War Letters 1914-1918, Vol. 1
The first volume of War Letters 1914–1918 is based on the First World War (WW1) letters of Wilbert Spencer, a young British army officer who joined up in August 1914 only to die eight months later. It is available free at Amazon. The following is a short selection from the book. You can read more at Amazon.
INTRODUCTION / LETTERS / NOTES TO INTRODUCTION / NOTES TO LETTERS
‘Britain At War’ thundered the front page of The Times on 5 August 1914. Within days posters and newspapers were carrying Kitchener’s appeal for men to join the army. ‘At this very moment,’ it began, ‘the Empire is on the brink of the greatest war in the history of the world. In this crisis your Country calls on all her young unmarried men to rally round the Flag and enlist in the ranks of her Army. If every patriotic young man answers her call, England and her Empire will emerge stronger and more united than ever.’ 1
Britain’s existing regular army, which relied solely on voluntary recruitment, was highly trained but small compared to the vast conscript forces the German army could mobilise. If Britain was going to war, then many more men would be needed, and in the first months they came forward in their hundreds of thousands. By the end of August nearly 300,000 men had enlisted, and by the end of the year the total had exceeded one million. The British ranks were quickly swollen by tens of thousands from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies. 2
Just as the army urgently needed men to fill the ranks, so it needed officers to lead them, and in the early days of the war those officers would come almost exclusively from Britain’s universities and public schools. Wilbert Spencer, a pupil at Dulwich College, a public school in the south of London, would soon become one of those officers.
At Dulwich Wilbert was following in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Hermann and Rudolph, who had both attended the school. ‘It was what you would call a middle-class school,’ explained P.G. Wodehouse, who attended the school a few years before Wilbert. ‘We were all the sons of reasonably solvent but certainly not wealthy parents … Bertie Wooster’s parents would never have sent him to Dulwich.’
One of the main reasons Dr Frederic Spencer, a schools inspector at the Board of Education, had chosen Dulwich for his three sons was that it excelled in the teaching of modern languages, particularly German. A former professor of modern languages himself, Frederic Spencer had studied and lived in Germany where he developed a profound love for its language and culture. When there he had met the woman who would become his wife and mother to his children. Although their sons were all born in Britain, Frederic and his wife Helene had given them German names and taught them all to speak the language. The family also had a German cook at home. At Dulwich both the Spencers were confident that a love of German culture would continue to be imparted to their sons …
[The introduction in the book continues until … ]
… To help meet the need for officers to lead the rapidly expanding army, the Royal Military College at Sandhurst had introduced a short, three-month course at the beginning of the war. Admission was by competitive written examination. If accepted, the boys’ parents were required to pay tuition and boarding fees, and also pay for uniform, books and other equipment. After successfully completing the course, students could apply for an officer’s commission. Within three weeks of the war commencing, Wilbert had secured his place at Sandhurst and was starting his course, eager with anticipation. He was just seventeen years old.13
INTRODUCTION / NOTES TO INTRODUCTION / NOTES TO LETTERS
[The following is just a short selection of Wilbert’s letters. It includes the first two letters he wrote home from Sandhurst, and a later letter from the front recounting his experience of the 1914 Christmas Truce. The first letter includes the accompanying notes.]
Royal Military College
I am sitting in the company ante-room before going to mess. We are all working very hard. The theoretical work belonging to tactics, military law, engineering and map reading is very interesting and the officers are very nice. 1
We shall want field glasses soon and it is advisable to get them now, so if Mr Mathews will be kind enough to lend me his I should like them at once. We also have to have a revolver and most people get them now in order to practice on the revolver range before passing out. 2
I have not yet got my uniform but have been measured.My word you do have to drill smartly here. Six times smarter than the OTC. 3
Please send my love to all and send the cap, anyway, at once. Also my dressing gown. And if mother has a small tablecloth four ft. sq. to spare, any colour, please send also.
Love to all,
Royal Military College
15th September 1914
My Dear Mother,
Yesterday, after Church Parade, I spent all day at the prisoner’s camp about five miles from here. There are almost 2, 200 German soldiers and many civilian prisoners. On Saturday I was up there and saluted an officer who came up and spoke to me so I asked him if I could go in. He happened to be the Adjutant so he said it might be possible if I came up on Sunday. So all yesterday, bar meal times, I spent in amongst them – an awfully nice lot of fellows – and I was awfully popular having simply crowds around me listening to my excellent German pronunciation.
I had long talks with all and promised to go over to Berlin after the war to drink a bottle of lager with them. They said they wished I would come over there. They, of course, were rather dirty after fighting and travelling, and there were one or two ruffian looking people, but they were a really gentlemanly lot on the whole. I bought an infantry helmet for a souvenir and also had one or two things given me as well.
