Do the German hear our starlight singing in their distant trenches?

There was much news of soldiers from Maidenhead Congregational Church.

OUR SOLDIERS.

We are glad to be able to report that Reginald Hill is so far improving, that he has been able to sit up a little each day. Thomas S. Russell has been called up, and is in training with the Motor Transport Section of the A.S.C. G.C. Frampton after about two hours drill was considered advanced enough for foreign service, and left England for France on May 18th. He is gone into Military Canteen work.

An interesting letter has come to hand from Sidney Eastman, which may justly be described as lengthy, for it is written upon a piece of paper some seven or eight feet long, and covers both sides. It is mostly occupied with a description of his travels and of the sights he has seen, and we are glad to gather that he is in good health and spirits.

G.C. Frampton has been unpatriotic enough to take German measles, and is in Hospital at Etaples. We hope to learn very shortly that he is quite well again.

Alfred Vardy, after a severe bout of pneumonia, caught on his way to the Front in France, is now at a Convalescent Camp in Thetford, gaining strength before returning to duty.

Wilfrid Collins is in hospital at Reading, suffering from heart weakness following upon a severe attack of “Trench fever.”

Reginald Hill has been out of bed for an hour, and is going on satisfactorily, though slowly.

Cyril Hews had a somewhat narrow escape recently. He was out with his motor-bicycle upon a French road during a thunderstorm, when the lightning struck a tree by the road-side, and a large branch fell upon the handlebars of the machine, providentially leaving the rider untouched.

Alfred Lane, after more than a year’s training in the Home Counties’ Engineers at Maidenhead, has been sent over with a draft to France.

Harry Baldwin, having attained the age of 18, and being called up, has elected to enter the Navy, and will probably enter a Training School.

One of our young men, who took an active part in the Messines victory, writes:

“Rather a good sight yesterday. I attended with my men a very large open-air drum-head Church Parade Service, as a sort of Thanksgiving Service for our recent great victory. A large number of Welshmen were present, and it really was great to hear these fellows sing “Aberystwith” and “St. Mary,” accompanied by a band.”

The papers, by the way, have been recently telling us that in all the Welsh regiments there are “glee parties,” who sing under the stars, until the Germans must hear and perhaps wonder, in their more or less distant trenches.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, June 1917 (D/N33/12/1/5)

Bread and butter, yes! real butter at khaki socials

Reading Congregational Church reports on another winter’s worth of entertaining soldiers.

KHAKI SOCIALS

Now that the Khaki Socials have ended for the season, a short report may be of interest to those who read the magazine.

The winter season started on Sunday October 8th 1916, and continued every Sunday until May 6th 1917, a total (including Good Friday) of 32 Socials. At first they were not attended as well as could be expected, but after a while they became more widely known, and many nights the room has been quite crowded. The average attendance for the season was about sixty soldiers, besides others who came in as “friends”.

One of the chief features of the socials has been the refreshments, which were always appreciated by the Khaki boys, especially the thin pieces of bread and butter, yes! real butter.

The singing of the Fellowship Hymns was much enjoyed, special favourites being “All Hail the Power”, “Fight the Good Fight” and “Lead, kindly Light”, which were often selected by the men themselves, and couldn’t they sing, too!

The “tone” of the concerts was well maintained throughout the season, thanks to the various kind friends who have rendered help in this way.

The financial side of the Socials has been rather heavy, on account of the extra cost of foodstuffs. Consequently there is a deficit of several pounds.

The average cost per social was about 12/-, and it is estimated that nearly 2.000 Tommies attended and received refreshments during the season, so the committee cannot be accused of “over-feeding” at any rate.

There is now a splendid opportunity for two or three generous friends to send along their donations to wipe off the deficiency.

