Category Archives: Letters From France

Goodbye to the Very lights, goodbye to the war

Having been wounded on 2 August, Sheriff was now in hospital in France. He had dictated one letter to his mother and now wrote briefly home to Pips, noting that he was writing with his left-hand, which is why the writing was shaky. At the point of writing he still did not know whether the wound would be sufficient to see him shipped back to England, but, after a night at the 14 General Hospital at Wimereux near Boulogne, he sailed for Dover on 4 August aboard the Hospital Ship St Denis.

From there it was on to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley in Hampshire, where he stayed for two weeks, writing to his mother and father while he was there, but also – very happily from his point of view – being visited by them as well. He fully realised how lucky he had been to have got home (‘considering the comparative slightness of my wounds’ – according to a letter to Pips on 5 August). Ten days later, he noted that only his finger remained damaged, and ‘that will soon be better’ (letter to PIps, 15 August.)

However, by then there there was a new problem: his neuralgia had flared up again. The reoccurrence of the neuralgia may well have been psychosomatic. He knew his wounds were relatively superficial, and expected to be out of hospital relatively soon. On 18 August he wrote to Pips that:

‘As my wounds are now practically better there is nothing for me to stop here for except my neuralgia which will probably be cured by the application of some syringe to my ears. However, I shall not of course hesitate to report any trouble I have with my head, for I think 10 1/2 months is quite a sufficient spell out there and that I am due at least a couple of months off in England – and the kind of neuralgia I had several times in France was enough to knock me up – I have not had it as bad as I did in April this year but it is always hanging about.’

Even as he was clutching at that straw, however, a Medical Board had decided that he was fit for service again. He was granted 3 weeks leave, after which he was to report to the East Surrey’s Grand Shaft barracks at Dover,and, after three weeks Home Service there, he would go back out to France again.

A week into his leave, however, he again reported sick. This time he had boils – which had broken out on his neck when he left hospital, and then formed more widely in places where he had splinter wounds – and he was checked in to St Thomas’s Hospital in London. The treatment took long enough that he had to write to the battalion notifying them that he would not be returning as planned, and requesting an extension of his sick leave. The cause of the boils is unknown, but, while infection may have played a part, so might the stress of knowing that he was just a few weeks away from returning to the din of the trenches.

On 9 November he joined the 3rd East Surreys in Dover. Throughout the course of 1918 a succession of Medical Boards ruled him unfit for overseas service, and he never did go back to France – at least, not until May 1921 when he took his Battlefield Cycling Tour with his father.

According to Pips’ account of their journey, they visited all of the places where Sherriff had spent time in the front lines: Ersatz Crater and the front line at Vimy Ridge; the craters of Hulluch, where he worked with the tunnelling corps; Cité Calonne, with its basement dugouts, where they had enjoyed some merry evenings; Bully Grenay, where he had his photo taken with his fellow officers; Hooge, where they had spent hot days marching in the sun; and, finally, to the battlefields around Ypres, where Sherriff’s father recorded his son’s wounding in unemotional fashion:

‘It was in this battle – about the 1st or 2nd day – that my eldest son, Captain R C Sherriff of the 3rd East Surreys was wounded and sent home to England where he remained until the end of the war.’

In 1930, Sherriff began writing a sequel to Journey’s End, which took up where the play had left off. The first scene shows the men of the Company under heavy pressure from the Germans. Stanhope mounts a suicidal attack, which leaves the Company destroyed and Stanhope and Trotter in than hands of the Germans. ‘Well,’ says Trotter, ‘this is where we say goodbye to the Very lights. Goodbye to the war.’ Sheriff may have felt a similar emotion as he climbed the gangplank of the St Denis on 5 August 1917.

I was wounded this morning

On 1 August the battalion had finally moved forward from its tent encampment at Dickebusch to the Old French Trench, 2 miles south west of Ypres, preparatory to moving up to relieve one of the units which had been engaged in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, which had begun with an intense artillery barrage prior to an assault on 31 July.

Many years later (1968), writing in a volume of essays  (Promise of Greatness: The 1914-18 War), Sherriff described the barrage:

‘We were surrounded by batteries of artillery, and for three nights it was bedlam…There was something grand and awe-inspiring in the tremendous cannonade of guns. If you stood out there at night, you would see the whole surrounding country lit with thousands of red stabs of flame as salvo after salvo went screaming overhead.’

