‘More beautiful days and beautiful sunrises and plenty of birds and bushes are sprouting into blossom’ wrote Sherriff to Pips, in one of the longest and most discursive letters he had written in a very long time. ‘Then swish-swish-swish ker-rash!! and a great cloud of sandy earth shoots up in the air. The birds stop singing and wonder for a bit and then start again and the men look up again and walk on’.
It was so glorious that it seemed almost impossible that men would have the heart to fire guns. He imagined an old German on the other side wondering why the British would want to fight on such a beautiful day, and suspected he would be thinking that if ‘this wretched business wasn’t on I should be sculling down the Rhine to a quiet spot in the shade somewhere’, or he should be sitting in a favourite café in Strasbourg having an afternoon pot of beer – ‘just the same sort of things that our people think’. Airplanes kept on buzzing overhead, with just the occasional ‘crack crack’ showing that one was getting too ‘venturesome’.
While writing his letter he was sitting at the door of his dugout, and could hear his men, nearby, chatting and singing, while the Sergeant Major of a northern regiment kept up a ‘continuous volume of sound – either dictating orders from his officer, or whistling, or sipping some hot tea, or telling men off’ – for example, chiding a man who had just walked down the trench without his gas helmet on:
‘Where’s yer gas ‘helmet? Aye? Go an’ git it – why, some of yer’ll be walking about without yer clothes next – why don’t yer make a good job about it and go about naked?’
But then his conversation would be broken by the sound of a nearby shell – ‘whistle whistle crash!’ Then, when all was quiet again – ‘except distant guns’ – there would be more talking further down the trench- a trench which, he noted, was about ten feet deep, but with struts which the men could bump their heads on, which meant that ‘they call the trench anything but its right name’.
Morris [his servant] was still looking after him, living just round the corner from him and cooking his meals in ‘primitive fashion’. Sometimes his day would go quietly, but at other times he might be disturbed by a runner from the company commander with questions (‘Can I recommend a man to be a signaller? How many men can I raise for a working party?’), or with messages to hold himself ready in case of emergency. At night, meanwhile, there might be work to be done, and then he would:
‘sit and smoke and look up at the stars or that bright crescent of new moon (did you look at it too, yesterday?) and think and think, and occasionally look at the men working – fumbling about in the dark and shellholes’.
He found himself thinking of many things while listening to the clink of the men’s tools:
‘I think of all sorts of things – chiefly of home – what I would do if home on leave – hoping almost hopelessly that I could get home while you are having your holiday in June – how fine it would be to all be home together. I think of all I have done – my happy schooldays – the cricket matches – how many I would have made if I had not played one ball carelessly when I had made 48 once on the Fairfield (I have forgotten who it was against). Of the masters at school – of Mr Bent and Mr Freeth – of Gidea Park [where he had trained with the Artists’ Rifles] and my friends there; it is strange how all the things you have done and experienced are stored up in your brain, ever ready to come out in turn – coming out strung together in queer fashion. I think of Mould with his hands in his pocket and his dog and pipe – of Mr Gwynn losing control of his bicycle and dashing down a side road into the railings of the waterworks of the Portsmouth Road – of mother finding that starling’s egg on the roadside up near Claygate – of you snicking a cricket ball with such force as to nearly send it through a brick wall into Hampton Wick church – of Greece and Rome – of temples and battles and triumphs – of Henry VIII strolling down the avenues of Hampton Court – of my ride with Clayton and our talks of the prospects of schoolmastering – and then Zipp Zipp!! – machine gun bullets bring you back to the war again.’
By the time they were finishing their night work a ‘light grey streak’ would show in the Eastern sky, and they would collect their tools and stumble back to their dugouts along dark trenches. He would crawl into his dugout and, after reading his letters, go to bed, and quickly go to sleep, but soon Morris would be at his door, saying ‘Ere’s breakfast sir, ‘ave it while it’s ‘ot, sir’. At about 11:00 he would check on his men, who would be shaving and washing and cleaning their rifles. Once he was satisfied they were clean he would go back and sit by his dugout door again.
He had already mentioned to Pips that he lived close to his men, some way away for the other officers, whom he would join for dinner in the evening, when they would ‘sit in a little iron shelter and drink soup and have steak and onions and blancmange etc in most cramped acrobatic conditions’. When, on the previous evening, he had received a parcel with four loaves of Veda bread, it had been greeted with ‘great jubilation’ by his fellow officers who often asked when the next lot would be coming.
Having written more, in one letter, than he had done for many months, he then put his pencil down, hoping that everyone at home was well, and longing for peace to come, so that he might soon be back home with them all once more.
[Next letter: 28 May]