Pte. H. Spencer

Pte. H. Spencer

5746 Private Henry James Spencer,
2nd Battalion The Welsh Regiment and,
155 Protection Company, Royal Defence Corps

Medals with clasps similar to those awarded to Harry Spencer for service in South Africa (Dix Noonan Webb)

Harry Spencer was born on 11th December 1873 in Highgate, Middlesex. He was the middle child of five from the marriage of his father, James, a brickmaker, and mother, Emma. He grew up in Islington, and with his brother, Walter, worked for a greengrocer.

At the age of 24 years, in October 1898, Harry Spencer enlisted into the army, joining the 1st Battalion, The Welsh Regiment at Aldershot the following month.

Within a year, the British Army was fighting in South Africa after war broke out there against the Boers. The war was caused by the British Empire seeking to expand its influence and land occupancy in lands which were populated by Boer farmers, and across South Africa in general, following the discovery of large deposits of gold and diamonds. As many of the deposits were in Boer territories, the Boers resisted the expansion of the British Empire across their lands.

Harry Spencer sailed with his battalion for South Africa, one of the first to arrive from overseas, embarking on 4th November 1899. He served there for almost two-and-a-half years, and was twice promoted during his time there, but on 20th August 1902, he gave up his corporal’s rank, reverting at his own request to the rank of private, with Good Conduct pay. During service in South Africa, Harry Spencer’s battalion was involved in major battles at Paardeberg and Driefontein in which the battalion suffered heavy casualties. When medals were awarded for the South African War, the Queen’s South Africa Medal Harry Spencer received carried clasps for his involvement in actions at the Relief of Kimberley, Paardeberg, Driefontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, and Belfast, while his King’s South Africa Medal carried the usual clasps for South Africa 1901, and South Africa 1902.

Men of the Welsh Regiment in South Africa (Western Mail 6th November 1899)

Following the end of the war, an uneasy peace was established, but to maintain the peace, an increased military presence was required across South Africa, meaning that the Welsh Regiment had to stay on in the country. He was admitted to hospital at Machadodorp after suffering an accidental injury on 14th November 1902, but it appears to have been quite serious and beyond the capabilities of hospitals in South Africa. He was transferred from the hospital at Pretoria back to England, on 3rd March 1903, and arrived at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, on 6th April.

Following his discharge from hospital, and with his battalion still being in South Africa, he was temporarily attached to the 1st Battalion, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, based at Devonport in Plymouth. In August 1903, shortly after his attachment to the battalion began, he was given 48 hours’ detention, with hard labour, by his new Commanding Officer for an offence of absence. Receiving a relatively light punishment as he did, it is likely that the Commanding Officer found that Private Spencer had no intention of making his absence permanent, that he caused no trouble with the civil authority while he was absent, and that he returned of his own volition. He did, however, suffer the lasting deprivation of his Good Conduct Badge, and the extra uplift in pay that came with it. Private Spencer spent just over a year attached to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, without further incident, and returned to his own battalion on 9th August 1904.

Harry Spencer’s period of colour service ended on 28th October 1905, when he was transferred to the Army Reserve. He had served for seven years in the Regular Army, and he would be required to serve the remainder of his twelve-year commitment as a reservist.

South Wales learns of the outbreak of war (Western Mail 5th August 1914)

The Army Reserve consisted of three sections; A, B and D, and each had differing regulations relating to training requirements and payments. Men in A Reserve would be required to train for 12 days annually, and subject to satisfactory attendance, they received 7 shillings per week. This was equivalent to the basic pay of an infantry soldier; without the proficiency or Good Conduct payments a Regular Soldier could accrue. A man may stay in A Section of the Reserve for no longer than two and a half years, when he would usually transfer to B Section of the Reserve.

Most men leaving Regular Army service opted to go straight into B Section of the Reserve. Their training obligation was lighter than that of A Section, as was their call-out liability, but B Section men received only 3 shillings and sixpence weekly as their reserve pay. At the end of a man’s reserve service, he could opt for a full discharge, or choose to extend his reserve service by transferring to Section D.

Harry Spencer chose to transfer to Section D at the end of his combined Regular and Reserve Service totalling twelve years, on 28th October 1910, committing to a further four years in the reserve.

On leaving Regular Army service, Harry Spencer indicated that he would go to live in Pontypridd in Glamorgan, where he would work as a coal porter, and in the 1911 Wales Census, there is a Henry Spencer who was born in Highgate listed as a boarder in the household of Mr William Harts and his family, at 24 Windsor Street, Treherbert, further up the Rhondda Valley than Pontypridd.

