Category Archives: Letters From France

Going home, at last

It had been several days since Sheriff had last written home – he claimed he had been unable to write much because there had been ‘such a lot of notes worth taking’. But his description of the course itself suggests that he was simply enjoying himself too much to think about writing letters:

‘I have had one of the happiest times during the last 12 days – in beautiful country and pleasant companions, and a lot of interesting work to do – just the kind of work I am interested in – musketry – map reading and sketching etc. Hot summer days lying in the shade having the mysteries of some machine explained to you – sitting in an old French schoolroom having a one time Schoolmaster (now a Captain) lecturing you on interesting things – it is such a pleasant change from the humdrum Battalion work to have intellectual work and notes to take worth knowing.’

The officers on the sniping school course. Sherriff is on the right in the back row. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/4/2/6)

But now it was time to return to the Battalion – two of the seven men on the course (shown in a photograph which he sent with the letter) had already returned to theirs, and he expected the others would follow during the day. He did not know where he would find his Battalion, but he hoped they would be out resting somewhere, which might increase the chance of getting leave.

[In fact, the Battalion was a little way behind the lines, at Mic Mac Camp near Ouderdom, having moved back there from the front line just a couple of days earlier. Sheriff didn’t realise at this point that, while he had been on his course his Battalion had had a very difficult time in and around Messines, pounded unremittingly by the enemy guns. In one incident 11 men were killed and 28 wounded by the caving in of a tunnel, and over the two weeks since the start of the battle the Battalion had lost 30 men killed, and over 100 wounded. One of the wounded was his old friend Captain Tetley who lost a foot and was sent back to hospital in England, never to return to France.]

Towards the end of his letter Sherriff expressed his desire to be home in such beautiful weather, and wrote of how he envied his father his recent bicycle tour – ‘the old scenes of Kenilworth and other places of dear memory were very nice and I much appreciated them.’ He hoped he would soon be able to join Pips on such trips. As it happens, he would: as soon as he returned to his Battalion he was given two week’s leave, and he left for home immediately. His next letter from France would not be written until he was on the boat from Folkestone on 4 July.

[Next letter: 4 July]

A cricketing success

It was Sunday, and it was ‘terrifically hot’. There had been a church parade earlier that morning, and, in the free afternoon they had enjoyed, he had played some chess, mainly against an old Major:

‘He is an old Colonial and looks something like Lord Roberts – he plays in an unerring method and tactical skill which is bound to absolutely walk over an amateur. At the end of the game he can replace the pieces and play the whole game over again by memory – showing you your errors! He is a sort of Allan Quatermain [A character who originally appeared in H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines], who has lived months in the wilds by his rifle alone, so another of the instructors tells me.’

At 4:00 o’clock he gave up his chess and moved on to a game of cricket, in which the Sniping School was playing a neighbouring regiment. The ground where they played was very like a Village Green in England he told Pips, although with ‘a kind of sunken road running across the field into a neighbouring field’. Sherriff’s team batted first and he went in at No. 3. But he didn’t stay for long – after scoring a single he was bowled by the second ball he faced. His entire team was out for 43, most of the runs scored by the ball being hit into the sunken road, which was steep enough to make the ball difficult to chase. The highest scorer was an Australian, and the team, as a whole, ‘was an extraordinary mixture of the British Nation’.

Sherriff, seated on ground (left) in the 3rd East Surreys Cricket Team in 1918. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: ESR/4/2/3/16)

When the Sniping School took the field, their main bowler was a man who had previously played for Vancouver. He bowled at a considerable speed – so much so that Sherriff, who was wicket-keeper, ‘preferred to remain at about Long Stop’. Bowling downhill along the sunken road, he:

‘either just missed their heads or bowled them out – and after having severely hit the opposing regiment’s Sergeant-Major rather a terrific blow on the funny bone, which caused him to throw his bat up in the air and double-up, it was decided that he should bowl uphill – after which he lost his effect a good deal.’

The other regimen t struggled until a sergeant came into bat who had played for Durham before the war. He steadied their scoring, but was eventually run out when they were 20 for 5, after which the game ‘waxed most interesting’. A man who ‘looked like a coal miner’ according to Sheriff, scored a 4 by means of the sunken road, and then proceeded, with a variety of ‘snicks and lucky flukes’ to take their score up to around 40. But once he was out the Sniping School bowlers struck again, to give Sherriff’s team the victory by 1 run.

‘A most interesting game,’ concluded Sherriff.

