News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

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“So ravenously hungry up in these hills that I could eat a hayrick”

Hungry young art student turned medical orderly Stanley Spencer was equally desperate for food, books and art while serving in Greece.

March 27th 1917.

Dear Florence,

I am no longer in the 68th or 66th F.A., so note my new address. Simply alter number of F.Amb. to 143rd. The remainder of the address is the same as it always has been. I was sorry to lose the C.O. of the 68th and I was getting on well in the 66th. If you think you can afford it could you send me out some eatables of some kind, say biscuits or those tinned cakes – cakes in air-tight tins.

Send me one of those little 6d Gowan’s and Gray’s books of Masterpieces of Art. Send me Raphael.

You must not think that I ask for eatables because I am not getting enough food. On the contrary, I am getting good rations, as we all are, but I get so ravenously hungry up in these hills that I could eat a hayrick. It is being out-of-doors so much.

And about books: it is impossible to get them here. A field Amb. is not like a hospital at Salonique where you can buy books, etc. Robert Louis Stevenson is a man whose writings I love.

I do not know if any parcels containing eatables have been sent to me; if so, none have ever arrived. But with the exception of the wonderful ‘Daily News’ Christmas pudding which I never got (and would like to know why), I do not think anything in that line has been sent to me ever since I left England on August 22nd last.

With much love

From your ever loving,

STAN.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

Bread is better than tins

Medical orderly and artist Stanley Spencer wrote to his sister Florence asking for home made bread.

March 25th, 1917.

Dear Florence,

I have been down to Salonique in hospital again, though only for a trivial thing. I had bronchitis, but it was more really nasal catarrh. I am out again now, and after a day at the base was drafted into the 143rd field amb. so you will address me accordingly.

That is three ambs. I have been in.

The flowers are out, the primrose, violet, celandine and many other flowers unknown to me. I passed by such wonderful ones to-day.

It is getting dark and I have no candles and want my letter to go to-night, so goodnight, Flongy dear. With much love to you both,

Your loving brother

STANLEY

If you send me anything, send me some currant biscuits or bread and butter. We get bread and we get butter sometimes, but you know what a boy I am for bread and butter, and it is better to send that than these eternal tinned stuffs. Send me some of your own home made bread, Flongy dear, and I will love you forever.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

“I think we must be winning”

Stanley Spencer missed the art world while serving as a medical orderly. The Raverats were French artist Jacques and his English wife Gwen, also an artist, and the grand daughter of Charles Darwin, who had been a fellow-student of Stanley and his brother Gilbert at the Slade. Their daughter Elisabeth was born in 1916.

Feb. 24th, 1917.

Dear Florence,

I do not know how many letters I owe you, but I will do my best. I got the Lond. Univ. Coll. Pro Patria and Union Magazine to-day which contained a lot of real interesting news about a lot of my old Slade friends.

I am aching and aching for a good book to read. Of course the boys have a few cheap novels, but I would rather waste my life away than read a sentence from one of these ‘books’.

Do tell me all about Mrs Raverat’s baby. Oh, what would I not give to see it. When I heard about it I laughed for sheer joy, and when the chaps in the tent asked me what I was laughing at I said “I don’t know; I think we must be winning.”

The photo of J.M.I. has not come yet, but I get mails everyday just now, so I expect it will be here soon. Much love to him and to you, Flongy dear.

From your loving brother

STANLEY.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

‘He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika’

Will Spencer had news of several of his brothers. Stanley and Gilbert, both art students and a year apart in age, were very close to one another, and both had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.

31 August 1916

Letters from Mother & from Florrie. Both contained the news that Gilbert had recently written from a hospital ship at Marseilles. He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika. Stanley hopes he may be going to Salonika, as he so much wants to be with Gilbert. Horace better, & making himself useful by making tables & chairs.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Saying goodbye to a beloved son

Will Spencer kept in touch with his Cookham family, and had news of two of his serving brothers.

