‘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)


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)

News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

“One hole is no worse than another”

Efficient NCO Percy Spencer had the prospect of a commission as an officer – eventually.

Mar 22, 1917
Dear WF

My junior commission is indefinitely postponed. They won’t willingly let me go, so I have a compact with the Brigade Major that as soon as I can be spared, it’ll go forward.

But something has altered all that.

Today the Colonel of our senior Battalion & his second in command asked to speak with me a minute in the camp, and offered me a commission in his Battalion, & what is more, to make me assistant Adjutant straight away, with the promise of adjutancy as soon as that appointment fell vacant.

That’s a pretty steep offer, & coming from a Regular Army officer, reminded by me of the fact that I had had no military training, a very high compliment. It took my breath away.

I’m now waiting for the Brigade Major to let me off my promise. If he does I shall ask the Colonel to take me, & if he does it will be all to the family credit with some added risk to myself. But really from experience lately, one hole is no worse than another.

With my dear love to both
Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/25)

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)

‘He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika’

Will Spencer had news of several of his brothers. Stanley and Gilbert, both art students and a year apart in age, were very close to one another, and both had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.

31 August 1916

Letters from Mother & from Florrie. Both contained the news that Gilbert had recently written from a hospital ship at Marseilles. He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika. Stanley hopes he may be going to Salonika, as he so much wants to be with Gilbert. Horace better, & making himself useful by making tables & chairs.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Saying goodbye to a beloved son

Will Spencer kept in touch with his Cookham family, and had news of two of his serving brothers.

24 August 1916

Letter from Father… Had been to Aldershot to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘dear old Stan’, who had been home while Father was away, ‘& expects to be leaving England in two or three days’. Horace has had an attack of malarial fever, & is still in hospital.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

“Don’t imagine this is a sort of last will & testament”

Percy Spencer wanted his sister Florence to control his finances while he was at the front – evidently not trusting other family members.

Dear WF

I’m sending to Pay Office today authority to remit to you £25. Will you please bank this sum for me.

It is not to be touched for family purposes without my knowledge and consent, or until after my a/c has been settled up by the Pay Office should I be unlucky enough to get knocked out.

Don’t imagine this is a sort of last will & testament – fact is, I’ve just received information there is this sum due to me up to June 6.

All’s well

Love to all


PS Let me know when you get cash. It should be in about a fortnight or so.

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/22)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

48 hours leave for Christmas

Sydney Spencer got leave for Christmas, and was headed home to his parents in Cookham.

December 24th
I go home on 48 hours leave.

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

The next gamble with death

Miss Edith Frend was an acquaintance of the Spencer family who was corresponding with Percy. He had just had a close call at the Front.

Dear Miss Frend

Thank you so much for your letters and for the socks. The latter arrived just as I was looking for a pair, all the supply I took about with me having been buried by a shell along with my kit and my rifle. So here I am with only half a soldier without a gun. Really I’m even less than that, for I’ve got a touch of lumbago or something of that kind, and for the first time since I left home I’m in bed. I was all right more or less until I succumbed to the temptation of a bed, so I believe there is something in what Mark Twain said, “Bed is a most dangerous place – more people die there than anywhere else”. By the way, incidentally, this will explain my absolutely awful scrawl. We have been having an exceedingly busy time, the discomfort and dangers of our dugout and cellar existence have been considerable – but we are all very thankful that we are here to look back on the experience and forward to the next gamble with death.

Letter from Percy Spencer to Edith Frend (D/EZ177/7/11/9)

Having a rest out of action

Percy Spencer was not able to write to his sister Florence while under fire in the trenches. At the end of July he managed to snatch time for a postcard, undated but postmarked 27 July 1915:

My dear Girl…

We are having a rest out of action and are all feeling much better for it as we have certainly had our share of the work.

I shouldn’t wonder if some of us get leave in a few months time and I may be lucky enough to get a few days, but don’t know when or if.

Yours ever

Postcard from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/39)

The children of France at war

Percy Spencer wrote a quick letter to his sister Florence, with some frank if not too flattering comments on his French hosts.

June 28, 1915
Dear Florrie

Within a few hours we shall be moving again, so I take this opportunity to scribble you a few line, not knowing when I may have the next….

We strike some queer people in these peasant villages out here – immorality is fairly rife, and personal cleanliness rare; the houses and yards too are mostly in a filthy state, and our fellows think we are here to clean up the country. Well as I was saying we’ve struck some queer people here, but I never expected to strike so rare a youngster as Gladys the daughter of a French Canadian miner. She’s an opportunist – passing her door, she caught my hand and remarking I was “some soldier” in a pronounced American accent dragged me indoors, sat me down and began relating her family history, only pausing to tell her mother in French to give me a coffee. It seems after we had got very confidential and she had clambered onto my knee, that all she wanted in the world to make her happy was her brothers back from the war, a new skirt, a hair ribbon and some chocolate. She guessed I was pretty rich and would like to buy her a skirt. I assured her she’d guessed very badly. I came up to scratch on the matter of chocolate, a threepenny compass too staved her off for a while, but it’s a matter of Danegelt and I am thankful we’re moving, otherwise that skirt would be hers for I’m in love with the little elf – how wouldn’t I be, for she’s told me my eyes are blue and kind. About you she expresses no opinion, but Dot she insists is my fiancée and after a careful scrutiny declared her “some girl that”.

