Monthly Archives: May 2017

Still thinking of leave

Sheriff began today’s letter to his mother by thanking her for the parcel of 4 loaves of Veda Bread which he had received:

‘You have discovered a most original thing to send an it is greatly appreciated by everyone – it is a thing which cannot be got out here and is such a welcome change to the usual cakes that the others usually get sent them…’

He told her he had also just received her letter, and he agreed with her proposal that, when he returned home, they would treat one day as his birthday [which was due to fall on 6 June], and go ‘into the heart of Oxshott Woods and have a great little picnic’. Unfortunately, there was still no way of knowing when his leave would come – officers came and went, but there was no guarantee that leave would continue – so he might be home in a week, or a month, or perhaps even six months. But he was cheered by the thought that, having been in France for 8 months, it was highly unlikely he would go another 8 months without something happening – leave, or a wound, perhaps:

‘no other officer I should think has spent 16 months out here without leave – so half my time is bound to have passed – and these 8 months must have been the worst for you, dear, as well – for you must, after a time, become slightly used to the suspense of waiting for news – so be assured, dear, that something decisive must happen in the next 8 months – the war must either end or I must get leave – so you have spent the longest spell of waiting, dear.’

He often felt that, if he got back home safely, then all that he had been through would have been worthwhile, and it would make him appreciate even more ‘the quiet occupations attached to home’, his love for which just seemed to grow greater by the day.

[Next letter: 1 June]

Memories

‘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]

Sunrise behind a shattered wood

Still living alone in his little dugout (close to his men, who were some way away from the others in the Company), Sherriff told his mother that they were still enjoying glorious weather: ‘I spend most of the day in shirt sleeves – except when I have to go far from my dugout, when one always has to be armed and have one’s equipment and gas helmet on.’

His birthday was coming up soon [6 June] and he told her that he hardly dared hope that he might be home on leave when it came. In a separate letter to Pips he outlined the factors that might act for or against his leave coming soon:

‘For: that other officers have been going quite frequently and there are now I believe only 3 ahead of me on the list; Against: that leave may, at any time, be stopped should an offensive be pending and I lose my opportunity. There is also, of course, the chance of my unfortunately being hit – which I very seriously hope not – it would be bad luck if that happened after waiting 8 months, wouldn’t it?’

He told them both not to make any form of preparations until was definitely on the way – or perhaps even until he had arrived in England, because only then would he know for sure that he was actually coming home.

A picture taken by Sherriff’s father while on their battlefield tour in 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

His letter to his mother was relatively brief, but his letter to Pips was rather longer, dwelling on some of the sights that he had seen in the war:

‘I was sitting in a trench in a shattered wood this morning at dawn – and I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever witnessed – there was something exquisite about the scene of the dawn coming behind a shattered wood which stood out in dense black outline – just a few broken stems of trees, some lying flat – or trees broken off and frayed at the top like giant shaving brushes, a few smashed timbers lying on a shell-pitted road. It is strange – but one would not expect to see beautiful scenes in a country with war on – it is wonderful how Nature’s vain attempts at again asserting herself over everything ghastly makes such beautiful, awe-inspiring views like this – although I have travelled over much of England and witnessed some beautiful scenery, I have seen, within a mile of the line , some views the very desolation of which makes them equal to the most beautiful scenery in England.

I told you of scenes I witnessed at other places – the sun setting behind desolate slag heaps giving an impression of the pyramids of Egypt – of looking down into a valley by moonlight in which thousands of men died – where little skeleton villages like so many Pompeiis lay scattered – of the moonlight on a great flat plain of snow – a great ruined city the like of which the world has never seen. All these scenes leave an impression never to be forgotten…’

‘And…after this rather poetical attempt,’ he concluded, ‘I will close for the present’.

[Next letter: 27 May]

Plans for leave

Still living in his ‘little doll’s house’ in the support trench, Sherriff was delighted to have received a bundle of letters – 2 ‘fine long letters’ from his mother (‘the nicest and most comforting letters anyone could receive’, he told her), one from Bundy, and a parcel of cigarettes (which arrived just in time, as he had just finished the previous batch he had been sent).

He told Pips that nothing much had changed in his situation:

‘We certainly have struck a noisy quarter here, but hope it may not last very long and that we will soon have another rest….the same old routine goes on – work, hours of duty, shells and bullets day after day, day after day – a weary, monotonous kind of life which can only be relieved by philosophy’.

He had kept Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius with him throughout his time in the army, and, although he had never read them all the way through, he had read them in patches – ‘some pieces over and over again’.

Writing to his mother on the same day his thoughts turned again to the prospect of leave – he saw other officers going off, and hoped that his turn might come soon. And he was already planning what they might do:

‘The ten days would be absolutely perfect happiness, we would go just the same dear old walks and rides and sit in the same quiet old places in Hampton Court and Oxshott Woods – nearly always returning to the same old homely tea in the dining room – we would spend one day in London getting anything we want (and I would want some new clothes from Hazels). I could go and see them at the office and we could go to a matinee in London at the same time – but the majority of the time we would spend in the dear old haunts round about home – Pips could take some of his days holiday and come for some good rides with me too.’