24 August 1916

Letter from Father… Had been to Aldershot to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘dear old Stan’, who had been home while Father was away, ‘& expects to be leaving England in two or three days’. Horace has had an attack of malarial fever, & is still in hospital.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

“I suppose we must win, eventually” – but we need a dictator

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image was unimpressed by the country’s leadership, and thought Sir George Richardson, founder of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force should take over the air forces. His wife Florence, nee Spencer, of Cookham, was the sister of Percy and Stanley Spencer, mentioned here.

29 Barton Road
20 Feb. ‘16

Here is a story I heard from our Cook [aged 21] yesterday of her brother. Poor fellow, he has been killed since – but he was in the retreat from Mons, and he wrote home that for 5 days they had no food if any kind. The letter contained a snowdrop which the writer had picked from the top of his trench and sent to his mother, writing “I hope the base censor will not take it”. Letter and snowdrop arrived safe: and underneath this passage was written “The Censor has resisted the temptation”.

I suppose we must win, eventually. We want the elder Pitt. If such a man exists among us now, he is not allowed a chance. The Air Service! And my pupil unshamed preaching that we must take the butcheries lying down, for babes and women are of no importance. In no branch was the personal superiority of the British men more marked than in this of the air. But it needs a dictator. We have such a man – not Curzon – or Winston – but him who made the Ulster army. He mayn’t know much of Aeronautics, but he “can make a small State great”. I don’t suppose the “terrible Cornet of Horse” knew much of the Art Military, but see what he did in 1759, by Land and Sea – with a fleet and army emasculated by 40 years of peace.

My wife (she has a brother in Salonica, and another in Flanders, “mentioned in despatches”) begs me to send her kindest wishes along with mine to both.

Ever your loving
Bild

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

Delighted with the honour

William Spencer of Cookham wrote to his married daughter Florence with news of her brothers.

4.I.16

Mr & Mrs Fuller have written congratulating on honour conferred on [William’s son] Percy. We are delighted. It was in the ‘Times’ on Jan. 1. They are sending us their copy. This should help him in the matter of a Commission I think. …

Stan: [son Stanley, the artist] writes that the Sergt at Beaufort War Hospital has just heard that all the R.H.M.C men who left with Gil: [another son, Gilbert] for Salonika are quite well.

F[ather].

Postcard from William Spencer of Cookham to his daughter Florence Image (D/EZ177/1/7)

A delightful spot behind the lines

Percy Spencer was in a cheerful mood as the summer started in France. He wrote to his sister Florence to describe the area he was based, a short way from the front lines, and to comment on his brother Stanley’s joining the RAMC:

June 5, 1915
Dear Florrie

We are having the most glorious weather and we are in a most delightful spot.

Today the peasant girls have been mowing the lawn – how Stan would love to draw them, rough, bronzed lassies with their large handkerchiefs over their heads and shoulders and tied under their chins.

The miners too are great. One I met the other day was particularly remarkable in his bronze blue overall and black [illegible] cap. He was a tall spare man with coal begrimed face, hands and clothes; only one thing was clean – a kind of cerise coloured scarf. I daresay the colouring sounds awful, but take it from me, he looked fine.

I see you are going to send me more bread. Don’t trouble to; we can obtain any we want from the village as a rule.

Stan’s idea of bargaining where he will go is rather pathetic – he’d better know that it’s utterly futile. But this he can do under existing orders. If he is not sent to join Gil, he or Gil can apply to their Commanding Officer for a transfer and it must be sanctioned on the grounds that they are brothers and wish to serve in the same unit of the same branch of the service [in the RAMC].

Yes, our fellows have done well, very well, and so their pictures are appearing in the paper, as you say. Curiously enough, the photos of the 24th are the photos of our boys of the 22nd, and you may be interested to know the leading boy in the picture of a company led by a bearded officer has been wounded in the eye, but is still with us. Again a picture of the answer to K. of K.’s appeal for men up to 40 is that of our own men who were sent back to the second line unit when we came out.

