Monthly Archives: November 2016

Two months today I set foot on Gallic soil…

Sherriff was in puckish mood when he wrote home to Pips: ‘Two months today I set foot on the Gallic soil…and my appearance in the war area seems in no way to have altered the situation’. He then went on, in jovial style, to congratulate Pips on the 10% bonus he had just received in his job at Sun Insurance: ‘You must be a millionaire now – I suppose you wash in white wine and give banquets to Mr Joseph and Wren every night: it means £40 odd, doesn’t it? Just enough to buy a motor bicycle.’

He was less upbeat in writing to his mother, recalling the day they had parted, those two months before, and saying that he:

‘…now realised almost for the first time how it [was] worse for you than for me when we parted…I had got so much to occupy my attention when I got to Folkestone with my luggage and tickets, and the rush for the boat and the journey on the sea, that before I knew where I was I was miles from home and [had] more things to occupy my attention – whilst you, dearie, had nothing novel to occupy your thoughts. I can picture, now, the last little glimpse I had of you out of the carriage window as the train left…’

A photo probably taken shortly before embarkation. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/4/2)

A photo probably taken shortly before embarkation. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/4/2)

He carried on in this vein of reminiscence for most of the rest of the letter, telling her how much he had enjoyed the periods of leave he was given before embarking for France – the ten days ‘pending gazette’ [waiting, after passing his officer exams, to be attached to a Regiment], and the 48 hours immediately before embarkation – and in particular the walks they had taken in Oxshott woods, in Bushy Park around the Plantation, and in Richmond Park (‘Do you remember how we got absolutely every ounce out of the last days – I am afraid I used to walk you off your feet, dearie, but I know you never minded…’). And in the evenings, after returning from his afternoon rambles with his mother, he would proceed to accompany Pips on long walks, ‘stumbling along in the dark’, which were more enjoyable than ‘all the Grand Theatres put together’.

He congratulated his mother on the ‘compliment’ which the Hospital had paid her, by offering to pay for her services – £20 and all expenses paid: ‘it is very heartening to be told you are of some use…I only wish I was the man who was specially under your care – lucky man to have such a nice nurse.’

Before signing off he thanked her (as he had Pips and Bundy) for the ‘absolutely ideal parcel’ he had received – full of all of his favourites – almonds and raisins, ginger, jam roll and chocolate – ‘all the things I like more than anything else’. He considered himself very lucky to receive such fine parcels – much better than those of many of the other men, whose families put in ‘silly things like tinned sardines’, which were readily available in France. They were probably trying their best – ‘but…none have reached your standard, dear’.

[Next letter: 1 December]

Soldiers on the floor

Writing to Pips, he rehearsed the concerns that he had expressed to his mother the day before:

‘I have been rather busy just lately getting the men of the East Surreys cleaned up – our new Commanding Officer is always hovering round and has several times swooped down on one of my working party because they are dirty – unfortunately they are a very poor selection of men, specially sent on these working parties by their Company Commanders to get rid of them, so you can understand it is almost impossible to keep them clean. I am afraid as the Commanding Officer has spoken to them several times for being dirty he will withdraw them and send a new lot shortly (probably me included).’

He would be loathe to go because he found the work of the Engineers more interesting than  that of the Infantry, and in addition he was enjoying the quieter times in his dugout: ”When I am alone in my dugout I can read and write better than when [I] am sitting at a table with about 6 others talking 16 to the dozen.’ He had been writing some short stories, in fact,  just before the C.O. arrived, and had not yet had the chance to get back to them.

Model British infantry soldiers open fire on the French, in the opening scene of the 1977 remake of The Four Feathers. From

Model British infantry soldiers open fire on the French, in the opening scene of the 1977 remake of The Four Feathers. From

The weather now had that ‘chilly, misty feeling in the air’ that showed that Xmas was coming, and he could imagine being in London, on his way home, hurrying to Waterloo along Regent Street and the Haymarket. He would far rather spend Xmas quietly, ‘with a few RE officers, than with a crowd’. But most of all he hoped that he could all spend next Xmas at home with everyone, and that they could enjoy all the old customs: ‘soldier battles on the floor, stockings full of mysterious shapes, stamp albums and cards and billiards and all the other things that make the winter evenings so dear at home’.

