On both

Elderly William Spencer of Cookham was proud that his daughter Florence Image was having her first satirical article published in Punch.

Fernley
Cookham
July 14, 1918

My dear Sydney, …

I am very glad you like my first effort in blank verse. … But Flo [his daughter Florence] has beaten me altogether. I can only attain to the ‘Advertiser’ but she, a puss, has just had an article of more than a column’s length accepted by ‘Punch’. She has revised the proof & I expect it will appear next Wednesday though it does not follow that acceptance means immediate publication. It has to do with ‘Dora’ & is entitled ‘On Both’ referring to any breach of D.O.R.A’s act being punishable with six months imprisonment, or a £50 fine, or both.

Letter from William Spencer of Cookham to his son Sydney (at the front) (D/EZ177/1/6/1)

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“Grim & sullen, at his post, never budging or paying any attention to anything at all but the patch of “no man’s land” immediately to his front”

As he travelled slowly back to the front, Sydney reflected on an old soldier who taught him a lesson about what was really important at war.

Wednesday 3 July 1918

11.30 am I don’t think I have felt so easy in mind, or fit and well, for about 8 weeks as I feel today. The influence of this club with all its civilizing attributes has sunk right into me, & has made me quiet & contented with everything. Have been writing letters to Florence, Mother & Father. After lunch I take my draft to station to leave by 2 o’clock train for Doullens change for Domleger.

6.30 pm. After waiting for 4 ½ hours on the station here at Etaples, I have managed to get into a carriage with my kit too!

6.45. Train started.

7.30 pm. Montreuil. We passed near Hesdin at 7.45, passed through Beaurainville, the rest of the journey today passed tranquilly with the exception that the OC train was a terrible fidget! Got some broken sleep occasionally. Had an argument about money with an RFA officer.

Sydney to Florence
EFC Officers Rest House and Mess

July 3rd 1918
My Dearest Florence

In my platoon I have one Private Smith. He is a young old man of about 38 or 40. He is uncouth & gruff, he has a seared, wrinkled, weatherbeaten, ugly face, & out of the line worries one by his apparent lack of power ever to look a soldier. I noticed this man & one day [censored], I went up to him & said “Well, Smith, how does the world treat you?”

He looked at me sullenly & grunted, & said “Well, I have been out ‘ere a long time & I suffers terrible, me bones is all stiff & I gits rheumatic pains something terrible etc etc”. I turned away [censored] saying to myself, another old soldier of the eternally grumbling type”.

We went up the line, & one day when it was dull & misty while on my tour of trench duty, I saw Smith cautiously peering over the parapet with a spotlessly clean rifle, looking well groomed & cared for, glued to his shoulder. I took no notice, but from then onwards I kept my eye on him.

On bright days he was never there, but so sure as it was a dull day, misty, or bad for observation, no matter at what time I went along, there I should find him, grim & sullen, at his post, never budging or paying any attention to anything at all but the patch of “no man’s land” immediately to his front. Now he is a sanitary man, & he is never officially a sentry, & never has orders to do sentry duty. Yet for hours daily I used to find him solemnly on the watch!

It puzzled me, so I paused in passing him one day & said “Well, Smith, do you think that brother Fritz intends coming over?” With much grimacing & grunting he slowly lifted himself from his post, & a slow rustic smile breaking out over his ugly face he said, “Well, sir, these youngsters doant realize & so I likes to keep on the watch meself a bit when the weather’s bad, but you know sir, my back, it’s fit nigh to break, in this damp weather & gits that stiff I wonder whether I shall ever be fit agin etc etc.” [Censored]

I felt then humble & respectful. He was his younger brother’s keeper very really. He had a lesson to teach me & I hope I learned it. [Censored] the native beauty of the character of this very rough diamond.

Your always affectionate Brer Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/51)

“A bicycle made for two”

More from the Spencer brothers.

Will Spencer
15 May 1918

Some French soldiers were resting on the benches on the paved platform between the two buildings of the Blumlisalp Hotel. For the first time I had the feeling that the [interned] soldiers at this hotel were in some respects better off than those at the Waldpark. The hotel has more the unpretentious character of an Inn – is more rustic & more cheerful, with its water trough by the road & its tree-planted space between the two buildings. One of the soldiers was whistling the tune of “A bicycle made for two”, & I was surprised & amused to find that J. knew the words to almost the whole of the tune – which was more than I did.