While the guns may have raised the spirits, the weather and the conditions in camp did quite the opposite, for by the time Sherriff’s battalion was called upon, it had been raining incessantly for three days and nights, and the conditions in which the men were living were unspeakable:

‘The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it “smelled like dead men”. The latrines consisted of buckets with wet planks for the men to sit on but there weren’t enough of them. Something had given the men diarrhoea. They would grope out of their shelters, flounder helplessly in the mud and relieve themselves anywhere. Some of the older men, worn out by the long marching and wretched food, were sick. They would come groping out of their shelters, lean their heads against the corrugated iron walls, and stand there retching and vomiting and groaning. Then they would go back to their huts…These were the men who were to break through the German lines, advance into Belgium and win the war.’

The battalion moved forward from Old French Trench at 5:00pm on 2 August, to take over the brigade battle front from the North Staffs (who held the northern half) and the Queens Royal West Surreys (who held the southern half). ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies took over the front line, with ‘A’ Company in support and ‘B’ Company in reserve. The battalion diary recorded the difficulties the relieving troops faced:

‘Heavy rain had been falling for three days, no communication trench could be used, for they were more than waist deep in water and liquid mud. Consequently all movement had to take place overland and the dark night and obstacles in the way made progress slow. In addition, on arrival at the support line, and, further, on the way to the front line, ‘C’ Company got caught in a heavy rain of shelling from the enemy, suffering something like 20 casualties in killed and wounded.’

Sherriff was one of the wounded.

In his 1968 article Sherriff wrote of the circumstances surrounding his wounding, suggesting that the battalion had been involved in an ‘over-the-top’ style of attack which had begun at dawn, and that he had been wounded in the afternoon, when attempting to make contact with a neighbouring company. But his account is quite at odds with the battalion diary, which must be seen as much the more reliable source. Being written more than fifty years after the event, it is not surprising that some of the details would be incorrect, but there is no question of the veracity of his general account of the miserable conditions in the days leading up to his wounding nor of the fearsome barrage which proceeded his move towards the front lines, both of which are corroborated by the diary and other sources. Similarly, his account of the shell that caused his wounding seems authentic, as does his description of what happened immediately afterwards:

‘It was a soldier’s legend that you never heard the shell coming that was going to hit you, but I know from first-hand experience that you did. We heard the report of it being fired, and we heard the thin whistle of its approach, rising to a shriek. It landed on top of a concrete pillbox that we were passing, barely five yards away. A few yards farther and it would have been the end of us. The crash was deafening. My runner let out a yell of pain. I didn’t yell so far as I know because I was half-stunned. I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing; to my horror I thought that the whole side of my face had been blown away. Afterward, with time to think about it in hospital, I pieced the thing together. The light shell, hitting the solid concrete top of the pillbox had sent its splinters upward, mercifully above our heads; but it had sent a ferocious spattering of pulverised concrete in all directions, and that was what we got.’

Sherriff and his runner ‘began the long trek back, floundering through the mud, through the stench and black smoke of the ‘coalboxes’ [shells from 5.9 inch howitzers] that were still coming over’. They made their way back to a dressing station, and then, after a brief examination by a doctor, they carried on to a field hospital. Sherriff reckoned they had walked for 6 hours, over 5 miles, to arrive at the hospital, where, ‘with the aid of probes and tweezers, a doctor took fifty-two pieces of concrete out of me, all about the size of beans or peas. …He wrapped them in a piece of lint and gave them to me as a souvenir.’

The same night (or, most likely, the next day, despite the dating of the letter) he wrote home to his mother (or, more precisely, had an orderly write the letter to his dictation – the handwriting is clearly not Sherriff’s), to let her know that:

‘I was wounded this morning in the right hand and the right side of the face. Nothing at all serious, dear, don’t worry. I walked down all right…rest content that I am quite well and there is a chance of getting home.’

He promised he would write her another letter, unless his wound happened to be a ‘Blighty’.

[Next letter: 3 August]

Fast and furious

Sheriff wrote home to Pips:

‘As we are waiting for orders to move which may be through any moment, I am just writing you a short line in case we find a difficulty in writing during the next few days’.

