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)

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“My dear old platoon”

We last saw Sydney marching back from the trenches through the night.

Wednesday 10 July 1918

We were marching still when Wednesday came in. Arrived at our first long resting place between W & V at about 3 am. We had a cup of tea & a biscuit on the wet ground for which I am very grateful. Slept with my head on my pack after discovering that my batman had left my burbury behind & brought with him an old one!

Started off again at 5.30 & got here to H…t at 7. Saw men into tents. Then wandered about rather unhappily not knowing whether I belonged to C Company or not, at last orderly room let me come back to B Company at 11.30 on parade. Saw my dear old platoon again.

After lunch took my clothes off & got into my valise in the sunshine. Slept until rain caught me. Slept till 5. Dressed & tea. Spent evening lolling etc.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (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)

“Grim & sullen, at his post, never budging or paying any attention to anything at all but the patch of “no man’s land” immediately to his front”

As he travelled slowly back to the front, Sydney reflected on an old soldier who taught him a lesson about what was really important at war.

Wednesday 3 July 1918

11.30 am I don’t think I have felt so easy in mind, or fit and well, for about 8 weeks as I feel today. The influence of this club with all its civilizing attributes has sunk right into me, & has made me quiet & contented with everything. Have been writing letters to Florence, Mother & Father. After lunch I take my draft to station to leave by 2 o’clock train for Doullens change for Domleger.

6.30 pm. After waiting for 4 ½ hours on the station here at Etaples, I have managed to get into a carriage with my kit too!

6.45. Train started.

7.30 pm. Montreuil. We passed near Hesdin at 7.45, passed through Beaurainville, the rest of the journey today passed tranquilly with the exception that the OC train was a terrible fidget! Got some broken sleep occasionally. Had an argument about money with an RFA officer.

Sydney to Florence
EFC Officers Rest House and Mess

July 3rd 1918
My Dearest Florence

In my platoon I have one Private Smith. He is a young old man of about 38 or 40. He is uncouth & gruff, he has a seared, wrinkled, weatherbeaten, ugly face, & out of the line worries one by his apparent lack of power ever to look a soldier. I noticed this man & one day [censored], I went up to him & said “Well, Smith, how does the world treat you?”

He looked at me sullenly & grunted, & said “Well, I have been out ‘ere a long time & I suffers terrible, me bones is all stiff & I gits rheumatic pains something terrible etc etc”. I turned away [censored] saying to myself, another old soldier of the eternally grumbling type”.

We went up the line, & one day when it was dull & misty while on my tour of trench duty, I saw Smith cautiously peering over the parapet with a spotlessly clean rifle, looking well groomed & cared for, glued to his shoulder. I took no notice, but from then onwards I kept my eye on him.

On bright days he was never there, but so sure as it was a dull day, misty, or bad for observation, no matter at what time I went along, there I should find him, grim & sullen, at his post, never budging or paying any attention to anything at all but the patch of “no man’s land” immediately to his front. Now he is a sanitary man, & he is never officially a sentry, & never has orders to do sentry duty. Yet for hours daily I used to find him solemnly on the watch!

It puzzled me, so I paused in passing him one day & said “Well, Smith, do you think that brother Fritz intends coming over?” With much grimacing & grunting he slowly lifted himself from his post, & a slow rustic smile breaking out over his ugly face he said, “Well, sir, these youngsters doant realize & so I likes to keep on the watch meself a bit when the weather’s bad, but you know sir, my back, it’s fit nigh to break, in this damp weather & gits that stiff I wonder whether I shall ever be fit agin etc etc.” [Censored]

I felt then humble & respectful. He was his younger brother’s keeper very really. He had a lesson to teach me & I hope I learned it. [Censored] the native beauty of the character of this very rough diamond.

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/51)

Reflected glory

A Reading man was honoured for his heroic acts.

Trinity Roll of Honour

Sidney A. Bushell, R.A.F.
Walter John Harvey, A.S.C.
A. Vernon Lovegrove, R.G.A.
Ernest Pocock, 2/6 Warwicks.
Howard H. Streeter, M.G.C.
William Vincent, W.R.B.
Jack Wakefield, Royal Warwicks.
William Alfred Williams, 313th Reserve Labour Battalion.

