“We are enemy aliens”

Cookham-born expat Will Spencer’s German wife Johanna, living with him in Switzerland, missed her family very much. In the autumn of 1917, she hoped it might be possible to meet up with her sister Agnes.

29 September 1917

Johanna having received a letter from [her sister Agnes] yesterday, in which she said that she had heard from the Ohlers, who had heard it from Herrn Rob. Loeliger, in Frankfurt, that persons were allowed to cross from Rheinfelden to Badisch Rheinfelden on showing an Ausweis, asked whether Johanna could not meet her at the other side of the bridge. I despatched a telegram to Agnes for Johanna after breakfast – “Es is nur unmoglich Inez (i.e. Agnes) aufzusuchen”. (We are not Swiss that have business that calls them to the German side of the river, but “enemy aliens”.).

At 4 we had tea … [with friends] to meet Frau de S., a Polish lady, a daughter of a Prince L., who has visited Rheinfelden regularly for 18 years. She lost her only daughter in 1911, her only son in the war.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

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A continuous bombardment

The war was getting closer for British expat Will Spencer. On holiday in the town of Rheinfelden, on the River Rhine near Basel, close to the German border, he and wife Johanna could hear the guns at the Western Front. Alsace was contested territory between France and Germany.

Will Spencer
4 September 1917

Saw a soldier on the tower of the Town Hall looking westward through a binocular. (Watching for aeroplanes?) Afterwards I went for a wander in the woods. Again heard the sound of a continuous bombardment in Alsace, as we did on Sunday [2 September].

Florence Vansittart Neale
4 September 1917

Lt Kelly returned after smash from aeroplane….

Air raid in London – Chapel St, Edgware Rd. Mr A[ustman] slept under tree at night!!

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

Seeking citizenship overseas

Will Spencer was still on holiday at Meiringen, but he and his German wife were hoping to obtain naturalisation as Swiss citizens.

16 August 1917

By the first post a letter – the expected one – from Herrn Fursprecher Mosimann, enclosing letter from Inner Political Department, stating that my application [for citizenship] would be re-considered if I would send it in again after I had got a fixed residence in Berne (residence in hotel or boarding house is no longer a sufficient qualification), & after I had received the appointment as Professor at the Berne School of Music which there was a prospect of my obtaining. (This was the first I had heard of this last – I suppose Dr Hodler had spoken of my having some prospect of this sort – I had not said anything of the kind.) Johanna decided that she would go to Berne next week, & speak with Herrn Mosimann & with Judge Reichel.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

“All right, now mind all you – will attend the next – parade”

Back in the UK as he undertook officer training, Percy Spencer was amused by a sergeant particularly keen on ensuring religious observance.

July 29, 1917
My dear WF

Sunday, and if there could have been any doubt about it, this was settled by the burly orderly sergeant who appeared in our hut at 9.50 am and in stentorian tones demanded all Nonconformists on parade. Nobody moving, he added. “All right, now mind all of you – will attend the next – parade, C of E. Doesn’t matter a – what you are. Understand?” and I’ve no doubt he sings hymns beautifully.

There are strong rumours that we should be away from here by Friday next at latest. But I have nothing definite to go upon.

If I get 3 or 4 days I shall run up to London and get my kit together. Here I have nothing but army clothes. At the cadet school I shall want quite a lot of civilian things I have.

I am writing on the front at Abergele, a very quiet little place, charmingly situated north of St Ormes Head. On Tuesdays we come here to bathe – a great privilege but rather spoilt by the march here which the officer who takes us tries to do at 150 paces a minute, a frightful step.

I’ve heard from Will this week. He seems very well and still deep in the heights of mountains and size of lakes.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to his sister Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/58-61)

“One never heard a voice of protest against the excesses of this war”

After he had an operation in early June, British expat Will Spencer went to Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland. A Swiss acquaintance expressed strong views against war in general.

