An enormous front to hold, with Lewis Guns as strong points

Sydney Spencer met an old friend.

Friday 19 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. A fine morning but very frosty. Day became wind & frost & snow & hail and sunshine. Spent morning up the ‘demmed hills’ again at BF PT & company drill.

After lunch we had a company tactical scheme under the CO. We had an enormous front to hold, & we simply put out blobs of ports, with Lewis Guns as strong points.

Arrived home, we had tea, got our mess rigged up in No. II Nissen Hut. Went down to Company QM Stores & arranged dinners for 5 new officers who arrived today. Capt. Leslie Shuter was one of the officers. I had not seen him since October 1915 when he left us at Brentwood for Egypt.

The B Company is in a scout squadron now, arranged for mess cart to be here at 7 am tomorrow to take me to D-lens to get goods for mess.


Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/15)

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Slush, real Flanders slush everywhere

It was a gloomy day, but a more cheerful evening, for Sydney Spencer and his fellow officers.

Thursday 18 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. A miserable day, wet & slush, real Flanders slush everywhere. Parades up on the high ground at the range, not of the most cheerful with a biting wind & drizzle, but we got through alright. We had some gas stunts very like what we had in England, except that the Div officer had not the stuff I could use.

After lunch went down to billets & gave two lectures on gas to the company, & there was a kit inspection. After tea wrote a few cards & a letter to Florence. Also packed some spare kit to send home. Washed & changed & bad dinner.

The other chaps are now playing vingt et un, & I am going to be OC gramophone, & then to bed to read Tennyson.

8.45 pm. A fine moonlight night.

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

“It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months”

Sydney Spencer was still some way behind the front line.

Wednesday 17 April 1918

Got up at 7.30. A better morning, warmer, but wind.

Went on parade at 9. A march of about one mile up on to a trench system where … I did platoon’s drill for a time. It seemed very strange to be doing my work after so many months.

After lunch fine again till 3 when it poured with rain. I gave a lecture to ‘B’ company on Gas. Paid company at 3.30.

After tea got my clothes dry, changed, made out mess and [illegible] for A and B companies. After dinner, all officers paid me so that I was able to make things square.

To bed at 9.30 & read In Memoriam for a little while. A fine night.

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

“Our small tent collapsed in a blizzard”

Army chaplain J Sellors reached his post in southern Greece, where he found the weather not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Letter from the Rev. J. Sellors

Dear Friends,

I last wrote to you when I was on my way out here. I have now been here for about a month, and my address at present is 28th General Hospital, Salonika, where any letters you may wish to write will find me. (We are not allowed to put our address at the top of letters).

I cannot give details of my journey, but I think the censor will allow me to say that shortly before reaching here there was no railway for a distance of about thirty miles, and we had to take motor lorries. For fifteen or more miles we passed through a valley completely filled with olive trees, then we had to climb over a mountain pass. We ascended to a height of between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, and saw around us deep valleys and snow-tipped mountain peaks, which glistened like silver in the sunlight. In several places we were only a few feet from the edge of a precipice without any protecting wall; a little carelessness on the part of the driver, and – imagine the result!

When we arrived at Salonika we were sent to a camp for a few days to await orders. The weather was beautifully warm and bright until we arrived here, when it changed suddenly, and a bitterly cold wind sprang up and the rain came in torrents.

The second night we had a blizzard, and just after, two of us Chaplains, who were together, had retired to rest, our small tent collapsed, and we had an exciting few minutes extricating our bedding and seeking dry quarters in a hut, where we spent the remainder of the night. Next morning we found part of our belongings covered with several inches of snow and mud. We had scented trouble before going to roost, so were not altogether unprepared for our experience.

I will endeavour to tell you a little about my work when next I write. I am quite well, and happy in my work.

March 22nd, 1918

Yours sincerely, J. SELLORS, C.F.

