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

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
Percy

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

Amateur dramatics behind the lines – “each pause is filled with the roar of guns & explosion of shells”

Percy wrote cheeefully to Florence, telling her about the amateur (and cross-dressing) dramatics by his soldiers.

April 24, 1917

I wonder if the sun is shining on you as well. It’s a perfectly glorious day here, full of sea, wind, aeroplanes and shells. There’s precious little sleep after daybreak this sort of weather.

Yesterday I went for quite a good walk across the fields along narrow waterways, and in the evening I went to the Follies and saw an absolutely topping performance. I do wish I could have you both here one evening just to show you what alluring damsels some of my boys make. Of course one can’t get away from the incongruity of it all, for each pause is filled with the roar of guns & explosion of shells, and at the end of each scene, as the windows are thrown open, bursting shells in the distance are just about all the view.

Altogether we’ve had a very good time lately, and but for a couple of rounds which the Huns fired at another NCO and myself a fortnight or so ago, we’ve been particularly immune from that being-shot-at feeling.

I’m enclosing one or 2 more souvenirs. I think Tyrrell’s is a perfectly charming group (the family put their Sunday clothes on for the event). The other is really sad – the central figure committed suicide a few days ago – why, heaven knows.

Well, I’m being so interrupted, I’m going to close.

Oh, I forgot to say I have been applied for direct (without a cadet course) by the OC of the Battalion I’m to go to, and the Brigadier has endorsed all the nice things said about me in the letter sent with my papers by the CO. So I doubt whether I shall get much, if any, time in England.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/29)

Rattled nerves and sickly faces under heavy shelling

Percy Spencer had time for a long letter to sister Florence after some near escapes.

Feb 20, 1917
Dear WF

It’s a niggly drizzly day, but I haven’t seen much of it so far as I slept peacefully on till 9 am – and of course the whole office did the same. That’s the worst of being senior, no one moves till I move.

As soon as I came back to this part of the world I started cultivating a throat again, but apparently I’ve become hardened, for just as I began to have hopes of “home-sickness” I got better again.
This is evidently a “throat” area for half the world here has some throat trouble.

Garwood is due back from leave today. I expect he went to the Curtises and left them news of me – I’m afraid you’ll find it rather more shelly that you’d like. However we’re getting grand at dodging.
A short while ago our outfit was driving to a certain place, when I noticed a shrapnel burst ahead of us. I remarked to my brother Sergeant on the box of the lorry that that it appeared to be bursting at our destination. He disagreed and I therefore drove on. Just as I ordered the driver to stop at a road corner, the beggars burst a second shell almost overhead, but luckily beyond us, so I suddenly changed my [speed?] and drove on 50 yards. Before I’d got my men clear and off in small parties towards our ultimate destination, we’d had a dozen more shells over, and for a quarter of a mile of our progress, so very much on the lines of a game of musical chairs in which the gun report was the pause in the music and the ruined skeletons of houses the chairs. There’s a certain amount of sport in this shell dodging game, but on that occasion I could not get up any of the interest of my brother sergeant in the terrific bounds of red hot lumps of metal off the frozen surface of the road a few yards away.

However I think I’d always rather be in the open when there’s any heavy shelling on, unless your roof is absolutely safe. For instance, also a short time ago, when we had to endure the heaviest shelling in the worst cover that has so far been our misfortune, we all (including myself) awaited the climax with rattled nerves and sickly faces, but once I got into the open en route to my office I thoroughly enjoyed sliding across a frozen moat, scooting across a road into a ditch t’other side, and ducking along this as the shells came over until we reached home. Tyrrell went sprawling in the ditch but nevertheless was an easy first – a big burly fellow passed me like the wind on the final stretch – I couldn’t run for laughing at the humour of the situation – once the heavies got going, man is very much in the position of the rabbit when a ferret is dropped in his warren.

Last night we had your sausages for supper. Today, just now, in fact, I’ve had lunch – quite a swagger meal, so I’ll list it:

Roast beef
Boiled potatoes
Tinned beans
Suet pudding
Boiled pudding & treacle
Cheese

Come and join us! It’s bully beef tomorrow.

