An air of sadness as nature reclaims the countryside

Percy Spencer shared his sense of an abandoned countryside with expat brother Will.

15 December 1917

A letter from Percy to us both, which I read to Johanna in the verandah after breakfast. After telling us about his rowing experiences [in Cambridge while training as an officer there], he continues:

“At the moment I am on [sic] a loose end, but expect to be in France or elsewhere by the middle of January. Cookham is very empty & silent. There is some compensation in the re-asserted claims of nature in the quiet corners of the earth as man’s claims have slackened, but altogether there is an air of sadness about the countryside, very depressing. I feel the water rat would much prefer to plop hastily into the water at your approach & the moorhen to scuttle jerkily into the reeds, than to feed unmolested & fearless of disturbance.”

So Percy feels that the water rat & the moorhen wish too, that the old times were back. In this feeling that the wild creatures must feel the same as he does, Percy not only shows a deep love of nature & of man, but also something of the imagination of a poet.

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

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“Lenin was in Bern until this spring”

The shock of the latest revolution in Russia had a special interest for Swiss residents, with one friend of the Spencers even having met him.

2 December 1917

By tram to the [Judge’s], where I found Johanna, & also a Hauptmann Wirz. They were speaking of Lenin, who was in Berne until this spring, & whom Frau Oberst R[eichel] had met at friends of hers, so the latter tell her, but she cannot remember him.

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

“My thoughts are with my country”

The exit of Russia from the war led expat Will Spencer to worry for the future of Britain.

1 December 1917

Have serious thoughts with regard to what the present defection of Russia may mean for the Entente, & particularly for my country. According to the papers, peace negotiations between Russia & Germany are to begin tomorrow.

Felt that my letter to Father, finished last night, talking chiefly about my new pupil, Pastor Burri, & about the beauty of, & my affection for Wimmis, was a strange one to have written under the circumstances. Was glad that I had just room to add the following postscript:

“I refrain from speaking about the war in my letters. I can only say that my thoughts are with my country & with you all.”

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

Germans “too downtrodden to rise”

Florence Vansittart Neale was glued to every wild rumour about the war, while Will Spencer’s love for his German wife had only grown stronger through their difficult years of exile in Switzerland.

Florence Vansittart Neale
November 1917
[inserted before 23 November]

Hear P. Innes says state of Germany awful. People too weak to rise, able bodied men only able to work half time, too downtrodden to rise.
Hear the Pope instigated the Italians to give up. He encouraged Austrian spies everywhere!

23 November 1917

Hear Boy cannot get Paris leave. Hope for January…. Hear most domestic servants to be requisitioned for work – only allowed 1 servant each person! Counting the gardeners!!!

Hear General Plumer & staff have been in Italy 3 weeks to see how many necessary to keep Italy. Our troops must go over Mt Cenes pass.

Hear through Marga that a Florentine Regiment who deserted was sent back to Florence with “traitors to their country” on their brassades.

Hear many battalions would willingly shoot 1 in 10 of strikers [illegible].

Will Spencer
23 November 1917

During the afternoon I called & had an interview with Herrn Fursprech Engeloch. Father need take no further steps to obtain attestation of my residence in Cookham before Jan. 19/15, as it may not be needed. As soon as the matter comes before the Gemeinde (I told him we had chosen Oberburg [as their official home town in Switzerland]. Herr E. will let Oberst Reichel know, in order that he can then write on our behalf, stating that we are friends of his, as he has kindly offered to do. Probably the best means of letting the German authorities know that I had become a Swiss subject would be to apply to have Johanna’s money sent here, mentioning thereby that I am a Swiss subject, & if that is questioned, to then place the matter in the hands of the Swiss Political Department. My naturalization cannot finally be ratified until the Grosser Rat has met again. It only meets twice a year, & will meet next, Herr E. said, in Feb. or March, or at the latest in April….