[Next letter: 21 June]

Sunsets and flashing war

After a few days of silence, Sherriff found time to write a brief note to his father. He was still on the sniping course – about half-way through he reckoned – and was enjoying it: ‘it is all about the most interesting subjects that war embodies’. He couldn’t go into them in great detail, but did note that: ‘We do a lot of shooting here, and Map Reading and many various subjects, chiefly about the manners and habits of the Huns – which study has been reduced to a fine art’. In the evenings after dinner he would go for a walk with a companion, and they would:

‘watch the beautiful sunset in the West, and the war rolling and flashing in the East – miles of front almost visible from my high point.’

Their had been Zeppelin raids in London recently, and he told Pips that he hoped that their area had not suffered too much. But he was quite dismissive of the reactions he had heard from home:

‘There seems to be a lot of fuss made over it. It lasted half an hour – how would the Londoners like a kind of continuous air raid lasting weeks on end, I wonder?’

He thanked Pips for his recent letter and card, and told him that he had also received a book from his Auntie Ede – Plato’s Dialogues – which he found ‘very interesting’. He was enclosing in his own letter two pressed flowers as a souvenir of the ‘beautiful woods which surround this district’, and which reminded him very much of Claygate and Oxshott – where hoped the two of them might ramble together if all went well and he received the leave he hoped for.

[Next letter: 17 June]

A journey and a view

Sheriff told Pips that he had set out for his sniping course the previous day:

‘I mounted into a cart (something like a baker’s, only driven by a soldier and drawn by a mule) and we dawdled off along the dusty, cobbled road away from the rumble of the guns in the direction of the hills away to the west.’

The journey was not without incident, some of which he described in detail:

‘It was hot – and the mule was not inclined to hurry – and if a mule decides that it can’t hurry no thrashing in the world will alter its decision. We passed wagons and guns and soldiers and generals in motor cars – motor cyclists and push cyclists – men in fighting kit with rifles marching towards the front – men in loose tunics, marching with towels towards the baths, and occasional old French and Belgians in odd assortments of clothes ambling along in farm wagons…I asked a policeman the way – he pointed to a big building with towers in the distance – “It is up there” he said – and I looked forward to the view. We rumbled along past little villages and down dusty lanes till we began to climb a long hill. Soon the old mule stopped dead; we got out and he went on – that’s what he stopped for; up and up we went and the view gradually unfolded itself – still upwards to a great old monastery – the building with the towers.’

The building had previously been a hotel, and, after reporting his arrival to the school he was shown to his bedroom, where he tucked away his valise and had a wash. Thereafter he went down to chat to the other officers who had just arrived, and then went for a walk along the ridge:

‘The view from here is magnificent and unique – and as the sun set – gloriously over the great flat plain to the west – the east side darkened and showed up the flash of guns and the rumble of the incessant artillery.’

Were it not for the fact that he was anticipating leave once he returned to his Battalion, he could happily have stayed there for the remainder of the war.

In a separate (and much briefer) letter to his mother he said little about his surroundings, instead thanking her for the parcel she had sent – containing cake and Veda bread, and also a match box which he was very pleased with:

‘It is a thing I will treasure as a present from you on my 21st birthday – there is nothing “gaudy” about it, dear, it is just what I knew you would choose, and just what I wanted – that and my ring are two little things I shall always be happy with.’

Unfortunately, he told her, the parcel had arrived just as he was leaving camp, so he had not been able to sample the cake – but he was sure he would hear all about it from the other officers when he returned to the Battalion – which (as he mentioned to Pips) was likely to be around the 21st. He hoped that, very soon afterwards, he would finally be allowed home on leave.

[Next letter: 16 June]

Tame apes

In his previous letters since the Battle of Messines began, Sherriff had noted the incessant roar of the guns, but now, as he told Pips,  things were different – the guns had quietened, having ‘done their work’, leaving the other ‘branches of the service’ to do their work.

The success of the offensive was evident in the continuing flow of prisoners:

‘All day – through the heat and dust little batches of miserable ragged men came down the road in German field grey – apologies for soldiers – men who seem to have been gathered together indiscriminately – many with glasses and many undersized – I don’t think any exaggeration would be made if I said not half would pass our Medical Board for General Service.’

He went on to describe how the prisoners were viewed by the British soldiers:

‘Our men come and stand at the corners of the road and wait for the procession as though it were a Lord Mayor’s Show – and pass jocular remarks as they go by:
“Yer ole woman will ‘ave to do without yer now, mate”
“Look, there goes ole ‘indenberg..” as some poor wretch without the least pretension of likeness save a heavy moustache goes by – one and all bear the distinct German mark – the bullet head and low forehead which gives many the appearance of tame apes.’