29 June 1917
After dinner Herr Nachenius remained chatting with me on the terrace for a little while. He is against retaliatory measures, & that not only because he believes that to refrain from them has the best effect in the long run, but on higher grounds. By this it was clear to me that he meant that men should strive to act in accordance with what they believe to be their highest instincts, without regarding the consequences. He regretted that one never heard a voice of protest against the excesses of this war, a voice such as Gladstone’s in the past. (This to me alone as I was walking with him towards the chalet.)

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

A passport and an aspirin

British expat Will Spencer found an offer of medication helped in cutting red tape in Switzerland.

1 June 1917

Called at the Stadtpolizei for my papers, as we are going away shortly (My passport is at present, as far as I know, in the hands of the Bundesrat [Town Hall] officials, but I believe the Town Police have a copy of it, & it was this that I asked for), but the official reminded me that he could only give them to me on my returning the Aufenthaltsbewilligung I had received from them.

I returned to the Pension [guesthouse] to get the latter, but then remembered that I had also given that, with the other papers, to Herrn Stucki. On my way I called again at the Town Police, to offer the official I had spoken with an Aspirin tablet, as I had received the – correct – impression that he was suffering from neuralgia.

Herr Stucki told me that I should not require my papers (passport) while travelling, as we were not going to stay anywhere more than two months.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

Trapped in London

A Swiss acquaintance of Will Spencer had a business journey abroad interrupted by the British fear of anyone with German connections.

16 May 1917
After supper Frau Block chatted with us in the veranda. Her husband only got as far as London on his way to America. By the time he had got the papers which he required for travelling to America, the Dutch boat by which he intended to cross had sailed. Then came the “verschaufter U-Boot Krieg”, & now, as the son of a German mother, he has not yet obtained leave to return here.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

The British Munition Office in Switzerland

Cookham expat Will Spencer met a fellow Englishman with foreign connections in Switzerland.

15 May 1917

While J[ohanna] was busy in her room, the English gentleman who arrived here on Saturday or Sunday came onto the terrace with his little girl. He expressing the hope that his little girl did not disturb me, I asked him whether he wouldn’t sit down, & he did so & we chatted for a few minutes, until it was about time for lunch. His little girl, aged 5, was born in Venice. His wife died, after three or four years illness, in January of this year. He has now found something to do at the Munition Office (British) here. His wife’s mother was a German, & he himself has been much in Germany – in Marburg & Bonn.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

“Just now on the threshold of a good roll up of the Huns I’m afraid there’ll be no time for reading in the army”

Percy Spencer and his colleagues had the opportunity to socialise with French girls behind the lines – and some romances developed, as Percy told his sister.

April 17 1917
My dear WF

Circumstances have prevented me from writing sooner, but please don’t ever imagine just because I sometimes cease my very occasional letters for a while that therefore I’m fighting in every battle on the Western front. I have always made a point of sending at least a field card whenever I am in any danger or you may have reason that I may be.

I’m enclosing a few souvenirs just to show that all our times are not anxious ones. The photos were taken in the rain in a quiet little village on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. You’ll note that all married and attached have vanished from the “mascot” group. We have had a very good, if strenuous time. The fellow who is understudying me against my departure (if that ever happens) and our mess mascot were mutually smitten, and altho’ I have done my utmost to persuade him from making the lady an alien, he is in daily correspondence with her, getting frightfully absent minded, and goes around humming her favourite tune until we put up a solid barrage of the same tune in the lady’s Anglo-French style.

As for my Benjamin (“Miss Mary Jones”, the junior clerk) the case is indeed desperate. All thoughts of his first love Lily of Clapham Common seem to be banished at the mention of “Jacqueline”, the blue-eyed maid at the second estaminet on the right. Her winsomeness was a great trial to me, as “Mary” was dangerously enchanted by her charms. On the day he was inoculated and should have kept very quiet, he was missing – sitting at the shrine of his goddess, drinking benedictions and secret smiles: as I find him out to his billet he assured me with tears in his eyes, “I’ve only had 2, sergeant”. Of course he ought to be dead, but he isn’t – and Jacqueline regards me as an ogre. However I think she judged me a little bit better before we left, for on the day we went away Mary had a scrawly pencilled note as follows –

My dear Dolly
I must see you at once. Tell your sergeant that if you no come quick I finish with you for ever.
With love & kisses
XXXXXX
from your
Jacqueline

He went.