I was sorry to have to tell Johanna how long we might have to wait for the ratification of our naturalization. After we had had coffee in Johanna’s room, something moved me to tell her that I had learned to know her better & that she had become more to me than ever during these last years – in some ways years of trial – in Switzerland. Johanna had afterwards to go into the town, but she would not let me go with her, as I was not quite up to the mark, & she thought it better for me to rest. When she returned, she thanked me again for what I had said. I said that I was sorry that they were only words that I had spoken, that I felt such things were better expressed in deeds, but she comforted me with the assurance that what I had said had not been merely words.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Almost ludicrous if not so horrible

Opposition to the war had led to revolution in Russia, and the fear of getting drawn in caused riots in neutral Switzerland.

Florence Vansittart Neale
19 November 1917

Russia almost ludicrous if not so horrible. A subaltern made Commander in Chief.

Will Spencer
19 November 1917

News that a policeman & two other men had been killed in “anti-military” riots in Zurich on Saturday night…. After dinner I read the account of the Zurich riots on Friday & Saturday. (They began on Thursday.)

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

A simple, innocent looking British soldier

Will Spencer was now seeking Swiss citizenship, but still took an interest when he ran into a British soldier interned there. He and wife Johanna were very short of cash, even though Johanna’s sister was sending them what she could from Germany.

18 November 1917

To the English Church. Sat in the second row, in order to be out of danger of draughts from the door, as I have not yet quite got rid of my cold. Only two persons in the choir – one on each side – a lady on the left & on the rights a simple, innocent looking British soldier who seemed to have a tenor voice – he was at any rate singing the melody….

After Johanna had entertained me to tea in her room (she had already had tea at the Judge’s) she told me that the matter that she had been speaking to the Judge about was the question of our borrowing money until I am a Swiss citizen, in order that Agnes may run no further risk in sending to us. The Judge kindly offered us the help of his name, but Johanna will write to Direktor Loeliger first. She did so this evening.


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

Released from internment

One of the British soldiers who had been wounded early in the war and treated in neutral Switzerland had at last been repatriated.

We have had a delightful visit from Pte. Ralph Grinsted and Corpl Arthur Taylor (son of Sergt-Major Taylor) now quartered with the Canadians at Whitley Camp. Pte T F Fullbrook, Royal Marines, writes from Stonehouse that he is leaving England for the Near East. Many good wishes go with him. Capt. Charleywood Turner has at length been released from internment camp in Switzerland and has paid us a visit. He was severely wounded in Aug 1914.

Earley St Nicolas parish magazine November 1917 (D/P192/28A/14)

Plodding on

Will Spencer’s quest to change nationality was going well. Florence Vansittart Neale continued to be anxious about the war news.

Florence Vansittart Neale
27 October 1917

No air raids mercifully, tho’ bright moon. Germans pushing Italians back. Germans claim 20,000 prisoners. We plodding on.

Will Spencer
27 October 1917

Called & spoke for the first time with Herrn Fursprech Engeloch, who expressed himself very pleased that the matter of my naturalization would now end satisfactorily. He returned to me my Aufeuthaltsbewilligung, for the event of our going to Goldiwil.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)
and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX810/26)

Russia’s faithlessness leads to terrible news

Our Italian allies were under severe attack at the Slovenian town of Kobarid. Florence Vansittart Neale blamed the Russian Revolution, which had taken a turn for the worse, and allowed the Germans and Austrians to devote their efforts to other fronts. Meanwhile, Will Spencer had decided that after nearly three years in Switzerland he should seek citizenship.

Florence Vansittart Neale
26 Oct 1917

Terrible news about Italy. All owing to Russia’s faithlessness! We started again & made good progress.

Will Spencer
26 October 1917

Letter from Fursprech Engeloch: my application for naturalization will be granted within the next few days. To his buro after coffee, but closed.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX810/26)

“We are enemy aliens”

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer’s German wife Johanna, living with him in Switzerland, missed her family very much. In the autumn of 1917, she hoped it might be possible to meet up with her sister Agnes.

