‘We have now spent 4 very happy days looking after a working party here,’ he wrote to Pips [in a letter dated 26 October, but probably written on 28 October – see here for more information]. ‘It is just like the old camping days on the river, except our servants do our shopping instead of our doing it personally.’ He explained that there were little shops in the nearby villages where additional supplies could be obtained, and, since their stocks were limited, it was hard for the servants to obtain exactly what Sherriff and Gibson wanted. Upon the servants’ return the dialogue with the officers would go something like this:
Private Morris, as drawn by Sherriff. Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, facing page 254. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)
‘Did you get any coffee? – No sir, they ain’t got no coffee so we bought choclut.
Eggs? – Yes sir, but two of ’ems broke and one or two seems to leak a bit, they’s been shook up a bit, them trenches is so slippery that you uses all yer ‘ands to keep yer up.
Mustard? – No sir, they ain’t got none, but they ‘ad vinegar (waves a bottle triumphantly and puts it on table).
Strawberry Jam? – No sir, they ain’t no strawberry but I got some quince marmalade (produces a rusty tin, sealed about twenty years ago).
Lemon squash? – Yes, sir (He thinks he has got one thing right, dives into bag and produces a tiny little bottle of gassy yellow liquid – of course we meant the essence, but it can’t be helped).
Pears? – No pears, sir. Hapricots, sir (a gaudy tin appears).
He told Pips that they got no end of fun out of his servant, Morris, who was a ‘born Londoner’ and who managed to cook the ‘most excellent meals over a smoky fire in a muddy trench.’ Everything was cooked in little billy cans, and since there were only two plates, they had to be washed after each course. ‘The joy of the meal,’ he wrote, ‘is the unconsciously humorous remarks he makes – he never leaves the dugout without leaving us both in fits of suppressed laughter.’
[Morris had actually been assigned to him on 19 October, but this was the first time he had mentioned him in his letters. Morris was very clearly the model for Mason in Journey’s End, who in turn may have been an influence on the character of Baldrick in Blackadder goes Forth. Certainly it is easy to hear the above dialogue spoken in Baldrick’s voice.]
He told his mother about Morris as well, noting how good he was and how he ‘fusses round and gets me tea in the morning without any asking’ – although Sherriff attributed that to his own tendency to treat the men well: ‘I find that saying “Good morning” to any man I meet in the trench or a little chat now and then does nothing towards making a lack of discipline, and I think the men like you better.’ It was in order to set a good example to the men that he was opting not to wear the “Bullet Body Shield” that he had bought, and had just been delivered to him – at least not in general duty in the trenches, since ‘it would not seem fair to the men to see an officer padded up with steel sheets, but I shall certainly keep it handy and if the time ever comes that we have to go ‘over the top’ I should certainly wear it then. In ordinary everyday life I prefer to share the risks with the men.’
And, on the subject of risk he wanted to reassure her that his interest in the Flying Corps (which by now she had told him she approved of) was not because he was ‘seeking to escape from a danger I cannot face in the infantry’, but more because he thought he would find flying more ‘congenial’: ‘I am quite capable of putting up with all the hardships attached to infantry work as so many thousands of other officers are.’
Thankfully, as he told both his mother and Pips, his present duty was very pleasant, even if he was slightly put out by one of the ‘C’ Company officers [Douglass], crowded out of his own dugout, sharing with him and Gibson (‘it makes us rather crowded’). He was trying to be philosophical about his good luck in securing his present post, and hoped it would continue for some time, but the army being what it was he feared he might be moved on sooner than he would want. He could still hear the sounds of battle – the ‘distant tap! tap! tap! of a machine gun’; the ‘ping!’ from a sniper’s bullet; the distant ‘Boom! Boom! Boom! and a noise like rippling water as a shell or two fly overhead, and a second later a dull crash far away’. While he was, at least, protected by twenty feet of earth, he felt trapped – lamenting his lack of freedom, and comparing himself to an earwig ‘walking solemnly round and round my candle…If I were this earwig I shouldn’t stay here long – I should start straight off this evening for England and not bother to waste my time walking round a candle.’ [The sounds of war obviously made an impact on him, and were important in Journey’s End. The little earwig would also have a minor role in the play, and would require to be translated for the benefit of American productions.]
[Next letter: An encounter with rats, on 29 October]