Harry Spencer was still on D Reserve of the Army when the Great War broke out, and he received mobilisation orders to report to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, the Welsh Regiment at Maindy Barracks in Cardiff. He reported on 5th August 1914. Within seven weeks of his mobilisation, Harry Spencer had been restored to the rank of corporal, but on 4th November 1914, shortly before he was posted to 2nd Battalion, which was already serving in France with the British Expeditionary Force, his request to relinquish his rank was granted, and on 29th November 1914, Private Spencer sailed to France to join his battalion, which was serving in 3rd Infantry Brigade in 1st Division.

The area where 2nd Bn The Welsh Regiment fought on 9th May 1915 (National Library of Scotland)

The battalion Harry Spencer joined on 3rd December 1914 had been badly mauled at the Battle of Gheluvelt at the end of October, suffering more than 500 casualties, including a particularly heavy toll in losses among the officers. The battalion had received some reinforcements through November, but on 3rd December, a draft of 500 men including 14 officers, one of whom was the new medical officer, arrived from the base, including Pte Spencer. It was a memorable day for the battalion as it was inspected by the King, accompanied by the Prince of Wales, and the acting Commanding Officer, Captain HC Rees, received the Distinguished Service Order from the King as a reward for his actions during the Battle of Gheluvelt.

The battalion was now back up to strength and comprised 1048 all ranks, and it remained in billets for much of the rest of December, organising the new officers and men into the companies and platoons in which they would operate in the future. A further draft at the end of the month brought the strength of the battalion up to over 1100 officers and men.

The new men didn’t have long to wait before they were in action. In the early morning of 21st December 1914, the battalion was ordered to support an attack eastward from Gorre towards Festubert by 1st Bn South Wales Borderers and 1st Bn Gloucestershire Regiment. The two battalions were ordered to take the German positions at all costs, with the Welsh Regiment being ordered to fight through between those battalions to beyond Festubert if they should become held up. Twenty-eight men of the battalion were killed in this action. Official narratives describing the activities of units at this time are patchy in their coverage, even the battalion’s own war diary skips forward to Christmas Day, but when the narrative does pick up again, it speaks of the battalion occupying positions to the east of Festubert, meaning that the division had advanced beyond where it was on 21st December.

A Section of the Battlefield in front of Richebourg l'Avoue (© IWM Q 43898)

Although it is well known that there was something of a truce between German and British troops in small sections of the front line near the French and Belgian border, this temporary stoppage of the war was not widespread, and the 2nd Bn Welsh Regiment was not involved in any such truce or fraternisation, indeed, the war continued unabated for them in their sector. Small arms fire, machine guns and artillery were all active during the Christmas period, and as the year turned from 1914 to 1915, the small-scale fighting associated with normal trench holding routine carried on and continued to produce small numbers of casualties each day. A typical entry in the battalion’s war diary for this period, that of 5th January 1915, records, ‘Absolute peace and quiet all day. Casualties: - 1 killed.’ The battalion was relieved and marched to billets on 8th January.

The first major offensive action involving the 2nd Bn Welsh Regiment during 1915 was the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May, when the 1st Division, under Major General Richard Haking was deployed astride a feature known as the Cinder Track, which ran roughly southeast from the Rue du Bois, south of Richebourg l’Avoue, near Neuve Chapelle. The battalion would attack along track’s axis towards the German lines, some 200 yards in front of them. The ground here is flat and open, devoid of any natural cover, and is dissected into large parcels of land by deep, wide drainage ditches which are necessary to keep the land tillable and remain wet all year round. A worse place to launch an attack would be difficult to find. The ground has such a high water table that it was impossible to dig meaningful defensive positions below ground level, and both opposing armies constructed above-ground breastworks to provide a measure of cover.

