Having come out of the front line on 17 January, Sherriff finally had time to write some letters home.
Letter to Mother
‘I am now sitting in quite a civilised room,’ he told his mother, ‘where we will be for six days, which fly by only too quickly, two having almost gone.’ On the bright side, there were ‘plenty of amusements’ (such as ‘concerts, cinema shows, and people coming into dinner’), and the weather was staying ‘fine and frosty’. He thanked her for another parcel he had just received (‘done up in the same dear old homely way’) and he noted that they were ‘becoming famous in the Mess, they always contain such nice, homey things, and sensible things, too, which you cannot get out here.’ While he enjoyed the various activities laid on behind the lines, he felt he would ‘prefer to have a quiet time reading and writing’, as it was more restful. As it was, he had struggled even to find the time to write this letter to his mother, as he had been continually interrupted by other things. And now that it was almost time to go to the concert (which he was ‘not very keen’ on), he apologised that the letter would have to be briefer than he would have liked – but he promised another the next day.
Letters to Pips
In contrast to the three pages he sent to his mother he sent two much longer letters home to Pips (his father).
In the first of his two letters he began by noting that he was ‘sitting with polished boots and buttons…in a civilised room with a fireplace, but at present no fire, for we are out for our week’s rest.’ [actually they were in Brigade reserve in Le Philosophe, which was just a few miles back from their trench positions in Hulluch.] He was looking forward to a full week out of the line, and was very much enjoying being able to put on clean underclothes, and sleep in pyjamas again. He was also looking forward to having more time at his disposal than in the line, although ‘you can never tell when you have to go off on some working party or other.’
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)
Replying to his father’s request for a description of his Xmas dinner with the RE officers, he commented on how many of them were ‘Colonials’: ‘2 from Rhodesia, one from California, one from Alaska (what he was doing there I don’t know) and the last from East Africa – mostly mining engineers.’ He continued:
‘You certainly meet a variety of people when soldiering and I think I have been acquainted with Englishmen from all parts – North Countrymen, Devonshire men, Welshmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen etc etc, and it certainly is good for you to become acquainted with them as you learn a great deal, especially as they are all educated men.’
He hoped that when they eventually went out to rest he would become a ‘kind of Engineer officer to the Battalion’, something which he would be interested to do. He was already fulfilling that duty to some extent, although his time in the role was limited by the need to fill in for the many officers who seemed to be away sick or for other reasons. But, he cautioned, he must be careful not to say any more, for fear of running foul of the military censors.
Despite his concerns about military censorship, he endeavoured, in his second letter to his father, to ‘give an account of trench warfare in the winter’:
‘The day you start for the line is all bustle – the men get all their kit packed up – they oil their feet (one of the most important points in winter) and the officers are busy getting their belongings packed and seeing their men are all properly equipped. You start off for the trenches…miles of road are covered and then you say goodbye to the last house – the last vestige of pre-war civilisation – you say goodbye to the last little french shop proudly displaying the inevitable tinned fruit and chocolate – and down you go into the trenches. It is impossible to describe what you see – after the war if possible I will show you all this in a tour of France which I hope you and I will be able to do. [in fact they did go on a 10-day tour together in 1921, which Sherriff wrote about in an article, in his old school magazine, entitled The Battlefield Today]
A ruined French village. From Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, facing p304 (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)
There are endless turns and twists – old gaunt dead trees, miserable remains of cottages, roads, hayricks – all with the appearance that a huge tidal wave has swept over everything, smashing houses and trees, killing the grass and destroying all living things. And then you come to kind of little trench villages – and by peeping in you see men squatting round their fires, eating their stew (usually excellent), or talking or singing, and the better class dugouts, which may be some Headquarters, or Officers’ quarters, and canteens with the usual cigarettes and tinned fruit (what would the British army have done without the invention of tinned foods?)
Suffice to say – you reach the line and all is sorted out – your servant turns up with your bundle of necessary belongings and comes puffing and blowing down the dugout steps and proceeds to make your bed…’
After observing that no skilled writer could give an adequate description of the trenches [rather ironically, given that he did just that in Journey’s End] he proceeded to give an account of his feelings while on duty:
‘Your tour may be, say, 3am to 6am…you may be lying warm and snug in your blanket and someone wakes you – it is the servant on duty – “time to go on, sir,” he says, “a quarter to 3, sir.” You sigh with relief – another 5 minutes before you need to get up – and you snuggle in again as though you had another 6 hours. Someone shakes you and you are told it is 5 minutes to 3 – you must get up, and you proceed to wrap up with a muffler and mackintosh, put on your steel hat and off you go. You crawl up the dugout steps and shiver when you get to the top – it may be snowing – and you button up your coat and tramp off. At a given place you meet the officer you are to relieve, itching with impatience to get away. He hands over any information and you say alright and off he goes, and you start your rounds. You come to snow-covered huddled figures sitting asleep in the open – their heads covered up with mackintosh sheets – and then you come to sentries, huddled figures gazing into the dark – into the churned-up country that they have come to get back – and I often wonder what they are thinking about: poor, old men who have left their little tobacco shops in the East End – or their cottages in the country or their rows of symmetrical smoky cottages from some great industrial town – all come out for the same reason. It is really a wonderful thing that has collected these men together and put them in their uniform and taught them to drill and shoot.
Awful as the whole thing undoubtedly is, it is, and will be, an everlasting monument of wonderful organisation. You come upon a man sitting in the snow contentedly eating bread and jam: where did the food come from and how did it arrive? It is marvellous how every man is fed and fed well. All these millions who in ordinary circumstances would be elsewhere, and the majority get food far superior to that which they are used too – it is the greatest triumph of organisation ever performed.’
Sherriff rounded off his letter by expressing his plans for the future: ‘I would like to become a historian and travel over England seeing all the wonderful things in it – then to collect coins and stamps – to complete a fine library…’. But ‘all these things seem so far off that you wonder what is the use of thinking of them’
[Next letter: 21 January]