Every morning here we get up at 6, get some hot coffee in the mess room and bread and butter, then parade at 6.55 till 8. Breakfast, then rifle inspection 8. 45. Entrenching today from 9–12.45. Digging like ordinary navvies and getting to know how to make head cover in the trenches. Then parade at 2 till 3, sometimes Physical Training, sometimes Musketry. Then Range from 4.30–5, Law and Administration to day at 5.15–6.30. Then dress for mess at 8. Rooms for 9–10. I have given you now a fair idea of the day’s programme. Of course it varies in work and time. We often go out all morning as field day. Then we usually have night operations 1 or 2 times per week. In fact the life here is very healthy and extraordinarily interesting.
I will stop now as I must get to know a little about military account keeping for Law and Administration.
Love to all. Kiss also to Baby.
Your affectionate son,
28th December 1914
My Dear Mother,
Well, here we are again after a very cold Xmas in the trenches. We went in on Xmas Eve and saw 9–10 lights along the German lines. These, I said, were Christmas trees and I happened to be right. There was no firing on either side during the night which was one of severe frost. On Xmas Day we heard the words “Happy Christmas” being called out, whereupon we wrote up on a board “Glückliches Weihnahctem!” and stuck it up.
There was no firing and so by degrees each side began gradually showing more of themselves, and then two of their men came halfway over and called for an officer. I went out and found out that they were willing to have an armistice for four hours and to carry our dead men back halfway for us to bury. A few days previous we had had an attack with many losses. This I arranged, and then – can you imagine it? – both sides came out, met in the middle, shook hands, wished each other the compliments of the season and had a chat. A strange sight between two hostile sides! Then they carried over the dead. I won’t describe the sights I saw and which I shall never forget. We buried the dead as they were. Then back to the trenches with the feeling of hatred growing stronger after what we had just seen. It was a very weird Xmas Day. It was strange after just shaking hands and chatting with them. There was very little firing for the next two hours.
I have just had two parcels, one long one containing an Xmas tree, chocolate, cigs and tobacco and another containing mittens, scarf and medicines. All very welcome. I have not yet received the much longed for cardigan waistcoat. I hope it is not lost.
We are now in billet in a farmhouse for three days’ rest. The family is very nice, consisting of small girls from 16 to 4 and one little boy. After thoroughly inhaling the sweet thoughts which the little Christmas tree conveyed to us out here I gave it to the little girl of four much to the delight of the family.
In two months time perhaps I shall be able to get leave for a day or two at home, but this is very uncertain as they need everyone of us out here now. If you can I should like a pair of Gun Boots “size 10”. Put a couple of labels on each parcel you send out. Cigarettes, cocoa, soup tabloids, Oxo cubes would all be very welcome, also small tins of condensed milk – we often make chocolate drink for a change. A big soft tobacco pouch would be very nice. We smoke a great deal out here. I am sure it does much to sustain us all. (I believe you can get some very good cigarettes quite cheap at the Harrods’ sale after Christmas.)
I will write as often as I can but you must remember there is heaps to do and it is too muddy to write in the trenches.
Your loving son,
P.S. We are in one of the few houses not destroyed by the Germans.
Notes to Introduction
[These are the notes to the first two paragraphs of the introduction. The rest of the introduction in the book is similarly annotated.]
1a. ‘Kitchener…’ Field-Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Widely regarded as Britain’s greatest living soldier for his exploits in Africa, Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War on 5 August 1914 – a position he would hold until his death in June 1916.
The appointment was widely acclaimed in the press, but at the War Office many were less enthusiastic. ‘He was not, in fact, in all respects fully equipped for his task,’ said Major-General Sir Charles Callwell, Director of Military Operations at the War Office. ‘It was during those opening months … that he introduced the measures which won us the war. But it was also during those opening months, when he was disinclined to listen to advice, that he made his worst mistakes.’ Callwell, C.E., Experiences of a Dug-Out 1914–1918, p. 48, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21833/21833-h/21833-h.htm#page048
For a short biography of Kitchener, sympathetic to his overall achievements, see Neilson, K., ‘Kitchener, Horatio Herbert, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (1850–1916)’, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34341. (Free online access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography requires a British public libraries card.)
1b. ‘Kitchener’s appeal for men to join the army …’ For the full text of the appeal see The Times Documentary History of the War, Vol. V, p. 13, http://archive.org/stream/timesdocumentary05londuoft#page/13/mode/1up
The famous ‘Your Country Needs YOU’ poster, designed by Alfred Leete, first appeared in London Opinion, a weekly men’s magazine, on 5 September 1914. For a brief history explaining the origins of the poster see Bryant, M., ‘Poster Boy: Alfred Leete’, http://www.historytoday.com/mark-bryant/poster-boy-alfred-leete
2a. ‘Britain’s existing regular army, which relied solely on voluntary recruitment, was highly trained, but small …’ In August 1914 the size of the regular British army, consisting of full-time professional soldiers, was 247,432. In addition, Britain also had:
The army reserve – former regular soldiers who had completed their service but could be called up in time of war – total 145,347.