Love to all
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/33)

Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence again. He was not very flattering about artist brother Stanley’s potential as a soldier, but was concerned about newly commissioned brother Sydney.

June 4, 1915
Dear Florrie

Here we are after a night move two days ago, a little move to the south and west. Jack Jackson’s regiment went by me in the dark but I didn’t catch sight of him. I expect he’s all right still as I believe our brigade has done most of the serious work so far.
This is a delightful and wealthy place – with a more glorious garden still than the last, and all the peace of a private farm, and all the joy of peasant men and women working about the place. But we are under the eye of the enemy so all our movements are dark and clandestine.

Mother’s letter was quite good. The artful touch about Edith French was very amusing. Edith will look perfectly charming in a nurse’s uniform, I agree. Tell mother I’m sure she’ll be wrapped up by the first sensible fellow fortunate enough to be wounded and nursed by her, and that I’ll try hard for the post.

By the way, the sweet little lady had written me a charming letter which I hope to answer. Why on earth isn’t she married? The men of her own wealth must be blind, or is it because she lives at the end of the world?

I do hope Stan will stick by the home. He really isn’t of much account for military purposes, but of course I understand it’s hard for him to remain out of this business, and he might be useful in the medical way.

Of course Sydney if he gets a commission and comes out soon will have the worst of it, and take exceedingly serious risks of at least being winged. Nobody except those who have been through it knows the cost and danger of an attack, and I don’t want him to be told, but, Flo dear, if he comes out as a subaltern, hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.


Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/32)

Sorry to hear about Rupert Brooke’s death

Rupert Brooke was one of the most famous of the early war poets. He died on 23 April 1915 while on active service in Greece as a naval lieutenant. Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence on hearing of Brooke’s death, revealing that his own brother the artist Stanley Spencer was a Brooke fan.

May 17, 1915
Dear Florrie

Thank you for all your parcels and faithful correspondence. You must think me awfully slack, but I’m not. “My King and country” is needing an alarming number of the days & hours just at present, and I have no time to write even a field postcard sometimes.

I stand the racket of the long hours very well, I think, and beyond that I am not hard worked – in fact I sometimes wonder whether I shall ever get my old speed back again.

I was sorry to hear about Rupert Brooke’s death – Stan will be sorry too, I expect, as I believe he and you both admired his poetry, and Stan liked the man. Personally I don’t think his work will be more than that of the [illegible] of the best man’s in a bad time.

We had a rare old dust-up last Sunday week – and next spring in our room at Lyme you and I will listen to the history of it all. Meanwhile if you haven’t already heard all details, read the description of our two attacks on May 9th in The Daily Mail May 15th. Its accuracy as an outline of the day’s events is remarkably accurate.

I wasn’t at the place of the postcard [Rouen Cathedral] when I sent it to you – as a matter of fact we were in action and I was off to our palatial dug-out a good deal further forward, but I have since had a night’s “rest” in the town, broken by shells which the houses opposite stopped fortunately, though one of them immediately opposite and dead in a line with our billet wiped out a poor family.

About 2 p.m. I was ordered to the cellar where all of us remained until morning.

Now we are in the line again about 6 miles due east of that town and at the present moment the din of gunfire is too awful – it fairly rattles your frame at every report.

How are you all this long time? I hope well and jolly. I hope too the people of our nation will not lose its head but deal with all [restrictions?] sanely and moderately. I don’t like the papers at all. The state of domestic affairs is not necessary.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/27)

“A rummy go”: 10 miles from the fighting, farmers are at work

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister about life close behind the line.

April 12th 1915
Dear Florrie

You’re a marvel.

Never was there such a parcel. The ingenuity of it all passes the mere mind of a man. Thank you for all its contents – chocolate, [spiritives?], battery, tobacco, tripod, cap, matches – is there anything I’ve forgotten!

And thanks for the biscuits.

