The art of war

Spence – The Art of War focuses on a unique set of watercolours painted by Colonel G.O. Spence, Commander of the 5th Durham Light Infantry, during the First World War. The exhibition is on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds until the end of April 2018.

Who was Colonel Spence?

Colonel Gilbert Ormerod Spence DSO was born in 1879 to Herbert Grant Spence and Elizabeth Dorothea Spence in Stockton-on-Tees.

To give a little insight into his family’s history, when researching Spence’s Grandfather all we can say is that he seemed to have some trade in Jamaica. Spence’s Uncle, James Spence, wrote one of the most important ideological texts for the Confederates during the American Civil War – ‘The American Union’.

His extended family had ties to cotton, possibly the slave trade, shipping and there was one actor. Spence and his father were involved in the shipping industry, in what was the booming town of Stockton-on-Tees. From his position as partner for the shipping business Richardson, Duck and Co he could participate in other worthy activities from civic duties as Mayor of Thornaby to a high ranking position in the Volunteer Battalion Durham Light Infantry, soon to become the Fifth DLI.

During his service to the Durham Light Infantry he even had the opportunity to carry out field exercises at Preston Hall. The Hall later became a museum and is now known as Preston Park Museum and Grounds and it is here that Spence’s collection of fine arms and armour is now situated.

Additionally, he got Baden Powell, father of the Scout Movement, to give a talk to his men. By 1914 he and his men were well prepared for war and in the diaries of Private Pallant he comments how Spence bravely strode up and down his lines of men telling the boys to dig in further if needed.


“Col. G Spence was as cool as if he was on parade, walking about with his stick, not bothering about the shells, and saying to us ‘Come on, boys, dig yourselves in or you will be getting hit” – Private E. Pallant of the 5th D.L.I.

Before we discuss more on Spence’s service on the Western Front we must first address that Spence’s mother Elizabeth was already behind enemy lines when the war broke out, holidaying in the Austrian Spa towns. She was permitted to return but in her papers, it does mention being generous with cigarettes helped improve relations! Mrs Spence has another interesting link to the First World War, she was in correspondence with an actual spy, Paul Ehrhardt. He wrote to her prior to the conflict, saying if war comes it will be the fault of the British and French. At around the time of the outbreak of war, he was shot in Belgium!



The actual correspondence from Paul Ehrhardt to Mrs Spence

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Once Spence had finished another period of training in test trenches in Wales his men entered into the Theatre of War in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Following this baptism of fire Spence led his men through many of the principal battles of the First World War from the Somme to Arras, finishing his military career in the Battle of Estaires. During the Battle of the Somme Spence was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He had led his men very effectively capturing trenches, some of which were named after officers such as Spence Trench and there was, of course, a Durham trench right next to it.

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Maps from Spence’s personal archive

By 1918 the German spring offensive was well underway and there were Portuguese divisions holding the town of Estaires but once the Germans moved into the sector they moved out and the Durhams moved in. There was block by block fighting and after relentless assaults, the DLI moved into a crescent-shaped defensive position south west of the town on the other side of a river.


Privates Tweddle and Dean of the Fifth were so incredibly brave they volunteered to attack the bridge that they had lost on their own. Their bravery inspired other men until the bridge for a time was retaken.

It is interesting that the Adjutant of the Fifth, A.L. Raimes, writes in the Battalion history that the attack by the Germans could have been far worse if the Germans had not found stocks of alcohol in the night and when they came out of the town some were rather hung over. Raimes also notes other enemy troops came out with metal shields for snipers to shoot through.

After skirmishes, the Germans pushed onto the hastily prepared defences. It was here where Spence was shot in the leg. The media of the time had a similar tendency as today to exaggerate and when the Northern Echo first put out the news of his injury he was ‘shot ten times’  but when they followed up with another article ten shots turned into the truthful one severe shot to the leg. This ended the war for Spence and sadly much of his Battalion was wiped out during the following Battle of Aisne. During the War Spence painted what he saw and what inspired him. His painting of the Battle of Estaires is unique as it is the only watercolour that shows his men in the midst of battle.



Written by Christopher Young Collections Access Assistant at Preston Park Museum and Grounds. Don’t miss our exhibition of First World War paintings on loan from Preston Park Museum and Grounds at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, 11 November 2017 – 29 April 2018. Entry to the museum and exhibition is free.