The attack began at 05:30 on 9th May, with artillery opening a bombardment of German positions, during which, the infantry battalions sent out their leading men into no man’s land to establish a start line about 80 yards from the German lines. The Artillery bombardment that was meant to keep the Germans sheltering, so that the infantry could advance unobserved was inadequate, and every move the infantrymen made was seen, with their positions when they did go to ground noted. As soon as the main thrust of the attack got underway, the Germans opened up a terrific hail of machine gun fire which cut down the 2nd Bn Welsh Regiment as it picked its way through the few gaps in the barbed wire defences in front of the German positions. Not a single man of the battalion was able to reach the German

Loos Battlefield looking from Vermelles to Hulluch (© IWM Q 42187)

Information reached the Divisional Commander telling him that the initial attack had been a catastrophe. He decided that the remaining men needed two hours to reorganise themselves before attempting to attack again, and informed his Corps commander, Lieutenant General Charles Munro. The attack was going badly elsewhere along the line, and eventually the renewed attack was postponed until 2:40pm. In the new attack, the 1st Bn South Wales Borderers and 1st Bn Glosters led, but owing to the poor British barrage, they were observed and shot down as soon as they clambered over the parapet. None went further than 100 yards. The day’s battle was an unmitigated disaster which exacted a terrible cost in lost life.

In the aftermath of the battle, Harry Spencer was once more appointed a lance corporal. His experience was needed by his battalion commander, Lt Col Prothero, and his own feelings about holding rank may have been forced to become a secondary consideration for the time being. The colonel had a battalion to rebuild, and he would need every experienced man he could get his hands on to take a leadership role, no matter how junior that rank may be. Another battle was coming.

The Battle of Loos began on 25th September 1915. The 1st Division was in position south of the road that ran from Vermelles to Hulluch, and the men would advance across open fields towards the German trenches. The 2nd Bn Welsh Regiment, as at Richebourg l’Avoue was due to play a support role, rather than leading the advance, and it left Vermelles to take up position in old French trenches east of the town. The British released poison gas at 7:30am, but a change in the wind made the gas cloud stand still over where it had been released. It cleared a little after about an hour, and men could be seen charging towards the German lines and disappearing over a ridge. The battalion heard nothing of the progress of the attack, but at 11:00am it was ordered forward to trenches by le Rutoire Farm. At 12:30 the battalion was ordered forward once more, to support the Munster Fusiliers in their attack south of Hulluch. Immediately the battalion moved off towards Hulluch, it came under heavy fire from the Bois Carrée, but the fire was ineffective, and the battalion continued to advance, crossing the German first and second lines before the fire directed at it from Hulluch began to inflict casualties on the battalion. It now became apparent that the Munster Fusiliers were not leading the way and the Welsh Regiment was attacking alone.

It was during this operation that Lance Corporal Spencer was shot in the face.

Penalta Colliery, near Ystrad Mynach (Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales 2021)

Evacuated, Harry Spencer arrived at 7 General Hospital at St Omer the day after he was shot, before being moved to 1 Stationary Hospital at Rouen three days later, where he stayed for two weeks. He was discharged from hospital on 15th October 1915 and sent off to No. 1 Infantry Base Depot at Le Havre. It seems that the wound he had suffered was relatively minor, compared to what it might have been, and straightforward to repair and treat.

Under normal circumstances, a soldier at an Infantry Base Depot might expect to undergo some remedial training to bring him back to fitness before being drafted back his battalion, or perhaps be transferred to a different unit as requirements dictated, but this was not what happened to Lance Corporal Spencer. Because he was mobilised reservist, and because the Military Service Act of 1916 was still some months away, when his period of service expired, he could either apply to terminate his service and return home, or he could elect to re-enlist and stay with his unit. Having been so recently wounded, and perhaps realising how fortunate he had been in not being killed when he was wounded, Harry Spencer chose to take his discharge, and he was sent back to England to begin this process on 26th October 1915, just a month after his face wound occurred. At this point, he had accrued 17 years and two days’ service as a Regular and a Reservist, with his release being dated 30th October 1915. He was discharged to an address in Ystrad Mynach, north of Caerphilly, and he returned to working in a colliery.

A Poster published ahead of the imposition of the Military Service Act 1916 (Wikimeda)

