A reputation for utter disregard of personal safety, but with it an equal regard for the safety of his men

Two young men from Ascot were confirmed killed.

Many of our readers will have felt the most profound sympathy for his parents in their loss of their only son Harold Keating. He fell in action on June 28th whilst carrying out a duty full of danger. After a school career of extraordinary brilliancy, in which he had gained the gold Asiatic Medal, open to all the youth of England, he had begun his Oxford life when the war broke out.

In September, 1914, he received a commission in the Royal Engineers, and was in France soon after. There he gained a reputation for utter disregard of personal safety, but with it an equal regard for the safety of his men. He would expose himself to risks from which he carefully kept those under him. In 1916 he was wounded and sent home, but in the following year was back again in France. In March, 1918, he was in the Amiens salient, and shared to the full the dangers and hardships of the great retreat. His letters showed how galling that failure to hold the line was to his sensitive mind, but he was spared to see the tide turn, and his own sacrifice not in vain.

Apparently, like many others, he had a premonition that his life here was to end; and before the engagement in which he met his death, he left behind for his parents a letter of the deepest affection and unusual perception.

“I am enough”, he wrote, “of a philosopher not to fear the thought of death, and enough of an adventurer to feel excitement and thrilling sensations of adventure at entering continents unknown. That is how I would have you think of me. The captain of my ship setting sail for some most glorious Eldorado, while the rising sun blazes into my face”.

That is something of the martyr spirit, and the adventure he speaks of is the spirit of faith which God asks from all who step out into the unknown. That a career which might well have left its mark in history has been cut short is obvious, but God has greater rewards to grant than the rewards which men can give. It will be when we can read life in its unabridged edition that we shall know that God does not so lose the gifts he gives to me.

After a long delay of mingled anxiety and hope, the authorities have reluctantly resigned all hope of further news of Robert Brown. Many will recollect the boy solo in All Souls’ choir, with his remarkable pure boy’s voice. He was badly wounded on October 9th, 1917, but from that day onwards not the slightest trace has been heard of him. It is thought that on his way to the clearing station he must have come under shell fire, and been blown to pieces. It is God’s mercy that his only brother has been spared to his parents after a desperate and usually fatal illness.

To the parents of both these young boys of our parish we offer our deepest sympathy. For their souls we shall continue at each requiem to pray, “Grant unto them, O Lord, eternal rest, and let Thy light perpetual shine on them”.

South Ascot Parochial Magazine, October 1918 (D/P186/28A/18)

Tonight a plane came down in flames

Sydney Spencer got some help from a couple of old friends.

Saturday 20 April 1918

I rose at 6 am. Breakfast at 6.45. Went off to D-ns in the mess cart 18 miles from here to get mess stuff & personal stuff for the officers of the Battalion. While in D-ns met Private King who left Killinghall in August 1915 for France! He helped me a lot in getting mess stuff. Spent about 300 francs. Fearful business getting stuff. Also met Pryse, a Welshman who was at Oxford with me! Got back at 6. Mess cart & French roads succeeded in giving me a fearful headache.

Last night German plane bombed H-s-t about ½ a mile from here. Tonight a plane came down in flames at about 6.30.

10 new officers arrived on scene today.

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

Oxford engulfed by soldiers and wounded

Sydney Spencer of Cookham was a close observer of wartime Oxford, where he was an undergraduate.

October 20th
Tuesday afternoon at the Union

I have just got time for a scrappy bit of news before I take tea with Billings, one of our men who lives in Newton Road. There are soldiers & embryo soldiers here, there and everywhere. Oxford’s grey & venerable walls reverberate to the imperative urges of the bugle, her sedate quadrangles are the training ground for her soldiers. In gateways where gowned men used to loll & chat, there now stand stiff sentinels. Our men are seen flying off to lectures in [sic] karkai uniforms, & they are allowed to drop the gown. It is curious to see these men off to parade at 9AM lugging note books & Tacitus & Livy’s which soon they will open on a desk before their austere tutors.

There are lots of convalescent wounded men about. Even Belgian and French wounded are brought here. The officers get their poor hands nearly wrung off. Strangers go up and take off their hats & give what little French they have an airing on the Belgian and French officers in their weird costumes, bow & scrape & smile & doff their gold tassled hats & everybody beams, & everybody is pleased, & “poppa” has said ‘bong jourr Camerade’ to a real live officer, & “ma” doesn’t know what to do with herself in consequence of a dilemma in which she is placed, which dilemma being that she wants to swell with pride & not only fears to, but just can’t, and so on.