Maidenhead St Luke parish magazine, May 1918 (D/P181/28A/27)

Heroes in blue and grey and a rained-off garden party

Reading Congregational Church choir entertained wounded soldiers at a garden party in July 1917. They announced the occasion in the church magazine:

The Garden Party to wounded soldiers which the choir have arranged to give instead of their usual River Trip, will be held on Wednesday, July 4th. Mr and Mrs Tyrrell have very generously placed their beautiful garden at the disposal of the choir for this function, and to them our best thanks are due for their kindness. We earnestly hope that the day may be fine, and that the “party” may be a big success in every way.

But unfortunately, the weather turned out to be a disaster. The August issue of the magazine reported on the event’s success, regardless.

CHOIR HOSPITALITY

Wednesday, July 4th was a day that will long be remembered by many of us. It was the day that had been fixed by the choir for their “Khaki” Garden Party. In other words, it was the day upon which the choir, having foregone their usual river trip for the purpose, had decided to entertain wounded soldiers from the various “War Hospitals”, in the grounds of “Rosia”, Upper Redlands Road, which had so generously been placed at their disposal by Mr and Mrs Tyrrell.
Thus it had all been arranged. But alas for “the best laid plans of mice and men!” We had counted without the weather. When the day arrived it was very soon evident that the steady downpour of rain would upset all calculations, and that garden parties would be out of the question. It was terribly disappointing, but there was no help for it. And so our energetic choir master and Miss Green were early abroad, with a view to an in-door gathering at Broad Street. It was no easy task they had to perform, but it was successfully accomplished, and by the time the visitors arrived everything was in readiness for their reception.

Shortly before 2.30 p.m. the “heroes in blue and grey”, brought by trams specially chartered for the purpose, began to troop in, and in a short time the schoolroom was crowded. It was a thoroughly good-natured company, intent upon making the most of their opportunities; and no time was lost in setting to work. Games and competitions were immediately started, and proceeded merrily, in a cloud of smoke from the cigarettes kindly provided by Mr Tyrrell.

At 4.15 a halt was called whilst preparations were made for tea. There was an adjournment to the church, where, for half an hour, Miss Green, assisted by members of the choir, “discoursed sweet music”. On returning to the Schoolroom the guests were delighted to find that ample provision had been made for their refreshment, and they did full justice to the good things provided.

After tea there was an impromptu concert in which the honours were divided between hosts and guests, selections from “Tom Jones” and other items by the choir being interspersed with “contributions” by the men themselves. It was a thoroughly happy time, and 7 o’clock came all too quickly.

Shortly before the close of the proceedings Mr Rawlinson voiced the general regret that the weather had interfered with the arrangements originally made, but hoped the visitors had all enjoyed themselves; and Mr Harvey expressed the indebtedness of the choir to Mr and Mrs Tyrrell, Mr and Mrs Brain, and other friends for the help they had given with the undertaking. Rousing cheers were given for Mr Harvey, the choir, and all concerned, for the hospitality provided, and after partaking of light refreshments in the shape of fruit, mineral waters, etc, the visitors made their way to the trams that were waiting for them, thoroughly pleased with the good time they had enjoyed.

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, July and August 1917 (D/N11/12/1/14)

“Ain’t we rural” – nests in the dugouts

Percy Spencer told sister Florence about the disconcerting contrast of burgeoning wildlife and warfare.

May 11, 1917
My dear WF

Very many thanks for the parcel. I see you have exceeded my request and bought things, but that’s just you. I hope my a/c will stand it….

We’ve been having the most glorious weather: it seems awful that we should be in so poor a position to enjoy it. However, good weather helps towards the conclusion of our mighty task, so don’t pray for rain.

You’ve no idea what an extraordinary feeling it is to hear on the heels of a hurricane bombardment around one’s home the lazy song of the cuckoo. A swallow is building on the joist supporting our dugout. By vote it has been allowed to remain, but I doubt if we shall stand the strain of it as it has chosen a position immediately above the centre of our mess table.