He was sure it would be the happiest of all times, and ‘almost worth being out here 9 weary months for’.

[Next letters: 25 May]

Visions of leave

‘The fine weather is still lasting,’ wrote Sherriff to his mother, ‘and having worked during the night I am now resting in my little dugout listening to the boom! boom! going on outside’ (while also writing to her, and to his old friend Trimm [another Kingston man who had served with him in the Artists Rifles]).

He had heard that some more officers would be going on leave the following week, taking him nearer to the top of the list:

‘If only we do not have to go into any “push” during the next three weeks or month I may be lucky enough to get my leave – I simply long for it – and the nearer I get on the list the more impossible it seems that I may get it – or at least the thought of getting home has always been so much on my mind that until I have actually got the pass in my hand and until I am actually sitting in the train on the way I will not believe that I am coming home.’

He told her that as soon as he knew he had leave he would contact her by telegram, to see whether it might be possible for her to meet him: ‘I do not wish to raise your hopes, dear, but I want to let you know that should all go well with me for a bit longer and should leave remain open – that happy time may come within a month or so’.

[Next letters: 24 May]

Two nurses

Writing to his mother for the first time in a few days, he first told of her of his surroundings in his little corner of the support trench:

‘I am sitting in my little dugout at present – which is a kind of little square box let into the side of the trench – quite dry and comfortable and having just room to lie flat down on the floor – I have a blanket, my air pillow (which is very useful) and my burberry here, also a few of my pet books and things – so am quite content on that point – the cramping is rather troublesome but one gets used to that in time – I spend some of my time reading and writing and some in sleeping and of course one has to be occasionally round about your men inspecting them etc.’

At that point he put down his pencil to head off to dinner, but he resumed the letter later in the evening, while the guns were ‘booming away in the distance’. Although things were quiet in their area at present, they never knew when something might start, so he had to be completely prepared, with all of his equipment ready at hand in case of emergency:

I very much hope things will keep quiet here – but, as I say, you never know your luck from one moment to another, so it is quite useless to worry and I always try hard to take it fatalistically  – and it always comforts me to know that you are always quite prepared and will never be surprised at any news – just knowing that it was fated to happen and could not be prevented. I simply adore this photo of you in nurses’ costume – I am very proud indeed of it, dear, and also that one of beryl too.’

Sherriff’s mother, in nurses uniform. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/6/3)

Sherriff’s sister, Beryl, in nurses uniform (around 1918). (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 3813/14/1/4)

He promised that he would let her know when he came out of the trenches for a rest, and how much he would enjoy it (‘When you lay down on a soft bed after days of sleeping on the floor the delight and comfort is absolutely wonderful’). He was not troubled by the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements in the trenches – he almost always slept soundly – it was only the mental strain that bothered him – ‘and that can always be eased by thinking in the right way and always being perfectly prepared’.

He added a postscript the following day (having missed the post) in which he sounded surprisingly contented: ‘I have had quite an easy day today – just sitting in my dugout reading and thinking about you and dear old home – which seems so near, sometimes, dear. I can just shut my eyes and see the old house and the Park and everything.’ He would write again soon.

[Next letter: 22 May]

A cheerier note

Writing to Pips, Sherriff sounded cheery – unsurprisingly,  given that the battalion was moving out of the front line and into Brigade support: ‘We are now well in it again, at quite a new place, so I am seeing the sights of France fairly well up to now’.

He was, of course, in Hooge, near Ypres, but could not tell his father, for fear of the censors. But he sought to describe his surroundings in at least some detail:

‘There is some indescribable feeling of curiosity and a certain amount of  dread in reaching a place which for 2 years or more has been in every paper and everyone’s mouth – to reach desolate, smashed-up  pieces of ground and battered skeleton farms which one day I expect will be as famous as Blenheim and the like – you marvel how man can possibly live on such ground which, again and again, is churned up by shells of all kind – but they do – and quite cheerfully too. Nothing in the world can quench men’s natural tendency to cheerfulness in unpleasant situations just as nothing will ever make him happy in absolutely pleasant situations.’

Postcards bought by Sherriff’s father while on their battlefield tour in 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

Being in support offered more time for reading, and he had been making more progress with Mr Britling: ‘It is rather a remarkable book in some ways and has evidently become popular – when talking of how the sons play with tin soldiers…it reminds me very much of our soldier games which I only hope we may be able to continue after the war.’ In fact, he hoped that, after the war, he would be able to continue all of his games and hobbies (which had ‘become much dearer and pleasanter’ to him since he he’d been away) – including cricket and hockey, stamp and coin collecting, and ‘the reading of history’. He was looking forward to seeing how Pips had done up his study.