I’m gradually getting a little more time to myself and last night played a rubber of bridge in our mess – it’s a cosy little shanty, timbered roof & green canvas walls – once upon a time it was our office, until one afternoon in the midst of a hefty strafe the Huns dropped a 5.9 shell just behind it, so now we’re in a somewhat safer place, and next door to an almost safe place into which we all dodge if the weather gets too thick.

Believe me, this is a shell strewn part of the world, and just when I went up the line the other afternoon during a very heavy bombardment, we turned up first a hare, then a cock pheasant and then a brace of partridges that all the noise and thunder couldn’t disturb – only man is vile.

Did I ever thank you for the splendid socks you sent me, and for a thousand and one other things – I’m afraid not.

I believe I did tell you about our follies & their pantomime. There’s some excellent stuff in it, the best scene I think being one of the opposition trenches manned by their respective defenders. A system of reliefs has been inaugurated under which firing & trench guarding is done by turns and the scene opens with a row between the Britisher & the Hun, because the latter had during the night fired his rifle out of his turn and nearly hit someone. From that you go on to the idea of morning inspection of each other’s trenches with a good deal of friendly criticism and wind up with the arrival of tourists and souvenir hunters, the “ladies”, as I told you, being quite edible.

Well my dear girl I’m now going to do a little work by way of a change,

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/15-20)

“All very uncheery – what!”

Percy’s last letter to Florence on 4 February was interrupted by events. He picked up his pen a week later to address their brother Will’s concerns about a young German friend who had been reported missing.

[11 February 1917]

That was 7 days ago. Seven days of perfect weather and comparative comfort. And now I have an hour or so in which I think I can manage to finish.

Garwood has now gone on leave, and if the present idea obtains another couple of months and leave is still open then, I ought to be home again.

Did I tell you that the younger of Mr Lewis’s sons is one of our RE [Royal Engineers] officers. He superintended the building of our mess. We now have 3 snug (for war time) messes in this part of the world, so long as the Bosch don’t shell.

Will wrote me about Max Ohler who is “missing”. Will doesn’t seem to get my very occasional letters. I wish when next you write, you would tell him that I have received all of his, and that I am not now, and may not be again, in a position to make any direct enquiry about MO. I have however been able to put enquiries thro’ the British Graves Commission and made a request for them to be passed on to the French authorities. If he hears nothing, it may add something to Johanna’s hope that Max has not been buried by us or the French, or if unfortunately he does hear, at any rate, even that will be some comfort too, to know at least the boy has been buried & his grave registered.

All very uncheery – what!

I’m sending you a souvenir menu card of a little Xmas dinner we had. The pennant is our sign by day & the lamp by night – the flags are those of the Signal Section. I hope you’ll like my hurried design.

Also I’ve been to see our follies. They’re awfully good & include some professionals – the “girls” are quite edible.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/12-14)

The difference between fair terms & absolute surrender

The son of the vicar of Radley, Captain Austin Longland was serving in Salonika with the Wiltshire Regiment, where he struggled with the heat, but hoped the Germans were about to give in.

Thursday July 6th [1916]

Temperature in here continues at 95-105 degrees I’m told by the doctor. Also I’ve just had my 2nd dose of typhoid & perityphoid inoculations & have a day off duty in consequence. Twice clouds have gathered, & once we had a violent storm of thunder & lightning but never a drop of rain. Needless to say all beauty’s gone. The sun glares down, trying the eyes, and our view of the town is blurred by a continuous cloud of fine grey dust. I have told you that from the sea up to the hills the ground rises steadily till the last steep ascent, & we’re therefore, tho’ considerably below the level of the actual hills, some height above the town which is about 5 miles away. We are to the left of the road this time, but we can see the sites of our 2 early camps and get a rather different view of the town & the citadel. You remember the shock I had on returning our bivouacs last Sunday fortnight & finding them gone and all my kit packed. My first idea then was that we were going forward – first stop Nish or Sofia, but when it was known that we were to march back over the hills no one knew what to expect.

The men were more cheerful than I’ve seen them in this country – all firmly persuaded that they were going back to France – an opinion which I hadn’t the heart to discourage, but did not hold myself.
Since then nothing has happened. From about 6 to 6.45 each day in the morning the battalion does its old physical drill, & parade which the officers, except Waylen who takes it, do not attend, going out instead to study tactics with the NCOs, each company by itself. This lasts 6 till 9. Three days a week we go a route march from 5-8 a.m. In the evening we parade from 5.45 till 6.15. doing physical exercises gain, officers & all – & that is the day. The NCOs class was ordered by the Brigade & is most useful – tho’ of course it’s what we ought to have done at Marlboro’. So from 9 till 5.45 every day & from 6.30 onwards we have nothing to do except sit in our hut.