He had been chatting with one of the RE officers, who shared an enjoyment for cycle touring and in Roman remains. They had talked for hours at the mine about Roman roads and many other things. It was good, he felt, to meet someone with the same interests as his often – and few seemed to share his interest in ‘Antiquarian’ matters.

[Next letters: 29 November]

In the bad books

He began today’s letter by apologising to his mother for not having written in several days – partly because [as he had previously told Pips] he had been very busy, but also because he had come down with a bout of ‘Influenza’. He had not wanted to go no duty the previous night, but once he did so the night air had ‘braced him up’, and walking to the Quartermaster today had continued his progress, although he still had a slight cold in the head and throat. He assured his mother that she needn’t worry about him, and that he would certainly of to see the Doctor if he felt it necessary.

He had been busy because of his Battalion’s new commanding officer, Lt Col Swanton:

‘[He] is so energetic that he comes round on the quiet and sees men of the East Surreys attached to my party in a dirty condition – the reason being that they have just come back from working, and also that the selection of men sent to me are all the worst, because they want to get rid of them from the Battalion. Of course, I am blamed for their dirtiness and have probably got in his bad books, if so I expect I will go back to the Company soon…[but] I cannot tell a bit what is to happen – I must simply wait and see and trust that what does happen is for my good.’

1916 Christmas Annuals

1916 Christmas Annuals

Bundy had sent him a copy of the magazine Winter’s Pie, for which he was very grateful, and it made him think about a few of the other Xmas Annuals he should like to receive -such as Holly Leaves, and Pears’ Annual – if his mother could arrange it. He told her, as he had Pips a couple of days before, that he hoped he would stay where he was until at least Xmas, since he would much rather spend it with the RE than with his Battalion.

He ended by promising to write more assiduously in the days ahead, and by stoically accepting that the trying time he had faced recently – due to the Influenza and his C.O. – was probably just the price he had to pay for the easy days he had enjoyed earlier.

[Next letter: 28 November]

Still waiting to hear…

Two letters to Pips today – but the first was brief – just a quick line to let him know that he’d been busy, and that a trip to the Adjutant of the Royal Engineers would take at least a couple of hours, because he was a long walk away. He speculated that perhaps it might have something to do with his application for a transfer. But when he wrote again upon his return to his dugout he seemed rather disappointed that it had only been about a problem with the men’s pay.

Another dugout - this time from the Broadway production of Journey's End, 1929. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/3/1/1)

Another dugout – this time from the Broadway production of Journey’s End, 1929. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/3/1/1)

He apologised to Pips for not having written for the past 4 days, but he had been much busier, fitting out the men with new clothes, and visiting more places during his nighttime tours of duty, so that he felt drowsier during the day, and was inclined to sleep rather than write his letters: ‘But I must in future see that the proper supply of correspondence is kept up’.

The work was still going well, and he was still quite enjoying it. He had heard that, the next time the Battalion came out of the line [they had gone back in the previous day, relieving the Queens Regiment in Hulluch] the men in his party were to be relieved, but he was not yet sure whether that would apply to him as well, although he hoped not. He also had not heard about his possible transfer to the RE, but he was occupying his time in studying his mining books, so that if he were sent to them on probation he would ‘know something of the job’. One of the other advantages of the RE, he thought, was that they gave better leave than the Infantry, so that if he transferred he might be able to get home sooner.

He thanked Pips for the contents of yet another parcel: ‘You struck exactly the right things…ginger, almonds and raisins, and chocolate and ye olde Turner Peppermints are appreciated more than  anything else…’. He noted that Christmas was just a month away, and commented that: ‘although lonely, I should like to look forward to spending Christmas here rather than with the Battalion. I am sure we should make ourselves pretty comfortable.’

[Next letter: 27 November]

Too busy to write

The letter home to his mother today was:

‘Just a very short scribble to tell you I have been very busy all today inspecting men etc and have only just come in and had tea and the Corporal is waiting for the letters. I will write to you properly if possible tomorrow – this is just to show you I have not forgotten my promise to write every day in turn to you, then Pips, and so on. Please tell Bundy I am writing him some poetry etc which will follow shortly.’