It would take too much space to say what I should like to say about all the friends who have helped so splendidly; but there are two or three who certainly should be mentioned. First is our Minister, Mr Rawlinson, who has presided on most nights, and has done more than anyone to cheer and brighten the meetings. It is not everyone who, after a strenuous day’s work, would undertake this extra work, but Mr Rawlinson has done it and done it cheerfully. Then Mr and Mrs J Ford and Mrs Witcombe, the “Food Controllers”, must be mentioned for their splendid services. Always behind the scenes, yet always on the spot and ready. They never once failed to supply even the “sugar”. Then our best thanks are due to one who, although not on the committee, has done good work as welcomer and door keeper. I refer to Mr J Owen. Some of the men got quite used to his welcome “how a-r-r-e you?”, especially the “Welsh Boys”.

What we should have done without Mrs Dracup and Miss Green in the musical department of the work, it is difficult to think. They have been a real help, and each deserves the silver medal for “services rendered”.

Besides those mentioned, the Khaki Socials Committee consisted of the following, all of whom have done their share of the work:
Mr Nott, Mrs Hendey, Mrs Woolley, Mr and Mrs Tibble, Mr A S Hampton and Mr Swallow, Mr Hendey as treasurer, and Mr W A Woolley as secretary.

The same committee has been re-elected to arrange Garden Parties, River Trips, etc, for the wounded soldiers during the summer months. Friends wishing to help in this good work should communicate with the secretary, who will be pleased to book up dates and make arrangements.

W A Woolley

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, June 1917 (D/N11/12/1/14)

Swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches

Percy Spencer wrote to his new brother in law with a vivid description of life in the muddy trenches.

26.10.15
Dear Mr Image

Almost it seems another world that last I saw you in. we move so often and crowd so many events into our time that the clock seems to have more hours in it nowadays than in ordinary peaceful times.

Here I am in a long lean dugout made by the Huns. [Censored.]

Being in a Hun’s trench naturally the parados [sic] is our screen from the enemy. And that makes life fairly exciting, for the parados is very low in places with here and there a gap. Bullets are plentiful and shells quite frequent, but at present we are all here still and keeping fit. You can’t be anything else while life overhead is so exciting, and life underfoot is equally so, for swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches the slightest error will land you at the bottom of a shoot 15 or 20 feet deep – German funk holes scarcely wide enough to admit a man, diving steeply into the bowels of the earth: a tribute to the power of our artillery.

Another thing that strikes one is this evidence of the Huns to stay for the duration of the War. The officers’ dug-outs are walled, floored and ceiled with wood – spacious beds are built between walls at either end. The walls are papered with a cheerful pattern; the ceiling is also papered. Between beds 2 small tables, a couple of chairs, a comfortable arm chair and a full length mirror. On the floor oil cloth – on the walls a few pictures. A stove with flue carried up and through the wall heats the room. The trench leading down to this palace is floored with wood gratings: at the entrance door there is a good scraper – overhead a porch formed with a circular sheet of corrugated iron – “Home from home”.

Well, we’ve run up against a pretty rotten kind of existence as the result of our “push”, but no doubt if this war goes on through the winter which God forbid, when our line is straightened and settled down we shall get better quarters. At present we are “fighting” our men from pretty close up.

This morning I went round the reserve lines with the Brigadier and at one point got well “strafed”.

The reason apparently was a man standing in full view of the Huns on his parapet. He was looking for a bottle of rum another had taken from him and thrown over the parapet. Queer how men will risk their own and others’ lives.

Well, we’ve a strange collection of men and I find them a humorous one too. We all get as much fun out of this life as we can and the dry hunour of our Signal Section is a constant source of amusement to me. One “Taffy” speaks a weird language he describes as pure English. He’s been advised to have a phonetic vocabulary printed down one side of his tunic with the English equivalent opposite, so that we should only have to run our fingers down until we came to the sound he was making. He’s not at all pleased.

It’s 11.30 pip emma as the Signallers say, so good night my dear friend.

With love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

A very hostile reception

Percy continues yesterday’s letter.

Tomorrow’s come and with it your letter (and another Garwood has discovered in his pockets dated May 22).

