“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)

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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)

The British Munition Office in Switzerland

Cookham expat Will Spencer met a fellow Englishman with foreign connections in Switzerland.

15 May 1917

While J[ohanna] was busy in her room, the English gentleman who arrived here on Saturday or Sunday came onto the terrace with his little girl. He expressing the hope that his little girl did not disturb me, I asked him whether he wouldn’t sit down, & he did so & we chatted for a few minutes, until it was about time for lunch. His little girl, aged 5, was born in Venice. His wife died, after three or four years illness, in January of this year. He has now found something to do at the Munition Office (British) here. His wife’s mother was a German, & he himself has been much in Germany – in Marburg & Bonn.

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

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)

9 april 1917 Breaking up grass-land for cultivation in Switzerland

Will Spencer was currently living in Bern in Switzerland, and observed the pressure of food shortages having an impact on the local landscape.

9 April 1917

In the course of my wanderings on the outskirts of the town I saw many men, women & children engaged in breaking up grass-land for cultivation, that had been previously divided into strips marked off with string. Some men were busy in their gardens, sowing, binding up fruit trees, etc. I saw a young soldier in uniform helping two other youths to mark off a strip of grass land.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

French soldiers and Swiss peasants

One Sunday morning, British expat Will Spencer ran into some recuperating wounded French soldiers enjoying their time in neutral Switzerland.

18 March 1917

Shortly after 10.30 set out to go to church, but thinking of the possibility of the same crazy man being in the congregation who spoke to me after the service a fortnight ago [not mentioned in the diary!], I decided to go for a walk instead. Across the little footbridge – French soldiers perilously oaring boats gondolier fashion down the Aare – on one, a number of Swiss peasants as passengers.

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

The “Daily Mail” is demanding that Asquith & Churchill should be impeached

Expat Will Spencer had plenty to interest him in the Swiss newspapers – the first news of the Russian Revolution, plus the official enquiry into the fiasco of the Dardanelles expedition.

16 March 1917

Max Ohler’s birthday.

News in the paper of a revolution in St Petersburg. Also a rumour that the Czar is a prisoner, & has abdicated, & that his brother, the Grand-duke Michael Alexandrovitch, has been appointed regent….

Read an article in by the London correspondent of the “Bund” on the report of the Commission which was appointed to enquire into the conduct of the British Dardanelles Expedition. Lloyd George had said in Feb. 1915 that the Army was not there to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the Navy. The responsibility for the land operations(100,000 killed, wounded & missing, & 100,000 sick) being persevered with, rested with Asquith, Churchill & – though one is reluctant to say it under the circumstances – chiefly with the late Lord Kitchener.

My question is, did Asquith know that the chances of success were too small to justify the prosecution of the campaign? Or did he think it best to be guided by the opinion of Kitchener, & was it the expressed opinion of the latter that the chances were good enough. In the latter case, I am sorry for Asquith. The expedition was an expensive failure, but if the attempt had not been made, probably plenty would have said afterwards that it ought to have been made. It is always much easier to judge after the event.

The “Daily Mail” is demanding that by way of a warning to others, Asquith & Churchill should be impeached. Apparently it was from Australia & New Zealand that the demand for an enquiry came, very large contingents from those colonies having taken part & suffered heavily in the campaign.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

All Germans of military age to be called up

Swiss newspapers had access to the latest news from Germany. Will Spencer heard of the death of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, inventor of the Zeppelin airship which had become so feared in Britain.

9 March 1917

News in the paper of Graf Zeppelin’s death (aged 79). Also a statement that all Germans of military age were about to be called in.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

“Swiss soldiers fired three times over the grave”

Severely wounded PoWs from both sides were given a more kindly environment in neutral Switzerland. Unfortunately, some of them did eventually succumb to their injuries. Will Spencer attended one dignified funeral, and observed the respectful treatment given by the Swiss army.

20 February 1917

In the afternoon an English soldier – or rather a Canadian soldier – who had died at the Victoria Sanatorium close by was buried in the Schlossholde cemetery a mile to the north east of the town. I did not attend the service in the sanatorium, but followed to the cemetery. A firing party of Swiss soldiers fired three times over the grave, after the coffin had been lowered & the service was ended. An elderly English officer of apparently high rank was present, & acknowledged the salute of the Swiss sergeant & his men after they had ceased firing.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

On food rations

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer found that food shortages at home were mirrored by those in Switzerland. His mother Anna, meanwhile, expressed her sympathies to the German family of missing soldier Max Ohler.

17 February 1917

Read in the paper that the hotels, etc, are to give no meat on two days of the week, & never more than one meat course at a meal. Further, land is to be put under cultivation to the extent required to meet the needs of the situation now in prospect….

A letter from Mother…. Mother tells me they are “on food rations” now, but the amount allowed is exactly what “they have of meat & bread, but not so much sugar”. Mr Sandalls, aged 85, saws wood, & says “if anybody wants a boy to saw wood & bring coal, he can do it”. Mother is very sorry for Max Ohler’s parents.

After tea, together to the Hauptpost, from whence I sent money home.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

Switzerland is still neutral

British/German expat couple Will and Johanna Spencer found their Swiss hosts were keen to remain neutral.

16 February 1917
Found J[ohanna] waiting for me in the shop on leaving [probably a music shop where Will practiced his piano daily]. The young lady in the shop had expressed the opinion that the new government regulations in Switzerland were out of place in a neutral country. When Johanna spoke of Switzerland being so dependent on foreign countries for supplies, she replied “Die Schweiz is eben ein neutrals Land”.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

16 Feb 1917
War Savings Association started at Bisham. Edie secretary, Mr Gray treasurer.

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