“Sydney has crossed to France at last”

In Switzerland, Will Spencer heard the news that younger brothers Sydney and Percy were now both fighting in France.

1 May 1918

Shortly before eleven Johanna came & handed to me a postcard from father, then a letter from him & a letter from Mother. These were dated April 18th, 16th & 13th respectively, & the card which I received from father yesterday, April 11th…

Johanna read in yesterday’s paper that a “Briefsperre” on the French frontier had just come to an end.

The letters contained the news that Sydney had crossed to France at last, & that Percy had also just returned thither.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

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The most appalling voyage

Percy Spencer had now returned to France after his training as a =n officer. He wrote a brief note to beloved sister Florence as he adapted to dry land.

15.4.18
My dear WF

After the most appalling voyage we arrived safely today.

Thank you so much dear for your wire.

I bought some field glasses at six guineas and have made out John’s cheque accordingly. Will you please thank him very much for the gift. It’ll be good to carry now close reminders of you both….

This is a very scrappy note, but you must forgive more until I have got over the Channel trip.

If you are writing home, you might say you have heard that I am in France.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/28)

“God give me power to say & act at home, so that those dear parents of mine shall receive comfort & support & not feel my going away”

After his desperate last ditch appeal to his superiors on 31 March, Sydney Spencer was at last headed to the front. His family were less pleased.

1918
April 5th

Yesterday I received the following telegram.

To Lieut S Spencer
Sc301, 4th.4.18
69th Division wires…
Under War Office Postal Telegram…

Second April order Lieut. S Spencer, 5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment join expeditionary force France on 8th instant. To report personally to the embarkation command at Folkestone not later than 10.0 am, & if passing through London, travel by the train leaving Victoria Station at 7.35 am on that date. Ends.

Acknowledge & report departure to this office in duplicate.

208th Brigade
Butterworth Lieut for Staff Captain.

And so at last they have taken notice of my repeated appeals. God is good.

See my letter to General Pritchard [sic?] on page 343 of this book [31 March]. He was very sweet, & naively reproved me for writing to him as ‘Sir’! rather than Dear General Pritchard! I go to Cambridge today to Florence & home I think on Sunday for a few hours. God give me power to say & act at home, so that those dear parents of mine shall receive comfort & support & not feel my going away.

SS
5.4.18

Diary of Sydney Spencer

‘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
Percy

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.

1.8.16
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

Yrs
Percy

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.

4.10.15
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
Percy

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