Monthly Archives: October 2016


In an undated fragment of a letter Sherriff confides to Pips his feelings about the missiles the Germans send over: ‘[We] hope for the best and pray that we will always have the luck to steer clear of them – that is all we can do.’ Even the less highly explosive missiles had a demoralising effect: ‘Rifle grenades and aerial darts are very disturbing – you hear a Bump! as the missile is fired and then a noise like wish! wish! wish! wish! wish! getting louder and louder and your heart beats louder and louder – then crash! and you bob down.’ Of course, in his present job he was out of the firing line, and grateful for that, but he had noticed that ‘the less you are actually in the line the more reluctant you are to enter it.’

He was putting his spare time to good use, ‘writing a little historical story which, when finished, I will submit for your approval and criticism – of course, it may never be finished, but I hope so…’. [Unfortunately we do not know whether it was ever finished or not – but there is no sign of it in his files.]

[Next letter: 1 November]

Through the Looking Glass

‘This evening there was one of the finest sunsets I have ever seen,’ he wrote to Pips, ‘even the famous Selsey Sunsets could hardly rival it…a red glare in the sky which at first I thought was a fire…Against the glorious red sky with dark black clouds here and there were silhouetted little ruined houses and barns – some retain their walls and roofs – the latter usually only consisting of a skeleton frame like a firework set piece – then  you see little avenues of burnt frizzled up trees which once bordered one of those typical French roads – but no road remains now – no artificial features are allowed to remain when war comes – then you see little groups of black crosses dotted about amongst the rank weeds that grow everywhere…’

The sunset had clearly put him in a philosophical frame of mind, because he went on to consider the ‘two great armies’ sitting across from each other, and how it reminded him of Alice Through the Looking Glass:  the Germans were ‘just a reflection of us at present’ – they were both doing the same things – writing letters home, running away from trench mortars, wondering what the other was up to: ‘taking it all round,’ he wrote, ‘we just sit and frighten each other’.

On a happier note, he told Pips that he had enjoyed a walk to the local village, to buy some supplies, and to have his hair cut ‘in a little French Barber (or more correctly Barbress)’. The walk had been quite interesting, ‘although those items of interest cannot be described here – they must wait and be put in my book if that ever becomes written.’

Writing to his mother that he and Gibson were still ‘having quite a nice time’, he went on to praise Morris’s skills as a chef, noting that  ‘he performs marvels over a brazier (that Navvies use) and a little billy can. He cooks eggs and bacon and steaks…nearly as well as you do, as anyone has at present approached, in my opinion.’ He told her they were well taken care of with rations (including fresh eggs), and that, ‘with the delightful addition of the contents of your parcels we really live too well…’

He also told her that, although he had now been out in France for a month, the time had flown past, and that ‘it seems but yesterday since I said goodbye to you at Charing X [sic]. I can still picture that last little glimpse of you that I had as the train moved out, and I shall always remember it…’

[Next letter: 31 October]


‘I am afraid I made rather a pig of myself over that parcel,’ he wrote to his mother: ‘I have felt rather bilious this morning.’ He then changed his mind, concluding that it wasn’t the parcel that had done it – it was more likely to have been bad water. Whatever the cause, he had been sick earlier and had a bad pain in his stomach, but at least had been able to lie down.

His mood had not been helped by rats getting into the food supplies. They had opened a couple of packets of soup powder, and carried off a couple more (to ‘goodness only knows where’). They had gnawed at some chocolate and eaten two or three candles, before starting on a bar of soap (which they soon left alone). What annoyed him most, however, was that they ‘pulled that little bag of peppermints that were in my parcel onto the floor, and those they did not eat they trampled underfoot.’ But he and Gibson had learned their lesson, and would take care to cover all their supplies in the future.

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

[Morris, however, had a different solution, as Sherriff outlined in his later Memoir: ‘“What we do want”, remarked Morris, after he finished the first part of the anti-rat campaign, “is that bloke who hypnertised all the rats, and tootled them away with a flute, and then took them all into a mountain and shut ‘em in – Hamilton was ‘is name, I think – I’d ‘ave a try only I ain’t got no flute, and there ain’t no convenient mountain ‘ereabouts – it ‘ud be rotten to get ‘em all out a followin’ yer, and then not know what to do wiv ‘em.’]

