Glorious sunshine – good for the Bosch, worse luck

Sydney Spencer was poised to move up the line to the worst action.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 17 May 1918

After a very good night’s sleep I got up at 3.30 after smoking a cigarette & taking an infinite childish delight in watching the bewildering clouds of vapours curling along the narrow slant of the shaft of sunshine which came through the small attic window in my room.

After breakfast I took rifle inspection afterwards. Sat & worked at mess bills & got them settled thank goodness. After lunch I went round to B HQ, settled up wine bills & left 80 francs with Sergeant Green for buying stuff while we are up the line.

It is now 4 pm & at 8.30 we go up the line again. So, my dear diary, I close your pages for a few days, as although I have been very careful to tell you little or nothing that is compromising, I dare not take you near where you might be taken prisoner! So au-revoir!

By the way, last night the Buffs made a big raid. Killed about 300, took prisoners, & got off with less than 10 casualties. It is a scorching hot day. We started out for the front line at 8.30 & got there at 11.15 & took over the trench without further ado – had absolutely no excitement getting there either.

Percy Spencer
17 May 1918

6 pm report from QM re petrol tins.

The best day since I arrived, a glorious sunshine. But good for the Bosch, worse luck. Division to be relieved tonight. We endeavouring to stay in Warlos for a might at least. Got NCO promotions nearly up to date, & a letter register started.
Pushed out of Warlos by 58th. Went to camp on hillside. Close quarters but lovely day. CO went to command 141.

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

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“I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding”

Poor Sydney Spencer felt discouraged.

Sydney Spencer
Tuesday 14 May 1918

Got up at 7 am. Took charge of company out beyond wood & railway for digging trench. Started work at 9 am. Went on till 3.30. CO not pleased! I am just a little weary of trying my hardest & not apparently succeeding. But still I shall win through alright you see, my dear diary.

When I got back from working party at 4 pm, to find that Major Bracey had been over here to see me. He is at V-rs and I wanted this chance of going over to see him after lunch & tea which were welded into one meal. I mucked about, acted OC to company for a time, while Rolfe & Peyton were out temporarily riding, then dinner & bed, with very strict instructions from Rolfe that there were no orders for me & that I was to go to bed & rest long in the morning. I took a book to bed with me to read. It is called The Courtship of Mollie somebody or other, and is by A E W Mason. The ordinary sort of stuff, but good reading for me at the moment.

Percy Spencer
14 May 1918

A very fine day. Bosch shelled a bit. Enemy plane got over a balloon here and caused both observers to parachute down. Plane flew low and was well shot at but got away. Sent a bottle of whiskey to the boys of the 14th & bought 3 bottles of Hock and Chandon for Davis’s party coming out tomorrow.

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

A manly sermon and modern religion

Sydney attended to the practical needs of his men while thinking about God.

Sydney Spencer
Sunday 12 May 1918

After a delicious night’s sleep in pyjamas on a semblance of a bed, I got up at 10 am! Wrote sundry letters. Made up my accounts. Went down & saw my platoon. They seemed very happy. Also to HQ Mess, settled wine account. After lunch got QM to change a cheque for 300 francs. Hence we have money again. Examined kits of platoon. Took them to a bath where they got change of clothes. Got their clothes and boots examined.

Tea & more letter writing. Heard from OB, Major Bracey, Field & Ruscoe. Got some money out of officers. Spent 47 francs on food for mess.

To evening service of YMCA. Christopherson, padre of Buffs, preached a manly sermon. Stayed to communion. About 60 men stopped. Had a talk with C afterwards. After dinner sat & talked ‘modern religion’ to Hervey & Rolfe.

Percy Spencer
12 May 1918

A wet day. But an eventful one because I have just heard my first shell since June last year. No connection, but the villagers are moving out in anticipation of Fritz’s attack, due originally on the 8th, next yesterday, & now fixed for the 14th.

Had a long chat with CO in the evening. CO told me forward HQ found my presence at Dept very useful. Major Woolley also wrote from England saying nice things about me. Another bad night owing to Bosch shelling & aircraft activity.

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

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)

“In this wretched country, in these wretched conditions, I’m very happy”

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was having a good time.

May 5, 1918

My dear WF

The CO has borrowed my pen so you’ll have to put up with pencil.
I’m having a fine time working hard re-organising our office, and in the mess enjoying the society of gentlemen.

2 colonels are living with us (having a rest), one has commanded this regiment and the other does. They’re like a couple of schoolboys and spend a lot of time pulling each other’s legs.
John would love one of them in particular. As each of our shells hurtle over he counts the seconds to the burst and describes the damage to the Hun. If only each shell did the damage described, the war would be over.

[censored]

The Padre is a perfectly delightful fellow. In short, in this wretched country, in these wretched conditions, I’m very happy.
All the boys of my old staff are here and seem to take a mighty pleasure in saluting me.