Oxford bloods swagger up & down looking like wax work figures in their OTC uniforms, & looking as my indignant Kenneth [Oliphant] says “like nothing at all”. I’m not blaming the men, but he says that these new officers are “just too much the limit” for being duffers at their work, but they will soon get into shape, & my dear old Oxford will have sent, like the Spartan mothers of old, many of the brood she so dearly loves, to serve their country & (we hope) their God by fighting a good cause.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Depressed in the desolate quads of Oxford

Sydney Spencer had already noted that Oriel College was the worst affected by the enthusiasm of his fellow students to join up. A friend still at Oriel found himself one of just seven students in the second and third year:

October 15th Thursday
Higham is coming here in a moment or two – it is now 2 pm – to go for a walk with me … He is a boy – for he is not quite 21 – who has had an extraordinarily easy & smooth life, an only son, & a much loved one, & a favourite in the neighbourhood from which he comes… He has been at Oriel College two years …Now has come this war. He loses school friends & college friends galore. He returns to Oriel to find that he is one of seven men left who are not freshers. He finds Oriel so desolate that he quotes words of one Sheridan’s to the effect that

one quadrangle is desolate & empty, grass grows on the gravel & owls & bats flit where peals of youthful laughter used to make glad the air.

In fact he, an enforced non-combatant, feels hopelessly lost & did feel when I had tea with him on Sunday hopelessly dumpy. He can’t shake off the feeling of blank loss when he thinks of all the men who are gone off to the front, among them his great chum Leslie Wisely.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Oxford colleges are suffering dreadfully

Sydney Spencer records the emptied quads of Oxford:

Michaelmas Term
Tuesday October 13th 1914

Instead of there being 4000 men up there are only 700 2nd year & third year men, & 700 freshmen. 1400 in all! Many colleges are suffering dreadfully & Oriel has suffered to an extent which is deplorable, but as that brings me to one of my furious “thinks” I will leave that till this afternoon!

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Many voices silenced forever: Oxford will never be the same

After the turmoil of his summer, Sydney Spencer of Cookham returned to Oxford for the Michaelmas term to finish his degree. On the day he went back, he turned to that faithful friend, his diary, sadly anticipating the changes he knew would be there.

Saturday October 10th
Once more I am seated on the platform at Maidenhead waiting for the train which is to take me to my Oxford. That golden alma mater of mine which can never wear the same appearance for me again. Scenes I have looked upon may be looked upon again but never again as I have seen them in the past: Oxford, the full blooded, Oxford the youthful, may not in my terms of residence, ever again look & be as she has been, & I feel a certain amount of sadness at the thought. I never thought to see her dear walls & towers again. I lay in New College gardens on her cool lawns & drank in the sweet mellowness, & dreamed of what Oxford had been to me & bade [sic] fairwell to her, & here I am returning to her again, one of the very few who will be there this Michaelmas term. Once more shall I see the sights I have loved, & be surrounded by all that is beautiful in this world, but I shall wander sadly through my Oxford’s streets which will no longer ring with the sound of many feet, buoyant & full of life, & impatient with ambition. Already many a one who left Oxford last term with promises as to what he would do next term, has met his death & closed his young life on the battle field. Already many a voice which has sung with laughter in college rag, & which cheered on boat after boat on the river, is silenced for ever, perhaps voices raised at our Union debates will never again appeal to listeners, neither will their owners win a political crown, which they in their youthful eagerness hoped would be theirs one day. Many a one who with a sigh left his books & lingeringly looked round his study, mellowed with many years of smoke fumes, & leather bound books, will never again enter his quiet retreat or fondle his treasured Homers & Horaces. Yet again shall Oxford smile & youth rejoice in careless thoughtless fun for thank God war cannot last forever! and youth is optimistic and enthusiastic. God bless to me this new term & help me & all who love Him to do the work he sends us!

I understand that instead of there being about 4000 up at Oxford this term there will be only about 1000! I am wondering if the Union will be again opened, for these institutions are only rich & well furnished & kept up so long as they are patronised. It seems a wonderful thing to me that after all the turmoil of this long long long vacation that I am really on the way back to Oxford.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EX801/12)

‘Unhappily he is American!’ – more on the YMCA at Harwich

Sydney Spencer took the opportunity of his 26th birthday to reflect further on his work with the YMCA with soldiers at Harwich, and record his impressions of some of his co-workers – and one ordinary soldier – for posterity. His brother Will, also mentioned here, was a refugee from Germany, where he had been teaching the piano at Cologne Conservatory.