We are delighted to hear that Lieut. John A. Brain had safely reached Reading on Tuesday, May 21st, and was being cared for, within reach of his friends, at No.1 War Hospital. After a few days his progress became less satisfactory, and on Tuesday, May 28th, his condition was again giving cause for anxiety. A further operation was found to be necessary, and we are more than glad to be able to report, at the time of going to press, was that the operation had been carried out quite successfully, and that he is now doing well.

Our heartiest congratulations to Lce-Corpl. Herbert E. Longhurst, on being awarded the Military Medal, “for his gallantry on March 25th, 1918, when be assisted to save a badly wounded officer under heavy machine gun fire and a fast advancing enemy. Later he rendered great assistance in rallying troops and stragglers, and worked hard on a trench system.”

Our quotation is taken from the white card expressing the appreciation of his Divisional Commander, which has been forwarded to his friends by the Major Commanding his Company, together with “the congratulations of all his old comrades in the company,” on his well-merited honour. We understand that Lce.-Corpl. Longhurst is in hospital somewhere in France, making a good recovery from the effects of German gas.

We trust that he may soon be fully restored to health, and can tell him that we at Trinity are taking to ourselves a little reflected glory and we are all the better and happier for it.

Trinity Congregational Magazine, June 1918 (D/EX1237/1)

Sneezing gas or hay fever?

Sydney was plagued by hay fever and thirst.

Sydney Spencer
Monday 17 June 1918

Got up at 6.45. Paraded at 7.45 for inspection. After inspection half an hour’s PT followed by a half hour’s run & then dismissed. Spent a lot of time reconnoitring. It was a scorching hot day, & the scent of clover fields so strong & pollen so strong that 4 out of 8 of us were set to sneezing violently. Some thought that it was sneezing gas as we were shelled pretty closely while on the trench line in front of A-y Wood, but I don’t think so.

This reconnoitring scheme took place from 9.30 till 3.30, 6 hours in a scorching sun with two biscuits & not a drop of drink! ‘No [won?]’ as the troops would say. The landscape was lovely. Saw numbers of swallow tail butterflies, scarlet pimpernels in abundance. A glorious walk if it had been a pleasure walk. A sleep. Dinner at seven. A turmoil of chits & arrangements & bed finally.

Joan Daniels
June 17th Monday

This morning the Austrian report said they had taken 10,000 prisoners, but tonight the paper says that they were completely squashed, which is a good thing. I am afraid the McKenzies will be anxious about Leslie, but trust he is alright.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Joan Daniels of Reading (D/EX1341/1)

“No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist”

Percy told sister Florence about a day off – visiting friends in the trenches.

June 17, 1918
My dear WF

I must have written you a pippy letter – a poor return for all you do for me. I’m sorry.

Many thanks for the splendid tinder lighter and the other items in the parcel. I think I must have left several pairs of socks at 27 Tattray Road, as I do not recognise those you have sent. You are quite right, it wasn’t eyelets but “the things you twist the laces round” I wanted.

I’m still here amongst the strange insects. Never have I seen such a variety of dragonflies, and just now a pair of very large gaudy yellow birds I can’t give a name to came & had a battle outside this bivouac.

Yesterday I had a rather hard but jolly holiday. I got up about 6 am, nightingales singing gloriously, had brekker, and started off up the line with my batman. Just as I started the Huns commenced to shell the village nearby I was going through, which I thought was very thoughtful of them as it gave me an opportunity to go by another route and avoid the place. After a couple of hours walk through charming scenery and peaceful valleys I arrived at my destination. I had only intended stopping an hour, but eventually stopped all day. To lunch so that I could first go round the trenches and see the boys. To tea so that I could play bridge with the CO. Walking across country, taking short cuts and dodging unhealthy places is awfully tiring so I slept gloriously last night and got up late.

Enclosed for John’s edification I send you a note from my rough diamond No. 6 [not found in the archive]. No wonder the Australians are No. 1 on the Hun blacklist.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/7/45-46)

He has given his health, as his brother has given his life

Burghfield men continued to pay a high price.

THE WAR

Honours and Promotions

Cadet Alfred Searies has been posted as 2nd Lieutenant to the Suffolk Regiment. Lance Corporal Percy Sheppard (Army Ordnance Corps) and Rifleman E Wigmore (Rifle Brigade) have been promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

Casualties

Ernest Eaton (Royal Berks Regiment) wounded; 2md Lieut. F Wheeler (King’s Liverpool Regiment), Sergeant Wigmore (see above) and Private W H Brown (Royal Berks Regiment), Prisoners of War.

Discharges

Captain Francis A Willink (4th Royal Berks Regiment), Dysentery and Colitis; Isaac Osman (Labour Corps, ex Rifle Brigade), Rheumatism.

The promised statement about the late Captain George Willink is held over.

Congratulations to 2nd Lieut. Alfred Searies. He is the first of Mr Sheppard’s “old boys” of the Burghfield C of E School to obtain a commission. Let us hope he will not be the last, as he certainly will not be the least, either in stature or merit.

Condolences with Captain Francis Willink, who sorely against his will is, after fifteen Medical Boards, gazetted out of the Army “on account of ill-health contracted on active service”. He worked up from Private to a Commission in the Eton College OTC. On going to Oxford in 1910, he joined the 4th Royal Berks, and was a Lieutenant when war broke out, soon afterwards being made Captain and given command of “E” (the Newbury) Company. In March 1915 he went to France with the Battalion, which had then become the 1/4th, upon the formation of the 2nd unit. They went immediately into trenches at “Lug Street”, afterwards holding sections of the line by Bethune, and later at Hebuterne. The trying conditions of active service however told upon him and brought on dysentery and colitis, and after holding out as long as he possibly could, perhaps too long, he was invalided home in September 1915. Since then he has done a lot of useful work with the 3rd Line at Weston-Super-Mare, and Windmill Hill on Salisbury Plain, and for some time was Draft Officer. But his health did not really improve, and about a year ago he was transferred to Reserve, since which time he has been further twice medically examined and is now declared to be permanently unfit for medical service. He has given his health, as his brother has given his life. Fortunately there is still useful work open to him to do of national importance.

Burghfield parish magazine, June 1918 (D/EX725/4)

The two predominant results to be obtained: Discipline & Esprit de corps

Sydney’s delicate health was beginning to catch up with him.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 30 May 1918

Last night good old Dillon told me I was to see the doctor today & get a rest. So I sent a note round to the Adjutant to say I was seeing the doctor. I saw him at eleven o’clock & he apologised for having hurt me!

I did light duty during the morning & after lunch had a very long sleep, also inspected the guard before it paraded for guard mounting. Censored the letters. Got a tent in my platoon camouflaged, & did several other ‘no matter whats’ of no import practically, but of regimental vital importance. I think I see the end for which all these small things are done. One has always to keep one’s eyes on the two predominant results to be obtained: Discipline & Esprit de corps.

Rowell the TO comes to dinner tonight. He came & we had a fairly good mess night.

Percy Spencer
30 May 1918

2 a.m. moved at 21st camp after x-country trip thro’ bush and a mix-up with 9.2’s.

A lovely day. Mess cut into bank – earth seats.

Moved again to camp behind Franvillers in Bezieux rear defence line. Fritz shelled Franvillers and near us and bombed during evening. I dug trench round hut.

Florence Vansittart Neale
30 May 1918

Have lost Soissons.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Pot shots over the parapet

Soldiers coped with the onslaught in different ways.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 26 May 1918
(written retrospectively on 28 May)

I came on trench duty at 12.30 am till stand down (normally at 4.30, but as the mist was very strong & heavy we stood to till 7). I then went on strike & had breakfast after 5 ½ hours trench duty!

At 7.30 I found Rolfe & Peyton taking pot shots over the parapet with Mills bombs & rifle grenades. Just for the sake of old times I threw one through the crater. It fell in our wire. At 10 the Bosche started a strafe on the whole of our front. This lasted until 12.30. I & my platoon grovelled on the trench bottom & made accusative remarks about his bad shooting, & Corporal Bindey [?] & I studied an ants’ nest to while away the time!