Before finishing his letter he told his mother that he was still intending to apply for the Flying Corps (‘directly a favourable opportunity arises’), but that he didn’t want to appear in too much of a hurry. In fact he never did get around to applying, instead setting his sights on another branch of the service (the Engineers).

[Next letters: 30 October]


Enter Private Morris…

‘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)

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]



Looking after the men

‘I was on duty from 6pm to 6am up at the mine last night,’ he told Pips, in a brief letter written after he returned. ‘You have to see that the men work properly and there your duties are practically at an end: during the night you make rounds to see that the work is being well done and then you are able to go down the mine into the officers’ dugout and get a nap.’ [The job of his men, as he described in his later memoir, was to remove all of the chalk which was being dug out of the tunnel by night and day, and empty it into shell holes in the plain above, taking great care to conceal the evidence from German aircraft.]

When he was not on duty in the mine his time was largely his own, although he had to keep an eye on the men (to make sure, as he told his mother, ‘that they shave and keep themselves and their rifles clean’), and be available in case some emergency needed his attention (like today, when he had been called away several times to ‘see to rations etc’).

Into the Mine. From Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, facing page 314. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

Into the Mine. From Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, facing page 314. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

In a subsequent letter to Pips, written later that same day, he repeated the tale of how he had been assigned to the Tunnellers, his travels through the French countryside (‘the nearer you arrive to the line the more battered and the more desolate does the country become’) and his efforts (with 2nd Lt Gibson) to secure dugouts and rations for their 60 men. Their initial problem on arriving was that no-one had thought to secure rations for the new men, but they quickly found four men with ‘the necessary intelligence to make some stew and tea for the first relief…tins of bully beef, pork & beans, onions and a little fresh meat, biscuits to look like potatoes were all put in, and a very appetising looking stew was the result.’ At the same time he and Gibson feasted on ‘soup tablets, eggs and some meat and bacon, some tinned pears and some coffee’. Although their servants worried that the meat was ‘…cut orf the wrong part for frying’, the two officers enjoyed ‘quite a nice meal’ nonetheless.

He told Pips that things were now beginning to settle down. They had found a good corporal to issue out the rations, and he and Gibson were each taking every other 12-hour night shift at the mine, where they could get some sleep if necessary. He was finding the work interesting and was enjoying having his own party of men to look after. He told his mother that he and Gibson were sharing ‘quite a comfy dugout’, which was ‘fairly far back from the line’ [in fact, far enough to be out of range of Minnies, which pleased him greatly].  The toughest part of the job was ‘when we are on at night, floundering in the mud.’ On the whole, though, it was ‘quite a nice job’, which he hoped would last for some time.

[Next letter: 28 October]

Going Underground

On Tuesday 24 October Sherriff had set out with fifteen ‘other ranks’ from the battalion, who were being transferred temporarily to the 254th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. He was pleased to be accompanied on the journey by several other officers who were acting as an advance party to scout out the section of the trench to which the battalion was being sent, in Brigade support. Percy High was there, from ‘D’ Company, and Abrams (who had come across to France with him) from ‘B’. The ‘A’ Company officer was 2nd Lt David Hatten, and Sherriff was delighted to discover that he was another former Kingston Grammar School boy (although about 19 years his senior). Also with them on the journey were 2nd Lt Douglass, from Sherriff’s own ‘C’ Company [who went by the nickname ‘Father’, and, like Percy High,  is another plausible model for the figure of ‘Uncle’ in Journey’s End].

The following morning [25th] he wrote to his father to tell him of their journey: ‘[We] left at 7 o’clock from our rest camp and after steady marching for 4 hours eventually arrived at a town [Mazingarbe, between Lens and Béthune in the Loos sector, although he did not say so] where we were put up in a very comfortable commercial hotel, just like the ones we stay at in cycle touring.’ The town was well preserved (a few miles back from the front line) and he had enjoyed the rest of the day at leisure to explore it. He and Percy High had shared a room in the hotel, but today after lunch they would go their separate ways – Percy to the trenches, he to the mine with his men.

