Cyril Spear's Words of War
The diaries of a Nelson Evening Mail journalist provide some of the most compelling accounts of World War I to be written by a Nelson soldier.
Cyril Saunderson Spear (born 7 August 1878) was employed at the Nelson Evening Mail for most of his working life. As one of the paper’s “literary staff” (a journalist) he covered various news rounds, including reporting Nelson City Council meetings.
He enlisted for war service in May 19151 and left Nelson in June to train at the Trentham Military Camp. The Artillery Reserve Corps presented Cyril with a Bayard automatic pocket pistol2 and his newspaper workmates gave him a “sleeping suit”.3 Referring to Cyril as a “pressman,” former mayor Cr Jesse Piper farewelled Cyril at a council meeting, wishing him every success and a safe return.4
Cyril sailed from Wellington with the Eighth Reinforcements, Field Artillery, on the Willochra on 13 November 1915. He also made the initial entry in the first of his four war diaries, recording his war experiences until his return home in 1919.
Cyril’s diaries are held by the Nelson Provincial Museum and were fully transcribed as part of the centennial of World War I. His journalistic skills were put to good use in vivid descriptions which bring to life his experiences on the Western Front.
Cyril saw his first aerial duel on 16 May 1916 near Armientieres in France: “While at breakfast saw three aeroplanes high up; one shining almost pure white in sun. Soon saw it was being chased by other two. When almost overhead, rat! Rat! Rat! Went the machine guns of the pursuers (allies)…”
His 3 July entry describes heavy bombardment by the Germans: “…the guns on both sides were making the night hideous. Fires were seen in Armentieres, and the whole place was enveloped in smoke from guns. Flashes, explosions, crashes. One shell came along with a deep sort of groan, as if it needed some oil. Lasted till about mid-making the night hideous. Biggest yet experienced. An awful grandeur about the whole thing.”
Descriptions of the complete destruction of towns, villages and the French landscape are vivid. Marching through Delville Wood during the Battle of the Somme on 15 September 1916, Cyril described seeing: “…what were once villages quite demolished... Trees bare of all leaves etc, just dead looking; many cut off short. All along the roadside wounded were walking and being carried down. Shells bursting all about…, horses killed, wagons knocked out, dead men everywhere, some ghastly sight…”
Rain made life in the trenches wet and miserable. On 18 September Cyril wrote: “Rain continued all day. We had to evacuate our trench and tried to make it watertight. The cooks’ galley caved in at dinner time so we had bully and bread and butter. Tea ditto. At night we tried to make ourselves comfortable amid the mud and slush. Overcast, wet through and most of us covered with mud. During (the night) we managed to boil dixie and nearly suffocated with smoke.”
Mud was also experienced during the Battle of Passchendaele. In October 1917: “It took us seven and eight to a stretcher to bring in our [injured] man over two or three miles of mud and shell holes. The mud at times was knee–deep and the going was awfully rough and hard on the chaps. Coming down, salvos of shells [simultaneous discharge of artillery]…seemed to follow us…one salvo dropping very close to us…The hardest work I have done; never knew a man could feel so heavy.”
Soldiers encountered poison gases as Cyril recorded on 23 September 1916: “We were awakened by the cry of ‘gas!’ and at once put on our helmets, shells falling in the vicinity in the meantime. Two fell just alongside our trench, covered us with mud… It was tear gas that the Huns were putting over and our eyes commenced to smart and run, and our throats became parched.”
Letters and parcels from home provided much needed relief for soldiers. Cyril received and replied to a constant supply of mail from his mother, sisters, cousins and friends at home. On 3 January 1917 he recorded receiving a parcel containing: “cake, biscuits, duff, cigarettes, sardines, sweets – great joy when opening up parcel.”
By November 1918 Cyril was in Belgium where rumours the war was close to ending had been circulating for some weeks. The ceasefire finally came on 11 November, Armistice Day, but was not immediately confirmed to those at the front, as Cyril recorded that night: “In view of vagueness of news no enthusiasm shown, but I think most of us are hoping that such is really so.”
It was true. Cyril arrived back in New Zealand in May 19195 and was discharged from the army. He rejoined the staff of the Nelson Evening Mail and in 1920 married a former war nurse, Ethel Barnes.6 Sadly Ethel’s health had suffered as a result of her war service and she died aged 39 on 31 July 1923. Cyril died on 13 April 1958 aged 79. Both he and Ethel are buried at Wakapuaka Cemetery in Nelson.
Updated May 20, 2020
Sources used in this story
- ‘Call to Arms’ (1915, May 11) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
- 'Personal Items' (1915, May 22) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4
- ‘Personal Items’ (1915, June 12) Nelson Evening Mail, p.5.
- 'Personal Items’ (1915, May 22) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
- ‘Personal Items’ (1919, May 13) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
- ‘Personal Items’ (1920, October 16) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
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Further sources - Cyril Spear's Words of War
- Cyril Spear's journey to World War. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
- Millward, P. (2016) Diaries of war - Cyril Spear. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 8(2), 25-30
- The World War I diary entries of Cyril Spear. Retrieved from Stuff:
- Cyril’s diary and other images can be found on the Nelson Provincial Museum WWI portal:
- Cyril Saunderson Spear on Cenotaph: