“News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids”

Sydney Spencer, who oped to train for the Anglican priesthood, disapproved of vulgar songs.

Thursday 18 July 1918

Got up fairly early. News came that we were to train in billets as the French were very windy about air raids. This we did & gave my platoon a talk about maps & did musketry & gas drill in the billet. The men were very pleased with the talk about maps.

After lunch little or nothing doing. I helped Plant with his Battalion dinner for tonight. It was not very successful, I thought. I hate big messes. There were 33 of us there. I rather deplored the songs which were sung after dinner.

I walked home with Kemp & Sergeant told us great news of a big French victory. Some 20,000 prisoners & 300 guns in all, south of us.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

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“The weather & the flies are very trying”

The heat was almost as troublesome as the enemy.

Wednesday 17 July 1918

Got up at 7.30 am. Flies were a nuisance. Air raid on village during night, about a dozen bombs dropped. 1 soldier killed, 5 wounded. A good parade this morning from 9-12.30. Inspection, Platoon & Section drill, PT, & BF. Break ½ hour. Rifle grenadiers from 11.30-12.30. Company arms drill. Marched home. Censored letters after lunch. Another broiling hot day.

The weather & the flies are very trying. After tea I began to fret. I wonder whether the photographer would turn up to take the officers of the Battalion. We were all at the orderly room at 7.30, but as a storm intervened he did not come. So I was unmercifully ragged by the CO who thought that it was my bad French which had made the muddle!

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A good example of a good defensive position

Sydney Spencer and his men practiced tactics before meeting the locals.

Tuesday 16 July 1918

All the servants were very late this morning & we were not called until 7.55. It meant a rush! At nine on parade. Did a good morning’s work consisting of platoon drill, a very thorough inspection, I took the rifle bombers in cup discharge work, then we did a scheme from 11-1. Hervey took out his platoon to a hill with trenches. Kemp attacked. I was in reserve. A good example of how [sic] a good defensive position.

After lunch censored letters. Then went down to Kemp’s billet & played on an atrocious piano. A mademoiselle charmante [charming young lady] spoke pretty broken English, & prettier French. Madame gave me some flowers. Spent a pleasant evening – a really decent one. Acted as interpreter for a photographer who took our drums. The village crier, a pale looking youth with plaintive voice demanded after beating his drum that we should declare the boites de foin [haystacks] gathered in during the [illegible] in the morning.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A horrible plague of flies

Sydney Spencer was busy preparing for a return to the trenches.

Monday 15 July 1918

Flies – a scourge of them – woke me up at 5 am & gave me beaucoup d’ennui until 7.30. On parade by 9 am. Had a platoon inspection which lasted an hour. PT for ½ an hour, then got new SBRs, anti [dumming?] composition etc. Had a talk about men’s rations etc. [Illegible] cleared up. Arranged for hair cutting. Got shoulder [illegible], water bottles covered etc, caps changed etc ad infinitum!

Returned to billet. Mended breeches. Got my surplus kit ready to send to Florence. Saw the men’s dinners which were really bad today. We had lots of difficulties in getting water for cooking. Sanitary arrangements in village filthy. Result a horrible plague of flies. The French here seem pleased with us & treat us more courteously than those further north.

Looked round my platoon in afternoon & rested most of evening. There was a fear of our being turned out by N. Hants but this did not come off.


Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

On both

Elderly William Spencer of Cookham was proud that his daughter Florence Image was having her first satirical article published in Punch.

Fernley
Cookham
July 14, 1918

My dear Sydney, …

I am very glad you like my first effort in blank verse. … But Flo [his daughter Florence] has beaten me altogether. I can only attain to the ‘Advertiser’ but she, a puss, has just had an article of more than a column’s length accepted by ‘Punch’. She has revised the proof & I expect it will appear next Wednesday though it does not follow that acceptance means immediate publication. It has to do with ‘Dora’ & is entitled ‘On Both’ referring to any breach of D.O.R.A’s act being punishable with six months imprisonment, or a £50 fine, or both.