He had just received a long letter from his father which discussed the progress he had made with Laws’ History [the book Sheriff had previously requested]. He had reached the Volume on Charles II, and Sherriff reckoned ‘it must be a very interesting book.’ His father had also written of the quiet country cycle rides he had been enjoying, and Sherriff trusted that it would not be long before he was able to go home and join him:

‘Things are going fast and furious here now, and we can never tell what is going to happen next – all I can hope is that I shall be one of the fortunate ones to come through safely and one can do nothing more than that – and to fall back on philosophy to save ones mind’.

He hoped that he would be able to write ‘occasional lines’ to Pips in the coming days, but knew that his father would be patient, ‘for you know what difficulties there are in writing’.

[Next letter: 2 August]

I pray I shall be lucky

Sheriff began a brief letter to his mother:

‘As we shall probably be going up into the line today I am taking the opportunity of writing a short line in case I do not have an opportunity for a day or so. We have had several days here now so had to expect to move and although we have no definite orders they will come through soon, I expect – I cannot tell at all what we are in for and simply trust and pray that I shall be lucky and come through safely – for as you say – some have got to come through safely and I hope I shall one among them.’

He went on to tell her that he had received the ring she had sent – it was ‘very nice indeed’, and he told her that he looked upon it as a gift from her, even although she was not paying for it. He did not feel he could wear two rings, so he would continue to wear the old one in the line, ‘because it has been through everything with me up till now’.

He had to keep the letters short, because he had to pack his gear, but he promised that he would write to her from the line whenever possible, but told her not to be surprised if she did not hear form hi for a while.

[Next letter: 31 July]

Rain!

The rain had started…

‘I am sitting in our tent with the rain coming down in torrents outside – during breakfast (all meals are held out of doors in fine weather) it started to come down and we quickly moved inside to finish – it reminds me of camping to hear the rain pattering down on the canvas and natural thunder is mingling with gun thunder just at present’.

They were still in the camp at Dickebusch, from where, the previous evening, he had again strolled into town with a friend, to do some shopping and have dinner (‘a pleasant relaxation from camp life’). They were ready to move if necessary, and he promised Pips, as he had many times in the past, that he would endeavour to send a letter home whenever he could. But he knew there might be tough times ahead:

‘it is quite a matter of luck even how a regiment fares as a whole – we may be lucky and in a few days be out resting with very little further trouble – or it may be the reverse, it is of little use worrying and hoping, it is of little use worrying and hoping’.

As ever, he was resolved to leave everything to fate, and not try to ‘frustrate’ it by doing anything which he had been told not to, nor by doing anything which was very obviously not the right thing to do. ‘The best thing,’ he had decided, ‘is to continue as one is advised, either by superior officers or by instinct’. He apologised that he could tell his father nothing of ‘Military Interest’, except to note that everyone was ‘as usuall “fed up” but at the same time cheerful to a certain extent – the speculation is “How long?” “Another Winter?”‘

He asked Pips to try to get hold of a pocket edition of ‘Laws History’ [most likely  Edward Laws’ History of Little England Beyond Wales, published in 1888], for he was determined, ‘if I once again find myself safe at home’, to return to his favourite pursuits, and principal among those would be ‘the study of History and Antiquities’. His overall objective was to buy a small farm, and, supplemented by writing and teaching, to free himself from ‘the dependency of the office’ (although he was quite clear that he would return to the office after the war, for as long as it took him to be financially secure).

He thanked Pips for the long letter he had received from him, in which he had noted that he had been gardening on an evening recently which had been just like the one when Sherriff had returned home from leave. ‘How much would not I give for that 10 days over again,’ he sighed in reply, ‘I have dwelled on it so much since – lived it again and again…and come to the conclusion that it could not be improved’.

[Next letter: 30 July]

Pips’ happy lot

Sherriff, still in the tent encampment at Dickebusch, began his letter to his father by apologising for not having written much recently. He had been out of the line for three days now, but had spent much of the time trying to catch up on sleep:

‘One gets a certain amount of sleep in the line but it is disturbed and one of the greatest joys on coming out is to lie down and have an undisturbed sleep for several hours which is quite delightful’.

Their previous spell in the line had been ‘short but not sweet’, and they had been glad to get out for a few days rest. He knew they would be in again soon, but he was resolved to ‘bear it as patiently as possible’, and trust that he would be one of the lucky ones to come through it unharmed. Surely, he felt, the war could not last many more months – and ‘if only the Russians would pull themselves together I am sure things would end early’.