Well, I know now you did get my telegram, and feel all the more keenly our mutual disappointment; WF, my darling sister, I could cry when I read your loving preparation for my visit. But luckily I’ve been too busy today to do that for we’ve moved bag and baggage to another and largerer [sic] place, and for the first time in our experience have met with a very hostile reception. However, we’re friends again with a very handsome hot tempered maid, in fact – don’t tell mother, but she’s winked at me. Not knowing the correct repartee, I referred to higher authority (the Staff Captain), who solemnly winked back, and now we’re awfully friendly. We’ve been invited to take coffee, allowed to store our bicycles under the eaves of a stinking sty and graciously directed to the “usual offices” by every member of the family, though nothing could be further from an Englishman’s thoughts than to explore the mysteries of French sanitation.

However, here we are: for how long I don’t know, but I don’t suppose we shall be doing much for a while. Did you see today’s tosh in the Chronicle? Thank goodness our fellows only laugh and “carry on” as usual in spite of such hysterical stuff. Our Division don’t want that kind of nonsense: our reputation on facts is good enough without frothy journalism.

[Censored section]

This is terrible news about K of K. Thank goodness his great work is well under weigh [sic].

Unfortunately such an event, the first report of the naval battle, and the local attacks on our front all tend to buck up the Hun & will tend to prolonging the war, the latter I imagine are solely to keep up the morale of the troops, as they have no real significance.
And too, K of K was a name to compare with – there were never two opinions about who should be at the War Office.

His greatness is hard luck on his successor, even if he should happen to be a Welshman. I hope a soldier of worth & experience will get the post, though, and an Engineer for preference – lawyers are becoming a curse.

And so am I, you’ll be saying, if I keep on scribbling.

But before I close I must tell you about Nini. Nini is a duck of a child at our mess, very interested in all branches of mischief. Thin, lithe & lovely, she dances round our mess, evading our fellows’ longing arms, and clamouring for “music”. We’ve all wound our gramophone till we’re sick of every time it plays. It’s rough luck on us and on the gramophone, but the imp’s worth it…

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/5/18-19)

“If only there was a man at the Head with more heart, more imagination, & less astute worldly wiseman view of the Church and its interests!

Sybil Campbell wrote to her sister in law Lady Mary Glyn with exciting news of a shipwreck in the Inner Hebrides.

Ap. 10/16
Tiree

My dear M.

Tomorrow is mail day, & my daily Light is full of memorial dates. I am here for the Red Cross, & odds & ends. Rather a sad island, hating “the Tribunal”, & the compulsion. A really sad lot get off on physical defects, but of 19 attested, 13 had varicose veins, & other things speaking of inbreeding. But, the spirit is not of submission to the “will of God”.

We have had a shipwrecked crew on the island. The Admanton, 4000 ton coal for fleet from Cardiff, sent down by the fire of a submarine between Barra & Sherryvore, about 10 miles off us. Heavy firing was heard by many & the coast watchers were reporting, then at 2 a large ship’s boat of very exhausted men made for “Sahara”, the one port on the north side, & that a mere creek.

About 7, seeing nothing, they were fired at, the shot passing over the bridge, then a torpedo passed under the boat, but as she had discharged the cargo she was light & it passed under the bow. One German, knowing her unarmed, proceeded to finish her with shell. The men tumbled to their boats, the Germans left these alive, “behaving well as they could have shelled us under in no time”. It was a rough wild morning & a very frozen crew of 9 with the captain landed after battling from 7 a.m. to 2. The captain got a change & some tea from the township, & then drove over to Island House to report to the Admiralty & owners. They came from Cardiff, a little Welshman.

I happened to be at Island House as he drove up. It was curious to see & hear all 1st hand. They say that 7 have been destroyed lately on this line to the main fleet. MacD[onald?] a patrol captain in Oban, & to the Rear Admiral at Cromarty. The 2nd boat separated. She was seen further east & the captain thought she would get into Coll.