Sydney Spencer
Wednesday 15 May 1918

3.30 pm. I am seated now, guess where, my dear diary? At Major Bracey’s working table at his billet! Only 3 kilos from where I at present live. I have just ridden over on Capt. Rolfe’s gee. Major Bracey is out however & won’t be back till 5, so I shall stick here to see him & having the football match I half promised to play in. I hope there won’t be a dust up about it though. It will be splendid to see old Bracey again, it is 14 months since I last saw him. Had a day off today. Dear old Rolfe, he did the straight by me after my two rather thorny days on Monday & Tuesday. Have just written to Father & Mother.

At 5.30 pm.
Major Bracey did not turn up. I waited till nearly 6 pm. Rode back. Watched football match between officers & men – a drawn game. After dinner walked over, saw dear old Bracey who cheered me up immensely. He walked back part of the way with me. To bed at 10.30 & read more of my book.

Percy Spencer
15 May 1918

A glorious sunshiny day. A good deal of trouble over billets. Trying to hang on in Warlos for a night at least. Division to be relieved tonight. Up half the night sorting details. Eventually turned in at 3 am after champagne supper & slept on floor in a company mess. Fritz bombed outskirts of village.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

Peaceful persuasion

Sydney Spencer moved to better quarters today, while Percy’s regiment was handing out food to starving locals.

Sydney Spencer
Saturday 11 May 1918

Got up at 4 am. ‘Stand to’ and took men over to yet another new BP. Got back at 5.30 & slept till 9. Had breakfast brought to me in bivy. After breakfast a shave & wash & wrote long letters to Broadbent & Father & Mother. A note from the Padre re wine bills.

After lunch to change bivys with D Company. Completed by 3.45. Changed my socks & had tea. Wrote to the mother of one of my wounded men. During the ‘bivy’ [illegible] this afternoon saw a very comic fight between two men carrying petrol cans.

After dinner we all sat & waited to ‘scoot’ for A—s, which waiting lasted till 9.45, & then we took up our bed & walked. We arrived at midnight.

Found my platoon’s billet a very cosy one. Came here to our billet. Jolly comfortable. A small room each, and a mess room decked with French flags! Probably an old café’. To bed in my flea bag & valise with clothes off for first time for 15 days, with exception of taking them off for a bath!

Percy Spencer
11 May 1918

A good day. Had tea with my old chums of the 1&2. Called on Blofeld of the TMs, who was full of glee over his TM barrage which led to the 23rd killing 70 Bosch. Met Lynes whose company lost the bit of trench afterwards retaken. He told me trench was full of kit & pillows!

25-0 band conducted by a private (my old friend at Chiseldon – [Henry?] Doe & varsity man – deputy organist of St Paul’s) played outside my orderly room.

A good deal of misery in village owing to a shortage of food, army fed these poor folk. Have an idea this is part of peaceful persuasion scheme. Col. Parish on leave – a great loss to the mess. I prosecuted in SIW case for Col. P. & man was convicted.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

A strange looking man who looked ill, got into a trench & started making charts

Sydney Spencer was obviously a suspicious looking character! Halma is a strategy board game involving constantly moving pieces across the board.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 10 May 1918

Got up at 7 am and went over to my platoon front to make out my range charts. I was taken for a spy and questioned by an Essex officer. The sentry had described me rather comically. I was to him a strange looking man who looked ill (!!) & wandered about, & finally got into a trench & started making charts!

At 9.45 gave evidence in a case at the orderly room & then had a bath at old brewery. Met Forster & another chap with whom I walked back.

Found that once made, our battle positions were to be changed! We seem to be sort of playing at Halma! After lunch I had a long sleep from 2.15 pm till 4.30 & much I enjoyed it too. Now I am writing to dear old Jumbo [Kenneth] Oliphant who wrote me last night. His address is St Margaret’s, Fern Hill Park, Woking.

Stand to tonight is at 8.15 pm. I took out a carrying party. Two journeys down a road you wot of, master diary. We had one casualty from machine gun fire. A C Company man. Got back at 11.30.

Letters from Florence, Broadbent & Father. Wrote a long letter to Florence.

Percy Spencer
10 May 1918

A glorious day. Paterson lunched with us. The Lance Corporal who was no good – only offence apparently that he plastered tracts on latrine seats.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“Sydney has crossed to France at last”

In Switzerland, Will Spencer heard the news that younger brothers Sydney and Percy were now both fighting in France.

