Private Roy Spencer
Royal Newfoundland Regiment
Roy Spencer was born at Fortune on 24 June 1897, the sixth child of Charles Bennett and Mary (Hillier) Spencer. He received his early education at the United Church School in his hometown of Fortune, on the south coast of Newfoundland. His homework was done by lamplight as electricity did not come to the town until 1930.
His childhood is thought to have been a normal one, with chores to do, and time for leisure activities as well. As a boy, Roy probably found things to help out with around the family business. C.B Spencer & Sons, owned and operated by brothers Charles B. and Thomas E., had been established by their father, John H. Spencer, in 1870. No doubt the teenaged Roy also found time to play soccer with his friends, a game that was always popular in Fortune – but things were about to change.
Newfoundland was a colony of Great Britain when that country declared war in early August of 1914. Although they had no military training or experience, Newfoundlanders were no strangers to hard work and rough conditions. Willing to serve their country, men came from all over Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the age of seventeen, Roy Spencer would probably have been making plans to further his education and then go to work in his father’s business. Instead, he went to St. John’s and, on 30 December 1914, he enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment, becoming one of the famous “Blue Puttees,” with the regimental number of #859.
Uniforms for the Newfoundland Regiment were all made locally of khaki broadcloth but there wasn’t enough to make the puttees – the strip of cloth that goes around the calf of the leg. However, enough blue broadcloth was found, the puttees were made, and the soldiers who wore them were known as the “Blue Puttees.”
Private Roy Spencer left St. John’s on 02 February 1915, as part of “C” Company. Sailing on the SS Dominion, they arrived at Devonport, England two weeks later, on the 16th. “C” Company then went to Edinburgh Castle for training.
On Friday, August 20, 1915, Spencer’s unit, the 1st Batallion left Devonport with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) on the transport ship Megantic, ready for active duty. A World War I British Army headquarters formed in March 1915, the MEF commanded all Allied forces at Gallipoli and Salonika. They arrived at Alexandria, Egypt on August 31, and then journeyed at night, 130 miles by train up the Nile valley to Abbassia, Cairo for climatizing.
September 13, 1915 was a beautiful day in Alexandria as the Newfoundlanders, including Spencer, boarded the Megantic again, this time headed for Gallipoli to join the 29th Division in Sulva Bay. They arrived on the night of September 19-20 at Kangaroo Beach, where they were taken ashore by a lighter – a motor driven flat bottomed boat with steel plated deck and sides, capable of carrying up to 500 men.
By eight o’clock that morning they were under heavy shelling from Turkish batteries located on the hills surrounding three sides of the rocky Sulva Plain. It was a speedy introduction to trench warfare. They were placed on front line duty 10 days later, just 50 yards from the Turkish position. Their days were spent maintaining the trenches, keeping an eye on the enemy, dodging snipers, and cheering as the British shelled the Turks.
Bully beef, biscuits and jam were the staples of their diet and meals were eaten in the dugouts. Drinking water had to be boiled, which left it so flat and tasteless that they were given a spoonful of lime juice to put in their water bottles once a week. The hot weather and disease-bearing flies were more hazardous than the Turkish shells and bullets.
Spencer was admitted to hospital on October 13 with dysentery. On the 16th he was invalided to England on board the SS Dongola and admitted at Wandsworth Hospital in London on October 28.
A telegram was sent to C.B. Spencer (Roy’s father) on October 28, with the official report: “Private Roy Spencer suffering from Dysentery. Not dangerous”. The Record Office reported on November 04 that “#859 Private Roy Spencer previously reported suffering from dysentery, has arrived in London.” On 17 November a further telegram shows that Spencer was admitted for treatment to the Third London General Hospital, Wandsworth, London on October 28 – almost a month after the fact. Since dysentery presents a very real danger of dehydration, and good drinking water not being plentiful in the battlefield, it is understandable that the afflicted personnel would be hospitalized.
When he was finally pronounced fit for duty, he was granted furlough from January 05-14, 1916. On March 28, 1916, Private Spencer left Southampton for France, arriving at Rouen on March 30, where he joined “E” Company battalion.
The longest and most intense fighting of World War I probably occurred in 1916 in the Somme Valley area of northern France. The Battle of the Somme was actually more than just one particular engagement. It was a joint effort, planned by the British and French in 1916, to break through the German lines.
Marching out of Louvencourt on June 30, 1916, was a group of 801 Newfoundlanders and their Commanding Officer. Roy Spencer was among them. They marched at attention for about 200 yards until the CO signaled them to march at ease and then they began singing “Keep The Home Fires Burning.” The Regiment stopped just east of Acheux, waiting for total darkness. As they crossed the open fields south of Mailly-Maillet towards their positions, they could hear the British guns not far away as they fired on the German positions.
The Newfoundlanders were located in a support trench known as St. John’s Road, 200 metres behind the British forward line and out of sight of the enemy. For the rest of that night, in the cold, damp trenches, all personnel were preparing for the conflict ahead. Early in the morning of July 01, a hot breakfast was delivered, which would prove to be the last meal for so many of them. They dozed, smoked and chatted as they waited until it was time to move.