Later that day he expected to head off to his course at the Sniping School, which he thought might last a week or so,. The Adjutant had suggested that, thereafter (‘if only all goes well and leave is not stopped’) he could be headed home on leave (around about the 18th, he thought, although he cautioned Pips: ‘please do not take it for anything like granted’).

Meanwhile, he was remaining in reserve with some other officers, and marvelling some more about how well things had gone:

‘All has gone with quite dazzling success – ground taken which has been a stumbling block for years – how well I know the difference between the Huns on the top of a hill, watching everything you do – and Huns at the bottom of a hill – blinded as they are now – a yard of some ground just taken is worth miles and miles of other parts.’

And with that, he closed his letter, hoping that he would very soon have the joy of ‘looking on glorious old English fields and gardens’.

[Next letters: 10 June]

A stream of German prisoners

As Sheriff wrote letters home to both his mother and father on the day after his birthday, the Battle of Messines had already begun. Although he had expected to be involved (and had implied as much in his recent letters), to his relief, it had begun without him. As he told Pips:

‘Circumstances alter so quickly that it almost takes my breath away – I am now lying on a wire bed in a little hut in a camp behind the line – my regiment has gone up the line now and I and several other officers are remaining here as a kind of reserve.’

But there was more, as he explained to his mother:

‘I am staying at the Transport Camp and tomorrow if all goes well I shall be going on a Course at a Sniping School…Until about 2 days before the Regiment went up I fully expected to go too, but my Captain suggested to the Colonel that as I had spent so long out here without leave and as another officer had just rejoined the Regiment who has not been up before – that I should go on this course in place of him and consequently my name was substituted.’

Lt (later Captain) C A Clark MC, as drawn by Private Edward Cole of the 9th East Surreys. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: ESR/19/2/7/1-15)

Even better, he had been told by the Adjutant [Captain C A (“Nobby”) Clark, whom he admired greatly, and who seems to have been very solicitous of Sherriff] that, if things went well, and the Battalion was out resting by the 18 June (when he was due back from the course), he might get his leave ticket. Of course, he knew, as he told Pips, that there were no certainties in the army:

 ‘As is always in the case in the army, I feel almost guilty for writing a word suggesting certainty – I say I am going on a course – for all I know before I finish this letter I may receive intimation that it is cancelled. I say I am staying behind as a reserve – for all I know before the sun sets this evening I may be with the Battalion again. I listen to the roar of one of the world’s greatest battles, not knowing when I may be in it – when we may move – or, in short, not knowing where we may be in an hour’s time.’

Although he was happy to be lying on his wire bed in reserve, and was relishing the prospect of being sent on the course, it was clear from an excerpt in his letter to his mother that he was somewhat conflicted about seeing his friends march off toward the sound of the guns:

‘Things are going wonderfully well with our men – hardly any casualties but much gain of ground and thousands of prisoners as you will doubtless read in the papers – the news trickles through gradually and nothing of course can be guessed from the great distant  boom of guns – I hope the battle will be so satisfactory that my Battalion will come through with very little loss – I hope so sincerely as I have some of the finest friends I have ever had up there, amongst the officers, and many, many men whom I am interested in and whom I shall be glad to see back safely.’

From his vantage point in camp he could see the German prisoners very clearly, and he expanded to his father on their dishevelled and downtrodden appearance, contrasting it with the smartness of the English soldiers marching in the opposite direction:

‘I have been watching Hun prisoners stream by in hundreds – poor dejected looking men with a quick nervous look who do not seem to wish to meet the eye of anyone – streams and streams of them – some hatless, some with helmets and some little cloth caps – they are unshaved and haggard and bear a look that only men who are subject to incessant bombardment can bear – some old men bent with sheer exhaustion – some bespectacled – some typical “Fritz’s” – all looking very apologetic and beaten.  “It isn’t my fault” some seem to be thinking, some have a surly insolent look, others beam amiably while our men stand and watch them go by quite silent – just interestedly.

And all the while Boom Boom go the guns and the troops go on slowly taking what the Huns have had so long and now must lose – bowing to the old saying “Might is Right” which they themselves once used.

From my window I can see a stream of Germans filing along the dusty road between a hop field and a corn field going away from shells and fighting never to return to it – going to a camp somewhere in the quiet where they will work on roads and fields – in the other direction, marching in step and the proper formation come some English troops towards the line – toiling under great loads – but bearing it wonderfully and marching evenly in wonderful contrast to the dragging weary shuffle of the Germans.  I wonder who are happier?’