[Unfortunately almost none of Sherriff’s scribblings to Bundy survive – nor does any of his poetry.]

[Next letter: 25 November]

A reluctant C.O.

After seeing the Engineers officer on the Sunday, and Nobby Clark on the Monday, today it was time for him to see his Commanding Officer:

‘He did not seem exactly pleased about it. He is a new C.O. since I left the Battalion and he seemed to think I was trying to get a soft job – as a matter of fact it certainly is not always a soft job…after some palaver he initialled my application which I immediately took up to the Major of the R.E.s who said that the C.O.’s initials were hardly enough and he would write to our C.O. about it…The C.O. seemed very reluctant about it – he said he did not know me well enough to give me a “character” and I had not had enough experience of trench warfare etc.’

If the transfer did go through, he told Pips, he expected that he’d be posted to the Engineers on a month’s probation to the mining company: if he proved efficient he would stay with them, and if not he’d be sent back to the Battalion.

A ‘letter card’ from Pips, with pictures of Burnham Beeches [about 20 miles to the north-west of Hampton Wick] was a ‘pleasant reminder of the good old days of peace’, and prompted some reminiscences: ‘I well remember calling at the Bells of Ouseley [in Windsor, a few miles away] for a drink, and filling the old stone bottles with beer and water (not mixed, of course)…and the village cricket match too – it is curious how well these things stand out in one’s memory.’

[Next letter: 22 November]

A year to the day

‘A year ago today I joined the Artists Rifles’, he told Pips, in the second half of the letter begun yesterday: ‘It hardly seems a year but in some ways it seems 3 or 4’.

He told both parents that he had been round to see the Battalion Adjutant [Lt C.A. (Nobby) Clark, whom Sherriff respected very much, and who would become a firm friend after the war] to ask about the chances of a transfer to the Engineers, but he ‘did not seem very hopeful about getting the Commanding Officer’s permission to transfer’. Sherriff was a little doubtful himself, concerned that the new CO [Lt Col T H S Swanton, who, while Sherriff had been away from the Battalion, had taken over from Lt Col H S Tew, who had been injured in a riding accident] might be annoyed by his request, and it ‘might make him say: “Who is this officer? What is he doing?” and change us round…’ But he was still hoping, and he told his mother, as he had Pips the day before, that he was now reading mining books in his spare time.

He had been thinking of Christmas again, because Bundy had sent him the Xmas number of Punch. The pictures of the snow reminded him of walking back home from school as it was growing dark on Xmas Eve [!], and buying decorations for the dining room and drawing room: ‘If only the war is over by next Christmas I should like to go through all this again, however silly it may seem.’

He had just sent a party of his men off to the baths, where they ‘get a good hot wash and a change of underclothes.’ He, on the other hand, had just discovered some lice (having felt itchy the night before): ‘it was my own fault for not applying that Vermin Powder before – as I did not think I was troubled by them I neglected it’, but remedying his mistake, he had applied it thoroughly  and hoped it would ‘put a stop to their little games.’

[Next letter: 21 November]

Hoping for a Transfer

He told Pips that he had been to see the officer in charge of the Engineering Company to which he had been attached, to see if there was a chance of him being permitted to transfer – he was enjoying the work, and finding it interesting (especially the surveying). The officer had told him that he would do his best for him, if he could get the permission of his CO – but Sherriff feared that might prove something of a stumbling block. Nevertheless, he would go to the Battalion Adjutant the next day to see what might be done. In the meantime, one of the Engineers Officers had lent him some books on their work which he was beginning to read, since it would help him if he succeeded in his application.

He took the opportunity to thank Pips for the postcards he had sent him: ‘They served as a reminder that there are places where there are not shell holes everywhere – I am glad that you are able to get [bike] rides fairly frequently: they are a great tonic after incessant indoor work.’

[Next letters: 20 November]

Home Thoughts…

It had been a glorious day, he told his mother – cold and frosty, but fine for walking – and he and Morris [his servant] had been out for four hours getting some exercise. As they came back, and it started to get dark, and with the sun setting and the ‘cold, sharp air’, he was reminded of ‘the walks I have had at home through the dear old parks with you and Pips…there are little scenes and incidents that you see and experience here that remind you so much of home that you can almost imagine you are there: I went along a road today that was very much like the Cromwell Road [in Hampton Wick, near his home]’.

