Born: 3 April 1890
Died: 12 October 1917
Studied at the RCA: October 1911–July 1914, ARCA Diploma 1914.
While his two older sisters were teachers, Hugh was partly following in his father’s footsteps when he arrived at the College. Charles Spencer was a general blacksmith and Hugh, after attending the local art school in Keighley, West Yorkshire, applied to the College intending to become a ‘skilled metalworker’. From the outset his ability and inventiveness were noted, particularly when he was working with iron. In June 1914 he sat for his Design diploma, but instead of taking his studies further he enlisted that autumn, stating his occupation simply as ‘draughtsman’.
As with a number of other students, Hugh had been a volunteer in the army in his late teens, in his case with the 6th Battalion (Territorials), West Riding Regiment. Now he joined southerners in the 7th (Service) Battalion, East Kent Regiment (the Buffs). This was formed during September 1914 in Canterbury under the somewhat chaotic Kitchener’s New Army initiative, with reports at the time suggesting they lacked billets, uniforms and equipment for several months, while the authorities struggled to cope with large numbers of recruits. Despite such inauspicious beginnings Hugh remained with them for his entire military service.
He moved up the ranks, writing to the College in January 1915 to ask for their support, having been nominated by his commanding officer for a commission. This they were happy to provide, but it seems he was unable to take up training at the time. Instead there is a note in his somewhat confused service records, of promotion to sergeant at the end of March, and just one, mistaken, mention of him as a Second Lieutenant in the battalion war diary a few months later. Other records indicate he was commissioned some two years later, and around the same time his service record becomes muddled with at least two other H.M. Spencers – with unfortunate consequences for his family. However, back in 1915, the College file of another student, Doris Perkin, clearly pinpoints Hugh as still in England in May, and their marriage banns, read the next month, give his address as Codford, Wiltshire, where several army camps, later associated with ANZAC troops, had been established. At the end of July, almost exactly a month after marrying Doris, Hugh embarked with the Buffs for France as part of the 55th Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division.
During the rest of the year he must have experienced several spells of trench fighting near the village of Denancourt, south-west of Albert, as a pattern developed consisting of bouts of training, relieving other battalions, and being relieved. This continued into 1916. Respite came for Hugh in February 1916 when Doris’s student file reveals he was back in Yorkshire on an unexpected week of home leave – causing her to lose some of her ‘scholarship money’ so she could be with him. Frustratingly, this is the last appearance of them as a couple in College records, although the reason was entirely due to the broader effect of the war: Doris had accepted a teaching post in Belper, Derbyshire, as the conscription of a male teacher had led to a vacancy.
A few months later Hugh was back with his battalion during the Battle of the Somme when their division began to earn its reputation, starting on the very first day of action: under their unconventional commander, General Ivor Maxse, the 18th was the only one to succeed in taking their objective.
During the first half of 1917 Hugh returned to England for his officer training, gaining his commission to Second Lieutenant on 26 June. It is unclear when he returned to his battalion. Although the Third Battle of Ypres began at the end of July, the war diaries indicate the Buffs were held in a reserve over most of August while other troops suffered high losses and the land became a quagmire. They were mostly undertaking more training to keep them fit and ready for whatever came next. Late that month or early in September Hugh must have seen Doris for the last time; their baby son was born in May the following year. By mid-October, however, Hugh was back with the Buffs in Flanders, along with the rain that wreaked havoc for people, transport, equipment and communications. On 12 October the First Battle of Passchendaele began with the Buffs given short notice of action they were to take part in, mainly alongside ANZAC troops, south-west of Poelcappelle at ‘Gloster farm’. It was a disaster.
Captain A.C.L. Nicholson (an Australian), in charge of C company that day, was later asked to account for the failure. He was forthright, noting a weak and ineffective barrage as well as the lack of preparation: from 5.25 am until midday his soldiers came under sustained enemy machine-gun fire. When it slackened he sent Hugh to make contact with the Second Lieutenant of A company, only a short distance away, in the hope of joining the two companies together. Hugh was spotted en route and shot. Nicholson immediately rushed to help him but realised his officer had been ‘mortally wounded’. As Hugh died, Nicholson watched helplessly as the other Second Lieutenant and his men were taken prisoner and lead away.
Later, the confusion of Hugh with the other H.M. Spencers must have added to the distress of the now widowed Doris, as records indicate she may have been asked to repay money when it was discovered that Henry Marston Spencer had survived. In 1920 she was still trying to sort out any payments due to her, having been written to again by the authorities: as she pointed out fearfully ‘it is impossible for anyone in my circumstances to return sums later without great difficulty’.
It is not clear what happened to Hugh’s body at the time of his death, but ‘an unknown soldier’ was later identified as him. He is buried at Poelcappelle British Cemetery, near Ypres, West Flanders, Belgium. Hugh, like T. S. Shackleton, is also commemorated in the Keighley War Memorial Window.