The chemistry of the gas helmet

After a period training at Kinmel Park in Wales, studying such matters as the workings of the gas helmet issued to troops, Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence Image with good news.

Aug 10, 1917
My dear WF

Thanks to John my address is
Cadet P J Spencer
B Company
No. 5 Officer Cadet Battalion
Trinity College
Cambridge

All the bad men from Kinmel are here too, so at any rate I feel I shall have a moral advantage.

I’ve just been trying to get the rules and regulations into my head. Luckily I realised early that it couldn’t be done and gave it up….

You are quite right about Kinmel. I was awfully well and jolly there, and look and feel very fit. Even the lectures were entertaining, no matter how dry. For instance one lecturer (a schoolmaster before the war) taking us in musketry, and looking very brainy, explained (in fact he was so pleased with the idea, he explained it twice) that “an explosion is the immediate or spontaneous transition of a solid into a gas. Q.E.D., which those of you who have studied Euclid will know means Quod erat dictum!!!”

We also had some very interesting lectures on the gas or PH ‘Elmet. Really they were not so much lectures on the helmet as they were upon methods of dodging learned recruits. If I am unlucky enough to get hold of some recruit who evinces a knowledge of chemistry, I am to switch off on to the mechanism of the helmet, of which he’ll probably be ignorant, and vice versa. Presumably if one is unlucky enough to be landed with a recruit who knows both the mechanism & the chemistry of the helmet there is nothing to be done but to lead him gently to the gas chamber….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/62-64)

The “Scroungers’ Retreat”

Percy Spencer wrote to sister Florence to tell her about his experiences in officer training. His fellow trainees were mainly NCOs with experience of the worst of the war, and were not easily corraled by their superiors.

Attd C Company
58th TRB
Sergeants Mess
No 9 Camp
Kinmel Park
Rhyl

July 26, 1917
My dear WF

I’m very fit indeed, working very hard and always hungry. We are exceptionally well fed, I think, and conditions are good.

It’s very difficult to write as several of the boys are telling their experiences, and every now and then they touch ground I know and I have to join in. One man has just been minutely describing the bundling and labelling of corpses for the fat factory as seen by him, and another the manacling of maritime gunners to their guns, also as seen by him. Both descriptions are so minute and definite as to be convincing. I’ve only to meet someone who has actually seen a corpse factory and I shall be a confirmed Kadaverite.

The battle of wits – the staff v. us continues with varying success. The routine is changed daily to put us off our stroke and get ahead of us, but the same crowd who lay themselves out to “dodge the column” successfully carry on just as usual, appearing on parade, answering the roll call and vanishing into the blue before any work is done with consistent ability. This rather large section of our number have a discipline of their own. Backsliders are dealt with by courtmartial. Absence from the “Scroungers Retreat” (a quiet marquee in the neighbourhood) seems to be the most seriously looked upon offence, and is dealt with very harshly, the punishment being I believe to attend next parade and answer for all the others from their hut who are not there.

Of course, being out of training, I find the work very hard indeed, quite apart from my ignorance of it which is another difficulty with me, but I can feel myself growing straighter and stronger every day and look forward to being a Samson soon.

By the way I’ve had 2 days trench digging. It’s extraordinary how difficult such a menial job as digging earth and throwing it out of the trench is. An experienced man will throw his shovel of earth intact 10-20 feet away in any direction. The novice finds it difficult to throw and direct and very hard to keep together.

I can see I shall very soon be nailed down to drill and books – that is, as soon as I get to a cadet unit. Until then I’m not taking this business too seriously, and simply concentrate upon breaking myself in physically. You’d scacrcely credit how absurdly soft my hands and feet were. They are hardening up rapidly, but I’m still a pretty blistered object.

Well my dear girl, I feel this is a very uninteresting letter, but conditions are very trying for letter writing so you’ll have to please excuse it.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/53-57)

“Their language is of the bluest, but their hearts are sound enough”

Percy Spencer reported on his experience in officer training. Most of his fellows had, like himself, been at the front in the other ranks, and been selected for promotion based on merit, rather than the traditional pre-war gentlemen only.