On Sunday a.m. the patrol boats came racing in here. The Oban one took off the crew, & were able to report the 2nd boat had been picked up off the kairns of Coll & taken to Tobermory. Several injured men in her, then a 2nd patrol boat is now stationed here, & cruises round. She has Marines on board,& they landed yesterday & were at various houses asking for a drink of milk, & getting it, & tho’ they offered money none would take it. I daresay the patrols are a little annoyed for an islander saw & reported the conning tower of a submarine between us & the Dutchman, & tho’ a patrol came, I fancy they were all a little incredulous.

We think this beat has not been enough patrolled, the patrols lying thick in & around Stornoway. This boat is to make Tiree its headquarters for a month. It is rough & bitter work for all concerned.
(more…)

The disappearance of a very gallant friend

Lady Mary Glyn wrote to her son Ralph with her latest news. She and her daughter Meg had been worried about Meg’s naval officer husband after another ship in his flotilla was lost to enemy action.

16th Feb

It was dreadful to come home & know of the Arethusa disaster, & to hear they had had no letter from Jim & still no letter yesterday. But today it has come. They have evidently all been out and it is indeed good to know that he is safe. 13th his letter is dated. Bless him….

I have made acquaintance with a Mrs Evans, wife of Captain Evans, Signal Officer with you at Ismailia. Do, if possible, write to me something good to pass on to her about him. She is Welsh – such a very cheery pleasant helper in the Red Cross Work Room and so proud of him on the Staff Headquarters with the MEF, and I told her, I would be able to hear all the evil things that could be said someday, & chaffed her well. He was a Post Office official here – wireless and telegraph engineer, at least so I gather….

Sir George Pragnell’s death will probably make another difficulty re Red Cross Workers. As far as I can make out he was the only man who could stand up to Sir Edward Ward and his levellings up – or down – of all voluntary work into one more abysmal organisation. And to add to Red X sorrows, they are to give up Burlington House for a spring exhibition in about a fortnight & truly we have hundreds of workers & do not know where they are to migrate.

Own Mur

Meg herself, who was staying with their parents, wrote to her brother the same day. (more…)

Home from home in a German dugout

Percy Spencer wrote to his new brother in law John Maxwell Image with his impressions of trench life – and the captured German trench he was now in.

26.10.15
Dear Mr Image

Almost it seems another world that last I saw you in. We move so often and crowd so many events into our time that the clock seems to have more hours in it nowadays than in ordinary peaceful times.

Here I am in a long lean dugout made by the Huns. [Censored.] Being in a Hun’s trench naturally the parados [sic] is our screen from the enemy. And that makes life fairly exciting for the parados is very low in places with here and there a gap. Bullets are plentiful and shells quite frequent, but at present we are all here still and keeping fit. You can’t be anything else while life overhead is so exciting, and life underfoot is equally so, for swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches the slightest error will land you at the bottom of a shoot 15 or 20 feet deep – German funk holes scarcely wide enough to admit a man, diving steeply into the bowels of the earth: a tribute to the power of our artillery.

Another thing that strikes one is this evidence of the Huns to stay for the duration of the War. The officers’ dug-outs are walled, floored and ceiled with wood – spacious beds are built between walls at either end. The walls are papered with a cheerful pattern; the ceiling is also papered. Between beds 2 small tables, a couple of chairs, a comfortable arm chair and a full length mirror. On the floor oil cloth – on the walls a few pictures. A stove with flue carried up and through the wall heats the room. The trench leading down to this palace is floored with wood gratings: at the entrance door there is a good scraper – overhead a porch formed with a circular sheet of corrugated iron – “Home from home”.

Well, we’ve run up against a pretty rotten kind of existence as the result of our “push”, but no doubt if this war goes on through the winter which God forbid, when our line is straightened and settled down we shall get better quarters. At present we are “fighting” our men from pretty close up.

This morning I went round the reserve lines with the Brigadier and at one point got well “strafed”.

The reason apparently was a man standing in full view of the Huns on his parapet. He was looking for a bottle of rum another had taken from him and thrown over the parapet. Queer how men will risk their own and others’ lives.