Pips had obviously just written a letter informing him of the air-raids that had been taking place [with daylight raids now mounted by Gotha bombers], but Sherriff was unimpressed at the suffering of his fellow Londoners:

‘You say in your letter you are now having to bear the hardships of war on account of the aeroplane raids – if only I could have those in exchange for these! What would the Londoners think if there was a fleet of aeroplanes dropping bombs day in and day out – all night too – not a moment when something does not drop somewhere. What would I not give for an occasional day with no firing at all as you get in London – if only some of the Londoners could have a day over here and then be put back into London I am sure they would not worry over an occasional bombing – specially when they have cellars to run into anywhere (which we don’t always have, and even if we have must not always use if on duty) – I am afraid you do not appreciate your happy lot sufficiently.’

Having got that off his chest he reported that he had been experiencing a ‘touch of biliousness’ of late, which he put down to the effects of recently inhaling some gas (‘very slightly though’). And it clearly hadn’t stopped him going into town the previous day, where he had enjoyed a walk around, as well as lunch and dinner (‘it is such a change to get away like that’).

Just as he was closing up his letter to Pips the Corporal was coming round to pick up the mail, so his mother had to settle for a very brief letter that was little more than an assurance that he was well, and a promise of a longer letter in the near future.

[Next letter: 29 July]

Going to town

Sherriff and his Battalion were now back in reserve, in a tent encampment near Dickebusch, a mile or so behind the lines. They had moved back there the day before after spending a couple of days in the support trenches following their departure from the front line. He was enjoying the rest, as he told his mother:

‘We are still out of the line but of course may go in at any time now. Meanwhile we are having a fairly good rest out here – it is pleasant, after all, to be anywhere so long as it is a fair way from the front line.’

If he received permission, he intended to take a trip into a nearby town that afternoon, to get away from the camp, and to do some shopping.

Scottish Wood, where C & D companies had been in support trenches two days earlier. From Herbert Sherriff’s account of their Battlefield Tour in 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

‘Things go on just as they did before I came home, ‘ he noted, rather wearily – but at least he had the happy memory of his 10-day break at home. He hoped that, if the war carried on into the winter, he might be scheduled for his next leave around Christmas time (‘that is, if the leave keeps on’).He often thought of the time he spent at home on leave, and had come to the conclusion that he could not have spent it any better: ‘I think there was nothing that could have improved our holiday and I am so thankful nothing occurred to mar it, such as a lot of wet weather or anything like that.’

And with that he told her that he had to go. He apologised for choosing to spend his time going out on walks, rather than writing her long letters – ‘but you cannot realise the pleasure of going for a quiet walk into a town with [Percy] High or another friend and having a quiet dinner and an hour’s rest’. But he promised to write later if they were still staying in the camp.

[Next letters: 27 July]

Banging and crashing

Back in the line once more, Sheriff found time for very short notes to both parents. He told Pips that he was ‘safe and well at present and…I very much hope I shall remain so’, although it was ‘pretty hot’ in the district he was now in.’

The Battalion Diary shows that they were now near Hill 60, in the Ypres sector, and that during the 23 and 24 July the German shelling continued almost unabated, except for a few hours in the early morning. The British artillery returned fire, and both sides were active in the air as well. This explains Sherriff’s complaint to his mother: ‘Here I am in the middle of it again, with all of the banging and crashing and uncertainty…’. He also told Pips that the noise was ‘very worrying’, and that it kept him awake, although, on a more positive note, ‘our quarters might be worse and at least they are comfortable enough for me to write you this note’.

He reassured his mother that he was still alright, and that, in their comfortable quarters, because of the fine weather, he found no need for a blanket while sleeping: ‘all one requires is a towel and washing materials and Macintosh, and plenty of smokes and a book’, although there was not much time for reading because they tried to get as much sleep as possible.

He told Pips that he hoped they were enjoying the sea good weather, but trusted they would be able to make more use of it: ‘It is almost impossible to imagine the quiet river and parks but providing I get through safely these pleasures will be more appreciated than ever before.’