1 May 1918

Shortly before eleven Johanna came & handed to me a postcard from father, then a letter from him & a letter from Mother. These were dated April 18th, 16th & 13th respectively, & the card which I received from father yesterday, April 11th…

Johanna read in yesterday’s paper that a “Briefsperre” on the French frontier had just come to an end.

The letters contained the news that Sydney had crossed to France at last, & that Percy had also just returned thither.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

The pinch will come after the war

The Spencer paterfamilias in Cookham was optimistic, while Florence Vansittart Neale despaired at the situation in Russia.

Will Spencer
23 February 1918

By this morning’s post we received a cheerful letter from Father… Sydney has taken his BA at Oxford. Has received splendid reports from his commanding officers. Was just getting into train at Paddington to come down to Cookham on a Saturday afternoon when he saw Percy on the next platform, whom he hadn’t seen for 2 years. He quickly fetched his luggage out, & stayed the night with Percy, who had just come up from Swindon for a few days, on business.

I was glad to learn from Father that they suffer no privation. The pinch will come after the war, he says, but what can be is being done to provide against that.

Florence Vansittart Neale
23 February 1918

Russians utter degradation, under the heel of Germany.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“The news of her boy’s death seems to have quite deranged her”

Percy Spencer, visiting his parents in Cookham, found a neighbour depressed by the death of a loved one.

Fernlea, Cookham
Decr 6, 1917

My dear WF

I find Dot [a neighbour?] very down and dismal. Poor girl, the news of her boy’s death seems to have quite deranged her for a while.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/73)

“My thoughts are with my country”

The exit of Russia from the war led expat Will Spencer to worry for the future of Britain.

1 December 1917

Have serious thoughts with regard to what the present defection of Russia may mean for the Entente, & particularly for my country. According to the papers, peace negotiations between Russia & Germany are to begin tomorrow.

Felt that my letter to Father, finished last night, talking chiefly about my new pupil, Pastor Burri, & about the beauty of, & my affection for Wimmis, was a strange one to have written under the circumstances. Was glad that I had just room to add the following postscript:

“I refrain from speaking about the war in my letters. I can only say that my thoughts are with my country & with you all.”

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

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)

Music and chess on leave

Will Spencer heard the details of a family Christmas at Cookham, with Percy and Sydney both on leave.

22 January 1917

Letters for us both, from Mother – a long one for me. When Florrie & Percy & Sydney were all at home, Annie played to them after supper, & they all enjoyed it. Annie practises every day, & plays “very well indeed” now. Percy played chess with Sydney, & afterwards Percy was Mother’s partner & Sydney Father’s in a game of whist. Percy visited “the Hunts & Captain Holliday” while he was over. (Is Captain H. no longer with Percy at the Front?) Mrs Raverat had sent 60 lbs of apples to Mother, & one of the officers’ wives had made an exquisite white wool shawl for her (Sydney paid for the wool). Mrs Philip Wigg had made some white wool bed socks for her.

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

Saying goodbye to a beloved son

Will Spencer kept in touch with his Cookham family, and had news of two of his serving brothers.

24 August 1916

Letter from Father… Had been to Aldershot to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘dear old Stan’, who had been home while Father was away, ‘& expects to be leaving England in two or three days’. Horace has had an attack of malarial fever, & is still in hospital.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Wishing this miserable war would end

Florence Vansittart Neale and her husband returned to the mainland after a stay on the Isle of Wight. Florence then went to see nurse daughter Phyllis.

Florence Vansittart Neale, 18 April 1916

Saw 2 destroyers, the Aquitania & a submarine. Hear they have a V class now. H to London, I to Southampton. Phyllis, Seymour & I spent afternoon together & had tea… Phyllis well & happy – head pro in dining room ward.

William Spencer senior of Cookha, meanwhile, was anxious about his son and German-born daughter in law in Switzerland.

Will Spencer, 18 April 1916
A letter to us both from Father….he is “distressed at Johanna’s position” & wishes that “this miserable war would end.”

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8) and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Delighted with the honour

William Spencer of Cookham wrote to his married daughter Florence with news of her brothers.

4.I.16

Mr & Mrs Fuller have written congratulating on honour conferred on [William’s son] Percy. We are delighted. It was in the ‘Times’ on Jan. 1. They are sending us their copy. This should help him in the matter of a Commission I think. …

Stan: [son Stanley, the artist] writes that the Sergt at Beaufort War Hospital has just heard that all the R.H.M.C men who left with Gil: [another son, Gilbert] for Salonika are quite well.

F[ather].

Postcard from William Spencer of Cookham to his daughter Florence Image (D/EZ177/1/7)