Adelaide was another of my flames, roguish and plump. Sadly we parted, sorrowfully she put up her cheek to be kissed. We were great friends – well, she let me look at her reliquary, though I must admit her trust in the British Army didn’t go as far as removing the chain from her neck.

Oh the kiddies! how I love them! At – it was screamingly funny to see the youngsters soldiering under shell fire. Drawn up in proper columns you’d see them marching along under the orders of their captain – a ragged curly headed lean limbed scamp; that youngster is a born commander. His orders were like pistol shots and his “men” jumped to obey them. However we all have weak spots. I regret to report that this sturdy body of citizens when paraded by their officer was utterly routed by a cigarette. A passing soldier was appealed to by OC [Officer in Charge] Ragamuffins for a souvenir. None was forthcoming and the ranks were unruffled. But a few yards further down the wind, the Tommy, repenting his churlishness, threw back one cigarette. In the race which followed, I’m sorry to say OC Ragamuffins won and returning with the [illegible] Woodbine stuck at a jaunty angle between his lips proceeded to take the necessary disciplinary actions to restore his ranks.

But for that incident I should mentally have marked that youngster down for at heart a Lieutenant Colonelcy. Now, who knows, he may be shot for depriving his country of his services at a critical moment.

I shall have to close this letter as I have a big job on hand. Madame desires an explanation or rather the production of some petit table. In vain have I assured her that it has only been borrowed by some excellent fellows and will be returned. I’ve got till quatorze heures [2 p.m.] now, and punctually at that hour I shall have to ward off another attack. So I must get down to the dictionary. Can you possibly let me know by 2 pm how you say with an air of assurance “it’s only just across the road”? If not I’m done and must fly.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/36-37)

Making up for other men’s lack of duty

Sydney Spencer wrote to his brother Percy to tackle Percy’s doubts about Sydney’s joining up. Sydney was still at Oxford at this point, and this letter explains exactly why he chose to join the army.

12 Southmoor Road
Monday June 7th [1915]

My dear Percy

So I hear from Flo [their sister Florence] that you don’t approve. And why. Because you want to shield me from horrors which other people have to endure. Well that doesn’t wash. As things stand now, if the horrors were 50 times greater it would make little difference. If you were over here in England just now to hear the way some men talk you would be glad enough that anyone should be willing. I played tennis last week. A lolling lazy looking Welshman enters into conversation with me.

“Why don’t you think you will pass Mods?”
“Because the OTC work has swallowed up an enormous amount of time.” “Well I suppose you must have liked military life to make you join the OTC”.
“Yes indeed,” I said, “a man who has spent most of his life reading poetry & playing the piano would naturally be deeply absorbed in such work!”
“Well I can’t understand what made you join the OTC if you didn’t like the work.”

I just looked at him, & then he said in a confused tone “Oh I suppose you felt it a duty.”

I don’t say that there are numbers of such people about but I feel that it is well to make up in any small way possible for what is lacking in other men’s sense of duty by offering myself unconditionally.

If the thing turns out to be too much, well I should knuckle under, I suppose, & what’s left of me would get a discharge, & would settle down to civilian life again with this much added to it however, that I had done my share even if it was ever so small a share. As to my being saved from these horrors, I don’t see a single argument in favour of such an attitude. Put me in Madame Tussaud’s & preserve me in spirits right out, one might as well suggest, and I prefer neither of those alternatives. I feel that if God Almighty has other work for me to do, He will play the Germans all sorts of tricks, so that I may pull through. And if I don’t, well I shall fall in good company.

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

A delightful spot behind the lines

Percy Spencer was in a cheerful mood as the summer started in France. He wrote to his sister Florence to describe the area he was based, a short way from the front lines, and to comment on his brother Stanley’s joining the RAMC:

June 5, 1915
Dear Florrie

We are having the most glorious weather and we are in a most delightful spot.

Today the peasant girls have been mowing the lawn – how Stan would love to draw them, rough, bronzed lassies with their large handkerchiefs over their heads and shoulders and tied under their chins.

The miners too are great. One I met the other day was particularly remarkable in his bronze blue overall and black [illegible] cap. He was a tall spare man with coal begrimed face, hands and clothes; only one thing was clean – a kind of cerise coloured scarf. I daresay the colouring sounds awful, but take it from me, he looked fine.

I see you are going to send me more bread. Don’t trouble to; we can obtain any we want from the village as a rule.

Stan’s idea of bargaining where he will go is rather pathetic – he’d better know that it’s utterly futile. But this he can do under existing orders. If he is not sent to join Gil, he or Gil can apply to their Commanding Officer for a transfer and it must be sanctioned on the grounds that they are brothers and wish to serve in the same unit of the same branch of the service [in the RAMC].

Yes, our fellows have done well, very well, and so their pictures are appearing in the paper, as you say. Curiously enough, the photos of the 24th are the photos of our boys of the 22nd, and you may be interested to know the leading boy in the picture of a company led by a bearded officer has been wounded in the eye, but is still with us. Again a picture of the answer to K. of K.’s appeal for men up to 40 is that of our own men who were sent back to the second line unit when we came out.

Love to all
Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/33)