By the end of the previous day his movement orders had come through: he now knew that he was being sent to join the 9th East Surreys – and he was leaving the very next morning.
He wrote to his mother during his journey – while lying in a field enjoying the beautiful weather. They had spent a couple of hours on the train that morning, alighting at midday. And, since the next part of the journey wasn’t due to begin until 7:00 that evening, there was nothing much to do but lounge around and enjoy the sunshine. He coiuldn’t tell his mum where he was, nor where he was going, but he did tell her that he had seen much on his way to interest him. ‘I should like to write a book about it one day, if I can’, he wrote.
[Next letters: 2 October]
Sherriff wrote to his father (whom he called ‘Pips’) from the base camp, where he had arrived at 9 o’clock the previous evening. He could not tell him (‘for reasons of censorship’) where the camp was, but we know from his later diary (Memories of Active Service) that he was in the camp at Étaples (or ‘Eat-apples’ as the Tommies called it). He told Pips about his journey the previous day, and about the tented accommodation in camp – with three to a tent they were fairly comfortable, and although washing and dressing were cramped, he was contented that he had all of his luggage and enough blankets.
He said very little about the camp in his letter, but he had a lot to say in his diary, describing a vast camp, with lines and lines of huts, glistening in the rain, cookhouses sending columns of smoke into the air, hospitals, recreation rooms, YMCA huts and many open squares for drilling.
Alomst everything he had encountered in the past day or so was in English – so much so that it was hard to believe he was in France. He took the chance at the camp to buy a good pair of trench boots (boasting to his dad that he had paid jus t£1-16s-9d, compared with £4-0-0 in London), but he also made sure to change some of his English money, to use in the French villages and towns later.
He had no idea when he would be moving on, nor where: all he knew was that he was due to report at 2 o’clock that afternoon, ‘so that will mean we have some work to do.’ But at least he had been spared the morning drill for those who hadn’t yet been to the front (‘to keep our minds occupied’), although that was in store the next morning if his orders to move hadn’t come through by then.
[Next letter: 30 September]
At 9:30 on the morning of Thursday 28 September, Sherriff and his mother sat together in the Charing Cross station buffet drinking coffee. They had travelled up together from Hampton Wick to Waterloo, and taken a taxi across the river, and now they made small talk until it was time for him to leave on the 10 o’clock boat train. A few years later he recalled that after the train left and ‘went round the bend, we saw hundreds of little white handkerchieves fluttering on the platform.’
The station in Folkestone was close to the quay. The officers were helped with their valises and within twenty minutes everyone was on board and the ship ready to set sail for Boulogne. They arrived at 2 o’clock, after ‘a very nice, smooth journey across,’ as he wrote to his mother later that day.
After arriving, he and the other East Surrey men found their way to the British Officers’ Club, where they had dinner, prior to a stroll round the town. ‘I can hardly believe I am in France,’ he wrote. ‘It seems just like a Cinematograph picture to see the gendarmes in baggy trousers walking about and porters in blue overalls.’ But there wasn’t much time to linger: at 5:30 that evening (as he told his father) they were due to catch another train, for their onward journey – ‘I expect to the base.’ That would be an eye-opener for him…
[Next letter: 29 September]
On Monday 25 September 1916, Sherriff, still stationed with the 3rd East Surreys at the Grand Shaft Barracks in Dover, was called into the Orderly Room along with six other officers. The Assistant Adjutant told them that they were to catch the train from Charing Cross to France on the Thursday morning, and that they could proceed on leave at once.
He was anxious, of course, but relieved to finally be going abroad. Several of his old school-friends and work colleagues had already been posted to France, and some, he knew, would not be coming back. He felt it was time for him to do his bit, but he intended to make the most of the few remaining hours at home. After receiving his travel warrant he rushed straight back to his home in Hampton Wick, and spent the next two days walking with his mother or with his father – in the country lanes near his home, along the river, or through Bushy Park in the moonlight.
On the Wednesday he got his kit together, so that there would be no last-minute rush the next morning: he was due to catch the 10:00 o’clock train, and wanted to avoid spoiling ‘the tranquility of the final moments at home.’ With his kit packed, all that was left was to enjoy his final walks, and to try to avoid dwelling too much on what awaited him across the Channel.