A white mist lay over the land as dawn broke but, as the sun rose, it cleared, and the First of July, 1916 started out as a beautiful day. The first troops that went over the top at Beaumont Hamel were practically destroyed by the Germans who were ready for them. Staggering under the weight of the 66 pounds of gear that each man carried, they advanced in long orderly lines across the crater-filled field of “No Man’s Land.” Many fell before crossing the British line, while others were caught going through the gaps in the British wire. About half way into “No Man’s Land” was a tree that became known as the “Danger Tree,” where many of the men met and were killed during the attack.
Private Roy Spencer was one of the lucky few who survived the Battle of Beaumont Hamel – but not without injury. He sustained a gunshot wound to the right forearm. Most of the wounded were forced to wait until nightfall before trying to reach safety. Many died or were killed where they lay. It took up to four days for survivors to retrieve all the wounded and bodies. Spencer was admitted to Hospital Rouen on July 02 or 03 and subsequently invalided to England on the fifth. On July 06 he was admitted to Wandsworth Hospital, London. He was on furlough from October 24 to November 03, 1916. It is thought that he spent those ten days in England and Scotland where he was recuperating.
Fit for active duty once more, Spencer left Southampton on February 10, 1917 and landed at Rouen the following day. On February 24 he joined the battalion. The 29th Division, including the Newfoundland Regiment, left their billets in Camps-en-Ameinois on March 28. Orders were to proceed to Gouy-en-Artois, near Arras, to relieve the soldiers at Monchy. They reached Monchy on the evening of April 10, and continued on to Arras the next day, where they entered the firing line.
On April 14, 1917, the Newfoundland Regiment and the 1st Essex Regiment attacked under a creeping barrage, with the intention of capturing Infantry Hill, a thousand yards east of Monchy. They had not advanced very far when they met with a strong German counterattack and heavy shelling. At Arras, on April 14, 1917 Roy Spencer received the wound that ended his military career. His left foot was badly wounded but the most severe injury was a gunshot wound to the right shoulder.
Reported as missing and presumed dead, Spencer was left on the battlefield a long time before help arrived. He was admitted to 18th General Hospital Dannes Camiers France on 19 April 1917 and for weeks was “hanging on to life by a thread.” Roy’s father, C.B. Spencer, at home in Fortune, received a telegram from J.R. Bennett, the Colonial Secretary, which stated:
‘Regret to inform you that Record Office, London, officially reports No. 859 Private Roy Spencer, seriously ill, gunshot wound right arm, at 18th General Hospital, Camiers, April 20th. Upon receipt of further information I shall immediately wire you and trust that next report will be of his convalescence.’
On May 6, he underwent surgery for the amputation of his right arm and shoulder joint. He remained on the seriously ill list until May 23. He was then sent to England where he was admitted to Wandsworth Hospital in London on May 31.
Nine months after the amputation, Spencer was provided with an artificial limb on February 19, 1918. This partial shoulder limb was strapped on every day to improve the appearance of his shoulder and enable his clothing to fit better. He remained in Hospital at Brighton from February 11 to June 21. On April 25, 1918 he underwent surgery for the removal of a bullet lodged between the scapula (shoulder blade) and left rib. He was next transferred to Roehampton Hospital on June 21st, and then furloughed on August 24 1918.
On August 25, 1918, Private Roy Spencer departed for home on board the SS Corsican, arriving at St. John’s on September 09. He was discharged on September 30, as medically unfit, after three years and 276 days of admirable service. He never had a chance to rise in rank as injuries kept him sidelined for a great deal of time. He did, however bring three medals home with him, the 1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. Roy also had three brass metal “Wound Stripes” which were worn, mounted vertically, on the left forearm of the uniform jacket.
Local oral information claims Roy Spencer later said that as he was lying on the battlefield all night, severely wounded, the only thing that sustained him through the night was that he knew his mother was praying for him at home.
After he returned home, Spencer did not talk about the war much but son George remembers one story, “…when he was lying wounded – I think it was the first time – he had a bayonet used as a tourniquet tied to his arm that he was wounded in and gangrene started to set in, but he had a little knife with him and used it to cut off the bayonet and bandages that were used to cover the wound, but he lost the knife and he always said that little knife saved his life. Never did find it, but always carried a little knife with him no matter where he went.”
After a couple of years to unwind and get back to a normal life, Spencer went to Sackville, New Brunswick in 1920 where he completed a business course at Dalhousie University. Before returning home, he spent some time in Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, undergoing surgery on his foot. Further surgeries finally resulted in the loss of most of his toes on that foot.
Spencer then returned home, where he worked with Customs for several years before settling down to work in his father’s firm. Although he was the senior partner and co-owner, management of the firm was left to his younger brother Stanley, for Roy spent a great deal of time away.
C.B. Spencer & Sons were ship owners, outfitters, and dealers in general merchandise. Their ships fished on the Grand Banks, and they cured and shipped their own salt fish. Roy did his fair share of the work. Some years ago, The Evening Telegram printed A Tribute to Roy Spencer, written by Grace Sparkes, in which she said, “He says little of his extra hard work because he was handicapped, but he recalls many evenings when his arm was tired because he had been culling and handling fish all day, and he felt he could scarcely walk back to his home.”