Mazingarbe in 1921. Photo taken by Pips during a cycle tour of the battlefields, and posted into his journal. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

Mazingarbe in 1921. Photo taken by Pips during a cycle tour of the battlefields with his son, and posted into his journal of the trip. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

By this time he had been joined by another officer – 2nd Lt Gibson, of the North Staffordshire Regiment, with whom he had served in the same company while he was training in the Artists Rifles. Gibson had brought 15 of his own men, and their numbers rose with another 30 men drawn equally from the Queens’ and West Kent Regiments. He wrote to his mother later that day [25th] and told her that he and Gibson were being given ‘the responsibility of looking after these 60 men…and I have had a pretty busy day making out lists of working parties etc and getting the men stowed away comfortably in dugouts.’ He hoped that he might be able to stay in the job for some time and that the work would be ‘interesting and fairly comfortable.’ While he feared that he might be taken off the job just in time to go into the line with his battalion again, he resolved to try to look on the bright side – and having the officers of ‘C’ Company living in another part of the trench close by at least meant that he would continue to have access to his mail, and his treasured parcels, two of which, he told her, he would be picking up as soon as he finished writing his letter.

[Next letters: 26 October]

Who could not be happy?

‘Who could not be happy,’ he asked his mother, ‘after spending 8 days in constant danger, great or small, where you had always to keep an eye open for shells and other missiles, and then to come into a quiet little village where you can walk along open roads and across green fields, where the ground is smooth and not churned up by shell holes and encumbered with wire entanglements.’

He was absolutely happy, he told her, ‘with a nice comfortable tent…and a cosy little room in a farmhouse to mess in’. He wrote in similarly high spirits to Pips, noting that, although the wind was chilly, his tent was sheltered and warm, ‘with the sun shining on the canvas’. They would remain in rest until Tuesday, ‘when we are off again.’ He told him about his long walks the day before, through the ‘flat, though interesting countryside,’ which was prevented from being monotonous by the ‘women with funny looking bonnets working in the fields.’ He had stumbled across a football match, and English soldiers were everywhere (but not so the French).  Everything was peaceful and calm, except for a ‘faint rumble rumble…from the distant south, where that rumble has been going on consistently for over 3 months, almost without a pause.’ [The Somme].

Percy High (rear left, with pipe). From 'Memories of Active Service', Vol 1, facing p 22. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

Percy High (rear left, with pipe). From ‘Memories of Active Service’, Vol 1, facing p 22. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

When he had returned from his walk the previous evening he had attended a concert organised by the Chaplain (‘it was remarkably good, some very fine comedians and singers were amongst them’), and this morning he had gone to Church parade in the very same hall. He was planning another long walk this afternoon, and wished he could go with some of the men in his Platoon (‘some seem such gentlemen’), but he felt it would compromise discipline. Instead, as he told his mother, he was planning to go with Percy High, ‘that man whom I came over with – he is a good reliable sort of man who reminds me of Uncle Syd [who was married to his maternal aunt Alice] – it is funny that I always prefer older men as companions…I find they are more interesting and can advise you.’ [Percy, a schoolteacher, may well have been one of the models for Uncle in Journey’s End.]

He told his mother how much he had enjoyed her parcel – how its contents had reminded him of old times – and how happy he would be to have more lovely ‘eatables’ from home (and some more vermin powder, of course). Although ‘this little rest has been as happy a time as I have had in the army’, he was still longing for home, and was already making plans (as he told both parents) to do up his little study in ‘Tudor style, with a  good bookcase and make a collection of choice books.’ In the meantime, he would make the most of the cake and the cigarettes that he had just received from his Auntie Beattie, which, he was quick to assure his mother [her sister], he was just about to write and thank her for.

[Next letters: 25 October]

Another night in No Man’s Land

He had spent Friday night with a working party digging a trench in No Man’s Land, not far from the enemy. Writing to Pips later on the Saturday, he told him that it had been ‘rather an unpleasant job’, which he had been glad to finish.

A Working Party packing up their shovels. From Memories of Active Service, facing page 275. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

A Working Party packing up their shovels. From Memories of Active Service, facing page 275. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

They had left at 5:00 in the evening and had driven half way in ‘Motor Buses’. It had been rather extraordinary, he wrote, ‘rushing through the ruined country’ in them. They had eventually arrived at a ruined village, where they entered a communication trench which they followed the rest of the way. They had worked there for several hours, only returning to their base at 3:00 in the morning.

