“The doctor called it ‘Influenza’, but I called it things in much less mild language!”

Training in Yorkshire, Sydney Spencer contracted influenza, the scourge which would end up killing more people than the war. He gives a graphic description.

Warmsworth Hall
Sunday March 3rd 1918
My Dearest Sister

Do you imagine for a single moment what happened last Tuesday? I fell suddenly & grieviously sick! What of? I know not. The doctor called it ‘Influenza’, but I called it things in much less mild language! I had a fearful headache which nearly blinded me & a swollen throat which resulted when I ate in my having a fearfully exciting & incessant sort of steeplechase going on in my throat, ie the food ran along my tongue, paused in mute horror, took breath, gathered itself up carefully like a cat does before jumping, took a flying leap at the small breach left where my throat once was, landed gasping on the brink & then I did the rest by a spasmodic system of gulps. And that’s the only amusement I got out of it! Well, my sickness left me yesterday as suddenly as it came!

The joke of the matter is that a man in this house was discovered to be the proud possessor of a throat which for days past had been dip (no I dare not spell it!) – let us just call it dipth—ia! Furthermore since the aforesaid man was batman to Capt. Fitch who sleeps opposite me, well by the time Thursday came, when I was feeling much less alive than dead, I was having a fairly cheerful outlook on life.

I gargled with ‘lysol’ & that killed whatever germs had attacked my throat & I am as well as possible again.

What do you think of that for a bloodcurdling tale?

Dear old Rowell, commonly known as ‘Pongo’, is now writing his one letter a week to “his Muzzie” as he puts it. He is a sailor by profession, frank & open, but a very blasphemous young man (not really but he bluffs it). He can scarcely spell his own name but is a gentleman by birth & education. He has so far asked me how to spell Warmsworth, the date of the day, & ‘week’, in one minute I shall have to give him my undivided attention, bless him. (Yes, Pongo, UPSET does spell upset, & been spells been & not bean!)

All love to you both, & my humble respects to the kings among feline races.

Your affectionate Brer

Letter from Sydney Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/7)


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)

The ceaseless rush & tumble of a soldier’s nomadic life is transient, unreal & arid

You may remember that before the war, Sydney Spencer had been at Oxford studying theology with a view to a call to the Anglican ministry. The war had changed him, but it had strengthened his vocation, as he told his sister Florence and her husband after a weekend’s leave at her home.

In the Train, 5.23 pm, Feb 23rd 1918

My Dearest Florence & Mr Image

I do not feel that I can adequately express what my stay with you has meant for me. The quiet & ease of your home life & companionship has an effect upon me which only those who know what real life is and means, can appreciate.

The ceaseless rush & tumble of a soldier’s nomadic life may possess a brilliant element of excitement, but books, & thought & companionship such as yours is, have an irresistible attraction for me which make all this military life something transient, unreal & arid. The soul of Alma Mater has breathed upon me once and for all & I Have no other wish in life than to follow her dictates & live up to her ideals in spirit. A life such as Dr Glover teaches is what I want, & rash though it may seem to make such a statement I am absolutely convinced that, if I go to France, which please God I shall do, I have many years still left in which some small way to follow the dictates of a spirit in me which cries out to be the reciprocal of other men’s needs.

The Church has only this one attraction for me. It will give me those innumerable opportunities to minister to those needs of men – it’s men I want to get at – which become more patent to me every day.

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/3/4)

Women tip the Tommies to shop for them as they can get ham & cheese where the women can’t

Still training in Wiltshire, Percy Spencer wanted a special lamp to take back to the Front. He had also had a surprise reunion with younger brother Sydney – and was unimpressed with their other brother Harold’s attempts to sponge on good-natured Sydney.

21st Res Battalion London Regiment
G Lines
Chiseldon Camp
Nr Swindon

Feb 11, 1918

My dear WF

I’ve just returned from 48 hours leave, a frightful scramble, but the break is worth it.

Luckily I was able to catch Dot in town and we went together to “General Pat” at the Haymarket, after trying without success to get into the Albert Hall to hear Carrie Tubb, Ivor Foster & Harry Dearth. She is very much better I’m glad to say.

As I was seeing her off at Paddington, Sydney turned up, and I persuaded him to take his luggage out of the train and stay with me the night in my digs. We hadn’t met for over a year so I was very glad to see him again. He doesn’t seem to have altered a scrap.

We had a talk about Harold, and Sydney is sending me a letter about him. Apparently Harold looks on Sydney as an investment from which he is entitled to expect an income. It’s too preposterous.

I expect my embarkation leave pretty soon now – probably about the time Sydney will be with you. I suppose I may come too if I have a ration card, but please let me know dear, as I don’t wish to crowd you, or add to your food expenditure. In London though the women tip the Tommies to shop for them as they can get ham & cheese where the women can’t.

All last week I was upon battalion duties and lost touch with my boys, and it was very disheartening this morning to find that they had started off badly. However I’ll soon get them going again I hope.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever

Percy to Florence
Feb 11, 1918
My dear WF

The lamp is an ORILUX, made by J. H. STEWARD Ltd, 406, STRAND, LONDON. The price including spare bulb 25/- (probably more now).

It is a first rate long life lamp, well protected from weather, most suited for wearing on a belt, military fashion, but quite suitable for carrying by hand. I think, however, Stewards could show more suitable hand lamps.

Yours ever

Letters from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/11-13)

A lecture on aerial photography

The new technology of flight was used in the war not just for battles and bombing – it was an intelligence tool.

Jan 25th

Battalion order 136. A lecture on aerial photography to be given by Captain H Lejeune, MC, RFC Feb 4th. Extremely interesting.

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

A draft to France

Sydney Spencer was set to go overseas at last.

Jan 22nd [1918]

Battalion order 108. I am released from quarterly board at Brigade Headquarters. About 3.40 took a draft to France with Cubitt.

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

Library to be withdrawn from companies going to the front

As Sydney Spencer’s regiment prepared to go abroad, the library he had run for his men in training was closed down.

January 2nd

Battalion order 7. Library to be withdrawn from companies & returned for checking to Hyde Park schools.

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

The beginning of the end for one regiment

Sydney Spencer resumed his diary after a long break, busy training in the north of England. New recruits would change the regiment he was attached to.

December 11th

Large draft detailed in orders. The beginning of the end of the 2/5th Norfolk Regiment.

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

“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
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

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

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

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.

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)