“Now what’s up? Well, I have been up! Yes, up in an aeroplane!”

Sydney Spencer was enthralled with the experience of flight.

At The Race Course
Doncaster
Sunday Sept 24 [1917]

My Dearest Sister Mine

Now what’s up? Well, I have been up! Yes, up in an aeroplane! I am part of an advance party for our B[riga]de & am billeted with the 41st RS Flying Corps for about 3 weeks & well I got round a delightful flying pilot of the name of Hirst to take me for a joy ride! This morning I walked into the aerodrome & looked charming & when Hirst came along & said that he thought the air was not fit for flying but he would just go up & test it, I smiled & said let me go too, & lo & behold, yes in a quarter of an hour I had been for a flight over fields & woods & seem people down below (only 500 feet though) & cows & trees & roads looking like a nursery Noah’s ark affair.

I have never had such a sense of exhilaration in my life. In the last few seconds when we seemed to make a clean dive for the earth & one looked over the nose of the car & saw the great earth loom up & such to met you, as it were, I could have clapped my hands with delight like a foolish child.

One confession however. I was not strapped in, preferred not to be. The Pilot said, “when we come down you will want to grab at something I expect, so grab at the struts on either side”. Well, I thought to myself, Pah, who wants to grab at struts? But at the first dive, what do you think I did? Well, I made a momentary grab at the struts, but only momentary. I felt wild with myself for shewing ever such a small show of feeling.

My dear lady, what do you think of that now for an experience?

All love to you both from
Sydney

Letter from Sydney Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/2/22)

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Beer and bottled water to be in short supply

Sydney Spencer underwent training in gas exposure, while Florence Vansittart Neale was shocked by the amount of items to be restricted.

Sydney Spencer of Cookham
Feb 22

I go through chlorine gas for first time (in a P.H. helmet).

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
22 February 1917

Large contingent of nurses & MOs from Cliveden. Saw everything & had tea in hall. Came at 3, left 5.30….

Good speech by E. Carson on submarine menace – very serious, but hope it will get [illegible].

Importations of timber, apples, tomatoes, raw fruits, tea, restricted, meat, paper, wines, silks, only 10,000,000 barrels of beer – spirits also restricted, aerated water and table water.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

War between Germany and the USA is in the balance

Will Spencer was still trying to find out news of young family friend Max Ohler, a German soldier reported missing. He was pleased to hear from younger brother Sydney, dong well in army training, but was now well settled in Swiss society. Back in England, Florence Vansittart Neale was keenly interested in the prospects of the US joining the war. Johann von Bernstorff was the German ambassador to America and had been involved in sabotage and intelligence work there, and had just been thrown out.

Will Spencer in Switzerland
12 February 1917

A letter from Sydney. Hopes that we may obtain news of Max Ohler from the War Office Prisoners of War Department, which can find out more than any single enquirer can. He enjoys reading my accounts of Switzerland. Has just passed the exam for “Marksman” with 135 points out of 160 (or something of that sort), none of the 28 men he took up with him scoring more than 113. (130 was required to pass.)…

At 5 I called again on Herrn Fursprecher Hodler (by appointement). My obtaining leave to declare a smaller amount of Kriegsteuer [war tax], after signing for 500 fr., dependent of goodwill of the official concerned, but I might make the attempt. An income of 4,800 fr. represents normally a capital of 120,000 francs, for which the tax would be (class 110,000-120,000) 275 francs. I handed in my short sketch of my career, & signed a declaration which he drew up, that military duty “[illegible word] meinem Falle nicht in Betracht” [is out of the question in my case].

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
12 February 1917

Took dogs a walk again in afternoon – discussed War Savings & digging with Martin & Willie.

Bernstorff given safe conduct. So Gerard left Germany – war with US in the balance. Ag went to Boulogne.

We continually advancing on Somme & Avere. Constant raids.

Diaries of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27); and Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Food rations begin

Our diarists had a variety of interests. In Switzerland, Will Spencer saw the US was coming closer to war; in training, his brother Sydney was learning to shoot; and in Bisham, Florence Vansittart Neale was worried by food rationing and strikes.