Sunday October 4th
My birthday!…
Dear old Will has just come in to wish me many happy returns & would make me accept a gift of 5s, which I would much rather he had not given me at such a time!…

There is so much about my experiences at Harwich which I want to write on, but as I have written some pages & must just read them over & see what has been left out. I have just read through the 20 pages of my diary at Harwich & find that there are a fair number of little anecdotes which I wanted to chronicle, also I find that I have not written my impressions of Hayes yet, and I promised him he should not be let off but would go down to posterity – or oblivion – according as my diary should [illegible] in the future! I will begin with him first. He is a man 6 ft 2 ins in height; a finely built man, ruddy brown with grey blue eyes & a small moustache. He strikes one as being a splendid specimen of a full grown & well proportioned Englishman. Unhappily he is American! His people left England somewhere about 1727. His parents are missionaries in China. He studied first at a college in America & afterwards as a Rhodes scholar at Merton College, Oxford. He has just finished his course at Oxford taking “greats”. He is a Leander Club man, & just missed getting his “blue” for the sake of getting “Greats”. In fact in Oxford the name “John Hayes” of Merton was a name of one of the “Bloods” of Oxford. He was a remarkably refined and sensitive man. He was alive to every wind of thought, & his sarcasm was of that refined & polished order which made me almost long to offend him so as to be subjected to some of his sarcasm. I used to just hug myself with delight when I saw him put on a lazy sleepy expression for I knew then that the game was up and someone was in for it. The fun he had in his “study” of the officers was delicious & I can see him now marching up and down our marquee with his fingers on his chin or viciously biting his little fingernail, thinking out in the dim light of our post-9.30 candle, just precisely the right message & its exact wording to boot which he should send over to the mess the next morning in return for a rather enigmatic one received by us during the evening…

After I had played at the service in the Co-operative Hall on the first Sunday night I was there, on coming into the body of the hall I was accosted by one of Kitchener’s men who wanted me to have a cup of tea with him at his expense, as a mark of his appreciation of my work. This of course I willingly did & we drank mutual goodwill to each other in cups of tea. I was delighted with this expression of his goodwill. On the night of our concert, that is the Wednesday night, after the preparations for the concert had been made, I found at 6.45 that the tent was already filling with men, while I was in a desperately begrimed condition & needed to find a place to wash & clean myself up. This operation had to take place on the concert platform & I had the curious experience of making my ablutions before an audience of some thirty or forty men! In the middle of these ablutions Captain Watson walked in & chuckled with delight over my idea for footlights, which by the way if I have not before mentioned it were 8 or ten candles placed in saucers on a form.

Dr Marks whom I mentioned in connection with Gravel Hill was a dear old man. A child psychologist – I think a professor of Sheffield University, he had a very beautiful character, & spent himself in his eagerness to do all he could in this YMCA work.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

“I will not join the white feather ranks”

Sydney Spencer’s anguish over what service he should enter continues in this diary entry. Gil and Stan were his younger brothers Gilbert and Stanley, art students:

Sept 4th Friday
Now, Mr Diary, how do you think I should feel if after having spent little-to-be-spared money & time on finding what I should do, & being unsuccessful too, one of these dear ladies should offer me a white feather emblem of cowardice! For a little while yesterday I felt that perhaps I did deserve one, but when all wiser & older men than myself not only said that I had done all I could but that I should only be fit for an example & could instil some of my enthusiasm into freshmen next term by joining the OTC, & that I should never be of any use as a military man, then I felt at rest. Even now I must own I am rather restless & worried. I hate to feel so utterly useless, & even working as I have done in all sorts of odd ways to do my best to help, I chafe at my position, & boil inwardly at the thought that perhaps the imputation of “cowardice” & unloyalty may be thrown at me. The whole thing is a strain upon one, & I begin to long to put a finish to the whole matter by joining, useless or not. Despite the fact that my whole future may be utterly wrecked by this terrible war, & that I shall have to look to the German Emperor & his war party (not the rest of the nation) as the cause of my future failure, if failure it be; I am thankful that I can say with clear conscience that loyal as I am to my beloved England, & eager as I am to do my last & best for her glory, still by God’s grace I am free from that dagger, sharper and more deadly than the dagger of war itself – the dagger of bitterness – how I do deplore that bitter spirit which prompts whole crowds of people to say “Germany has played a dirty game. Pay her back as she has treated us!” May the fair scutcheon of England’s fame never be smudged & dulled by our despicable actions, & may the spirit of right prevail over & rule down the hot heads of people so bitter as to make them blind to every thing clean & fair!