The Military Service Act 1916 was brought into effect on 27th January 1916, bringing with it general conscription of men into the armed forces. It was designed to regulate the flow of men in the forces, particularly the army, to ensure that there were enough men to meet the obligations of the armed services in wartime. It was the first time that men had been subject to general conscription in the British experience. The terms of the Act made men liable for conscription, provided they met the following criteria: that a man should be ordinarily resident in Great Britain on 15th August 1915, and over 18, but be below the age of 41 as of 2nd March 1916. And, that a man, on or before 2nd November 1915, was either unmarried, or was a widower without dependent children. Harry Spencer, being still only 40 years of age, and unmarried, met both criteria, and was thus liable for conscription. There were, however, some exemptions that could be claimed, including men who had served but had been discharged on the termination of their service. Exemption from service was not automatically granted, and each man wishing to claim exemption was obliged to present his case at his local Military Tribunal, where a panel, usually made up of local authority politicians, magistrates, business leaders and a military member, would grant or deny exemption from service based on the strength of the case the man put forward. He could submit written evidence, or call people to speak on his behalf, but no matter how compelling his circumstance might be, exemptions were granted less frequently than they were denied, and of those that were granted, most were conditional, and/or temporary in nature. A man might, for instance, be granted a three-month conditional exemption because he was doing work of national importance, but he would have to reapply for a further emption before his current one expired. The conditions he might be subject to could include maintaining a good character, both in and out of the workplace, to remain in the employment for which the exemption was granted, and to join and train with the nearest unit of the Volunteer Training Corps. If a man broke any of those conditions he could be brought back before the tribunal to be remanded for military escort if he could not mitigate his circumstances to the tribunal satisfactorily.
One of two entrances to the Barnbow Shell Filling Factory Site. Lazencroft Cottages are in the background (Leeds Library and Information Services)

Harry Spencer was called up in October 1916. It is unknown if he made any appeal for exemption, but his personal circumstances would have made a weak case if he had. Though coal mining was a critically important industry, those men employed as miners enjoyed no increased protection from being conscripted. He was enlisted and embodied on 17th October 1916, and immediately attached to the Royal Defence Corps.

The Royal Defence Corps was created in 1916 from officers and men who were either tool old, or unfit, for overseas service, and the purpose of the Corps was to provide men to guard vital infrastructure across the country, such as railways, bridges, ports and factories engaged in work of national importance, such as munitions factories. Roughly half of the Corps was engaged in guarding Prisoner of War camps. The officers and men were organised into Protection Companies which were distributed among the reginal commands of the army.

Initially posted to 6 Protection Company, engaged on Lines of Communication work, most probably on the railway network, he was posted on 23rd February 1917 to 155 Protection Company in Northern Command. It is likely that 155 Protection Company was involved in the guarding the National Shell Filling Factory at Barnbow, with Harry Spencer being billeted locally, because on 25th August 1917 he married Annie Elizabeth Stamp, originally of Micklefield, who lived at Lazencroft Cottages on Manston Lane, the approach road to the factory, with the cottages themselves on the periphery of the factory complex, near the main entrance.

Plan of the Barnbow National Shell Filling Factory Lazencroft Cottages are on the left of the image
St James the Great Church, Manston (Photoman81 via Findagrave)

Annie Stamp was a 28-year-old widow, the mother of four young sons. Her husband, Corporal John Edward Stamp, from Stanks, of the Bradford Pals had been killed in action the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July the previous year, and it is highly likely that her younger son who was born in March 1916 never saw his father, who is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. Harry Spencer and Annie Stamp were married St James the Great Church in Manston.

In April 1918, Harry Spencer was posted to 154 Protection Company, which was also under the direction of Northern Command, but after two months in this unit, he was transferred to W(T) Section of the Army Reserve. W and W(T) Sections, were the section of the Army Reserve that men of the Regular Army, and Territorial Force were transferred to when they were considered to be of more value to the nation if they were released from military service and employed in civil employments, usually the one they had left when they joined the army, but not always. It is likely that Harry Spencer found employment at one of the many collieries nearby. He was finally discharged from the army on 31st January 1919, having become ‘surplus to military requirements’.

One of Harry Spencer’s brothers joined the Labour Corps in 1919, specifically  recruited to be employed on graves exhumations across the old battlefields.

Article on the contribution to the war effort by the Spencer/Stamp Family (Yorkshire Evening Post 25th March 1943)

Harry Spencer returned home to Manston Lane. He and Annie added ten more children to their family. They continued to live at Lazencroft Cottages until 1934, when they moved a mile up the road into 108 Austhorpe Road, in Cross Gates, almost opposite Manston Park.

In 1943, the Yorkshire Evening Post printed an article about the children of Harry and Annie Spencer, including her sons from her first marriage. Six of the eight sons of both marriages were serving in the army, as well as a son in law, and two daughters who were employed doing war work. All of them survived the war. In the article, Harry Spencer who, in the 1939 Register of England, was described as an old age pensioner appears in a uniform, so it may be that he had come out of retirement, in his late 60s, to go back to work.

Both Harry and Annie Spencer enjoyed long retirements. Harry died in 1963 at the age of 89, while lived until she was 86, dying in 1976.