Victor Spencer first signed up to fight on the 16th of April 1915. Still only 18 years and 5 months old, he lied about his age, saying he was born two years earlier so he would meet the minimum age of 20.
Private Victor Spencer set sail to Suez, Egypt with the 1st Battalion Otago regiment. After landing in Egypt, the battalion was quickly sent off to Gallipoli, Turkey in early November 1915, Victor would have just had his 19th birthday.
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Written and edited by Sirius Rust
Music sourced from:
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The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but we make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.
ANZAC II: Victor Spencer
VICTOR MANSON SPENCER
Victor Manson Spencer was born on the 1st of November 1896 in Otautau, a small farming town in Southland. The first child to Mary and James Spencer III.
Growing up in the late 19th century disease was rife, which brought tragedy to the family. As a toddler, Victor lost a baby brother to enteritis, which is an inflammation of the intestines. Soon after, his mother passed away from tuberculosis, which, among other things, is an infection of the lungs. At the tender age of ten, further heartache would come when Victor lost his father to the dreaded tuberculosis.
After this, Victor moved to Bluff (the southernmost town on New Zealand’s mainland) to live with his aunt, Sarah Gomez (Goomes) and attend school.
After finishing school, Victor became an apprentice engineer. This would last until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. At the beginning of the Great War, Victor was only 17-years-old, three years away from the minimum age of conscription of twenty.
Propaganda was used to convince New Zealanders to join the fight in Europe. Posters were printed calling for the ‘British world’ to pick up arms and join the battle. The war in Europe was spun in such a way to sound exciting and a way of seeing the world, and in a time before television, it was easy to mask the realities and the true horrors of wartime conflict. The posters also claimed it was their duty to enlist, shaming men if they did not. One famous British propaganda poster showed women watching proudly as men marched off to war, it reads: “Women of Britain say GO!”.
One of the most famous propaganda posters in New Zealand was of an older male lion standing on a rock surrounded by younger lions, it called on the British colonies of Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand to enlist now — stating: “The Empire needs men! All answer the call. Helped by the young lions, the old lion defies his foes”.
Apparently this propaganda worked, as Victor Spencer first signed up to fight on the 16th of April 1915. Still only 18 years and 5 months old, he lied about his age, saying he was born two years earlier so he would meet the minimum age of 20.
After enlisting, Victor attended military training at the Trentham Military Camp located in Upper Hutt, Wellington. Victor trained there for at least four months, after completing military training, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion Otago regiment.
Victor Spencer set sail to Suez, Egypt with the 1st Battalion Otago regiment. After landing in Egypt, the battalion was quickly sent off to Gallipoli, Turkey in early November 1915, Victor would have just had his 19th birthday.
They were to reinforce the diminished Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZACs) that had lost many lives during the conflict that had launched on the 25th of April 1915. However, the battle had already been lost and the British government decided later in November to withdraw from the conflict.
Victor Spencer and the 1st Battalion Otago regiment were there for about six weeks, and it is unclear if they participated in any battles during that time as the last offensive push was earlier in August of 1915.
In April of the next year 1916, Victor and the newly formed New Zealand Division were transferred to Armentieres, France. Here, the NZ Division was given ‘PH Hood’ gas masks and trained in the survival of chemical warfare, practising gas drills.
After this, the men were retrained in trench warfare and eventually pushed to the frontlines. During this time, Victor and his fellow comrades launched a series of trench raids in ‘no-man’s-land’ against the German enemy and were the target of four raids on their own trenches.
In the early morning hours of the 10th of July 1916, Victor and the 1st Otago Battalion endured heavy enemy bombardment from the German forces. The troops suffered many casualties, Private Victor Spencer was among the wounded, injured by the mortar fire. He was transferred to hospital to be treated for ‘shellshock’.
Shellshock was a term used to describe soldiers that had ongoing symptoms after being wounded by exploding artillery shells. Symptoms included, tinnitus, amnesia, headaches, dizziness, tremors, insomnia, nightmares, depression, anxiety and a heightened sense of threat. Today we understand shellshock to be a precursor to post traumatic stress disorder but during World War I it was seen as cowardice, and the only way to deal with this cowardice was to get the soldier back to the frontlines.
Victor Spencer spent nineteen days in hospital recovering from his wounds, but the stay didn’t deal with his mental anguish. He was returned to his battalion but immediately deserted his position and went absent without leave (AWOL).
Two weeks later, on the 12th of August 1916, Victor was captured by military police. He was court martialed for desertion, and sentenced to eighteen months jail with hard labour.
Victor served his jail time, while in prison Victor turned 20-years-old, the minimum age to join the war. As Victor served his time, the NZ troops participated in the Battle of the Somme. A battle so bloody, 1.2 million men were either killed or wounded — from the NZ Division 6,000 men were wounded and 2,100 lost their lives.
One of the 1.2 million men who died was an American poet who fought for the French Foreign Legion. He died during the Battle of the Somme, and a poem about the horror experienced at the conflict was published posthumously titled ‘I have a rendezvous with Death’:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air –
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath –
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
After serving nine months of his eighteen month sentence, in June 1917, Private Victor Spencer was released. He was returned to his battalion, only to be paraded by his commanding officer as a warning to others who thought of ‘misbehaving’. Before being sent to the frontlines of the Western Front.