He always took time to get used to things, and after being in his dugout for over three weeks now, he had come to regard it as home: ‘I am sure I shall have a sort of lump in my throat when I have to leave it’. He would stay in it all winter, if he could:

‘It is hard to describe exactly the pleasure one gets from being alone a certain part of the time – when I can think without interruption and draw pictures for Bundy without imagining someone catches sight of them and wonders what you are doing, where you have your servant near at hand and you can call him and have a talk with him without any other officers in the room and where you manage everything yourself and gain experience of responsibility – I feel it is a pleasure I shall miss very much when I get back to my Battalion.’

He was still wishing he had more mining or engineering experience, to give himself a chance of transferring to the RE. The RE officers seemed so interested in their work, he thought, and they had other advantages – like permanent billets and good leave. He wished that he had put in for something more useful, but instead his ‘occupation only made me fit to be an infantry officer, and I should not grumble at my lot’. Nevertheless, he was resolved to try to become more proficient at the RE work. It was almost inevitable he felt, that, working on the surface of the earth, he should prefer working above it (flying) or below it (mining) – ‘it is natural that people prefer something they have not got’. But he also envied his mother the work that she was doing: ‘I do wish I had been trained as a doctor, so that I could help in the same work as you do – it is so much better than helping to make wounds.’

It wasn't just his mother who sent him parcels - Auntie Beattie [Beatrice, his mother's sister] did so as well. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/5/32]

It wasn’t just his mother who sent him parcels – Auntie Beattie [Beatrice, his mother’s sister] did so as well. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/5/32]

He apologised for sending her letters that often sounded so miserable – it seemed poor repayment for her lovely parcels, with peaches, and cream, and mittens and socks, ‘and, well, everything you have sent me.’ Perhaps the parcel had made him homesick, for he allowed himself a brief reverie:

‘It is now half-past nine – I imagine Pips has just settled down in front of the fire; you have gone up to your bedroom I expect and Bundy is sitting reading, and Puss curled up against the fender. I hope I shall be back to all this by next year.’

He left off writing at that point, and although he resumed a little more clear-eyed next morning (‘It is very sharp and frosty this morning – but very fine – true winter has started now’), he soon lapsed into longing and reminiscence once more, as he so often did in letters to his mother:

‘Keep cheerful always, and I will try to, and let’s both look forward to the day when I shall get home again with you and Pips, Bundy, Beryl [his sister] and the parks and Oxshott and the chickens, and everything else so dearly looked forward to.’

[Next letter: 20 November]

A burberry topcoat

It had begun to get chilly, and Sherriff told his mother that he and Gibson were thinking about buying a stove – but they were concerned that, if they were transferred away in the near future, it could turn out to be a waste of money. He hoped, though, that they would stay a while longer,  notwithstanding ‘the inconvenience of being occasionally shelled’. He told her, as he had Pips the day before, that he found the Engineers’ work fascinating, and he was going to try to learn more about it by following the RE officers: ‘I am always on the lookout for some branch of the service that would not be such a strain as the Infantry work is’. He was perfectly willing to work hard, for anything would be better than the ‘waiting and waiting that characterises the Infantryman’s work – nothing can be more arduous than that.’


He was still suffering a bit from the cold he had contracted, but his spirits had been buoyed a little by a parcel from his mother, the main item in which was his burberry coat. He was sorry to ask for it, because he knew his mother had been wearing it, but it was much more suitable than his trench coat, which had proved ‘quite useless’. He was going to send the trench coat back to the shop, and see if he could have them replace it with a mackintosh for his mother.

He told her that the crispness of the air, and the ‘yellowness of the sun’ had brought back memories of the previous year, when he had just started training with the Artists Rifles [he had joined up on 20 November 1915]:

‘It reminded me of those mornings when I used to travel up by train every morning to train in Regents Park – how I would like to start and [have] all that lovely time over again. Do you remember how little things – like a drunk man, or having my name taken – used to worry me? If I could only have those ten months with the Artists over again how glad I should be.’

[Next letter: 17 November]