July 17, 1917
My dear WF

My address is No. S/4/087268 Sgt P J Spencer, ASC, Attd C Company, 58th TRB, Sergeants Mess, No 9 Camp, Kinmel Park, Rhyl. That’s all.
And really I think that sums up the horror of this place.

From my very short experience, it seems to be an exceedingly well organised place – the staff are pretty stiff on parade, but jolly good fellows off it.

Just how long I shall be here it is difficult to say. It depends apparently on the needs of Cadet units. Probably I shall not be here more than 2 ½ weeks. But I may be here 6 weeks.

I am told the War Office issues orders as to when and where men are to be sent. So I may possibly still go to Cambridge. Application to the GOC 13th Training Reserve Brigade from Col Ready might possibly be useful, but I don’t think so, as rumour hath it that we ASC people do a special course somewhere in this part of the world. There is also a rumour that some men get 4 days leave from here before joining their Cadet School.

There is an extraordinary mixture of men here. Their language is of the bluest, but their hearts are sound enough….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/46-49)

“Battles are nothing to what I have had to endure the last 4 days”

At last Percy Spencer was on his way back home, to undergo training as an officer in North Wales.

July 2, 1917
My dear WF

At last my soul is my own.

Battles are nothing to what I have had to endure the last 4 days.

Anyhow, here I am, just arrived from Southport with 15 days leave and orders to report on July 16 to GOC 13th Training Reserve Brigade, Kinmel Park, near Rhyl.

I did not receive your letter saying Col Ready had applied for me.

My programme is to go to Cookham for 3 or 4 days or perhaps a week & then I should like to come to you, supposing you’ll have me, and I am not coming to Trinity….

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/42)

Hard training under canvas

A teacher from Reading School who had recently joined up wrote to his headmaster to report on his experiences. Unfortunately, he later found that he had been sacked while on service despite having been promised that his job would be held open. He sued.

June 7th 1916
A Company 2/7 Bat RWF Regiment
Stationed at Elveden Camp
Thetford
Norfolk

Dear Mr Keeton

Many thanks for your letter regarding my application for a testimonial. I agree with you that it might be better to have it later on so as to have it up-to-date, as well as adapted to circumstances. It will also diminish the chances of its being lost either on my travels or at home.

As you will notice from the address, we have been moved from North Wales. We left Abergele rather over a week ago and were sent to Bedford to join the 68th Division, and then sent on here for a few weeks’ special training. I have had a chat with my platoon officer, but he told me there was no probability of my obtaining my commission later on unless I can pass for General Service, and that of course is out of the question owing to my sight.

We have been subjected to rather hard training down here, and are living under canvas. Weather so far has been fairly propitious, however, with the exception of a few thunderstorms and occasional showers of rain. In a few weeks we expect to move again, either back to Bedford or else to a new place.

Yours sincerely
C W Hardisty.

Letter to the headmaster of Reading School (SCH3/5/50)

Thankful not to be in the trenches

Wounded officer John Wynne-Finch wrote to his brother in law Ralph Glyn from his convalescence in Wales.

John to Ralph (D/EGL/C2/3
Voelas
Bettws-y-Coed
N Wales
Jan 19th 1916
My dear Ralph

We have most certainly had a lovely long stay here. All thanks to my very “tuppenny-halfpenny” wound which refused to heal. During this time I have done a good deal of shooting, and the total bag for the year is really rather good and has beaten all previous records for the years when no pheasants have been reared. Over 1000 pheasants have been killed, and about 400 partridges, and very little shooting was done before the end of November.

The weather here has been very bad, and there have been many occasions when we have wondered how Jimmy was feeling in the North Sea. The gale here on New Year’s Day was of most unprecedented violence, and did a great deal of damage, bringing down over 100 trees in one wood alone. But owing to the war, one can luckily obtain a very good price for timber, and it is so much in demand that I have been able to sell them all, whereas in the ordinary course of events one can get no sale here on account of the cost of carriage….