After lunch I was on duty again from 2 till 4 pm. After tea for about 10 minutes I suffered complete demoralisation, goodness only knows why! I slept for 1 hour & then as no evening hate took place at 6 pm I went to company headquarters & rested till dinner time.

After dinner I got ready to hand over after 9 days in line! Then came orders to stand to as a raid was expected. Discovered a ground search light on our front at 2.35. It played all along our front.

Percy Spencer
26 May 1918

Communion service in grass avenue outside chateau. Went over a tank.

Moved up close to Lavieville. Not bad quarters but well bombed all around & no protection. Hartley joined us.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15) and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“One slithered up & down the trenches & could keep nothing dry”

Sydney had his first experience of a patrol.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 24 May 1918
[written retrospectively on 28 May]

A very wet day after all the lovely weather. The trenches soon became muddy & one slithered up & down them & could keep nothing dry. But there are worse troubles than rain, & we have been very fortunate in the weather. Usual strafe in the morning & evening did not take place. No aeroplane work by either enemy or ourselves. During my patrol as seen below I mention dandelions. Effect of wiring made by squeak of leaves! Man seen = the head of a dandelion bud seen out of focus.

Started on on my patrol at 2 am, accompanied by Sergeant Ewing, my man Fox & two men from No 8 Platoon. I had mingled feelings at this my first experience of patrolling at first, a suppressed excitement, then a few minutes of unvoiced chuckling as I did my best ‘crawl’ as in the old days of studying nature. A listening patrol. Heard nothing, dandelion & a bush produced (!) sounds of wiring (!!), a man moving, bush & wind produced effect of men moving.

Percy Spencer
24 May 1918

Moved to camp of 8th E Surreys. Nasty quarters, surrounded with guns, & of course it rained. However we got under cover at last.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/15) and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed”

Sydney Spencer had been unable to take his diary with him to the front line, so he wrote up his experiences on 28 May 1918. He was able to delight in the glories of nature even there, despite the horrors of war.

I propose filling in these pages, my dear Mr Diary, by giving you a broad idea of what happened in the line during these days from Whit Sunday [19 May] until Thursday 23, as I am not certain as to details from day to day.

The normal day’s work consisted of short ‘patches’ of sleep at any odd time, sometimes only twice during the 9 days tour 6 hours sleep in the 24 hours, on an average between 2 & 3 hours. Meals were at 4.30 after stand down. Lunch at 12.30 or 1. Tea at 4 pm & dinner (so its name went & for trench life well deserved it too) at 7. For 4 days from 7.45-8.45 we had to wear small box respirators for practice.

Nights were spent on trench duty, wiring, digging, & for me on one evening a calling party. Also patrols. I only took one, a listening post, although I was detailed for 4 of them. The first three were cancelled as the entire regiment did them instead. After three days in my part of the line I was shunted into immediate support just behind 8 & 5 Platoons, about 25 yards behind the front line. This meant that I became a sort of ‘fatigue dance of death’ in the evenings. I had, while in actual front line, a Lewis gun post, and a rifleman’s post. This new position of mine was not the most comfortable as master Fritz was very fond of playing attention to that quarter twice a day, but we got used to that. On our last day we had the biggest strafe, which included an aeroplane at a very low height.

The weather while we were up the line was glorious from the day we went up until we came out, without a cloud with the exception of one day which rained soft, rained on us & made the soil beastly.

Now something about the nature I was able to study during my tour of ‘Narrow streets’. We had times, occasionally we had moments when peace seemed to reign supreme. One day I was able to stand in the W- C- trenches for fully five minutes without hearing guns either near or distant, nor the clack of L. Guns or Machine guns, nor the hum of aeroplanes. It was wonderful that smooth quiet moment or two when the month of summer was allowed to hold full sway. It was like a benediction falling on the earth, & the air wounded & bleeding from the incessant noise & was rested & sighed contentedly for that brief space, when respite was allowed.