One learns to accept and deal with things that one cannot change. So it was that Roy Spencer resumed his regular daily life and adjusted to the loss of his arm without any visible hardship. His injured left foot had healed but, as son George said, “Father always had his left shoe built up and every few years he would travel to Toronto to the War Amps place to have the shoes repaired so he would not have a noticeable limp.”
In spite of all this he continued to play soccer with his friends and peers. Commenting on Spencer’s athletic skills, in her story Ms Sparkes said, “He was a good football player, and I can remember the excitement of seeing him charge into the play and keep the ball out of the mouth of his own goal with just as much skill as if he were as well equipped as all the other players.”
Spencer also loved to play crib and could deal out cards with his left hand as well as anyone. He could tie his tie with one hand and he always wore a shirt and tie – even when fishing, which he often did while wearing slippers on his feet! He was an avid fly fisherman.
“I enjoyed my many times trout fishing with my father in Big Brook,” said son George. “Fly fishing was what he really loved, especially for salmon in Conne River where I went with him once. I think I was about 10 years old then, but still remember it as if it were yesterday.”
Roy Spencer is described as very outgoing, fun-loving and always enjoyed a good time. A sociable person, he was a member of the Masonic Lodge, Orange Lodge and the Lions Club. As George says, “I became a Mason in 1961 and it was the 4th or 5th generation of us, that’s why he wanted me to join in Fortune.”
On November 25, 1926, Roy Spencer married Elsie May Bennett, daughter of Captain John Sydney and Amelia (Bennett) Bennett. They settled in a large, impressive, two-story house which Roy had built on Eldon Street in Fortune. They had three children – Mary, Shirley and George – and Roy was a good father, but strict with his children at home. Marital bliss ended when May succumbed to pneumonia on February 25, 1940.
Sometimes, Roy liked to get away from it all, forget the pressures of business, to just relax and enjoy life. Fishing was one good way to do that. He also had a cabin at Horsebrook, a short distance from town where he could go to walk the hills and pick berries. As George says, “We spent many good summers in Horsebrook, swimming picking blueberries and bakeapples, etc. They were wonderful times that I will always remember. “
The business was going strong and things at home were good but Roy Spencer’s life was about to be interrupted by world conflict once again. His actions illustrate just how deep were his patriotic beliefs and his willingness to further the cause for world peace.
Shortly after World War II broke out, Spencer was involved in recruiting men from the immediate area and along the south coast, west of Fortune. According to Ms Sparkes’ story, Roy offered his help because he felt “that the people on the coast did not even know that there was a war on.” He recruited the 13th Naval draft and in November 1940 he accompanied them to Liverpool, England, and then on to the Admiralty in London. It took nearly a month to cross the Atlantic because their transport, the old SS Baltrover, lost one engine and could only travel at four knots all the way. Roy’s son is still amazed that he took the “13th” Draft because his father was very superstitious.
After that brief interruption, Roy Spencer’s life returned to normal once more. His second marriage took place on February 23, 1944 to Blanche Mercer, and they had a daughter, Judy. He continued to work in the family business and pursue his regular means of relaxation. On November 11, 1945, Roy Spencer, along with another World War I veteran in the town, laid the cornerstone for the Fortune Memorial Library. His second wife, Blanche, was a member of the Library Board. Roy retired sometime after 1965 when the firm of C.B. Spencer & Sons was sold.
In 1961 Roy returned to Beaumont Hamel. The trip was sponsored by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, for survivors of the most devastating of all battles of World War I. After he returned, he was heard to say that “where all the vegetable fields were, there must be lots of dead soldiers under them.” On a later trip to the area, he brought back an old helmet which is now on display in the Fortune Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Roy Spencer, distinguished veteran and honourable citizen, passed away on February 12, 1975, at the age of 78. He was laid to rest in the local United Church Cemetery, beside his first wife. His second wife, Blanche, left Fortune 12 years later, in 1987, to live with her daughter Judy in Burlington, Ontario. She died on December 22, 1995, at the age of 87, and is interred Woodland Cemetery Hamilton Ontario.
On July 1st, when Canada celebrates the nation’s birthday, the people of Newfoundland remember Beaumont Hamel and the men who fought there. We remember and give thanks for the brave men of the Newfoundland Regiment, the Blue Puttees, who fought to secure our freedom. Roy Spencer was one of those men.
I am grateful to George Spencer, Roy’s son, for his help with this story; his willingness to answer questions, supply information and send photos. One thing stands out in all the photos – Roy Spencer always had a pleasant, friendly look about him. This brings to mind a comment from Ms Sparkes’ story, which I think describes Mr. Roy Spencer very well: [He is] “a person who in spite of terrible odds keeps on going, always has a ready smile and a kind word for people, and is willing to do a fair share every day to try and make life worthwhile.” What a wonderful way to be remembered.
© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Jun/Jul 2016
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