Sherriff, back with the transport because of his neuralgia, wrote home to both parents to let them know how his nerves were progressing.
He told Pips that he had been to see the doctor, as he had suggested, and had explained to him about his nerves, and how his neuralgia was troubling him. He understood that doctors might be suspicious of such complaints, but also noted that, before being sent to the rear, some kind of character reference had to be provided by one of the regiment’s senior officers. Unfortunately, his fellow officers were currently in the line, some distance away, so the doctor was ‘in rather a fix’.
The doctor had examined him and agreed that there was no question as to his nervousness and then asked if he could think of any reason for it:
‘I told him that I had always been rather highly strung – and he asked me all kinds of questions – where did I live? How long had I been out here? Did I smoke much? (I told him I smoked about 4 or 5 cigarettes a day) and several other questions – he finished up by giving me some tablets to take and I have to call and see him this afternoon – I am absolutely in his hands – if he decides I am fit to go up the line I must go – but what I dread is that by going up I should make some serious mistake through lack of confidence.’
After telling Pips about his experiences with the doctor he went on to give a very detailed and graphic account of exactly how his frayed nerves affected him:
‘When you first get out here you realise that there is a certain strain to put up with – one gets to the line and is rather surprised at its quietness – shells are not flying over incessantly and in fact at the period when I arrived there were none to spare on our front at all – they were being used in a more serious place.
You feel rather agreeably surprised – and then soon someone says “look out! here’s a Minnie” and you see what appears to be a shell making apparently slowly upwards then turns and comes down with a swish and makes a terrific explosion – it may not have been near you and the explosion was not as loud as you anticipated.
This goes on day after day and then one day a man may be blown to pieces by a “Minnie” (for only one in a hundred lands in a trench) and every time you walk past the shattered piece of trench you have the pleasure of seeing pieces of his anatomy hanging on bits of barbed wire etc – one day a man is sniped and you may see his bloodstained helmet carried away and then you begin to respect the powers of a “Minnie” and you don’t feel so inclined to look over the top after seeing a man shot in the head – and as day after day goes by you gradually get a habit of gazing into the air for “Minnies” and your ears become painfully sensitive to picking up the sound of a shell coming – and your heart throbs unnecessarily sometimes, your arm brushing against your coat makes a swishing sound and you stop to listen in suspense, a man starting to whistle makes you jump, hundreds of times you become painfully on the alert for a false alarm and at others for a real alarm.
The more familiar you become with a sector of line the more you learn its danger spots and there are times when you pass certain places as fast as your legs will carry you.
It is when you get to this state – which may take any length of time according to your state of nerves (and with some men apparently never comes) that the suspense of long hours of duty in the line tell upon you – and it is then that even when some way behind the line where shells only can reach that you get a kind of instinct to pick up any sign of a recent shell burst – a small hole in the ground where a splinter landed, a little loose earth scattered about by the explosion all worry you.
I think nearly everyone gets to this state sooner or later and it is, of course, a question of their powers of being able to conceal their fear after that.’
He told his mother rather more about the treatment the doctor had offered. He had agreed that his neuralgia was probably caused by his nerves being ‘out of order’, and had then given him some tablets and suggested he stay quiet in his billet for a day or two. But Sherriff did not think this would be of much use:
my nervousness is worse than the Neuralgia and I feel it impossible to settle down quietly to anything in my billet – all the while I have that dread of going into the line again – if only I could get a real rest for a fortnight or so I am sure I should get better and tomorrow I will explain that to him if possible – it is such a difficult subject to talk to him about, though – as it looks just like you are shirking.
Nevertheless he would take his mother’s advice and see the doctor again the next day if he genuinely did not feel better – the last thing he wanted to do was to go back into the line in his present state, ‘ when every little thing makes me jump.’
[Next letter: 18 April]