13 years later, as he settled down to write the first few scenes of his sequel to Journey’s End (written for the movie studios, but never published) – in which Stanhope and Trotter are captured and taken back to Germany as prisoners – it may have been these scenes which guided his pencil.

[Next letter: 9 June]

 

Dangers ahead

Sheriff began a short letter to his mother by commenting on the weather: ‘[it] is still exceedingly hot and the dust is rather troublesome – but it is ideal weather and perfect for living in tents’. Very quickly, however, he turned back to the topic which had engaged him so completely in his letter to Pips the previous day – the delay in his receiving leave: ‘How I do wish I had got leave – I feel nothing could be more perfect now than days on the river and strolls in the park.’ But there was nothing to be done about it, he concluded, so they should both set themselves to waiting until the permission finally came through – at least it was bound to come in a quicker time than that which had already passed. He was sure, if he kept well, that it would come through soon, for he was ‘next on the list but one’.

Home at twilight. From Memories of Active Service, Vol I, facing page 222 (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

His comment about keeping well was an interesting one, and echoed similar thoughts made in his letters in the previous few days. They were clearly involved in significant preparations for something. The battalion diary notes that, through the first few days of June, it provided ‘day and night working parties for X Corps REs, consisting of about 7 officers and 400 men daily and about 3 officers and 150 men nightly, and, although it does not mention exactly what the men were doing, Sherriff had mentioned in a previous letter that they had been laying water pipes, among other tasks. He had frequently referred to the hard work they were doing, and were going to be doing, so it seems more than likely that they were aware of the impending assault on the Messines-Wytchaete ridge, which would begin just two days later (with the battalion ready in support from the beginning). In fact, it was probably the impending assault which was the reason for his frustration at not receiving leave quickly enough – had he done so, he might not have been there when it began. Nevertheless, there he now was, and aware of the impending dangers, as he confided to his mother:

‘There is one thing, dear, we must both face: shortly, I expect I shall have to go through bigger dangers than before, and although a great number are bound to come through safely, untouched – it is simply a matter of chance and it is just like drawing lots. I don’t wish to worry you dear, but I simply want you to realise exactly that it is a great gamble, and that if I win I shall be home fit and well sooner or later – if I lost I would know nothing about it – it would simply be you at home who would hear the news.

I have every hope of coming through safely – I shall endeavour to do so for my sake and yours, dear, but it must all be left to fate to decide – and should you not hear from me sometimes for several days, it will be because I am too busy to write.’

He ended his letter by wishing everyone well at home, and with the heartfelt hope that he would soon see them all again, ‘in dear old Rossendale’.

[Next letters: 7 June]

Almost a mockery

It was another scorching day  – ‘typical June weather’ – and Sheriff, writing to Pips, was bemoaning his misfortune at not yet having received leave. In a 2 1/2 page letter, the only piece of news he shared was that, after he had handed his men over to an RE sergeant for a working party, he had retired to a quiet spot to read The Magnetic North [a 1904 novel by Elizabeth Robins], which had been sent to him by Pips. ‘[It] promises very well,’ he wrote, and he found himself even more interested in it ‘owing to its having come from home and being selected by you’.

Other than  that the letter was a long gripe about the fickleness of fate, and his overwhelming sense of disappointment:

‘If only I were with you! – and to think that if luck had favoured me I might have been…It is a thing almost amounting to a mockery for leave to approach so near on my birthday [6 June] – making me almost expect to be home on my birthday (as I must confess I did once) – causing you to write saying you may expect me home “shortly after this letter reaches you” and also that if you sent my presents “they would probably cross you on the way” – it is not your fault saying this – I know it was my fault for holding out too rash hopes that must now be given up temporarily, till a future time when luck and circumstance may favour hopes again.’

Percy High (rear left, with pipe). From ‘Memories of Active Service’, Vol 1, facing p 22. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

It was possible that, after they had finished the work they were doing, he might once more have the opportunity to come home, but he was frustrated that, having seen 12 officers go off on leave – and for him to be next in line – leave now seemed to have been stopped. He was trying to approach it stoically (‘It is one of those little things that fate decides, I am sure – and it is no good to fight against these circumstances’), and having thought about putting his case for special leave to the Commanding Officer, had decided against it (‘one has to wait for these things to come to you in the Army – it is no good applying unless one has got special reasons’).