And every now and then I see him take out an old passport and look at the left hand corner, and smile at her miniature there.

Dear old Will has sent me a long letter enclosing a photo of Johanna & himself and offering a selection from a number of books as a birthday present. I’ll let you know later what I’d like, but just now on the threshold of a good roll up of the Huns I’m afraid there’ll be no time for reading in the army.

I believe my affairs are going thro’ all right, but it may be some time yet or not at all before my promotion comes through – I hope it will be very soon or not at all. Further promotion would be very remote, if the job hung fire for long.

With my dear love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/26-28)

News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

9 april 1917 Breaking up grass-land for cultivation in Switzerland

Will Spencer was currently living in Bern in Switzerland, and observed the pressure of food shortages having an impact on the local landscape.

9 April 1917

In the course of my wanderings on the outskirts of the town I saw many men, women & children engaged in breaking up grass-land for cultivation, that had been previously divided into strips marked off with string. Some men were busy in their gardens, sowing, binding up fruit trees, etc. I saw a young soldier in uniform helping two other youths to mark off a strip of grass land.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

French soldiers and Swiss peasants

One Sunday morning, British expat Will Spencer ran into some recuperating wounded French soldiers enjoying their time in neutral Switzerland.

18 March 1917

Shortly after 10.30 set out to go to church, but thinking of the possibility of the same crazy man being in the congregation who spoke to me after the service a fortnight ago [not mentioned in the diary!], I decided to go for a walk instead. Across the little footbridge – French soldiers perilously oaring boats gondolier fashion down the Aare – on one, a number of Swiss peasants as passengers.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/27)

The “Daily Mail” is demanding that Asquith & Churchill should be impeached

Expat Will Spencer had plenty to interest him in the Swiss newspapers – the first news of the Russian Revolution, plus the official enquiry into the fiasco of the Dardanelles expedition.

16 March 1917

Max Ohler’s birthday.

News in the paper of a revolution in St Petersburg. Also a rumour that the Czar is a prisoner, & has abdicated, & that his brother, the Grand-duke Michael Alexandrovitch, has been appointed regent….

Read an article in by the London correspondent of the “Bund” on the report of the Commission which was appointed to enquire into the conduct of the British Dardanelles Expedition. Lloyd George had said in Feb. 1915 that the Army was not there to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the Navy. The responsibility for the land operations(100,000 killed, wounded & missing, & 100,000 sick) being persevered with, rested with Asquith, Churchill & – though one is reluctant to say it under the circumstances – chiefly with the late Lord Kitchener.

My question is, did Asquith know that the chances of success were too small to justify the prosecution of the campaign? Or did he think it best to be guided by the opinion of Kitchener, & was it the expressed opinion of the latter that the chances were good enough. In the latter case, I am sorry for Asquith. The expedition was an expensive failure, but if the attempt had not been made, probably plenty would have said afterwards that it ought to have been made. It is always much easier to judge after the event.

The “Daily Mail” is demanding that by way of a warning to others, Asquith & Churchill should be impeached. Apparently it was from Australia & New Zealand that the demand for an enquiry came, very large contingents from those colonies having taken part & suffered heavily in the campaign.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

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)

“Swiss soldiers fired three times over the grave”

Severely wounded PoWs from both sides were given a more kindly environment in neutral Switzerland. Unfortunately, some of them did eventually succumb to their injuries. Will Spencer attended one dignified funeral, and observed the respectful treatment given by the Swiss army.

20 February 1917

In the afternoon an English soldier – or rather a Canadian soldier – who had died at the Victoria Sanatorium close by was buried in the Schlossholde cemetery a mile to the north east of the town. I did not attend the service in the sanatorium, but followed to the cemetery. A firing party of Swiss soldiers fired three times over the grave, after the coffin had been lowered & the service was ended. An elderly English officer of apparently high rank was present, & acknowledged the salute of the Swiss sergeant & his men after they had ceased firing.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland, 1917 (D/EX801/27)