An amazing tale from the war

Alfred Spendlow is on the left of the picture
Alfred Spendlow is on the left of the picture

The experiences of Alfred Spendlow encompass the horror, heroism, tragedy, camaraderie and tragi-comedy of the Great War.

Mr Spendlow was a spell foreman in the Isis oil mills in Stoneferry, Hull, at the outbreak of World War One.

The mill operated 24 hours a day and a ‘spell’ was an eight-hour shift. His job was classed as a reserved occupation – which means his work was considered essential to the war effort and he did not have to serve in the Forces.

However, Mr Spendlow was driven to enlist when he was stopped day after day and given a white feather – these were often handed out by women to men not in uniform and assumed not to have joined up. They were a mark of cowardice. and meant to shame recipients into presenting themselves at recruitment offices.

Feathers were also dropped through his letter box.

Joining the Durham Light Infantry, he saw action in one of the main attacks of the conflict.

“They were given orders to retreat. He was wounded in the upper part of his leg and the bullet lodged in his buttock. He took it to his grave,” said his son Ron Spendlow, of Quay Street, in the Old Town, Scarborough.

To avoid German machine guns, which were cutting down men around him, Mr Spendlow half-walked, half-crawled through mud.

“He asked a passing officer for help and was told it was every man for himself,” said his son.

“He struggled on to a Red Cross field station. They were loading wounded men on to a lorry, so he begged a lift on the tail board. As they drove away the Germans shelled the field hospital and it was destroyed. My father missed death by inches.”

After recovering in a hospital in Colchester, Mr Spendlow returned to France in time for the next big push. Out of a battalion of hundreds he was one of 29 who returned.

“He and a padre got back to the billet and they had the battalion rum ration – even the padre was drunk,” said Mr Spendlow Jr.

After the Armistice, his 
father was part of the army of occupation and was stationed in Cologne with a family called Bergenhouser. “They had three children, the two older ones were in hospital with malnutrition due to a lack of food supplies caused by the British blockade. Their father was mechanic to the German war ace the Red Baron. The six-year-old daughter called my father ‘mad Alaf’ because he toasted bread on the fire and swam in the river Rhine. She taught him to count to 100 in German.”

His son said: “As a father he was firm but loving. He 
always said ‘If you want a helping hand, there is one on the end of your arms’. He taught my older brother and me how to do repairs to our bicycles, house maintenance and gardening.

“My mother always said ‘Life is like a farmer’s field. If you don’t put something into it you won’t get nothing out of it’. Between them they organised trips to the seaside for children in the street, sports days and dances for the firm he worked for, concerts for the blind with my sister’s dancing troupe. I think these activities gave my father comfort for the experiences he had survived in the war.”

His parents talked about World War One on the outbreak of World War Two to give Mr Spendlow Jr and his older brother an idea of what conflict was like. “When approaching a stile while out walking he would say ‘First over the top and best of luck’. One day I asked him why, he replied ‘When ordered over the top of the trenches, the first one over before the German gunners opened fire then it was the best of luck’.

“At Hull fair on the coconut shies he would win us all a 
coconut apiece. The stallholders dreaded him coming and he 
always threw under arm and never missed. We asked him why he threw under arm and he said ‘In the trenches if you threw over arm the Germans shot if off’.

“I saw tears in his eyes when World War Two was declared and again when we received a telegram to say my brother was missing believed killed. After 14 weeks we received another telegram to say he was a prisoner of war in Germany.”

Dad said: “Here we go again.