Will Spencer in Switzerland
5 February 1917

News in the paper that diplomatic relations between Germany & the United States have been broken off by the latter.

Sydney Spencer in army training
Feb 5th

General Musketry course results (extract). Lt S Spencer, A company, Marksman 130. This was fired at Totley with 2 feet snow & hard ports!

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey
5 February 1917

Expected men from Cliveden – arrived late as motor broken down. Came in 2 ambulances.

Wild argument from miners!…

Food rations begin. 2 ½ lb meat – 4 lbs bread or flour – ¾ lb sugar per week.

Diaries of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27); Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“No other companion than the spit of rifle bullets”

Officer Sydney Spencer was training in musketry at home, and struggling with giving up smoking – a habit enjoyed by most of his fellow-officers. He wrote to his sister Florence to describe a typical day for him – and his cosy quarters.

Hillsboro Barracks
Sheffield

Jan 23rd 1917

My Dearest Sister

First of all let me say that my cold has entirely vanished & am feeling very well & fit & happy. Also you will be glad to know that I have really absolutely conquered my desire to smoke & have given it up. You know the Dr told me to give it up. Well I found it far easier said than done. I tried cutting myself down & when out in the slush & cold absolutely yearned & yearned for it until I was utterly miserably knuckled under & smoked! Well I got so peevish with myself for not apparently having the will power to give up smoking that I suddenly got up on my [illegible] legs & took & swore a big swear, that I would not smoke another cigarette & that is three days ago. It is such a tragedy that I can’t be writing about it. Now Madame do not laugh at me. It is a tragedy & so you would say too, of you knew what a consolation smoking had become to me. After dinner at night & everyone expands into the smoking attitude both physically & mentally, I simply groan inwardly & look with dumb longing at the fragrant cloud of tobacco coming from my neighbour’s mouth & wish & wish & wish until we rise from dinner when I escape & get something to read, or write to sweet sisters to attract my attention away. There now, what do you think of that for a model confession, and does my sweet content condone with or scold her brer Sydney?

One has a very full day out on snowcapped Derbyshire hills, lately with no other companion than the spit of rifle bullets (we are firing a G. Musketry course & I have 28 men at my firing points) & numbers of grouse. Programme for day: Rise 6.30, Breakfast 7. [Tram] 4 miles, march 4 miles. Firing course & freezing till 2.45. 4 mile march & tram 4 miles home. Evening, making up scores & filling in numerous Army Forms this & Army Forms that. Dinner 7.30. After dinner & delicious warm bath in camp bath, by my fire & snuggle in my armchair in my pyjamas when I write one letter (I am becoming a model letter writer once more), read a little – Black Tulip of Dumas at present, just read ‘Dead Souls’ by Gogol, & Pendennis – Thackeray – & then bed.

I have been much in luck lately. My bare room has become adorned with a large square carpet & a cushioned basketchair. Both from billiard room of mess which has been furnished with Billiard Table & so has no need of carpet & chair. Mother mine is sending me some of my photos of my friends to hang on my walls & that will make them a little less bare than they are at present.

[Letter ends here]

Letter from Sydney Spencer to his sister Florence (D/EZ177/8/2/8)

Music and chess on leave

Will Spencer heard the details of a family Christmas at Cookham, with Percy and Sydney both on leave.

22 January 1917

Letters for us both, from Mother – a long one for me. When Florrie & Percy & Sydney were all at home, Annie played to them after supper, & they all enjoyed it. Annie practises every day, & plays “very well indeed” now. Percy played chess with Sydney, & afterwards Percy was Mother’s partner & Sydney Father’s in a game of whist. Percy visited “the Hunts & Captain Holliday” while he was over. (Is Captain H. no longer with Percy at the Front?) Mrs Raverat had sent 60 lbs of apples to Mother, & one of the officers’ wives had made an exquisite white wool shawl for her (Sydney paid for the wool). Mrs Philip Wigg had made some white wool bed socks for her.