Well, we’ve a strange collection of men and I find them a humorous one too. We all get as much fun out of this life as we can and the dry hunour of our Signal Section is a constant source of amusement to me. One “Taffy” speaks a weird language he describes as pure English. He’s been advised to have a phonetic vocabulary printed down one side of his tunic with the English equivalent opposite, so that we should only have to run our fingers down until we came to the sound he was making. He’s not at all pleased.

It’s 11.30 pip emma as the Signallers say, so good night my dear friend.

With love to you both
Yours ever

Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

A Battalion sports day

Sydney Spencer, who was committing himself to army life, took part in a sports competition. (He may not have done very well.)

Sept 1st
Took part in Battalion sports.

Florence Vansittart Neale was outraged by the Government’s decision to agree to strikers’ demands.

1 September 1915
Hope Welsh strike is ended. Given way entirely to men! So why fuss[first]!!!

Diaries of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12) and Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Welsh strike on again – thousands out!

Florence Vansittart Neale reports the latest news. Mass industrial action was a relatively new phenomenon, and the upper classes saw it as unpatriotic in wartime. Dennis Theodore Smith was the teenage officer son of friends from Maidenhead.

30 August 1915

Welsh strike on again! 1000s out! (coal)

Still persistent rumours. Observer rather pessimistic – must have big armies. Germans at Boulogne.

Dennis Theodore Smith killed.

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

“The last job they would ever need done for them”

An Ascot man serving with the Canadians shared some of his bleaker experiences, including the burial of dead comrades.

THE MILITARY HOSPITAL at the Grand Stand re-opens this month.

THE WAR.

Gunner George Cannon, son of Mr. and Mrs. Cannon of Swinley was drowned off the Dardanelles on April 17th, when the Transport Maniton went down. Captain Denison, Commander of his Battery, writes to us:-

“I am very sorry to lose Gunner Cannon, as he was a first class man and an excellent soldier … The Battery is doing well: but I am afraid that will not make good the loss to his own people.”

He was an excellent young man: and our most true sympathy goes out to his parents. RIP.

Mr. W. Francis, our much respected parishioner, of London Road, Ascot, has received a letter from the King, in which his Majesty writes in terms of warm appreciation of Mr. Francis’ four sons and one son-in-law in the army. One of these sons died of wounds in South Africa early in the war.

“If GOD is for us, who can be against us? If GOD is not for us, all our munitions, all the heroism of our men, will not avail to secure the victory. It may not yet be patent to all, but it is undoubtedly true, that at this moment the whole fate of our Empire depends upon this – whether we have among us, in the Churches or outside, enough spiritual might, spiritual power, spiritual decision, to grasp firmly the Unseen, and to use the forces that GOD holds out to those who put their trust in Him.” (R.F. HORTON)

THE FOLLOWING EXTRACTS from one of the heroic Canadian Contingent (and Ascot parishioner) will be read with interest:-

“You will see by the papers how the Canadians have done, and the men we have lost. We ourselves took 2 lines of trenches from the Germans last week. But we lost a good many men, and then we had to stay there and hold them under fire all the time, until we were relieved by the Gordon Highlanders. I saw my old lot that morning, the 5th Battalion. They have lost all but 6 officers: and there are only 97 of the old men left who went out to France with me… They will have to give us more men to make us up to strength, or we shall soon be all wiped out. But these must do the best they can: that is what we are here for. The Tommies call us the “mad Canadians.” …

I was in one of the German trenches last week and there were a good many bodies lying about, so some of us volunteered to go out and bury them. I went, and the first body I went up to was one of the Scots Guards. He had been dead for 5 days. I took his card off, and buried him as well as I could, and marked his grave up with a Cross. I shall report him to his regiment. Then we set to work, and buried at least 40 more, Guards, Welsh, Warwicks and Germans. Poor fellows, they had been lying there for a week. It was the last job they would ever need done for them.”

Ascot section of Winkfield District Magazine, July 1915 (D/P151/28A/7/5)

Making up for other men’s lack of duty

Sydney Spencer wrote to his brother Percy to tackle Percy’s doubts about Sydney’s joining up. Sydney was still at Oxford at this point, and this letter explains exactly why he chose to join the army.