Finally, having spent a couple of pages railing at the injustice of it all, he began to calm down:

 ‘But enough of this – it has been a big disappointment  which one feels nothing will compensate. But by laws of average I expect everything comes to the same in the end. Perhaps I have had an easier time than the other men who have gone on leave, or perhaps one day in the future – all going well – I may go on leave and be glad I did not get it now. So I will drop the subject now – I have not got what I expected and that is an end of it. I expect I will find in Epictetus some prose that will comfort me in disappointment – and there is a man who came out with me who shares my same disappointment – a schoolmaster whose company in moonlight walks after dinner I find most pleasing – a man of about 38 who can talk of interesting things and I always enjoy the company of elder [sic] men if they will associate with you.’ [The man in question was  [Percy High], a plausible model for Osborne in Journey’s End, and a man who features several times in Sherriff’s letters, as well as in his unpublished memoir, Memories of Active Service.]

[Next letter: 5 June]

An old friend

Sherriff was still in camp (although suspecting they might be moved at any moment), and, as he told his mother, was taking a respite from working party duty, while sitting on his valise in his tent, enjoying the beautiful weather. The previous evening he had gone into a nearby town to do some shopping (‘consisting of a walking stick, 2 pairs of bootlaces, a magazine and some leather polish’), and he and his companion had bumped into a friend of his – a hut-mate from his time in Gidea Park with the Artists Rifles. They had all gone on to a restaurant together and ‘had quite a pleasant little evening bringing back old times’.

Sherriff (second left) digging trenches while in Gidea Park with the Artists Rifles, June 1916. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/4/1/21)

He had obviously received letters from both his mother and Pips which had been optimistic about the chances of him coming home on leave: ‘I am afraid, dear,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘you are much too optimistic – as Pips is – about my leave.’ He apologised if he had given a false impression: ‘I am sorry you are much too optimistic about my leave, and I really had no intention of making you think it anything as likely as you suggest’ he told Pips.

To make matters worse, he was coming to the view that his chances of a speedy leave were now gone, since he had ‘reasons for believing a lot of work is to be done shortly, and I am afraid all leave will be stopped’. He was bitterly disappointed and knew they would be too, but ‘philosophy is the only thing to fall back upon – it is simply fate and it is not the slightest use being grieved at what fate decides’. Although there was still a faint glimmer of hope, it was so small that it would be ‘an absolute deception to try and make anything of it’.

There was nothing worse, he felt, than hopes which are dashed, especially those which have grown gradually over time: ‘It is sometimes almost heart-breaking to raise one’s hopes and then to have to let them fall again reluctantly but necessarily’. He felt especially sorry for Pips, whose expectations had obviously been driven by Sherriff’s own hopes, and he regretted having ever mentioned the possibility that he might be allowed home soon. But, knowing his father’s character, he knew that he would be in agreement ‘as to the utter uselessness of being grieved against fate’, and would take his disappointment calmly. To his mum he simply counselled patience: ‘So now, dear, do not be disappointed if I don’t come – just bear quietly for the time to arrive which I hope and trust will not be too long’.

[Next letter: 4 June]

Enjoying camp life

‘I am lying in a tent on a very hot afternoon,’ wrote Sherriff to his father, ‘having just moved our camp for the third time in three days. Camp life is healthier and airier than billets – and provided we are not crowded one is quite comfortable with a valise spread out on the grass.’

After a fortnight in the support trench, they had left three days before, moving first to one camp, then to another a day later. The latter had proven too dusty, however, so the following day they had moved the 600 yards or so to a more pleasant situation in a field:

‘It is rather wonderful that a whole Battalion can move in the course of a few hours – men, baggage and tents: we left a place at 7 o’clock in the evening, marched 3 miles and were under canvas again at 11 o’clock the same night’.

At present the whole Battalion had been ‘lent’ to the RE for a few days, and earlier that day he had taken a party of men out to lay water pipes. ‘I should like that kind of job to last for “duration” – laying pipes or wires and digging drainage a fairly safe distance behind the line,’ he told Pips. Of course, there was still the possibility of being hit by a stray long-range shell, or by a bomb from an aeroplane – but it was still better than ‘stuffy trench life’. In fact they had just had a German aeroplane overhead, and had watched as it was followed by puffs of smoke from British guns and aeroplanes – ‘but then you get that too – don’t you?’ he asked.

A German aeroplane overhead. From Memories of Active Service, Vol I, facing page 173 (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

He had no idea how long they would remain out of the line in their present role, nor had he heard anything more about the possibility of leave. He hoped that it might come in time for him to return to England and share at least a part of Pip’s holiday, although he urged Pips not to make any plans based on the possibility of his return:

‘It is all a matter of chance – and usually they say leave comes when you are not expecting it – so I must try not to expect it – that’s all’.

[Next letters: 3 June]