During this time, the New Zealand Division was working with the British Expeditionary Force to capture the village of Messines. They achieved this by tunnelling under the German front lines and placing mines under the enemies position, neutralising the German artillery.
The mines exploded at 3.10am on the 7th of June 1917, the NZ soldiers rushed in taking out what remained of the German troops in the village.
The troops then fought hard to take the village of La Basseville, some 15km east of Messines. After a prolonged gun fight, the village was taken, although quickly lost and then retaken again for the allies on the 31st of July 1917.
After this, the NZ Division were to move on to Passchendaele, but Victor Spencer had had enough. He deserted once more. He left on the 13th of August 1917 and found a sympathetic French family in Morbecque, a woman and her two children, to hide from military police. This is where he remained for four and a half months. Then on the 2nd of January 1918, military police kicked in the door of the property and finally apprehended Victor, he was now 21-years-old.
Private Victor Spencer was tried for desertion. The trial commenced in January 1918. During the trial, Victor wrote a statement explaining his situation, “I left NZ with the 6th Reinforcements and served on Gallipoli. When I left NZ I was eighteen years old. I came to France with the N.Z. Division in April 1916. While in the trenches at Armentieres I was blown up by a Minnieweifer (mortar) and was in hospital for about a month suffering from shell shock. Up to this time I had no crimes against me since then my health has not been good and my nerve has been completely destroyed. I attribute my present position to this fact and to drink”.
As a character witness for Victor, his superior officer, Captain McWatt told the court, “The accused was in my platoon. He left with me with the 6th Reinforcements about August 1915. The accused served in Gallipoli until the evacuation. The accused was a good soldier while he was with me. I had no fault with him. In NZ before we left the accused was recommended for one stripe”.
Nevertheless, Private Victor Spencer was found guilty of deserting His Majesty’s Service and was sentenced to death.
At 6.45am on the 24th of February 1918, at the Mud Huts Field Punishment Camp in Belgium, Victor was blindfolded and marched to the execution post. The Army Chaplain Reverend Hoani Parata joined him. Victor uttered quietly, “Are you there, padre?”, “Yes, lad, I’m here”, the Reverend spoke back, before beginning to read Victor his last rites, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”
Twelve of Victor’s fellow New Zealand soldiers holding rifles lined up in front of Victor. They aimed their weapons, pointed at Victor’s chest…
“Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation…”
The commanding officer dropped his hand, and the twelve men fired…
“…but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
21-year-old Private Victor Manson Spencer died that February morning, at dawn. He went down in history as one of five New Zealand soldiers executed during World War I for either desertion or mutiny.
Four months later, in May 1918, Victor’s aunt Sarah Gomez received a letter from Army Chaplain Reverend Hoani Parata. The letter read, “I was with your nephew Victor Spencer during his last earthly hours… You will have heard of his death from the NZ authorities so I need not dwell on that…You will be pleased to know that Victor met his death very bravely and never flinched at the last. He wished me to let you know how sorry he was that he was the meaning of causing you any anxiety with regard to his career as a soldier and asked me to convey to you his love”.
It was to seem that Victor Spencer would be forever known as the man from Bluff that was executed for desertion, a family’s shameful secret. Until the Member of Parliament for Invercargill Mark Peck began sponsoring a bill dubbed the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000, its aim was to “remove, so far as practicable, the dishonour that the execution of those 5 soldiers brought to those soldiers and their families.”
The reasoning for the bill was due to a better understanding of ‘shellshock’ or combat fatigue. As explained on the World War I centenary website, using a car battery as an analogy, “Shiny and new, the battery runs well, but over time loses charge. A recharge gets the battery operational again but the charge does not last as long. As this charge/recharge process goes on, eventually the recharging of the battery becomes an academic exercise, as the battery will no longer hold its charge and will need to be disposed of… [this is] how once brave men can become shivering hulks over the time they endured the trials and tribulations of active combat.”
The bill passed into law on the 14th of September 2000, pardoning Victor Spencer for the crime he was found guilty of. In 2005, Victor Spencer was posthumously awarded the three service medals, the 1914-1915 Star (awarded to officers and men of British and Imperial forces who served in any theatre of the First World War against the Central European Powers during 1914 and 1915), the British War Medal (awarded to officers and men of British and Imperial forces for service in the First World War), and the Victory Medal.
Following the pardon, some of Victor’s family travelled to Europe with Victor’s pardon certificate and portrait to place in the In Flanders Field Museum, a museum dedicated to remembering the futility of war.
You will find the final resting spot of Private Victor Spencer at the Huts Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium. He lies among over 1,000 other fallen Commonwealth soldiers. If you wander through the New Zealand section, in the third row of white headstones, Plot 15. B. 10, you will find a headstone with the inscription:
8/2733 Private V.M Spencer, N.Z Otago Regt, 24th February 1918.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— A poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae
This podcast is dedicated to the memory of our fallen soldiers and all who served in the Great War.
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WW100, Pardon for Soldiers Executed in the Great War, https://ww100.govt.nz/pardon-great-war-soldiers#
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Nicholas Boyack, Behind the Lines: The Lives of New Zealand Soldiers in the First World War, 1989