Peppered all along our line

Sydney Spencer was under fire and trying to catch some sleep, while brother Percy was behind the lines and Will’s wife was trying to get permission to visit her sister in Germany.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 4 May 1918

I started tour of duty at 10 pm [last] Saturday night. Finished at 4.30 this morning. Took on again at 5.30-7.30 so as to get a long morning’s sleep.

Was on Tour duty till 4.30 this morning. At 2.45 enemy sent over a few shells into village behind us. Rain set in at 2.15 am & continued to drizzle until 4 am. Had a half hour ‘kip’ till 4.30, then ‘stand to’ till 5.30 & I took tour duty till 7.30. Examined rifles & feet. Saw gun sections issued & [tried?], then sleep till 8 am. After breakfast more sleep till 10.

Brigadier came along at 10.30 just when I was rubbing my feet & getting my boots cleaned. He had a good deal to say, looked severe, but it struck me he had very kindly eyes. Got some more sleep in after lunch.

On duty 3.30-5.30. Many enemy aeroplanes came over. A glorious day with a little rain early in the day. At stand to the Neuglanders did a strafe & bombing raid, & we were peppered all along our line, particularly my platoon front. No casualties however. No 7 had one slight one.

Took a wiring party along New Broad & put up a tangle barrier on road & obstacle on right.

Percy Spencer
4 May 1918

Another hard day. Got some useful work done. Office in a chaotic state still. Col. Parrish’s band played at mess. Col. P constant anxiety about “Paddy” the Irish Terrier.

Will Spencer
4 May 1918

I was playing in the library after breakfast when the taller of the two Canadian ladies [staying at the same hotel] (their name, by the way, is Thompson) came in. … She left at 10.30 to meet a tall young Belgian soldier on the hotel terrace. She distributes Bible reading cards among the soldiers.

[It seems that the hotel was used partly for the accommodation of interned soldiers from foreign nations.]

By the morning post letters for Johanna from her Engeloch (enclosing form of application for her to travel into Germany for her to fill up), & from Agnes…

Before dinner J. wrote to Agnes asking for medical testimony that her mother was ill, & after dinner she filled up the above mentioned form of application.

[She eventually got permission to go in August.]

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

“Men who were interned had to write through a friend in a neutral country”

Following yesterday’s query, it emerged that an internee’s foreign correspondent was innocuously enough his sister, who had also helped another internee communicate with his wife in Germany.

Place of Internment
Reading

1st May 1918

I have made enquiries and Hemmerle states that Fraulein Maria Hemmerle, per Witwe Hasler, is his sister. She works in a factory in Kanton Schwyz, and the Widow Hasler is the woman who keeps the lodging house where she lives. He does not know Hasler.

Fraulein Anna Hemmerle is another sister who worked in a factory in Kanton St Gallen. Johan Ulrich Wohlwerk was the proprietor of an inn where she lodged. She has now left the factory and returned home to the Hemmerle address of – Dominikus Hemmerle (father), Vaduz, Lichtenstein.

Hemmerle says that when men who were interned had to write through a friend in a neutral country, Bushe wrote through Hemmerle’s sister Maria Hemmerle to his wife in Munich. Maria Hemmerle had the wife’s address and forwarded on the letters.

Bushe’s wife was deported from England during the time Bushe was interned.

I may add that Bushe nearly always wrote through Fraulein Hemmerle while he was at Reading.

C M Morgan

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

“Sydney has crossed to France at last”

In Switzerland, Will Spencer heard the news that younger brothers Sydney and Percy were now both fighting in France.

1 May 1918

Shortly before eleven Johanna came & handed to me a postcard from father, then a letter from him & a letter from Mother. These were dated April 18th, 16th & 13th respectively, & the card which I received from father yesterday, April 11th…

Johanna read in yesterday’s paper that a “Briefsperre” on the French frontier had just come to an end.

The letters contained the news that Sydney had crossed to France at last, & that Percy had also just returned thither.

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

A lost Iron Cross from 1916

Will Spencer and his wife had an unexpected discovery on a walk at Lake Thun in Switzerland.

25 April 1918

Farther up the [Goldiwil] road Johanna picked up a small round brooch bearing a representation of the Iron Cross, with an initial W and the date 1916. She was the more surprised to find it, as this is not a district in which German soldiers are interned. This was the first time J. had walked up to Goldiwil from Thun.

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

About to leave for military training

The divided loyalties of international couple Will and Johanna were poignantly underlined when Johanna’s 17 year old nephew was called up in Germany – ready to face Will’s brothers on the British side.

27 March 1918

Wrote a ppc [picture postcard] to [Johanna’s nephew] Kurt for his birthday on the 31st. He is about to leave Bonn for his military training. Will be eighteen on the 31st.

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

“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
14/3/18

Explained to prisoner.
He states he will not write any more.
C M Morgan
18-3-18

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)