Letter from William Spencer of Cookham to his son Sydney (at the front) (D/EZ177/1/6/1)

A city of silence

Sydney Spencer was cautious about revealing place names in his diary in case of capture by the enemy, but it is clear that he was now at Arras, whose cathedral was severely damaged by German bombs.

Sunday 14 July 1918

Got up at 6.15. Breakfast 6.45. Am orderly officer today. We move at 9. Parade at 8.30. Marched off at 9. Got to busses [sic] (carrying 23 & 2 drivers) & embussed at 11.20 on RVS Road. Started at 11.35…

12.45 A..s a ruined city from the point of view of inhabitants. A fine cathedral. A city of silence. Left A-s at 1.15. D-y at 1.20. Now lying on road between D & St- awaiting orders. It is now 4.15 pm.

Got into village of “Holy Refuge” at 5.30. Saw men into billets. Found officers’ mess no. 38 ‘La Route de Paris’. Dawkins & I found a bed at no. 39. Mounted guard at 7 pm. Conference at 7.30 pm. Had dinner at 8.15. Saw staff parade at 9.30.

Lights out at 10. Turned guard out at 10.45, & then to bed. Had a bed to sleep on but flies were a great nuisance. Dawkins & I in same bed.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“Don’t worry, she can’t speak English & I could never make love in French”

Percy Spencer was excited by his sister Florence’s getting a comic article published in Punch, and almost fell in love with a French girl.

July 14, 1918

My dear WF

Another week gone & here I am still at school & beginning to know something about musketry.

I’m very glad to hear Sydney is better again and delighted about the Punch article. Mind you send me a copy of the number.

This week I’ve been feeling very dicky myself. I think I had a touch of this strange fever, but a very slight one. Another officer here, I am sorry to say, has died with it.

Today I have been to a much bombed town near here for a holiday. There is quite a good officers’ club and one can generally meet old friends there and get a good dinner. It’s nice to sit in a pretty garden and receive tea from the fair hands of a wholesome English girl.

Today as you know is France’s National day. I went to the cathedral – which by the way has been rather badly bumped at the eastern end – and listened to a service. The singing was delightful, but it is difficult for me, much as I love the Roman Church’s seriousness, to refrain from smiling at their quaint beadles armed with swords and wearing mighty cocked hats, and at the endless collections.

Another good thing out here is the good nature of all motorists. One sets out to walk anywhere, hails the first car or bus or lorry, which always stops & takes you as far as it can. The other night a staff officer we coolly hailed drove us in here and offered to take us as afar as Paris if we liked. This however only applies as between Englishmen or as between French etc. but today I had quite a romantic experience.

Following the usual custom I stepped out to hail a car, but observing it was driven by a Frenchman, stepped back. However, it stopped & then to my pleasurable surprise I saw it was driven by a French GIRL. I’ve given her capitals as she was a capital girl. She wasn’t going very far my way but would give me a lift on my way. Well, the fair chauffeuse who was on her way to fetch the Prefect of the town we had just left melted, & when she got to her turning & I made to alight, she said she would drive me here and she did. After that we got very friendly and talked about London & the Thames, and she said that after the war she should come to London, and I said then I hoped we should meet again, whereupon she volunteered her address and I mine and neither of us could remember the other nor muster a pencil between us, so we pulled up at a cottage & borrowed one & some paper from an old lady who smiled approval at the beginning of a romance. And all the while the Prefect cooled his heels at some village down south!
I must be a lady killer after all!

Don’t worry, she can’t speak English & I could never make love in French, and Bordeaux (her home) is a long way.

Well, goodbye & God bless you both.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/53-55)

Beaucoup wound up about a move

There was tension in the air when expecting a move to the front line.

Saturday 13 July 1918

Beaucoup wound up about a move but nothing had happened yet. 10.45 am. We are now wearing SBRs for an hour. After lunch we had a good rest. I read & lay down for a time but did not sleep.

After tea a conference. I went down to my platoon & arranged things for tomorrow. Trench stores etc. I then went to church for ½ an hour. I am so grateful to the Roman Catholic Church for at least supplying a form of service in which I can take part without feeling that I am not wanted.

Ferrier came into dinner. After dinner packed & to bed at 10. Talked with Kemp about Catholicism until 11.15 & then to sleep.