Last night we dined in state with the Regimental Band playing. The CO had invited M. Le Maire [the local mayor] – an ancient old fellow with flowing whiskers. It was a great affair, especially the wine drinking and tasting when the French & our own National Anthems were played.

I told you how I ran into 2 of the fellows we rowed against at Cambridge.

Well, yesterday my rough diamond (No. 6) found me out and we had a long talk together.

Sydney has written me again. He doesn’t seem to like shells, curiously enough, but appears quite happy.

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/7/33-34)

“It was delightful to hear from England at last”

There was a last day’s practice before Sydney Spencer went ‘up the line’.

Monday 22 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. A lovely morning, sunny & so much warmer. After breakfast went on parade. Did PT & company drill till 11.30. Paraded again at 12.45 & took company in gas drill 3 platoons at a time while another platoon was firing in the long range. Company commanders took a look at the line which we are taking up tomorrow. Adjutant of Suffolks got a nasty wound in shoulder & lung from sniper.

I had lots of letters & parcels from home today. It was delightful to hear from England at last. Flea bag came. Am at present at HQ mess trying hard to get mess bills (wine) paid up, but they don’t seem to want to take any notice of me but here I [stay?] till it is settled. 9.15 am [sic?].

Not settled.

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

Pork and potato pancakes on Christmas Day – but it will cost extra

Interned foreigners in Reading were to have a special menu on Christmas Day.

The interned aliens have asked for the Christmas Day diet to be as in attached list.

1. Pork – the contractor can supply this at 1/4 per lb against 1/3 per lb for beef. The ingredients for stuffing would be extra – probable total extra cost 8/-.
2. Potato pancakes. Cost about 8/-.
3. They can buy these except ham & sausages (if they can get them), which I have struck on account of food restrictions.
C M Morgan
Gov.

The Governor of Reading P of I
1. The diet should be so arranged that the Christmas Day fare takes the place of the following on the dietary scale: Bread, potatoes, hot meat (mutton), peas or beans and pudding. That is, to avoid their having three puddings in one week. There is no objection to pork for those who desire it, but the extra cost as well as the stuffing they should pay for themselves.
2. The potato pancakes would be an extra. There is no objection to this, but again they should pay the cost themselves.
3. There is no objection to the purchase of the articles mentioned under this paragraph (ham and sausage being omitted). Wine is not allowed.
S J Wall, Secretary 14-12-17

Noted, but the authorised diet is three puddings per week. Is the order allowing men beer or wine each day cancelled? I’ve received no notification and men have it.
C M Morgan, Gov
16-12-17

Three puddings per week must not be exceeded.
Extra wine is not allowed, beyond the daily allowance.
JW 21-12-17

Reading Prison [Place of Internment] letter book (P/RP1/8/2/1)

“Sickened by this uncalled for impertinence of President Wilson”

Percy Spencer spent part of his leave with his parents in Cookham, then headed for his sister’s house in Cambridge. Brother in law John Maxwell Image had some more to say about the political scene – he was very unimpressed by US President Wilson!

24 Dec. [1916]

Florence specially bids me join her good wishes with mine to Mrs Smith and you, we can’t at this juncture say for a Merry Xmas, but our heartfelt good wishes that you may have a Good and Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

She got back here on Thursday [from Cookham]: and is at this moment in bed with a rancorous cold which she brought back from her voyaging, together with her brother. Poor fellow, he had to leave the very next morning (and is back at the Front by now): but he longed to see me, just once again. He is one of those fine fellows whom you feel you can trust through thick and thin. Florence showed me a thing he values far above medals – an autograph appraisement of him by the General. It is scribbled in pencil, but I never read stronger and I may say more affectionate words of the way he is looked up to and regarded by the entire Staff of the Brigade; and (it would have been tame without that) of his coolness under fire and his courage. Prizing it as he did, he would not take it back, but left it for safety – not with his parents, but with Florence. It is touching to note how the brothers, one and all, turn to her for everything.

I have never felt more bewildered – more sickened – than by this uncalled for impertinence of President Wilson. Does he dare to pretend that, in his view, the desire of each side is “virtually the same”, to secure the “rights and privileges of weak peoples and small states”?!!!

To quote the Observer, he would “present Germany with a gratuitous certificate of moral equality. Take the Hun out of quarantine and provide him with a clean bill of health”.

The Right Answer is the answer of Jehu.

Let Mr Wilson ponder what will be the lot of America, should Germany establish the world-empire she is striving for.

Nevertheless, ever since Agadir in 1911, I have placed full trust in Lloyd George as a fighting chief – once he could shake clear from “Wait and See”. He has done that now. He is practically a Dictator. It may not be pleasant for the home-folk, but it is the winning card. Once more is true the claim, “I know I can save this people, and that nobody else can”. It is Lloyd George or nothing.

Carson, no doubt, might: but he is older: and would he have received such unanimous acceptance?