There were now, he reckoned, just about 7 officers ahead of him, waiting for leave – and if he was lucky enough to survive the next 6 weeks he might get the leave that he had long been waiting for. In the meantime, he would stay in his little dugout, cut into the side of a trench, which was ‘just large enough to lay down in…although I feel rather like Alice in the Rabbit’s house, as there is only room just to sit up.’

[Next letter: 21 May]

Absolute destruction

‘We have come to a place that has been long famous in the war,’ Sherriff wrote to Pips. ‘I cannot tell you where or anything about it [he was in Hooge, near Ypres], but for absolute destruction the district will leave an impression on my mind which I will never forget. If I ever have the chance of writing a book, and if I could ever acquire the gift of describing there is no weirder sight in the world I am convinced.’

A picture taken by Sherriff’s father while on their battlefield tour in 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

He continued:

‘Even in this desolation spring cannot help showing itself everywhere – early this morning I was on duty and a cuckoo started calling in a wood in the German lines – a battered skeleton of a wood which no bird should occupy and then it flew across to a little group of tree stumps on our side  – quite neutral you see.  Grass springs up where it can and flowers grow in little patches of grass which have not been torn by shells or parched by gas – leaves and buds come from trees which have survived and any opening given for spring to show itself is always taken.’

He was feeling well, and had not had a recurrence of neuralgia for some days – perhaps because of the warmer weather. He was making progress with Mr Britling, which he was enjoying, and along with his Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus he had plenty to read. Not that there was any shortage of work to do in the line – rifle inspections, letter-censoring and ‘all sorts of odd jobs’ took up plenty of his time.

Officers were gradually being sent on leave, and, if he stayed well, his turn would soon come round. He was looking forward to it: ‘What a pleasure it would be…to get away from Flanders for a bit and get back again to dear old England and some rides into the country and trips on the river.’

[Next letter: 20 May]

There are worse places than this

Now in the front line at Hooge, near Ypres, Sherriff sent a note to his mother telling her that he was quite well:

‘I am quite comfortable here, and have quite a nice little dugout, where I have a bed and a table to write on. I cannot tell you anything about the place we are in at present as the censor will not allow it – but you will be glad to know that I feel quite well at present and that there are worse places than this.’

He promised that he would try to find a flower for her and send it home, to add to the other two he had previously sent [a scarlet pimpernel from Vimy Ridge, and a snowdrop picked while training recruits behind the lines a month earlier]. ‘It is a little way or remembering places by’, he told her.

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

Although he had only just arrived in the front line, he was already hoping that they would soon be relieved, and be sent out to rest again, where it was quieter: he found the constant noise very troubling. Trying to buck himself up he told her that he realised there was nothing to do but out with things, and hope he would emerged unscathed, and be able to return to ‘dear old Rossendale’, and all the activities they had planned. On the other hand:

‘If I failed to come through I have the happiness of knowing that you will always be well provided for – you have Bundy, and even if you did not I know you would always be capable through your knowledge of nursing to look after yourself – all the same dear, I trust you will not be called upon to do the and that I shall have the pleasure of looking after you and trying to repay you for all you have done for me.’

Before putting his pencil down (he had to get some sleep before going on duty), he told her  of the comfort he derived from the ‘good books’ which he carried everywhere, as well as from the signet ring she had given him, and the photos of her that he carried with him, which meant that ‘I can never be lonely wherever I am’.

[Next letter: 17 May]

[For those familiar with Sherriff’s letters, there are actually two dated on this date (carrying the Surrey History Centre catalogue references of 2332/1/1/2/173 and 2332/1/1/2/174). But it is quite clear from the text in the second, which notes that he has now left the front line, that Sherriff has misdated it. The more likely date is 26 May, by which time the Battalion had moved into Divisional Support.]

If I should not come back

‘We have had an easy time today,’ wrote Sherriff to his mother, ‘as the men require a rest before moving into the line – I hope we shall not be in for long, but one cannot tell exactly.’

He told her not to worry if she did not hear from him for a day or two, because sometimes there was so much work to do that it was impossible to find the time to write. And anyway, ‘should anything happen to me, dear, you would soon know, as they are very prompt in letting you know.’ Furthermore:

‘If anything should happen to me that I should not come back, I would like you to get a bungalow like Sleepy Hollow, and have it at Selsey – buying it out of the money which I have in my office deposit fund, which is now over £50 I believe. I feel there is no nicer way in which I would like the money to be spent.’

Sleepy Hollow – the Sherriff’s railway carriage bungalow on the seafront at Selsey (by permission of the Surrey History Centre)

On the other hand, he much preferred that they should be able to spend the money together, on the tour of England they had often talked about.

He hoped that her hours of work at the hospital were easier for her now – she had probably got used to them by now, he expected, since she had been there quite a long time – in fact, for about as long as he had been in France (‘and that seems long enough’). He hoped that he might get leave soon – there were only around 8 officers in front of him now, and with luck they would all be sent home quickly.

In the meantime, it was time to put down his pencil, since he had to pack up his things, ready for the short march into the front line.

[Next letter: 16 May]