12 Southmoor Road
Oxford
Monday June 7th [1915]

My dear Percy

So I hear from Flo [their sister Florence] that you don’t approve. And why. Because you want to shield me from horrors which other people have to endure. Well that doesn’t wash. As things stand now, if the horrors were 50 times greater it would make little difference. If you were over here in England just now to hear the way some men talk you would be glad enough that anyone should be willing. I played tennis last week. A lolling lazy looking Welshman enters into conversation with me.

“Why don’t you think you will pass Mods?”
“Because the OTC work has swallowed up an enormous amount of time.” “Well I suppose you must have liked military life to make you join the OTC”.
“Yes indeed,” I said, “a man who has spent most of his life reading poetry & playing the piano would naturally be deeply absorbed in such work!”
“Well I can’t understand what made you join the OTC if you didn’t like the work.”

I just looked at him, & then he said in a confused tone “Oh I suppose you felt it a duty.”

I don’t say that there are numbers of such people about but I feel that it is well to make up in any small way possible for what is lacking in other men’s sense of duty by offering myself unconditionally.

If the thing turns out to be too much, well I should knuckle under, I suppose, & what’s left of me would get a discharge, & would settle down to civilian life again with this much added to it however, that I had done my share even if it was ever so small a share. As to my being saved from these horrors, I don’t see a single argument in favour of such an attitude. Put me in Madame Tussaud’s & preserve me in spirits right out, one might as well suggest, and I prefer neither of those alternatives. I feel that if God Almighty has other work for me to do, He will play the Germans all sorts of tricks, so that I may pull through. And if I don’t, well I shall fall in good company.

Letter from Sydney Spencer (D/EZ177/8/4)

Four days in the trenches and never saw a German until they got him

Elderly Cambridge don John Maxwell Image (a friend of the Spencer family of Cookham) wrote to a friend with an insight into life in a university town almost taken over by the army. He had visited a wounded former student in London: William Cary Dobbs, a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, was no youngster, in his 40s. He had been wounded in February 1915 at the Battle of Ypres, and was later killed in action.

[17 March 1915]

Wednesday, St Patrick’s Day 1915

VDB [his friend’s nickname]

This letter, in reply to yours received just a fortnight ago, would have been written long ago, but I am only just convalescing from a brutal cold and cough… I attribute it to the bitter North wind that met me on Westminster Bridge and on every open space on my return afoot from a visit to Willie Dobbs in St Thomas’s Hospital. He had been but 4 days in the trenches when they got him. He suggested in a letter how much he would like to see me: and feeling how lonely he might be, I came up from C[ambridge], I may say on purpose. I went to him on Sat, and Sund. Ha, ha! lonely!! At the first visit (he has a room to himself and one other officer – somewhat dirty, but very snug. But to me the long corridor where the men are berthed in two rows seemed the more cheerful). Well, on Saturday I found 2 young ladies – a cousin and a pretty sister – and two or three men in attendance. On Sunday a different sister and, counting one after another, I should guess about six men – nearly all of whom professed to remember me at Trinity, and two had the audacity to improvise (which they called “quoting”) remarks made by me to them on various occasions. Such subtle flattery there was no resisting: although I could swear to having never set eyes on any one of them before. We had loads of stimulating War-gup from the London Clubs. All has perished from my memory. Had I felt equal to writing when your letter came, I could have ladled out to you some prime yarns. Willie, in a long grey dressing gown, looked utterly unchanged from what I saw last June. His wound was in the left upper arm, just above the elbow – a compound fracture, worse luck, but from a rifle bullet, not shell. He doesn’t seem troubled by it. He has to sleep on his back, somewhat tiring, and they had begun to massage the hand and fingers.

Four days only in the trenches – and he told me that he never saw a German! The way they fed him up on his journey to the sea was most hospitable – beef tea and champagne at every town. No sooner had he touched old England’s hospitable shore than every comfort had to be paid for. In France all was free.

(more…)