“He sang a cheery song to me which for a wonder was not disturbed by the boom & shriek of shells”

Sydney Spencer could still delight in birdsong.

Saturday 27 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. Last night our goods came up, also drinks. Thank goodness the drinks came as everyone was getting very weary of waiting & I was wondering how long my popularity as MP would last! We had our usual parade at 9.45. Inspection of rifles… I got a lot more camouflage done. Wrote to Florence.

After lunch read a little. Went down to company, inspected ammunition, gave the men some cigarettes. Came back to orchard behind my platoon & read Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott” & a few others. Saw a blue butterfly & other butterflies. I saw also a lovely cock chaffinch. He sang a cheery song to me which for a wonder was not disturbed by the boom & shriek of shells.

After tea wrote to Florence. Then came post with rations, bringing me despatch case & lots of useful articles & a long letter from Florence. She pulled my leg by addressing me as Sir – yours to hand etc, & signed it Yours faithfully, Image & Co.

Went on working party Suffs with Peyton from 8-11 pm.

After tea officers of A Company called on us. Then went for a walk towards windmill on our left. At 8 I took a working party to Suffs. In orchard over way about 8 ten shells burst all round us, one slight casualty only. During work on CT Trench was [enfiladed?] by shell fire & luckily all shells landed on parapet.

Heard a nightingale singing in the orchard this morning.

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

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“10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames”

Sydney Spencer revealed life behind the lines in France in his diary, and wrote to his sister with more details.

Diary
Sunday 21 April 1918

Men bathed today from 9-4. So ‘Beer’ company officers had a rest in bed. Got up at 8.30, had a cold bath. After breakfast wrote to Mother & Father & Florence. It is now 11.15 am. A sunny morn & I am in a bit of pretty woodland. We parade at 11.30 am so I must go.

We had our parade on some fields near to billets. Only a short inspection & a talk and organization of platoon. I take over No 6 Platoon. After lunch took out company for football. After tea went to church in ‘flying fox’ lecture hall. A good service with a band and some solos from Elijah. A lovely day with plenty of sunshine.

After dinner I tried on my field boots which came today. They fit well. To bed at 10. Read Tennyson.

Letter

7th Norfolk Regiment
BEF
France

Sunday
21.4.18

My Dearest Florence & Mr I

Just a short line to let you know that I am very well & quite happy. Nothing exciting has yet taken place. The great pleasure at present is coming across lots of men who used to be in our regiment, who shew in their slow Norfolk way a keen relish at meeting a man of the old (help! I nearly got within reach of the censor I believe!) regiment. Also I have come across two men who were up at Oxford with me, one yesterday & one last week. …

Yesterday night a man was ‘stunting’ in his plane just above us. One moment he was like a calm serene bird floating down the wind. 10 seconds later his plane was crippled on the ground, enveloped in gigantic flames. I only hope he escaped a horrible death!

All love to you both
Your affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to his sister and brother in law (D/EZ177/8/3/20)

Slush, real Flanders slush everywhere

It was a gloomy day, but a more cheerful evening, for Sydney Spencer and his fellow officers.

Thursday 18 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. A miserable day, wet & slush, real Flanders slush everywhere. Parades up on the high ground at the range, not of the most cheerful with a biting wind & drizzle, but we got through alright. We had some gas stunts very like what we had in England, except that the Div officer had not the stuff I could use.

After lunch went down to billets & gave two lectures on gas to the company, & there was a kit inspection. After tea wrote a few cards & a letter to Florence. Also packed some spare kit to send home. Washed & changed & bad dinner.

The other chaps are now playing vingt et un, & I am going to be OC gramophone, & then to bed to read Tennyson.

8.45 pm. A fine moonlight night.

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

“It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months”

Sydney Spencer was still some way behind the front line.

Wednesday 17 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. A better morning, warmer, but wind.

Went on parade at 9. A march of about one mile up on to a trench system where … I did platoon’s drill for a time. It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months.

After lunch fine again till 3 when it poured with rain. I gave a lecture to ‘B’ company on Gas. Paid company at 3.30.

After tea got my clothes dry, changed, made out mess and [illegible] for A and B companies. After dinner, all officers paid me so that I was able to make things square.

To bed at 9.30 & read In Memoriam for a little while. A fine night.

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

A horrible stench

Foraging for provisions in the French countryside could be challenging in unexpected ways.

Sunday 14 April 1918.

Rose at 8 am. Cozens Hardy not at all well. Has a high fever. Took working party with me to hangars again, a stiff job, which we completed by 1.15 pm after a struggle. I did not like the engineer chief under whom I was working. He was “naggy”.

After lunch had a sleep. Cozens Hardy gone into hospital. Capt. Dillon’s taken over company.

After tea went with Frost the Mess waiter & got 2 kilos of very good pork from a farm nearby. The farmer’s wife was cleaning offal, the most horrible stench emanating therefrom & she in polite French offered me a chair with her beady brown eyes sparkling.

Before dinner I wrote letters, & after dinner cleared up. Read In Memoriam to the accompaniment of the sound of shellfire & to sleep. In bed by 9 pm.

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

“My first faint smell of live warfare!”

It was another long day in transit for Sydney Spencer.

Tuesday 9th April 1918

I slept at the EFT officers Rest House, Boulogne. Chance for dinner, bed, bath & breakfast 7.50. An excellent place.

Took train at 9.7 am. Went through Etaples to a village called Longpre. Arrived there at about 1 pm. Remained here till 7.30. Then on to Candes for Belle Eglise.

At Longpre saw a trainload of civilians pass through escaping from shelled area perhaps Amiens. Heard guns booming over hills. My first faint smell of live warfare!

Left Longpre at 8 pm. Arrived at Candes at 8.30. No connection for Belle Eglise. Found a cottage near by & got an omelette & tea & fresh butter and a room in [company?] with a captain.

And so ends rather a long day, but Willy is still very perky & hardly tired at all. And now to read Tennyson & sleep it blue [sic?] 10.45 pm.

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