“Providing a man is practical & unselfish, the life is not bad”

Will Spencer heard from soldier brother Horace, who offered a pleasant view of army life, and from the wife of another soldier brother, Natalie.

19 March 1918

When I got back, Johanna asked me if it was my birthday. Letters from Natalie & from Horace, & a parcel [and letter from a Swiss friend]…

Reading the [three] letters to Johanna, with running comments, after dinner, was quite a long proceeding, as Natalie’s letter was one of 8 large pages!.

Horace writes to me,

“Perhaps you are sometimes pained at the conjectured hardships that we have to undergo, so I will try to relieve your mind on that point. Providing a man is practical & unselfish, the life is not bad, there are kind words and deeds exchanged at all times, & so the atmosphere is pleasant. He has heard concerts & lectures, visited 6 cathedral towns in France, has learned to play chess, & read – amongst other books – Holmes’ Life of Mozart….

Natalie writes that Harold “had a rotten [underlined] time one way & another, tho’ now his lines seem to have fallen into pleasanter places”.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)


‘A “fine big man” in his officer’s uniform’

Percy Spencer’s visit home on leave impressed his parents.

24 March 1918

A letter for me from Mother, dated March 18th. Father had been spending the weekend with the Shackels & taking the organ at Dropmore. Percy had been home. Looked a “fine big man” in his officer’s uniform. It was a pity, Mother adds, that the weather was too cold for her to go out with him. Stanley had received the letter which I wrote to him on Jan. 8th.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Letters home from internees ‘should bear no indication that it comes from this country’

There were severe restrictions on allowing internees to communicate with their home country, at least if it was somewhere like Belgium, which was partly occupied by the enemy. Travel agency Thomas Cook helped with getting letters to a neutral country, which would then send them on. A Belgian internee in Reading decided to give up writing home.

Thos Cook & Son
Ludgate Circus
London EC4

13th March

[To] The Assistant Secretary
Prison Commission
Home Office
London SW1

Dear Sir

We are in receipt of your favour of 11th inst enclosing a post-card for transmission to Belgium which we return herewith. This must either be written on a Dutch or Swiss Post-card, or sent in the form of a letter, and it should bear no indication that it comes from this country. We have no arrangements for dealing with replies from Belgium, and if the sender desires a reply it will be necessary for him to insert on the card or in the letter an address in a neutral country, to which a reply can be sent. We have no Dutch cards at the present time, but we enclose a Swiss card which can be made use of if desired.

Yours truly
Thos: Cook & Son

The Governor, Reading
Please explain to the Prisoner.
J F Wall, Sec

Explained to prisoner.
He states he will not write any more.
C M Morgan

Reading Prison [Place of Internment] letter book (P/RP1/8/2/1)

The pinch will come after the war

The Spencer paterfamilias in Cookham was optimistic, while Florence Vansittart Neale despaired at the situation in Russia.

Will Spencer
23 February 1918

By this morning’s post we received a cheerful letter from Father… Sydney has taken his BA at Oxford. Has received splendid reports from his commanding officers. Was just getting into train at Paddington to come down to Cookham on a Saturday afternoon when he saw Percy on the next platform, whom he hadn’t seen for 2 years. He quickly fetched his luggage out, & stayed the night with Percy, who had just come up from Swindon for a few days, on business.

I was glad to learn from Father that they suffer no privation. The pinch will come after the war, he says, but what can be is being done to provide against that.

Florence Vansittart Neale
23 February 1918

Russians utter degradation, under the heel of Germany.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

A German recruit

Johanna Spencer’s German nephew had been called up, and would be fighting on the opposite side to her husband’s British brothers. He would be training at Kulmsee (now Chelmza), which was in Pomerania, a detached part of Prussia which was to be incorporated into Poland after the war.

11 February 1918

J. read to me letter from Agnes. Kurt has been examined. Will probably receive his officer’s training in the neighbourhood of Kulmsee.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Stanley Spencer “thinks the training has made him fit”

Art student Stanley Spencer had served for some time in the Royal Army Medical Corps before transferring to the Royal Berkshire Regiment.

Will Spencer
6 February 1918

A letter for me from Mother. Enjoyed reading how we spent Christmas Day. Stanley is still at the base. Thinks the training has made him fit.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 Feb 1918

Dot Mole & I had our rendezvous at the Bull Inn, Wargrave. Discussion on Ireland & Home Rule.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Showing generals how to perform card tricks

Will Spencer was glad to hear how his soldier brothers and family friends from Cookham were getting on. One brother, Horace, was a professional conjurer in peacetime, a skill which entertained his superiors.

13 January 1918

Read a long letter which had come for me by the morning post from Mother, describing their quiet Christmas – none of the boys, & Natalie [wife of Harold Spencer] not able to come, through having an influenza cold. Percy had been with them on the 22nd, leaving on the 23rd. Notwithstanding that the plums Mother had obtained proved to be old ones, the puddings, of which she made two, had been pronounced to be a success. Percy had said they were the best of her making he had ever tasted. She wished I might have been there, & then also have had a piece. The second pudding was still intact, save for the piece cut out which Percy had….

Katie Poskett’s elder boy is in the army, & the younger called up. She finds it difficult to bear. That Percy had passed all his exams I had previously heard. Mother now writes that he is Second Lieutenant & down in Wiltshire. Horace, in France, has been showing generals how he performs his card tricks, & then talks of ‘his friend General — ’ to comrades who “can only boast of corporals’ friendships”.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Return to Switzerland to take up military duties

Expats Will and Johanna Spencer met up with a Swiss man who had been living, presumably uninterned, in England.

28 December 1917

At seven we went to supper with Herrn & Frau Oberst Reichel. A gentleman named Rufener, a young engineer who had been in England, also there. Had held a position in England, but had now accepted an appointment here on account of his military duties.

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

A bargain price for citizenship

Part of the process of obtaining citizenship in Switzerland for Anglo-German couple Will and Johanna Spencer as finding a home parish in their new country, which is still necessary to gain naturalisation.

19 December 1917

Before breakfast Johanna was called to the telephone. It was Frau Oberst Reichel very kindly telephoning to let us know that a letter had just arrived for her husband from Herrn Engeloch, which she had opned before sending it on to him, to say thast the Parish Council of Oberburg had on Sunday consented to our becoming parishioners of that parish.

I afterwards found on the breakfast table a letter for me from Herrn Engeloch in the same sense, & mentioning that the fee would be 500 francs. The Parish Council had at first said 500-600fr., so this is the smallest amount we expected to have to pay.

We afterwards walked to Muldenstrasse to call & thank Frau Reichel & introduce ourselves as the new fellow-parishioners, but she was not at home. We returned by tram, breaking our journey to order a Christmas decoration (a hanging bunch of sprays of fir, mistletoe, etc) to be afterwards sent to the Oberst Reichels, at flower shop in the Bubenbergplatz.

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

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)

“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)