“The war is ending, it seems, but the misery of it cannot end with it”

More details of Sydney Spencer’s shell shock not long before his final days.

Oldbury House
Tewkesbury
9 Nov 1918

Dear Mrs Image

I was dreadfully sorry to hear of Sydney’s death, & it must have been a bitter shock to you, especially when you knew that there had been no real necessity for him to go back to duty when he did. You will be impatient to hear what Capt Dillon told me – though I fear it is as unsatisfactory as all such information must be.

The MC was given, not for any single piece of bravery, but for continued good work during the battallion’s [sic] attack at Morlanecourt (near Albert) on Aug 8-10 & during the previous period when the company had a difficult time owing to the German attack on the division immediately on its right. Sydney put in a tremendous amount of work – too much, Capt. Dillon says: he was too careless about himself, got quite insufficient sleep & really prepared the way for his break-down & shell-shock. While in this over-taxed state the company got shelled rather badly, & a shell fell pretty close with the result that Sydney succumbed to the trembling kind of shock & had to go to hospital on Aug 10th. He was not actually wounded, except for a tiny scratch on the upper arm, which they put some iodine & a dressing on. When he got to hospital he pretended, for fun, that he had a very bad wound & the nurse took extra care in unbinding it, but enjoyed the joke when the wound was revealed. He told Capt. Dillon on his return that he was only really ill for three days, but Capt. Dillon thought that he had come back too soon & in any case sooner than he need have done.

He was first of all in hospital at Rouen & then spent time at Trouville. On his return he seemed very well & cheerful: Dillon saw him again on Sept 10th. The battalion was then very busy preparing for the attack which was to be made on Sept 18th. On the 17th he & Dillon had a cheerful chat about prospects: & Sydney said they both would get nice Blighty wounds & go back together & be out of it comfortably; he seemed quite confident that he was coming out of the affair with his life. On the 18th Dillon was wounded, & Sydney took his place automatically. The company had a very bad time & almost everybody was knocked out. This accounts for the fact that there is so great difficulty in getting any particulars. The attack took place east of Epehy, & Dillon thinks that in all probability it was there that Sydney was killed. The line was being advanced at the time, & in those circumstances, it is some slight consolation to know, his body would probably be buried decently & the exact spot recorded. If you wished to make any enquiries on that point the Graves Registration people would be the ones to apply to. I am afraid I don’t know their address. Capt. Dillon suggests as possible sources of information Sydney’s batman, the chaplain or the company sergeant-major; but I think you have already tried those people. The other lieutenant who was with Sydney was also killed at the same time.

Capt. Dillon can’t say much about the time Sydney was in hospital, & he does not understand how it is that you have heard nothing about it: for he knew that Sydney was in the habit of writing very full letters about everything. The lack of news from the 5th to 10th was probably due to the amount of fighting that was taking place. Capt. Dillon suggests that you might get some particulars of what was happening from the “Times” of 8th-10th – which however he says is full of mistakes (it was their battalion who took Morlanecourt, & the Americans had no share in it). But I feel that what you want is more personal details, & though I managed to extract some from Capt. Dillon (which I have told you) there are doubtless others which might be pumped out by yourself but hardly could be by anyone else. Capt. Dillon is apparently a very good sort, but rather lacks the faculty of unbosoming himself to strangers. If you do ever meet him you may be able to do better than I have; as to actual historical details I think he gave me all he could. One point he mentioned which may interest you was that Sydney won his MC within a mile or so of the sport where Percy [his brother] was wounded; Percy’s division being the next but one in the line. You may already know this.

I do hope that Percy’s wrist is making good progress: I had no idea that it was so bad as you say, or that his nerves were so badly upset. The war is ending, it seems, but the misery of it cannot end with it.


Yours sincerely
R. Harold Compton

Letter from R Harold Compton to Mrs Florence Image regarding the death in action of her brother Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/24)

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It would be a comfort to find his grave

The Spencer family was trying to help Will’s German friends discover the fate of their missing son.

5 March 1917

A letter for me from Florrie. Percy gets my letters, but thinks I do not get his. (If he has written any letter to me since last April, I haven’t received it.) He has therefore written to Florrie to say that he has handed in an enquiry in respect of Max Ohler to the British Graves Commission, & begged that it may be passed on to the French authorities. If we hear nothing, it may add to the hope that he is alive, but if we do hear, Percy said it will even be “some comfort to know that at best the boy has been buried, & his grave registered.”

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

“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)