Wood as usual is scarce, so there’s not chance to make a chair. At present I am seated on 2 sand-bags, which raises one off the ground a bit. We have a hut for a common room, but tho’ it has forms and a table, it’s very hot & full of flies. Here the flies grew so unbearable that I ordered yards of muslin from the town & with its aid we ae at last at peace. We feed in a hut off a sand bag table & seated on sand bag seats. I’ve just been busy trying to make that fly-proof – harder but even more necessary. If you sit still for a moment you can always count over 50 on the plate in front of you.
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“I wish this — war was over”

Maysie Wynne-Finch was relieved her husband was still not fit enough to return to the trenches. The reference to Drino Battenberg is to Prince Alexander of Battenberg (1886-1960), a grandson of Queen Victoria and a cousin of the Czar. Barry Domvile was a respected naval officer during the First World War. His new wife, Alexandrina, was actually a naturalised British citizen of German ancestry, and Domvile was to become a notorious Nazi sympathiser in the Second World War.

April 16/16

Elgin Lodge
Windsor

My darling R.

Yours of 6th came today. Thank you so much. In spite of all your sorrows you must be warm, which is more than we are – it remains bitter & beastly here. You can imagine how thankful I was when the docs refused to pass John for France. They told him not for 3 months, however they’ve made his papers out apparently for two – so perhaps he’ll get out in June. Meantime tho’ we have plunged & taken a house here till July. I think I told you how sick we are at having to turn out of this one next week. You really should have made it your business to keep Pares in Egypt!! The tiresome man now only expects to get a few days leave apparently but insists on turning us out & carting his wife & family back here, she writes as annoyed as we are!

We’ve taken that big house, Essex Lodge, you may remember – the Follettes had last year. It’s ruinous & much too big – but it was that or a 4 roomed cottage, so we fell to it. It’s got a nice garden & tennis court which is nice.

We had M: Bovil here last Sunday, on the Sat we went all over the Royal Farm. It was most interesting, some fine animals. The most solid Scotch of bailiffs took us round, a beautiful person, who I discovered was a Morayshire man, & his accent reminded me of election days! He was with the Duke of R[ichmond] at Goodwood before.

HM comes down here on Thursday, the immediate result has been to fill every open space here with red & perspiring men being initiated into the more particular forms & mysteries of Guard mounting by blasphemous & heated NCOs.

We went up & stayed with Meg the night before John’s Board, as he was up to see Farmer the day before. We had great fun, Wisp & the Barry Domviles there, & we went on to the Empire. Quite agood show. The biograph of the troops in France most interesting. Sloper Mackenzie & his terrible wife sat just in front of us. She looks too evil. Young Drino Battenberg was with them. He is becoming most terribly like the C. Prince of Russia. Mrs Barry seems a very nice little thing, but has an awful voice – doubtless Barry being deaf does not notice this much….

Billy [Wynne-Finch] is ill, but refuses to tell anyone where or how he is. His colonel reported he’d gone sick with bronchitis & both lungs touched, but he continues to write as tho’ nothing’s the matter. He’s at some base hospital. Funny boy. I don’t fancy he can be really bad, I hope not, & just now people are safer anyhow than in the trenches, especially where they are. More wild & persistent rumours last week of a sea fight & as usual the Lion damaged – but I don’t hear any truth to it….

Too odd, we saw Geo. Steele last week, whose Brigade is right down the south of our line, & he said they do everything even to patrolling in punts! Meg showed me the MEF creed – how priceless. Who wrote it? The 1st are due in camp in the Park here next month, also some infantry division, they say…

Love from us both darling, and oh dear it seems a weary long time since Dad & I saw you off Oct 9th. I wish this — war was over.