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

A board of enquiry looks at boots

Some army suppliers provided substandard equipment.

1917
January 12th

Battalion order 64. Major Smith, myself & Stimpson on a board of enquiry re condition of 14 pairs boots received from Norwich Depot!

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Where is Max?

Will Spencer made enquiries on behalf of his German friends to see if the missing teenager Max Ohler had been taken prisoner.

28 December 1916

In the afternoon wrote a short letter to the War Office, enclosing an English translation of the particulars with regard to young Max Ohler. (His “last address” – Herr Max Ohler, Fahnen-junker-Unteroffizier, VIII Armeekorps”, etc, I of course gave without translating it. I addressed the letter HM War Office, Department: Prisoners of War, London). I afterwards began a letter to Sydney, to whom I am also sending the particulars as well as to Percy.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1916 (D/EX801/26)

Missing since battle on 7 October

Will Spencer, the elder brother of Percy and Sydney who was living in Switzerland with his German wife, still had many friends in Cologne where the couple had lived before the war. The 18 year old son of one of those friends had been reported missing, and Will agreed to use his British connections to see if any news could be obtained of the young man.

27 December 1916

By the afternoon post a letter to Johanna from Max Ohler. They are still without news of young Max. (Johanna wrote to Fraulein Lochliger on Sunday, asking for the particulars which she has with regard to young Max, in order that I may send them to Percy & Sydney.)

By the evening post a letter from Arlesheim, from Fraulein Lochiger, sending us the particulars with regard to young Max Ohler. He has been missing since a battle at the southern edge of the Pierre Vaast Wood, near Sailly, on Oct. 7th. During the evening I made an English translation of the particulars (but leaving the “last address” as it stood) & afterwards made two copies of it (one for J. to take with her to the German consulate tomorrow.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1916 (D/EX801/26)

Difficulties for the Vansittart Neales

The Vansittart Neale girls were struggling with their nursing work, while Sydney Spencer had spent Christmas at home on sick leave. He returned to Yorkshire to find his battalion had moved again.

26 December 1916
Florence Vansittart Neale

Heard from Bubs at last. Very bitter. She in new hut. Medical ward. Her clock stolen. P’s hands full of chilblains.

Sydney Spencer
December 26, 1916

I arrive at new quarters, F block Hillsboro barracks.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Not many at sale for wounded Frenchmen

Sydney Spencer was ill – just in time for Christmas at home.

Sydney Spencer
December 14, 1916

I go home on 12 days sick leave.

Not every effort to raise money to support the war was well attended.

Florence Vansittart Neale
14 December 1916

Bubs & I went to Bear Place for Dottie’s sale for French wounded. Glee singers from Windsor & Eton. Not many people there.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Learning to ride in the army

Sydney Spencer was training at Doncaster, and receiving riding lessons, a traditional officer’s skill.

Nov 7th [1916]
By order 1804 I am detailed with Ferrier, Brierly & Clemence to join Lt Col Simpson’s (Yorkshire Dragoons) equitation classes on Fisher Park on Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays.

Florence Vansittart Neale
7 November 1916

Our submarine hit 2 dreadnaughts.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Billeted at Royal Flying Corps

Sydney Spencer’s battalion was about to move again, and he was sent on ahead.

September 21st, 1916

I go to Doncaster for advance party. Billeted at Royal Flying Corps.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Satisfactory results on the Howitzer course

Sydney Spencer excelled at his howitzer training course.

1916
Sept 15th

By order 1493, Otley. The undermentioned who attended the 2nd Howitzer course Sept 4th to 9th obtained marks as under.

Lt S Spencer – 93. 3084 Sergeant Harrod 67.

The GOC Brigade wishes to congratulate Lt Spencer, The Commanding Officer thinks the results are very satisfactory & congratulates both officer & NCO.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)

Howitzer training for Sydney Spencer

Sydney Spencer was sent on howitzer gun training.

1916
Aug 27

By order 1378. Howitzer course. Capt Loughton will not attend this course. Lieut Spencer will attend in his place.


Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EX801/12)