29 September 1917

Johanna having received a letter from [her sister Agnes] yesterday, in which she said that she had heard from the Ohlers, who had heard it from Herrn Rob. Loeliger, in Frankfurt, that persons were allowed to cross from Rheinfelden to Badisch Rheinfelden on showing an Ausweis, asked whether Johanna could not meet her at the other side of the bridge. I despatched a telegram to Agnes for Johanna after breakfast – “Es is nur unmoglich Inez (i.e. Agnes) aufzusuchen”. (We are not Swiss that have business that calls them to the German side of the river, but “enemy aliens”.).

At 4 we had tea … [with friends] to meet Frau de S., a Polish lady, a daughter of a Prince L., who has visited Rheinfelden regularly for 18 years. She lost her only daughter in 1911, her only son in the war.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

A continuous bombardment

The war was getting closer for British expat Will Spencer. On holiday in the town of Rheinfelden, on the River Rhine near Basel, close to the German border, he and wife Johanna could hear the guns at the Western Front. Alsace was contested territory between France and Germany.

Will Spencer
4 September 1917

Saw a soldier on the tower of the Town Hall looking westward through a binocular. (Watching for aeroplanes?) Afterwards I went for a wander in the woods. Again heard the sound of a continuous bombardment in Alsace, as we did on Sunday [2 September].

Florence Vansittart Neale
4 September 1917

Lt Kelly returned after smash from aeroplane….

Air raid in London – Chapel St, Edgware Rd. Mr A[ustman] slept under tree at night!!

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

Seeking citizenship overseas

Will Spencer was still on holiday at Meiringen, but he and his German wife were hoping to obtain naturalisation as Swiss citizens.

16 August 1917

By the first post a letter – the expected one – from Herrn Fursprecher Mosimann, enclosing letter from Inner Political Department, stating that my application [for citizenship] would be re-considered if I would send it in again after I had got a fixed residence in Berne (residence in hotel or boarding house is no longer a sufficient qualification), & after I had received the appointment as Professor at the Berne School of Music which there was a prospect of my obtaining. (This was the first I had heard of this last – I suppose Dr Hodler had spoken of my having some prospect of this sort – I had not said anything of the kind.) Johanna decided that she would go to Berne next week, & speak with Herrn Mosimann & with Judge Reichel.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

“One never heard a voice of protest against the excesses of this war”

After he had an operation in early June, British expat Will Spencer went to Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland. A Swiss acquaintance expressed strong views against war in general.

29 June 1917
After dinner Herr Nachenius remained chatting with me on the terrace for a little while. He is against retaliatory measures, & that not only because he believes that to refrain from them has the best effect in the long run, but on higher grounds. By this it was clear to me that he meant that men should strive to act in accordance with what they believe to be their highest instincts, without regarding the consequences. He regretted that one never heard a voice of protest against the excesses of this war, a voice such as Gladstone’s in the past. (This to me alone as I was walking with him towards the chalet.)

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

A passport and an aspirin

British expat Will Spencer found an offer of medication helped in cutting red tape in Switzerland.

1 June 1917

Called at the Stadtpolizei for my papers, as we are going away shortly (My passport is at present, as far as I know, in the hands of the Bundesrat [Town Hall] officials, but I believe the Town Police have a copy of it, & it was this that I asked for), but the official reminded me that he could only give them to me on my returning the Aufenthaltsbewilligung I had received from them.

I returned to the Pension [guesthouse] to get the latter, but then remembered that I had also given that, with the other papers, to Herrn Stucki. On my way I called again at the Town Police, to offer the official I had spoken with an Aspirin tablet, as I had received the – correct – impression that he was suffering from neuralgia.

Herr Stucki told me that I should not require my papers (passport) while travelling, as we were not going to stay anywhere more than two months.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

Trapped in London

A Swiss acquaintance of Will Spencer had a business journey abroad interrupted by the British fear of anyone with German connections.

16 May 1917
After supper Frau Block chatted with us in the veranda. Her husband only got as far as London on his way to America. By the time he had got the papers which he required for travelling to America, the Dutch boat by which he intended to cross had sailed. Then came the “verschaufter U-Boot Krieg”, & now, as the son of a German mother, he has not yet obtained leave to return here.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)