Your ever loving Maysie

Letter from Maysie Wynne-Finch to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/4)

“Every man in uniform (or in bits, alas)”

Maysie Wynne-Finch wrote to her brother Ralph from her temporary home in Windsor, with more details of the tragic accident which killed their friend Desmond FitzGerald (1888-1916). Desmond was the younger brother and heir apparent of the Duke of Leinster, Ireland’s leading peer, a mentally ill bachelor. Youngest brother Edward (1892-1976), who eventually succeeded to the title in 1922, had rashly married a chorus girl. Maysie had also recently met a number of friends on leave. Their mother Lady Mary Glyn also wrote to Ralph with the story of a new recruit.

March 20/16
Elgin Lodge
Windsor

My darling R.

Yes wasn’t Desmond [FitzGerald]’s death tragic. He’s a real loss from every point of view, it seems too one of those ghastly unnecessary things. The RC parson – one Lane Fox, incidentally poor General Pereira’s brother in law, he is too, was playing about with these bombs. Some say it was his fault, others a pure accident no one could have avoided, but the thing went off, killing Desmond & 2 or 3 men, & wounded others including young Nugent, a desperate body wound. He’s had a fearful operation, but they say will live. The wretched man himself has had ½ his face blown away & ½ his hand. A gastly [sic] thing. Poor old Freddy. They say master Edward is already bitterly regretting his wife who is a perfect terror & drinks. However I doubt her letting him divorce her now that he must be a Duke. It’s too dreadful.

We went to London for Sat night & to the Hippodrome. Really a funny show. Harry Tate being sea-sick too priceless, it nearly makes one sick too. Rather to my surprise we met Arthur & Amy there. He went back yesterday after a week’s special leave, he looks ill… We also saw old Wisp. He looks pretty well & I saw no signs of the lost stone – which he’s reported to have lost as a result of Flu – but he’s got 6 weeks leave, which is nice for him. John saw Jerry Sturt yesterday. Poor boy – he’s no better apparently, though they still say he will be. He can’t even stand yet though. He showed John an interesting letter he’d had from Beeky. In it he says the French at Verdun put all their Colonial troops in front & their losses were heavy, also at the 1st push they ran, which gave that 1st small Hun advance, but since then they have been alright. He also said Master Bosch used no gun smaller than a 5 pt 7 during all that fighting – no one seems to know why, unless to save their smaller ammunition for the “advance”.

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“The war is doing us a lot of good”

Maysie Wynne-Finch wrote to her brother Ralph Glyn in Egypt with the news that she and her wounded husband were going to be based in Windsor until he was well enough to return to the Front. Their aunt Sybil was still receiving letters from her son Ivar, written before his recent death in action.

Feb 11/16
11 Bruton St W
Darlingest R.

I had a mysterious message from Meg’s house today saying Colonel Sykes had called leaving a small parcel from you, & saying he was just home from the Dardenelles [sic]. I had the said parcel brought here, & it is a couple of torch refills apparently unused from Stephenson. I must get hold of Colonel Sykes for an explanation.

Our plans are now fixed up to a point. The doctor, [dear?] man, said John was not to return to France for 3 months, this being so the regimental powers that be used much pressure to get him to reconsider his refusal of the 5th Battalion Adjutancy, & so after being told they won’t try & keep him after he’s fit for France, he has said yes. There is no doubt it’s good useful work for home service, if it has to be, & I am glad for him, though I suppose I shall now see little or nothing of him at all. He begins on Monday. He went house hunting on Tuesday – a depressing job, as there are hardly any houses to be had, & those one more beastly than the other! However – nothing matters – it’s just wonderful to be there at all. We shall take what we can & when we can – that’s all. The house we long for, but it’s not yet even furnished, is one, & a charming old house done up & owned by that old bore Arthur Leveson Gower, you remember the man, we met at the Hague, years ago. Tony has been ill again with Flu, the 2nd time this year…

We’ve just had tea with Aunt Syb. She got another letter from Ivar written Jan 1, last Friday. It’s awful for her, & yet I think there is most joy, rather than pain, the hopeless silence is for a moment filled, though but as it were by an echo. Joan looks pale & oh so sad. She’s wonderfully brave & unselfish to Aunt Syb. Poor little Joanie…

I hear Pelly’s opinion is that Kut must fall. London was filled with rumours of a naval engagement on Monday & Tues, but as far as I can make out without foundation.

