeling about the men here which was absent from my mob.

Of course if the City Battalions or the Public School Corps had been known to me, or had commenced recruiting at the time I joined the army, I should have been enlisted in their ranks. But we were informed that a good class of man was enlisting in Kitchener’s Own – I hope the recruiters will prove correct.

Thank you for the introduction to the Dean of St Albans. I hope to use it, but now my freedom may be terminated by a Corporal and file from Bristol, I suppose.

I’m very much in love with St Albans already. There seems to be all sorts of nooks and corners I should love to explore, so I hope to stay. But with the Cathedral I am rather disappointed. I like the exterior from the west end immensely, but the interior I found rather commonplace.

Yours affectionately
Percy Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer to John Maxwell Image (D/EZ177/7/10/7-8)