Now to talk of the life I saw in ‘Narrow Street’. First of all the butterflies. They were beautiful. Dear old Peyton used to laugh at me and say “Spencer has a lot of little boxes in his bivy filled with butterflies”, but that wasn’t true. I wrote to Florence one morning & just when I was in the middle of a list of butterflies which I had seen, master Boche started and gave us 3 /12 hours of the worst I have tasted, but I finished my letter all the same for that. Here is a list of butterflies.

1. Small white.
2. Green veined white.
3. Tortoiseshell.
4. Red admiral.
5. Peacock.
6. Small fritillary.
7. Large fritillary.
8. Small Heath.
9. Meadow brown.
10. Small blue.
11. Swallow Tail.
& I think but am not certain
12. The Painted Lady.

I did not see the large white nor orange tip, nor brimstone, which is passing strange, don’t you think, master diary? Of other insects, the handsomest was a glorious heavily built yellow gold & black bodied dragon fly. One morning, in the cool of the hour after stand down, I found one asleep & he went about contentedly on my [illegible] sleeve until the warm sun kissed him into life again. This seemed to highly amuse the men, especially when I shewed them his huge maw, which he opened when I blew on him gently: they also thought me very intrepid, as they thought all dragon flies stung! Frogs there were in abundance, & myriads of dusty coloured running spiders. Also many beautiful beetles. I saw one black & red fly busily hauling off the dead body of a spider! Had he killed it, I wondered? A turning of the tables. Also I found a beautiful emerald green ladybird, who when turned on its back opened its wing casts, prised itself onto its head, turned a somersault & landed on its feet in a tick! That is about all I have to relate.

For the rest, the usual round of wiring parties, water carrying, etc.

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

Glorious sunshine – good for the Bosch, worse luck

Sydney Spencer was poised to move up the line to the worst action.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 17 May 1918

After a very good night’s sleep I got up at 3.30 after smoking a cigarette & taking an infinite childish delight in watching the bewildering clouds of vapours curling along the narrow slant of the shaft of sunshine which came through the small attic window in my room.

After breakfast I took rifle inspection afterwards. Sat & worked at mess bills & got them settled thank goodness. After lunch I went round to B HQ, settled up wine bills & left 80 francs with Sergeant Green for buying stuff while we are up the line.

It is now 4 pm & at 8.30 we go up the line again. So, my dear diary, I close your pages for a few days, as although I have been very careful to tell you little or nothing that is compromising, I dare not take you near where you might be taken prisoner! So au-revoir!

By the way, last night the Buffs made a big raid. Killed about 300, took prisoners, & got off with less than 10 casualties. It is a scorching hot day. We started out for the front line at 8.30 & got there at 11.15 & took over the trench without further ado – had absolutely no excitement getting there either.

Percy Spencer
17 May 1918

6 pm report from QM re petrol tins.

The best day since I arrived, a glorious sunshine. But good for the Bosch, worse luck. Division to be relieved tonight. We endeavouring to stay in Warlos for a might at least. Got NCO promotions nearly up to date, & a letter register started.
Pushed out of Warlos by 58th. Went to camp on hillside. Close quarters but lovely day. CO went to command 141.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding”

Poor Sydney Spencer felt discouraged.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 14 May 1918

Got up at 7 am. Took charge of company out beyond wood & railway for digging trench. Started work at 9 am. Went on till 3.30. CO not pleased! I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding. But still I shall win through alright you see, my dear diary.

When I got back from working party at 4 pm, to find that Major Bracey had been over here to see me. He is at V-rs and I wanted this chance of going over to see him after lunch & tea which were welded into one meal. I mucked about, acted OC to company for a time, while Rolfe & Peyton were out temporarily riding, then dinner & bed, with very strict instructions from Rolfe that there were no orders for me & that I was to go to bed & rest long in the morning. I took a book to bed with me to read. It is called The Courtship of Mollie somebody or other, and is by A E W Mason. The ordinary sort of stuff, but good reading for me at the moment.

Percy Spencer
14 May 1918

A very fine day. Bosch shelled a bit. Enemy plane got over a balloon here and caused both observers to parachute down. Plane flew low and was well shot at but got away. Sent a bottle of whiskey to the boys of the 14th & bought 3 bottles of Hock and Chandon for Davis’s party coming out tomorrow.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)