The Special Reserve – men who had undergone six months’ full-time training, topped up with additional training for two weeks a year – total 63,933.
The Territorial Force – men who trained at camp once a year and on occasional weekends and evenings – total 268, 777. Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War, 1914–1920, p. 30, http://www.vlib.us/wwi/resources/britishwwi.html (PDF p. 30) (84 MB).
2b. ‘in the first months they came forward in their hundreds of thousands …’ The early rush to enlist is frequently cited as evidence of a general popular enthusiasm for the war amongst most of the British population. ‘In reality,’ says Dr Catriona Pennell, author of A Kingdom United, an in-depth study of British reactions to the war, ‘the responses of ordinary British and Irish people were much more complex than the myth of war enthusiasm suggests. The crowds existed, yet other crowds opposed the war, and many more people were shocked and disbelieving, or at best reluctant in their acceptance.’ Pennell, C., A Kingdom United, p. 4.
2c. ‘By the end of the month nearly 300,000 men had enlisted …’ The exact number given in the official statistics was 298,923, with 1,186, 357 enlisting before the year’s end. Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War, 1914–1920, p. 362, http://www.vlib.us/wwi/resources/britishwwi.html (PDF p. 356) (84 MB).
Exact figures for the German army vary, but the British official history gives the size in 1914 at 850,000, rising to 4,300,000 when all the reserves were fully mobilised. Edmonds, J. E., Military Operations, Vol. 1, pp. 20–1, http://archive.org/stream/militaryoperatio01edmouoft#page/20/mode/1up
Kaiser Wilhelm II was purportedly so dismissive of the British army that he referred to it as a ‘contemptible little army’, giving the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) their proud nickname of ‘Old Contemptibles’. Although widely reported in the British press at the time, no reliable evidence has ever emerged that the Kaiser actually made the remark. Arthur Ponsonby, MP, was one of the first to expose the story as a likely British fabrication partly aimed at helping recruitment. Ponsonby, A., Falsehood in Wartime – Propaganda Lies of the First World War, ch. 10, http://www.vlib.us/wwi/resources/archives/texts/t050824i/ponsonby.html#10
Notes to Letters
[These are the notes to Wilbert’s first letter home. The rest of the letters in the book are similarly annotated.]
1a. ‘The theoretical work belonging to tactics, military law, engineering and map reading is very interesting …’ A useful synopsis of the War Office syllabus, listing the ‘subjects which a young officer must know or have some knowledge of before he can be selected for service in the field’, can be found in Lake, B.C., Knowledge for War – Every Officers Handbook for the Front, pp. 1–5, http://www.archive.org/stream/knowledgeforware00lakerich#page/1/mode/1up
2a. ‘We shall want field glasses soon …’ Both trainee officers and commissioned officers were expected to buy there own kit and uniform for which they could later claim back some of the cost. The Field Service Manual, 1914, lists what they needed. For ‘dismounted officers’ this included ankle boots, braces, puttees, handkerchief, matches, watch and whistle. Field Service Manual, 1914, pp. 16–17, http://archive.org/stream/fieldservicemanu00greauoft#page/n27/mode/1up
2b. ‘We also have to have a revolver …’ When the war began, Webley and Scott, one of the War Office’s recognised suppliers of service revolvers, immediately doubled the price of revolvers for officers. Following an official complaint, the company backtracked claiming that the ‘extra charge was unauthorised by their directors.’ Hansard, HC Deb., 27 August 1914, Vol. 66, cc. 158–9, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1914/aug/27/service-revolvers-prices
3a. ‘I have not yet got my uniform …’ Various men’s outfitters such as Moss Bros. and Thresher & Glenny competed to provide uniforms. The first few pages of Knowledge for War carry a number of illustrated advertisements from different suppliers offering items such as whipcord jackets, serge slacks, flannel shirts and khaki handkerchiefs. Lake, B.C., Knowledge for War – Every Officers Handbook for the Front, pp. iii–xviii, http://www.archive.org/stream/knowledgeforware00lakerich#page/n2/mode/1up
3b. ‘My word you do have to drill smartly here. Six times smarter than the OTC …’ The OTC had sometimes been the object of slight ridicule. ‘I am well aware of the story of the Instructors at Sandhurst,’ said Captain Haig-Brown, ‘who used to say: “Now all of those who have been in a school cadet corps fall in here for extra parade”; and I have even heard of a Woolwich official who said to his cadets: “Now gentlemen, try and forget everything you learned in your O.T.C.” ’ Haig-Brown, A.R., The O. T. C. and the Great War, p. 85, http://archive.org/stream/otcgreatwar00haig#page/85/mode/1up