The rain has also been a most tiresomely frequent visitor, as Meg found to her dismay, during the week she was here. On this account I have very often felt thankful that I was not biding my time in the trenches of Flanders….

My next Medical Board is due in a few days, when I suppose they will pass me fit for duty at Windsor, whither I suppose we shall have to go, to be there I suppose about 2 months before they send me out again.

The war news of the last few days has not been of the very best. The end of Montenegro will not help us very much in the Balkans I am afraid. I would have expected Italy to have sent troops there, because I don’t suppose it will be any help to her to have the Austrians with a longer sea-board in the Adriatic.

The Persian Gulf business also seems a very tough job. It was most awfully sad about poor Ivar. They seem to have had a very severe handling out there. Nevertheless they seem to be making a slow but sure progress, and will no doubt join up very soon.

As regards myself I have been very lucky in getting promoted Captain, after such few years’ service. But it was all due to the formation of the Guards Division and the consequent augmentation of the regimental establishments.

You probably know that Godfrey Fielding now commands the division, and Cavan has got a Corps, XIV, to which the division is shortly to be transferred, so as to be under his command.

The evacuation of Gallipoli was a most astoundingly wonderful feat; and I am simply longing to hear something about it. I often wonder now after reading the Turkish “official” communiqués what amount of truth there is in what they say as regards the booty etc, which they took. It is always difficult to believe anything these days, from whatever source it may emanate.

Maysie still keeps her pack of hounds; and Connell is as naughty and bad as possible. In the house he is no better than a travelling water-cart.

The whole country seems to be full of soldiers; and London is simply one mass of them. Those on leave from France, looking too untidy and dirty for words. One sees also very large numbers of men, of every class, wearing the khaki armlets of the Derby scheme.

I hope you are keeping fit.

Yours ever
John C Wynne Finch

Lady Mary Glyn, Ralph’s mother, also wrote to him.
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“Never before has defeat been so mixed up with victory”

Maysie Wynne-Finch wrote to her brother Ralph Glyn following the safe evacuation of Gallipoli.

Jan 10/16
Voelas
Bettws-y-Coed
N Wales

My darling R.

Meg got your telegram here so we had early news of your move – & it gave us a hint of much else. I should think never before has defeat been so mixed up with victory as in the evacuation of that awful peninsula. One cannot say one was surprised remembering all the talk one had listened to from you & Colonel Sykes – still no-one ever reckoned the cost so low, I suppose…

The list of New Year honours was about the limit, didn’t you think. I was of course delighted at John’s 2nd mention, tho’ he says it’s all rot. It was I think for that fight on Oct 8….

I’ve not been very happy about John lately. His wound ceased discharging & skinned over on Dec 31 for the 1st time, but he also began to feel very ill, & for several days was awfully seedy. Then his jaw started to hurt again like anything. It swelled outside & finally the hole opened in the jaw & it started discharging there. It all points to there being a lot of poison in him still which will out – but what is odd is what causes this poison – so long. Today his wound has opened again, & he feels better! He fairly refuses to go & see the doc in London before his Med Board on the 22nd as he says he means to get “light duty” from a local Board, as he will not go on doing nothing, & any treatment the London doc choose to give him, he mans to do from Windsor! Poor darling, of course I do understand his point of view. He feels he can’t go on doing nothing any more. I only hope he won’t have to have another bit of jawbone removed, but I am a bit anxious.

I do wonder what you think of Ian Hamilton’s despatch….

Your ever loving Maysie

Letter from Maysie Wynne-Finch to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/3)

“The French and Italians seem imbecile”

Meg Meade, visiting her sister and brother-in-law in Wales, wrote to brother Ralph Glyn with her frank views on our allies. Her friend the boil-afflicted Hopie was Victor Hope, Marquess of Linlithgow (1887-1952).