[In his later memoir he recalled the vehicles as trucks, but, since there was no reason for him to have mistaken them when he wrote his letter, his later recollection was most likely faulty. In fact, ‘Motor buses‘ were often used to transport troops in France.]

It had now turned into such a lovely day that, in the afternoon, he was planning a walk into a neighbouring village to get a hot bath. Later on, ‘if I can get out, I will go for a tramp along one of the neighbouring roads and try and imagine it is Bushy Park and I am with you. I will take Turners peppermints with me and munch them going along.’

He told his father, as he had before, that he could not, in his letters ‘touch on matters of military importance as it is a very serious offence if it was discovered that you were giving information even of the most innocent kind, aparently.’ Nevertheless, he could tell his father not to listen to Harrison [someone from the office who had joined up], because ‘what [he] tells you is wrong, or, at least, it is at present.’[Quite what he was so wrong about we unfortunately don’t know.]

[Next letters: 22 October]

What a relief

‘We arrived back at our billets at a village in rear late on Wednesday night – and what a relief to at last get back again to where you can walk in freedom along open roads without fear of being suddenly shot at.’

He told his mother he was living in a tent, but was quite comfortable, in the same village that they had left 16 days earlier [Estrée-Cauchy]. He hoped they would stay there for a few days at least, and promised her long letters every day, as long as he was not off on working parties, like the one he was due to supervise that very evening.

Battalion HQ at Estrée-Cauchy. From Memories of Active Service, facing page 39. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

Battalion HQ at Estrée-Cauchy. From Memories of Active Service, facing page 39. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

She had sent him a parcel that had been returned to her because it was overweight – ‘what a shame you had to unpack it again, but it only shows you were too keen on letting me have plenty of things and thank you, dear, for that.’ As luck would have it, a parcel arrived as he was writing his letter, and he paused to inspect its comments: pastry from his mother (which he had shared round straightaway, while keeping some back to eat while on the working party); chocolate walnuts from his brother Bundy (‘which remind me of the dear days I used to get home and bask on the lawn while Bundy went across to get some’); and chocolate biscuits, peppermints and ‘everything that is nice: thank everybody very much indeed for me dear.’

There were just a couple of things he still needed, including a cover for his watch, and some more of the Boots anti-vermin powder which had been so effective in warding off lice (he had suffered much less from them than the other men). He would need some socks soon enough, but would let her know when. In the meantime, he was still waiting to hear what she thought about him joining the Royal Flying Corps: it sounded interesting to him, but ‘I really cannot make up my mind yet – I am afraid if I put in they will think I do it to get out of the Infantry – but I will wait and hear what you think.’

[Next letter: 21 October]

Thinking of home

‘All being well we are to be relieved this afternoon and go back to a village in rear for a rest,’ he wrote to his mother. ‘I do not know how long we will stop in rear but it should be about eight days…It is no use saying I am not fed up because I am, and when I look back on the weary hours I have spent up here, I feel it will be hard to stand another eight days, but I have got to and a rest will no doubt make a difference.’

He had been thinking of putting in for the Flying Corps – he thought he would like it, and it wouldn’t be much of a greater strain than what he had experienced. Not that he had seen anything he didn’t expect – he just thought ‘there is something [more] free about the air service than in this trench in which you feel something like a worm crawling about with your head down.’ In fact, he told her, he would prefer to be in any branch of the service than the infantry. ‘Let me know,’ he asked, ‘if you would like me to try for the Flying Corps.’

'Rossendale', the family home in Seymour Road, Hampton Wick. By Permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 3813/14/3/1)

‘Rossendale’, the family home in Seymour Road, Hampton Wick. By Permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 3813/14/3/1)

He told her he had felt well since arriving in France, apart from ‘an occasional touch of headache owing to the nerve strain out here’, but he had been able to sleep it off. ‘I’m always thinking of you and dear old home,’ he told her, ‘and am wondering how long it will be before I get home again; it seems so far off that it is almost like a dream but I hope the time will come again when I shall walk round Harmans corner… and come across Seymour Road [where he lived, in Hampton Wick] and see puss sitting on the wall and looking at me just as though I had never been away.’

[Next letter: 20 October]