Saw an old French man with blue trousers & a drum, who stood at street corners & after performing on his drum gave out much important mayoral news to the villagers.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

A right royal time buying stuff for mess

It was a red letter day for Sydney.

Friday 12 July 1918

Have had my commission 3 years today.

So I have had my three years commission today! & only 95 days in France, woe is me!

Had a delicious night’s sleep & got up at night. A big barrage seemed to have been put up on the left front from 7-4. First parade at 11.30. Men fairly clean but Rolfe rightly found many faults. After lunch Dawkins & I started out for D-ns.

We are now on crossroads to T-s. Here we got hold of an ambulance lorry which took us to Doullens, then we had a right royal time buying stuff for mess, other officers & stuff for our platoon. Tea at officers rest house. EFC could not supply us with anything we wanted.

Had dinner with two NZ Majors at EFC Club. They got great fun out of the London waiter who was shocked at their asking for a ‘follows’ as he called it. Lorry jumped back & got back at 11.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“A man knocked down another & smashed his head open!”

More from Sydney Spencer behind the lines.

Thursday 11 July 1918

Got up at 7.15 this morning after a good night’s sleep. Felt much rested & contented but my tent mates were ratty & objected to my good temper.

Very few parcels today. 1st parade at 10.30. Small kit inspection, followed by ½ hour’s gas drill & then wearing gas masks for an hour. After lunch wrote up my diary & read papers. Lolled about during afternoon until 4 pm & then we had a conference. After tea I worried out mess accounts with Kemp & Dawkins until 7.30. Managed to put them straight after a fearful scramble.

After dinner we had a long conference with Rolfe about reorganizing the company. This lasted until about 10.15. I then spent more time squaring up accounts. A row took place outside mess. A man knocked down another & smashed his head open! To bed at 11. A lot of rain today.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“How wonderful are Nature’s work & how vile man’s work just now”

Birds sang through the gunfire.

Tuesday 9 July 1918

At 11 pm last night took a ration party to A Company & brought back salvage. Just got back by 1.15 as I wanted to.

Had a glorious sleep after nearly 48 hours, until about 8 am. Spent the remainder of the morning making my trench map & finding & settling trench fighting positions. This took all the morning.

While the strafe was going on yesterday morning, swallows were swinging in the air over the trees in no man’s land. Thrushes & robins singing sweetly in the thickets in front & behind, & an old man mole was busy throwing up his castle in the chalk parapet in front of me. How wonderful are Nature’s work & how vile man’s work just now.

We got relieved and away to ’10 trees’ on S-H Road. Company then joined up & marched off.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“By the time I reached support line I was fagged out, scarcely having had any food for 24 hours”

Sydney Spencer was tired, hungry and under fire.

Monday 8 July 1918

Written in support line 8.7.18

At 8.30 [last night] informed that I was to do a patrol for a certain object. This we did but object not achieved, it was impossible, & I had been in the front line only an hour or two. Started out at 10.10 & returned at 12.20 am this morning. It took me till 3 to get this report out.

At 3.45 Jerry started a strafe which lasted till about 6.30. I had a half hour’s sleep from then till 7 or so. Then Dillworth relieved me & I got down to Company HQ & waited for Ferrier. By the time I reached support line I was fagged out, scarcely having had any food for 24 hours. Just 4 cups of tea & a slice or two of bread & butter.

We stood to, to get men in fire position. I then had breakfast at 10.30. Tried to sleep & couldn’t. Spent remainder of morning making a trench map for Capt. of JOKO, coming in. Afternoon spent in doing a working party making [illegible] bivouacs. After tea rested a bit.

At 8.30 went with Ferrier to try & arrange firing positions. Enemy put over a barrage of blue cross gas. We wore masks. Only last[ed] a little while.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)

“It’s wonderful how B. Company is scattered, and sad how many of them have gone under”

Percy Spencer was enjoying a reprieve from the fighting, and looking forward to our American allies making an impact.

July 8, 1918
My dear WF

I expect you are wondering why I haven’t written for so long. Lately I have been working moving, & so often cut off from communication, you must forgive me.