Jan 4th [1916]
Voelas
Bettws-y-Coed
N Wales

My darling Ralph

I came here last Sat. to give the glad eye to Maysie & John for a few days…

John looks very well, but when I was honoured by being allowed a glimpse of his shrapnel hole in his back yesterday, I regretted to see that it was really beginning to heal up, so I must look round for a rusty nail! But when he saw the Med. Board on Dec 23rd in London his back was no more healed than when he left hospital at the end of October, so they gave him another month’s sick leave, & he enjoys life, & he’s always been able to shoot every day since he came here. I expect at the end of his month they will give him light duty at Windsor while he has his teeth & mouth seen to: they need a bit of repairing…

The Bosch seem to be having it too much their own way in the Mediterranean. I wonder when we shall send a few Destroyers out there to teach them a lesson. The French & Italians seem imbecile. Captain Wigram rang me up one day from the WO & told me that he was going out to Russia, so in future I am to address my letters to you c/o Captain Kellett. I hear that Robertson has been making things hum a bit in the WO since he took over.

Thursday evening when I got back to London from my day’s outing [to Sussex] I found a note from Hopie waiting for me, & that night I dined with him at the Carlton & went on to the Gaiety. He had had Xmas leave which he’d spent at Hopetoun, & was on his way back to the Front when he went to see a doctor about a boil he had on the knee. He’s given to having them, & generally goes in for a crop at a time, so he’s been given a month’s leave, & he calls the disease Strombolis, & when I left the doctors were taking his blood twice a day….

I do hope you will get the socks from Mother alright. I addressed them to you to GHQ BMEF (in full of course). Jim writes very well, but they seem to have had an uneventful Xmas, & he never even got the turkey I sent him which is too sad. I hate to think it was eaten by an unknown Scotch thief! Apparently the midshipmen of one of the ships got up a very good entertainment for the benefit of the Destroyer sailors, which was thoroughly appreciated…

Best love darling & bless you so OO very always loving
Meg

Letter from Meg Meade to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/3)

No peace or victory till the politicians have been exterminated

Maysie Wynne Finch wrote from Wales, where she and her wounded husband had taken refuge at his family home, to her brother Ralph Glyn. She was not impressed by British politicians, or by men trying to avoid service.

Sunday 28 Nov/15
Voelas
Bettws-y-Coed
N. Wales
My dear darling R.

No, I had not seen anything about attacks on Col Sykes – How scheming. All lies I am sure. Oh dear, these politicians, will they never be stamped out & exterminated, we shall have no peace or hope of victory till they are. How people can give presents to Miss Asquith & make it an occasion to tell lies about olf Asquith – God knows – & people like the Speaker too….

Col Toby Wickham … has been recalled from France & is waiting to hear what if anything he’s to do next. All his Yeomanry have been broken up into Div. Cav. & he’s been PM of Ypres for the last month. He’s miserable being home.

What a delightful couple the Harlechs are. She’s enchanting. He was busy trying to get recruits for Welsh Guards, of which he’s Colonel… Billy Gore is off any day, with his Yeomanry Brigade. They go east – where no one knows of course. They have been waiting to start over 10 days now….

John is having a rare lot of “shooting at something which can’t shoot back” as someone put it. At first it hurt his jaw rather, but now it doesn’t seem to often. His back hasn’t healed up even now. I had no idea it would take so long. Of course at the hospital they said it was one of the dirtiest little holes they’d seen. It only missed his spine by a nick too, you know! I expect you’ve heard the story but it was new to me, of the Sergeant to a frightened private under fire, “Now then my man, what’s the matter with you, they ain’t h’after you – you ain’t no blooming cathedral or bloody work of h’art”!! I love it.

Best love darling…
Your own loving Maysie

At last the brave yokels in this district are enlisting having made sure they must go or be fetched! They all try ASC of course!!

Letter from Maysie Wynne Finch to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/2)

“Why is the atmosphere of life more cheerful nearer to all the horrors and ugliness of modern war than it is behind?”

Ralph Glyn had political ambitions, and the College constituency in Glasgow was being nursed for him. He had narrowly lost the 1910 election to a Liberal (he was a Conservative/Unionist). While serving in the army he delivered a lengthy statement to those he viewed as future constituents. Unfortunately for him and all his work, the constituency was abolished before the 1918 election. The paper itself, however, is an interesting insight into the views of an intelligent officer into attitudes at home and at the front.