I met Ad[miral] Mark Ker[r] in the street the other day, & we had a long talk. I fear he’s not improved – & I think very bitter at being out of it all. He was interesting over Greece etc, but there is so much “I” in all he says, one cannot help distrusting a great deal. He’s very upset as he was starting to return to Greece a week ago & at the very last moment was stopped, & now he’s simply kicking his heels, not knowing what’s going to happen next. “Tino” now is of course his idol & here – I feel a pig saying all this, as I do feel sorry for him, & he was most kind. Yesterday he asked us to lunch to meet Gwladys [sic] Cooper, Mrs Buckmaster, how lovely she is, & seems nice, almost dull John thought! We then went on to the matinee of her new play. Most amusing, she is delightful, & Hawtrey just himself…

As you can imagine air-defence & the want of it is now all the talk. One of our airships has taken to sailing over this house from west to east every morning at 8.30 am. I hear we broke up 6 aeroplanes & killed 3 men the night of the last raid. All leave is now stopped from France. We’ve just lunched with Laggs Gibbs, who came over a day before the order came out. He says it’s said to be because of some new training scheme we have & not because of any offensive either way.

John had a Med Board today, & narrowly escaped being given another 3 months sick leave apparently. They implored him to go to Brighton & said he was very below parr [sic] etc, however he bounced them into giving him home duty, & they’ve made it 3 months, & “no marching”, etc, tc, etc. Of course as Adjutant he wouldn’t have that anyhow.

We think we have got a house, but can’t get in for a fortnight.

Bless you darling
Your ever loving Maysie (more…)

“We are all very cheery about the war”

The army chaplain with friends in Mortimer had more information about his life behind the lines in France, preparations for Christmas, and dramatic and musical entertainments for the troops.

Mr. Bowdon writes happily about his cinematograph; “quite a lot of stuff has been given, and the Globe Film Co. have promised to supply me with a weekly programme free of charge except cost of carriage.”

He also sends the following for publication:

14, Stationary,
Wimereux,
Boulogne.

20th December.

Dear Vicar,

I feel I must devote half-an-hour or so to writing a few lines for the magazine, though I am busier than ever in the midst of preparations for Xmas. We are arranging a concert party to go round to all the wards in the hospital, and in the largest there will be a Xmas tree for patients there, and all convalescents who can crawl so far. On Xmas Eve a party of sisters and officers are going round singing carols with lanterns, &c. Then on the Monday we have a big Xmas dinner for our orderlies and N.C.O.’s and a concert and tea at the Recreation Hut in the evening. I regret to say the cinema is not yet ready – the goods are delayed at the Millwall Docks. It is a terrible job getting things out from England and getting work done here, but we hope to overcome all difficulties in time.

I am also arranging a pantomime, a play, and a grand concert by the officers of the A.S.C., to include if possible Kennedy Rumford and the chief tenor from the Italian Opera, so we look forward to a very gay and enjoyable Xmas season. We have built a magnificent stage at the Hut with spacious ‘green rooms,’ draw curtains, electric head and foot-lights. The hut has become very popular, and our lady helpers are kept hard at work from early morn till dewy eve. They all work like bricks, and have been serving on an average 200 hot lunches and suppers a day, in addition to all the usual canteen fare.

The hospital, I am glad to say, is rather empty, so I am not quite so rushed as I have been – at any rate I have more time for seeing to the Xmas festivities. There will be a great number of Xmas communions, in almost all the wards, all over the compound and in the camp services will have to be held. I think they will have to extend over Xmas Day, Sunday and Monday. Much time will be occupied in preparing the patients. We also have three celebrations at our little church, and a special service for the orderlies of our isolation compound who are not allowed to go outside.

We are to have the great pleasure of welcoming Dr. Gore amongst us on Sunday week. He is going to preach, at my request, at our church in the evening, and will dine with me at the Mess afterwards. He is visiting the Boulogne Base for a fortnight. We are having splendid congregations at church, especially at Evensong; when the Bishop comes I doubt if we shall fit them all in.

We are all very cheery about the war, and expecting great things in the Spring. I could a tale unfold but mustn’t. One hears interesting things at our Mess from the innumerable visitors of note who come to dine with the general and other of the Olympians.

With every best wish for Xmas and kindest remembrances to all friends at Mortimer.

Yours very sincerely,
W.S. Bowdon.
C.F.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, February 1916 (D/P120/28A/14)