How will the worn out Balfour manage at the FO? He was so singularly gauche in his announcements from the Admiralty that I am of those who see, in his appointment and that of Lord Robert Cecil, a sop to the Salisbury influence. He resembles Grey in being a gentleman. In other things I hope he will be clearer and keensighted.

The Hall was full on Wednesday – 199 Cadets and 37 Dons and Officers. Government limitation of 3 courses. I had 1. Hare Soup. 2. Wing Fowl. 3. Mincepie – and felt far more comfortable than after the gorges of old time. Wines were Fizz and Port, only. The former foamed forth during the soup. The Master and VM were unable to come, and I was in the Chair: and let in for some of the oratory. It was a joyous party. The boys (nearly all of whom had served at the Front already, and had wounds and medals to shew) were so sweet and friendly. They buzzed round, begging your signature on their menus. They set such store by this, and send the cards home to the ends of the earth. I signed my name well over 100 times. Fortunately I had the Colonel on my right, so I got him to stand up and send them to their places; else we should have got no forrader, at one time. At 10 he and I eloped: but the fun went on – and what most relieved me was that I escaped the sickening song Auld Lang Syne…

Your most affectionate
Bild

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

Sleeping in a manger – better than living in a chicken run

In a series of postcards, all postmarked 8 September 1916, Percy Spencer gave his sister Florence the latest news of billets behind the lines.

My dear WF

I’ve been fighting hard without a moment to enjoy the beauties of nature and the arts.

Amongst other things in this charming city, we had a real civilised dinner, cycling back to our present billets in the twilight feeling very light in the belt and light in the head (discovered a really good wine).

Just now I’m living in a stable, and sleep in the manger – in fact, stables for offices are quite the rage about here. Anyway I’ve viewed life from a variety of points of view. But I’ve not yet had an opportunity of a chicken-run view of life, as my friends the Signal Section had at our last quarters.

We’ve had a really lovely time lately (rather strenuous at times) but thoroughly enjoyable, and a welcome relief from the old monotony of trench warfare.

I hope you’ll be able to piece these cards together. It’s a very disjointed note, I’m afraid, but the amount of interruption I get is disheartening. To start writing seems to be the signal for interruptions….

Yours ever
Percy

Postcards from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/24-27)

“All the poor Serbs died like flies”

Maysie Wynne-Finch wrote to her brother Ralph with news of an escaped British prisoner of war’s horrific experiences.

March 27/16
Elgin Lodge
Windsor

My darling R.

Thank you for yours of 16th. It must be very boring for you with so little doing. You must all feel very like sea-weed left high & dry after a gale! Still you never know. Things in France seem settling down again rather. It’s a comfort anyhow to think the Hun cannot re-make all the men they’ve just thrown away anyhow. Beeky Smith writes a most amusing account of the French in their part of the line. He says they all look about 70 & wander about with brown paper parcels in their hands, presumably food, & generally a bottle of wine sticking out somewhere, & they never appear to carry any weapon or equipment whatever!

The last excitement here is a private just escaped from prison in Germany. Taken (wounded) Sep. 14, 1914. He gives the most gastly [sic] account of things. They think he’s truthful as he’s so shy it’s a job to make him talk so he’s not likely to invent. Like them all he says the journey after being taken was the worst time, & always it was the officers who either ordered or if need be personally ill-treated the prisoners. He was in 3 prisons, & twice before tried to escape. He says it’s fairly easy for men to escape really, but practically impossible for officers, they are so terrifically guarded. He finally got away with two Frenchmen – acrobats. They went through what was supposed to be impassable swamp land swimming two rivers, & so into Holland, where the Dutch were awfully good to them & did all they could & apparently loathe the Huns.

He had various punishments various times for trying to escape & also because he refused to work in munition factories – one punishment they call sun punishment in the summer is to stand a man 12 hours to attention with cap off facing the sun. The idea being to blind the man. Prison imprisonment [sic] means solitary confinement in total darkness. He had one go 4 days in the dark & one in the light & then 4 days dark & so on. Prison food is a piece of bread 3 inches square per day, & water.

He says our men live solely on parcels from home. The camp food is impossible, but as this man fairly says, it’s not any worse than the German soldiers guarding them had, & at all times Germans eat worse food than us. He says when he first went to Hun-land there were men & women to be seen everywhere, now every place is deserted – the men to fight & the women doing the men’s work. For 5 days & nights they had no food or drink when they were 1st taken. Apparently they all loathe & distrust the Belgian prisoners. All the poor Serbs died like flies when they arrived as they had been starved, absolutely to death, during the journey to the camps.

There is much more but it’s the same as all these men say & no doubt you’ve heard it all before. One amusing thing is that when our men work on the land as they have to, they do everything they can to foil the show. Plant things upside down etc!!…

Your ever loving Maysie

It was angelic of you sending that letter off to that man in hospital.

Letter from Maysie Wynne-Finch to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/3)