GHQ
MEF
November 1915

I have been asked by one or two friends in the College Division to write a letter that may be a link between so many old friends of those former days, when Peace was not understood, and myself. To do this as I would wish by personal letter my work here will not allow. I must ask everyone who reads these lines to believe how sincere are my wishes for as happy a New Year as these days permits to be theirs.

I write these lines because I have always been open with my friends in Glasgow, and I believe you will all understand how it is impossible to write “news”.

There are many who have been all the time in France, or in Gallipoli, whilst some have been in both theatres of operations; but there are few officers now who have not spent some time at home, either wounded, or on leave or duty, and so it is possible to take a comprehensive survey of men, matters and means.

The newspapers are the only medium between the Public and events that happen behind the veil of the censor. Letters from friends and relations pass from the Front to those at home producing for a period a clear gleam of light – sometimes too vivid – of what is fact and reality at one small point of that vague term “The Front”. The days are shortening, the winter with all its horrors is close upon us and we are all well aware that if only something could be lifted the Future would be brighter and more easy to face. To arrive at any satisfactory conclusion we must try and see things as they are – undisguised but very possibly naked and ashamed. No time should be lost in establishing both at “the front” and at “the back” a “New Feeling” based upon the firm belief that at last true bearings have been taken, the clouds have lifted and the sun seen long enough to enable the exact position of the ship to be located, and that each and all having but the one port open to them are determined, in spite of all stress of weather, to reach their destination without undue delay.

Why is the atmosphere of life more cheerful nearer to all the horrors and ugliness of modern war than it is behind? There is nothing in any trench in France or Gallipoli to equal the gloom of many a house at home. The individual man is happy when he knows he is doing “his bit” and has that feeling down his back of something worthy of accomplishment being well done. But this same feeling should animate those miners, munition-workers, ship-builders and all that other host at home, whose work is as vital to the war’s success as any gallant action in the trenches. Why is there this feeling of unrest and mistrust in so many quarters? “Out here”, be it in France or Gallipoli, this war acts in one way all the time and without variation. The Regular Army has almost ceased to exist as it was before the war. Officers and men have fallen and others have taken their place. The tradition of a great regiment holds all the new comers in its sway and the magic mantle of “esprit de corps” stirs through the new blood of the recruit, officer and man, tempering and making him part of the original stock. The Reserve ceased to exist when war began; because by our system the fighting force of the country, Regular and Reserve, were and are one and indivisible. Any gunner will tell you that had it not been for the “dug out” the new armies could not have been born. The “dug out” has much to bear from the gibes of younger men who too often assume that all “dug outs” must be musty and old, stupid and out of date, but he can console himself with the knowledge that without him the Regular serving soldiers could not have kept the machine running.
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Germany guilty of murder over the Lusitania

Lord Mersey (1840-1925) had presided over the official inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic a few years before the war. He was appointed to look at the German torpedoing of the Lusitania, concluding that the enemy was solely to blame, completely absolving the captain, the Navy and Cunard.

17 July 1915

Strike all over South Wales – still continuing.

Judgment on Lusitania by Lord Mersey – case of murder! v Germany.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

No one knows what to do

Florence Vansittart Neale was horrified by the striking miners.

13 July 1915
Horrible miners’ strike in Wales! No one knows what to do.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Russians in England: officially denied, but…

As usual, Florence Vansittart Neale’s diary combines national and war news (and her opinions), with news of Bisham Abbey. Her war news was not entirely accurate: not only did she fervently believe the rumours of a secret Russian army training in England, but she also believed the German General Alexander von Kluck had surrendered, which was not the case.

15 September 1914
Maud Richardson, Sir George Young & a girl, Mrs Kersey, & Mrs Lawrence all to tea to see hospital…

Still pursuing & report tonight General Kluck’s army capitulated 14000! Press Bureau deny Russians ever been in England, but believe it still! Crown Prince in a fix. Passing Home Rule & Welsh Church bills!!!

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)