Now I am at a course near the base. It’s such a rest to have definite working hours & playing hours. We work jolly hard but after work I can take a rod & fish or swim, or walk to a fairly civilized town. Last night I fished & all but landed the largest roach I have ever hooked.

My duties with the battalion have involved riding. I had the other day to ride about 20 miles to prosecute in a CM case. As the horse’s name was “Satan” & I hadn’t been on a horse for 3 years you may imagine my feelings. However we went very well together. 2 days later, I had to do a staff ride with Gen. Kennedy as he’s something of a horseman, again I wasn’t very happy. However I didn’t fall off & coming home even ventured upon a few gallops.
I’m sorry about Sydney. I expect it’s the “Flu” or “PVO”. We’ve had an awful lot of it, but I’m glad to say I have practically escaped.

Please keep me posted with news of Stan & Gil. Isn’t it funny how we all focus on you. I hope you realise how flattering it is.
While you have been having November weather, we have been sweltering & wishing for a cool breeze now & then.

I like this part of France – it is so rich in wild flowers, woods, streams, birds and dragon flies. Did I tell you of the beautiful golden birds which used to haunt my bivouac? I have long since found out that they are the famous French Oriel. The dragon flies are marvellous. Never have I seen such numbers or variety.

Do you remember my church door Christmas card? If so you will know about where I am when I tell you I’m just going to have a look at it again.

There are no end of Americans here. All well built fellows and very keen. It’ll be a bad day for the Hun that they take the field in earnest. How many there are I don’t know, but enough to make the necessary weight till our turn comes round again.

We have an American doctor from Philadelphia – a fine big fellow….

Yesterday I met a nice boy from No. 5 platoon who remembered me though I couldn’t place him. It’s wonderful how B. Company is scattered, and sad how many of them have gone under. I was lucky to miss the grand “withdrawal”.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/7/50-52)

“Rather tired of this ceaseless tramping from one place to another”

It was a hot and dusty day in France.

Sunday 7 July 1918

11.30 am. Lying under a tree in the shade alongside a hot dusty track between Harponville & Hedanville on my way to Battalion headquarters. Had a fine lazy night’s sleep. Got up at 8.30 & breakfasted while dressing. Started this 12 kilo walk to BHQ under guidance of Pte Killick & another chap. A tragically hot & dusty day for such a march. I did so hope for a day or two’s rest at Transport, but it was no go!

1.30 pm. On the Hedanville Forceville road. Have had a long rest here, & got some RFA men to make us some delicious tea.

Arrived Battalion HQ at 3.30. Up to front line straight away. Joined Ferrier in a wood. Thick undergrowth with occasional drives. In front of B Company’s posts only 10 yards between lines!

July 7th [1918]

I am on the way now to B in Head Quarters. I am lying under a tree for a few minutes rest from the almost tragic heat of the hot July day. I have about 16 kilometres to go along a track through acres of cornfields & the dust is about 3 inches thick & there is nary a bit of shade for miles except for this welcome elm tree now. I must pack up & get on trek again. I envy you your bungalow in Norfolk.

I am well & fit although rather tired of this ceaseless tramping from one place to another….

Your always affectionate
Brer
Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/54)

“Saw poor old Miles’ grave in the cemetery extension”

Sydney Spencer rejoined his unit – and found an old friend’s grave.

Saturday 6 July 1918

Got up after a delightful night’s sleep at 7.45. Dressed in a leisurely fashion as befitted the atmosphere of the charming village & the fact that we did not move till 9.30. A lorry took us through Longvillers to Domleger. 11 a, started for Raincheval for Hedanville. A glorious morning.

Landed at Candas at 11.30. Had an omelette [sic] & tea at Estaminet. Got on board train at 1.30. Started for Raincheval at 2.45. There I found a French go cart waiting for me. I got here through Toutencourt to Harponville. It is now 12 weeks ago that I left there for Maillet-Mailly!

I am resting here at billet no. 102. Hervey, Slater & Bradley here. Saw poor old Miles’ grave in the cemetery extension. Also saw Pte Brooker’s grave, an old 2/5th Norfolk Regt.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15)