I have just met a man who was at Keswick. He will not think of joining the regulars, he says. He will only join if he can get a commission! Am I to be blamed if I think he might deserve a white feather? He says he has just got a schoolmaster’s job & does not feel justified in throwing it up. He thinks it too infra dig to be a regular even in a good army!

[Later that day]
Wheatley Rose & Tea Gardens
I have said goodbye to Oxford!… If I do return to Oxford, it will be a saddened Oxford. Many of her sons have gone off to fight for England. I think that some 1100 have either got commissions or joined the ranks. If such a big number as that goes from Oxford, how can the papers say that the universities are not waking up to their duty! That fellow whom I met who feels that he does not care to take anything less than a commission, rather disgusts me. If he is a specimen of what many men are like, well, men are cowards. England wants men, & she shall have me if I can get efficient enough. I will not join the white feather ranks. Cowardice shall never be written in conjunction with my name! Now I have had tea I shall get on home. I hope & almost pray that Gil & Stan have enlisted. England needs us. Let that suffice!

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)

“God forgive me if I have not played the man”

Sydney Spencer of Cookham visited Oxford, where he was an undergraduate, to investigate his options for service. His diary tells the tale of his anguished debate with hinmself.

September 3rd

Now dies the saying ‘No news is good news’! I have had to keep away from you, Mr Diary, for a very long time, but because I have not been able to give you any news it does not mean that it is all good news. Red war still rides her bloody way, & the noise of her chariot wheels is dread & fearful. In her course she ruthlessly runs down thousands of poor men, ruining at the same time hearts & homes, puffing out the one little flame that lit the home, & snatching away the one pair of hands which earned the bread. Oh War, War, when will your end come? On all sides one hears “cursed Germans, wicked Kaiser! Oh that they were all butchered!” Who will find me a man to get up into the chariot of dread war & cast her down & trample her to the ground? That is what we want cursed in its cruelty, cursed in its cold modern methods, cursed root & branch is War, & yet here we are in modern Europe, in the civilized (?) twentieth century, making the whole of Europe shake, making a ghastly field of battle of miles of smiling country, devastating, destroying, wounding killing, yes & even Murdering! Louvain, the loveliest of cities, mellowed by its ancient buildings, beautiful for its memories of the past, [rivalling] Oxford for its traditions & its university; is no more. It has been ruthlessly levelled with the earth. It is almost unthinkable that all those homes – private citizen homes – beautiful for their memories of childhood & young married days, & days spent around the fires by hallowed old age, all, all gone! The spirits of hundreds of homes wander over desolate spots & find no habitation for themselves.

It is just striking three & I am seated on the Union Lawn to write. To write what? The chronicle of perhaps the greatest mental strain I have ever passed through. I came up here to Oxford to find out what work I could do. I did not for one minute think that service might be a point now. It came as a terrible shock & brought me up dead against “self”, when Hudgel of St John’s Street suggested that I should join as a private in the 2nd Bucks Light Infantry Territorials, which are offering to go out on active service. I passed through such a two hours from 9.30 till 11.30 this morning as I never hope to pass through again. It seemed that everything pointed to my going to the office in 20 Magdalen Street, & offering to be medically examined. Every nerve in my body & mind was at breaking tension, & I had determined to throw up all “thoughts” & join, when, passing by Keble College I saw the men I should have to join. It was terrible. My whole power of reasoning & my whole religious feeling cried out, “Play the man, & go in & take the consequences”. But my mind & self kept edging out that it would be unendurable to be always always in the company of those men. The hard living I can endure, the drilling I would have done my best to satisfy, in the dying even for my country & my God I could even support & endure, rather than the hourly & daily torture of being in the company of men whose minds although ennobled by willingness to serve their country, would be for ever grating on mine by their coarseness or even worse than that. God forgive me if I have not altogether played the man, but I have done my all at present.