2 days ago someone brought in a lovely clutch of pheasant’s eggs – rather a pity, for besides being contrary to orders I expect they were “set”. And within 10 yards of me in a moat, a bullfrog croaks to the sun. Ain’t we rural!

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/36-37)

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)

The horrors of winter war are over now

Spring was welcomed by John Maxwell Image, who sympathised with his brother in law Percy Spencer at the front, and was amused by wife Florence’s enthusiastic adoption of a potato allotment.

29 Barton Road
18 March ‘17

[Talking about his house]
Just at the garden’s paling lay an expanse of grassy fen, belonging to King’s College. It was indeed a godsend to this house as extending our outlook, our privacy and air freshness. Well – this glorious mead has been cut up into potato allotments! Crediti posteri. Florence (as full of energy as yourself) applied for one; as did most of the Varsity people around us: and has got 10 poles, which come close up to our palings. I declined anything to do with it…. It will give her plenty of fun, anyhow – though tillage by our old gardener at 4/6 per diem won’t speak for economy, I fear. Our two tall athletic Abigails are to take in turn the spade-culture. Indeed the whole scene is a lovely one, as beheld from our upper windows, male and female, old and young, rich and poor and each busy and toiling.

The winter happily is over. It will be spring campaigning. Iam ver appetebat cum Hannibal… The horrors of winter war. I remember a bit in one of Florrie’s brother’s letters, where he spoke of “the terrific bounds of red hot lumps of metal off the frozen surface of the road a few yards away from me”!!

Our best wishes and love to you both
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

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)

“If keeping your heart up & your head low will carry us through…”

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence from behind the lines with a few cheerful words.

Feb 4, 1917
My dear WF

If the ink lasts in my pen I hope to write you a few lines – if it doesn’t, you’ll have to wait for the ink in the filler is frozen solid.

It’s a perfectly grand day and we’re all enjoying it with the full pleasure that comes to those who feel they have well earned it. Garwood & Tyrrell are both outside the hut playing footer while “Miss Jones” (the latest addition to my staff) and I “hold the fort”. The weather is and has been bitter cold, but grand for those out of the line. There have been times though, since I came back when we’ve all thoroughly hated the beauty of the day; when our only remark has been that of the parrot of the monkey, and the night has seemed full of charm.

Well, “here we are”, “here we are” all right, and here we all mean to keep, if keeping your heart up & your head low will carry us through. Germany seems to be following the normal course of its hydrophobia: it ought pretty soon to reach the climax of its disease.

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

‘The “liveliness” hereabouts not at all conducive to steady nerves’

Percy Spencer wrote from the Front to his sister Florence to thank her for her gifts.

Jan 29, 1917
Dear WF

I’m a shocking correspondent these days, but business is fairly brisk, the weather simply freezing and the “liveliness” hereabouts not at all conducive to steady nerves and letter writing.

Thanks, dear, I’ve got all the clothes I want, except perhaps one or two pairs of socks, if I have any.

Did I ever thank you for the mittens – they are fine.

And the books too – I haven’t had an opportunity yet to read them but a friend of mine who is off duty sick has been devouring them with great relish.

The other week a subaltern RE in charge of the reconstruction of our NCOs mess turned out to be the younger of the Rev Lewis’s sons…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/11)

“The fact is War Work occupies all the available time”: Wargrave responds to the National Mission

The National Mission in Wargrave was announced in October 1916 as starting on 19 November:

The National Mission

The Sunday fixed for the Mission Services in Wargrave is November 19th, when the Ven. The Archdeacon of Berkshire will be in charge.

It was a great success, the parish magazine later reported; but would it have long lasting effects?

The National Mission

We have indeed much cause to be thankful. It was a great disappointment when we heard that that Archdeacon Ducat could not come; but that the Rev. George Perry-Gore was able to take his place and on the same day may indeed be taken as a sign of the good hand of our God upon us.