Yesterday we had some fun. A hostile aeroplane came over, fired at by our allies’ guns. Then some of our aircraft got up, but too late to engage, otherwise we were looking forward to a fight right over our heads. However the enemy was driven off and had again to run the gauntlet of gunfire.

We’ve lost a few of our men up to date, but not many, and they have created a good impression I believe in the fighting line.

I think I told you I had been pretty close up, and now I hear from Stan that one of the Kennedys had been killed just about where I was.

I wonder if H Jackson of the 7th will ever look in here – quite likely as they are in our Division. I suppose he’s a lieutenant…

While I’ve been writing to you an aeroplane has been skirmishing around and being shelled. It’s a rummy go. Guns going and rifles cracking a short distance away from peaceful agricultural employment. I think that struck me more than anything else. A short ten miles from the fighting line over ground which had been quite recently the scene of bloody engagements, farmers were at work again.


Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/22)

Church parade, from a distance

Percy Spencer wrote from France to his sister Florence with details of his life over there. There are references to his artist brothers Stanley and Gilbert, and the latter’s susceptibility to a recruiting band. Percy felt that the artistic pair were unsuited to battle.

Mar. 29. 1915
Dear Florrie

Thank you for your letters.

Don’t send any more socks or linen out of any kind until I ask for some, as so far I have arranged laundry all right.

Today the Bishop of London held Church parade here for some of our men. I contented myself with a near view of his Lordship through field glasses and a more distant view of the band. It played very fairly through the opening hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross”. Somehow I always enjoy church music more as a listener. I’d much rather sit in the churchyard at home and listen to the service than take part in it.

I got your lovely parcel – its neatness was a marvel. You must have been hours packing it.

The guns have been very busy early today, but this afternoon there was nothing to hear but the hum of aeroplanes, of which quite a few have been over.

Your letters are not censored at all so far as I know – at least I’ve never heard of anything censored, so say on.

I think I told you we are quartered in a lovely house but the blinds have to be down to protect the tapestries! And that’s a shame in springtime. Anyway I doubt the supposed value of some of the tapestries. They appear to me to belong to a late and poor period, nothing like the beautiful specimens they have at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I should like to have Stan’s opinion on them. That reminds me, where is Ravenal’s place – it would be funny if I were in his chateau.

Gil tells me Jupp has taken a commission in the artillery, and writes of the effect of the recruiting bands upon him when he was at the National Gallery the other day. Don’t let him do anything foolish.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/18-19)

If a man feels he ought to enlist, he must – or lose his manhood

Only part of this letter from Percy Spencer survives. He writes to his usual correspondent, sister Florence, about their younger brothers, art students Stanley and Gilbert. Both were in fact eventually to sign up as stretcher bearers. Stanley became one of the country’s most celebrated artists. after the war.

Silverdale
Belmont Hill
St Albans
Herts

Nov 26 – 14

Dear Florrie

Yesterday’s letter was a skimpy thing, so I’m now writing again.

The mufflers you offer – in fact any of the woolly things are very welcome to the men, and I can no doubt find men in need of them. But don’t give everything away in case Gil or Stan want things.
Yesterday I got a letter from Stanley, which I enclose and I have replied that if either of them wish to enlist in the Territorials; if either of them feels it his duty to enlist; then I hope he could do so. What I object to is young men being pushed into the business.

So I shan’t be surprised to hear that Gil & Stan, or both of them have enlisted in one of the regiments I mentioned to Stanley.

It’s a wretched affair, but if they feel they should enlist, it will be a source of misery to them always, if they do not do so.

If they enlist, I have suggested that they should do so for Home Defence in the first instance.
I can’t go into all this matter with you in writing, but I hope you will see with me that if a man feels he ought to enlist, then he must, or lose his manhood.

The other day a proud mother here rang up the General to recite her son’s exploits at the front.
Yesterday he was reported killed – poor lady.

Part of a letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/5/2/1)