Last night I was refused altogether by Colonel Ranking at the Hospital (the Examination School). This morning Dr Allen said he would see if there were [sic] any sort of work I could do on the Emergency Committee. Then came the proposal to join the body of men, & I went, confessedly to myself almost distracted by doubts & longings, by thoughts pulling & pushing me one way & another – to Dr Pope. He advised me to go to a Mr C Cookson of Magdalen College, so I went to his rooms. He told me that it was utterly foolish to think of doing such a thing as Hudgel suggested, that I was altogether unfitted for it, & that I should not only be useless but be in the way & do harm. He did not even suggest that I should do any such thing as join this new battalion for ex-public school men or university men, but that I should go home & rest quietly till term commenced & then join in the OTC at once. By this I found that according to him – I should be doing not only what was best for myself, but also the best thing all round. So my next step is to go home & get some drill from Maidenhead in preparation for joining the OTC next term. No one who has not passed through what I have passed through this morning can know what a relief it is to me to feel that I have done what I could possibly do, & that I know my duty plainly – having it set before me by men who are purposely chosen to give advice to such as myself. Dr Pope was very sweet & kind to me & I feel deeply grateful to him, as also to Mr Cookson, for the way in which they helped me through this terrible ordeal. If I want to get further information re the Public Schools & University Corps I can write to the Secretary of the Public School & University Force Committee, 46 Victoria Street, Westminster SW.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)

Sydney Spencer considers his future

Sydney Spencer of Cookham agonised over what service he should offer his country, and wrote to an Oxford mentor for advice.

Wednesday August 12th
Yesterday I made up my mind after a week’s thinking it over, & pausing. This letter which I sent to Dr Pope at the Delegacy will of itself explain what I made up my mind to. I wrote as follows

Cookham on Thames
August 11th 1914
Dear Sir
Feeling that I cannot but offer whatever service I may, in the cause of my country, I write to you in the hope that I may be useful in some way or other. I am a student for Holy Orders at Oxford. I am aged 25, and am 5 ft 4 ½ ins in height & my weight is 8 stone. My chest measurement in 32 ins. My recent weight 8 stone 1 lb 5 oz. Physically I am by no means strong but am constitutionally very healthy. Of course I should be willing to undergo medical examination to satisfy authorities on that point. I have had no sort of military training either at Oxford or elsewhere. The only assets which I feel might be of use are a good experience in all sorts of horse work, & straightforward cooking, & a natural aptitude for attendance on sick people, when hands for the work have been wanting. I feel that these are lamentably poor assets, but hoped that they might be of use in a hospital where probably an odd job man would be of use. Also I have gone in for music a good deal & this might be helpful to men in the wards. Also at such times men may like help in the spiritual way & I feel that my future vocation should allow me to do all in my power. If a short course of training in nursing was possible, & I know where to get it, I would willingly do so, if it means making a useful instrument for my country. If I am of no use, you will excuse my troubling you on the grounds of anxiety to do my duty hoever small it might be.
Yours truly
Sydney Spencer

Of course Dr Pope knew a good many of the details of this letter but I felt it best to put in all details in case he had to send the letter on elsewhere. I have had no answer yet & only hope that some work may be found for me to do. I have started on “mods” work but it is not very spirited as yet; I had a long letter from Willie Birch this morning & he tells me that although he longs to enlist, he has hesitated for the sake of his mother. I am glad that he as been so thoughtful & not been headstrong & anxious to rush off at once regardless of consequence. Dear old “Jumbo” [Oliphant] may be gone to the front by now, but I have a good mind to write him a line at Wycliffe Hall just to find out. Mrs Raphael sent me a long letter this morning in answer to mine. She is full of sympathy as usual, & expresses great sympathy with Will in his position. She enclosed a poem which Hopkins once recited to me. It rings true & expresses a great deal of what I feel just now.

What have I to do with idols?
I have heard Him, and observed Him (Hosea XIV.8)
Hast thou heard Him, seen Him, known Him?
Is not thine a captured heart?
“Chief among ten thousand” own Him
Joyful choose the better part

Idols once they won thee, charmed thee
Lovely things of time & sense
Gilded thus does sin disarm thee
Honeyed, lest thou turn thee thence

What has stripped the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth?
Not the sense of right or duty
But the sight of peerless worth!

Not the crushing of those idols
With its bitter void and smart
But the beaming of His beauty
The unveiling of His heart

Who extinguishes his taper
Till he hails the rising sun?
Who discards the garb of winter
Till the summer has begun?

‘Tis that look that melted Peter
‘Tis that face that Stephen saw
‘Tis that heart that wept with Mary
Can alone from idols draw

Draw, and win, and fill completely
Till the cup o’erflow the brim
What have we to do with idols
Who have companied with Him?

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)