Second Lieutenant, Wiltshire Regiment
Died of influenza as a prisoner of war on 9 November 1918, aged 23
Remembered at Niederzwehren Cemetery, Kassel, Germany
Chris Burge writes:
Frederick James Edmund Spencer was born on 25 September 1895 in the Manchester area (Date of birth as in CWGC records, alternatively 25 September 1896 as recorded in German POW records. No registration of birth found in the GRO index.)Frederick’s half-bother Reginald Spencer Wilson was born on 31 October 1900 in Pimlico, London, after Frederick’s mother Maud Spencer married William Wilson on 25 July 1899 at All Saints Church, Stretford, Lancashire. William was an Army tailor and Maud was described as a 27-year-old spinster at the time of her marriage, which was witnessed by her sister Adeline. Maud’s address was 22 Sydney Street and she had worked as a dressmaker before her marriage. Reginald Spencer Wilson was baptised on 27 November 1900 at St Saviour’s, St George’s Square, Pimlico, London, when William and Maud lived at 22 Aylesford Street. Their address was close to the Royal Army Clothing Depot in Pimlico.
In the 1901 census, William, Maude and baby Reginald were in Lancashire again, recorded as boarders at 20 Sydney Street, Stretford, next door to Maud’s widowed mother and siblings. William Wilson was now a lance corporal. Frederick Spencer did not appear in the 1901 census.
Maud Spencer died on 15 December 1907, while her husband was based in Aldershot. William Wilson was married for a second time in 1908 to Margaret Elizabeth McPherson on 23 July at Holy Trinity, Vauxhall Bridge Road. Margaret gave her address as 3 Bessborough Place and William his as ‘Borden Camp Hants’.
In the 1911 census, Sergeant William Wilson was a master tailor with the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment at St George’s Barracks, Malta. His wife Margaret and their children were in the married quarters, along with Reginald Spencer Wilson. Frederick Spencer’s whereabouts in 1911 are unknown.
William Wilson left the Army in 1912 on the termination of his second period of service, with the intention of returning to 3 Bessborough Place. He had been in Egypt before his final discharge in Jersey. He soon moved his family across Vauxhall Bridge to Lambeth and was in Kennington by 1913 and first appeared at 22 Guildford Street in 1915, an address close to St. Barnabas Church. It was in March 1915 that Frederick’s half-brother Reginald joined the Army as a boy solider and was with the 5 Coldstream Guards. Reginald was an office boy at the time of joining and gave 22 Guildford Street as his home address. The recurrence of a childhood ailment was not helped by an operation to drain an abscess on his right kidney and Reginald was discharged unfit on 29 December 1916.
Frederick Spencer volunteered at the end of 1915, or early January 1916, and served as Private F/2792 in the Middlesex Regiment (data from Medal Index card of Frederick James Edmund Spencer). His service number and first date of entry in France on 4 May 1916 indicate he served in the 23rd Battalion, nicknamed the 2nd Football Battalion, of the Middlesex Regiment. Frederick Spencer served for around a year on the Western Front before he was recommended for a commission. He was gazetted on 1 August 1917 as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Wiltshire Regiment, the notice appearing in the 1 September 1917 issue of the London Gazette.
F.J.E. Spencer was one of several junior officers who joined the 2nd Wiltshire at the Wytschaete Sector from the Rouen base in October 1917. The keeper of the battalion’s war diary noted on 6 October 1917 that: ‘2/Lts G.R Gosling, G.D. Chapman, C.D. Baker, G.M. Jeans and C. Hirschhorn joined from Rouen and posted to “C”, “B”, “D”, “A” and “D” Coys. respectively.
Frederick Spencer’s arrival was noted on the 10 October 1917: ‘2/Lt F.J.E. Spencer arrived from Rouen & posted to “B” Coy.’
Like Frederick, William Robert Gosling (MM) and Cecil Hirschhorn were commissioned from the ranks. All had been the afforded the status, privileges and responsibilities of officer gentlemen, literally on a temporary basis for the duration of the war. As far as the battalion’s war diary is concerned, 2/Lt F.J.E. Spencer remained an anonymous figure for many months until he was noted as being on leave on 16 March 1918, one of the last of his original group to be granted leave. A fact that saved his life, at least in the short term.
The 2nd Wiltshire were holding a part of the front in the Savy area, south-west of St Quentin when they were in the path of the enemy’s spring offensive which broke on 21 March 1918. Subjected to an intense five-hour bombardment, they faced an infantry assault of overwhelming numbers and were forced to give ground over the coming days. They were not relieved until 1 April 1918, by which time the battalion had lost 23 officers either killed, wounded or missing. Of other ranks, four were killed, nine wounded and 597 were missing. The battalion had in many senses ceased to exist.
Among the missing were Frederick’s fellow officers 2/Lts W. R. Gosling and C.D. Baker. It had been a fluid and chaotic period, but there was no indication when, or if, Frederick Spencer had rejoined, what remained of his battalion by April, or when they had moved north again in mid-April. A composite battalion was formed from what was left of the 2nd Wiltshires and 2nd Bedfordshire on 19 April 1918. Between 25 and 28 April this composite formation was heavily engaged in the area south of the Yser Canal near a feature called the ‘spoil bank’. According to the 2nd Bedfordshire war dairy, ‘Captain Smith (Wilts R.) and part of his company were captured on 26 April 1918’ after the enemy crossed the canal. It is possible 2/Lt. F. J. E. Spencer was taken prisoner here, but his name does not appear in either the 2nd Wiltshires or 2nd Bedfordshire official war diaries. It is only German records which show he was taken prisoner in the Wytschaete area on 25 April 1918.
Frederick was held at the Offizierlager, Mainz, a camp housing up to 700 prisoners. His records gave his address as 22 Guildford Road and incorrectly referred to his father as W. Spencer. Frederick James Edmund Spencer died in the camp hospital on 9 November 1918 of ‘infolge lungenentzundung und grippe’– he had contracted influenza. A death certificate was issued at the Festungslazarette I.Mainz dated 11 November 1918, the date of the ceasefire, and a copy passed to the International Red Cross, stamped ‘Comminqué famille 29.11.18’.
At the end of the war, the balance of Frederick James Edmund Spencer’s account and war gratuity, which amounted to £98 15s 1d, was paid to his only blood relative, his half-brother Reginald Spencer Wilson. A RNVR record dated April 1919 shows Reginald Wilson had been a ship’s steward and part of the Mercantile Marine Reserve when he volunteered to work on mine clearance for a period of six months. Reginald passed way in Essex in 1927, aged 27.
When the Stockwell War memorial was unveiled in 1922, William Wilson and family were still living at 22 Guildford Road, which remained their home until at least 1939.