All who attended the Mission desire to unite in tendering their most grateful thanks to our Missioner. We must take counsel before God, each with himself, as to how we can give effect to the message by new resolution to walk with God.

The attendance at the meetings of preparation and at the services of the Mission were good. The weather during the Mission was so very bad that it required a real effort to face it, and many in weak health or at a distance were altogether unable to do so. Those who did come were rewarded.

We must be thankful that the weather was fine for the four Open-Air Services. They were well supported and afforded a simple but impressive witness.

The Men’s Bible Study Circle conducted by Dr. McCrea is full of promise. The method adopted evokes extraordinary interest from those who take part. It will continue on Thursdays at 7:30 in the Parish Room.

It has been found impossible to start a Woman’s Bible Study Circle at the present time although a very capable leader was ready to undertake it. The fact is War Work occupies all the available time among those who would otherwise be glad to join.

Every Mission has three parts. The Preparation; The Message; The response.

We did our best with the Preparation.

The need and intention of the Mission were fully explained, the invitation to hear the Message was conveyed to every house and the exact particulars of time and place were carefully published.
But the real preparation went deeper than this. There was prayer in Church and in our homes. We prayed about the National Mission, asking God’s blessing upon it, that the effort of the Church might make for the advancement of His Kingdom. And we prayed for the Messengers, that God might give them utterance, and fill them with the spirit of power and of love and of a sound mind.

We have now had the Message. We have been reminded of our need of Repentance and of our Christian heritage of Hope. We have been told the old old story of God’s Love, of our redemption in Jesus Christ and of our strength for victory in the grace of the Holy Spirit. We have thought about our Christian duties. We have taken counsel about prayer. We have realised that our country needs the best from each of us, and that we are not giving our best unless we have sought for God’s blessing and God’s grace to inform our character and to sanctify our work.

There remains the Response, which is the third part of the Mission. If this is of the right kind it has begin already and it will go on for the rest of our lives.

What is it to be? It will not be exactly the same in any two of us. But it will be the same for us all in that it will mean drawing us closer to God. And it will be the same for us all in that it will mean that our lives will show a clearer witness for Christ. If we make the right kind of response men will take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus. They will see it in our homes, in our work and in our play.

But it must be remembered that God’s message never leaves us in the same position as we were before we heard it. We have had another summons to awake, another reminder of the standard by which alone our lives are judged, another proclamation of our Lord’s Commands. We must not neglect so great salvation.

May our response be such that it may make us more ready to meet the Master when He comes in His Glory and all the Holy Angels with Him, and shall sit upon the throne of His Glory – to take account.

Wargrave parish magazine, October and December 1916 (D/P145/28A/31)

Fingerless gloves for men on mine sweepers

Children in Sonning helped sailors battling freezing temperatures by making them gloves in their handicraft classes.

17th November 1916

Today for Manual Occupation, the Upper group began to make fingerless gloves for the use of the men on the mine sweepers. Miss Markwood came and gave the boys their first lesson.

Sonning Boys school log book (89/SCH/1/2, pp. 40-41)

Collision in the Irish Sea

The tragedy referred to here was the sinking of the SS Connemara (a passenger-carrying steamer) and Retriever (a coal vessel), which collided at the entrance to Carlingford Lough in Northern Ireland on 3 November 1916. There was only 1 survivor. Some of the victims were young Irish women travelling to England to work in munitions factories.

4 November 1916

Collision in Irish Channel owing to storm. 90 killed!

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

Great push begun

There was a mixture of tragedy close to home and better news of the war as a whole.

26 June 1916

Charley Paine & young Sweet killed! He flying. Charlie bombing.
Hear Lille is taken by us! Rumour not confirmed. Hear no letters to come from the Front – great push begun.

Hear Admiral Beattie said 6 big battleships, 7 cruisers, 20 destroyers gone down of enemy in Jutland battle. Hear mist helped us. Our big battleships able to come in range & did terrible damage in 10 minutes.

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