[Sherriff wrote his two brief letters home on 23 July. During the course of the next twenty-four hours or so, 3 of his fellow officers – Lt Picton, 2nd Lt Bogue, and Captain Pirie (the Battalion Doctor) –  would be killed by German shelling, and another – 2nd Lt Ellis – wounded. Pirie’s death is described in a letter from the Chaplin to his sister on 25 July:

‘I am very sorry indeed to write this letter. Your brother, Captain Pirie, the M.O. of this Battalion, was killed yesterday in the trenches. He was working in his aid post when a shell burst right in the entrance and killed him immediately…’

The letter may be found in Michael Lucas’s published version of Pirie’s diary of his time in uniform.

Sherriff was sufficiently affected by their deaths that, in 1921, when on a cycling tour of his wartime haunts with his father, he made a point of visiting and photographing the site of their graves.]

Pirie’s grave, photographed by Sheriff in May 1921. (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/9/7)

The graves of Bogue and Picton, as photographed by Sheriff in May 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

[Next letter: 26 July]

Away from everything natural

After having relatively little time to write during the course of his four day march back towards Ypres, Sheriff now found himself with enough time to write two letters home.

Writing first to his mother he repeated what he had written to Pips the day before – that he was now back at the place where he had been before he left on leave, and that he was expecting to go into the front line the next day. He was clearly girding himself for the thought of the trials to come:

‘It is some time now since I was last in the line and there is no doubt, of course, as to it being my turn, and I sincerely hope I shall be lucky enough to come through safely as well as through all future periods in the line… We are bound to have a fairly rough time at some period during our next spell in the line – but some have got to come through safely and the most I can do is hope and trust that i shall be one of those. There is a chance of being wounded which – providing it was slight – would in any case mean a certain rest. Even should the worst happen, as I have said before dear, it would only be others who would know or care, I would know nothing of it. Whenever you are miserable read your little Marcus Aurelius for you will know that whenever I am miserable I will be doing the same…’

He quickly closed his letter to his mother, warning her that she might not hear from him for several days at a time, but that she was not to worry – he would write whenever he was able. He then turned his attention to Pips, and it is clear that, by the time he wrote that letter, his orders had firmed up a little. His Company was moving into the trenches that night, but he was staying an extra night at the transport lines.

He noted that the nights were becoming longer again, and the mornings darker, and ‘by September we shall have an equality of night and day again.’ Whether it was due to the encroaching nights, or the anxiety about what he feared was to come in the line, his mind was turning to thoughts of home:

‘There is one thing that I long for more than I can tell and that is the joy of those long winter evenings with a big fire in the dining room and the billiards and stamps and reading and after-supper walks – they are joys that this life makes me appreciate more than ever. We get good walks in some parts of the country here – but nothing like one gets in some parts of England – you rarely see the wild meadow land, the heaths and avenues of trees that you see in England.’

Thinking of the English countryside made him contrast it with the scenes which he was shortly to encounter:

‘Now tomorrow up we go into the line again and incidentally away from everything natural and beautiful – for some days it will be simply wallowing in mud or perhaps dust with evil smelling holes to live in which one clings to like a godsend and all the time there is the incessant crash of shells – you can imagine how many men like it – but everyone – that is every one in the Infantry – has to take his turn and our turn has arrived’.

And with that he closed his letter, since he had to complete his packing. But he hoped that he would soon be back out of the line again, and able to write some more and longer letters home.

[Next letters: 23 July]

A rough time ahead

Despite Sherriff’s earlier hopes that he might find some time to write a longer letter home, the march back towards the front had been too tiring for him to manage more than a couple of short pages at a time. Today’s letter was no different:

‘We have now reached the end of our marching and tomorrow I believe we go into the line – so I am taking this opportunity of writing in case I am not able to tomorrow.’

He must have known something was up, for although he told Pips that he knew ‘extraordinarily little’ of their future movements, he suspected that ‘we are bound to have a fairly rough time in our next journey up the line’: he hoped that he would be ‘one of the lucky ones to come through safely’, and felt that he would need to use all of his philosophical powers to stay cheerful. It had been some time since he had last been in the line, and he recognised that the outcome of the next trip would largely be a matter of chance.

Apologising for the brevity of his letter (he had much to do in terms of packing and cleaning his equipment), he also warned that the letters in the days ahead might be similarly brief, ‘as the opportunities for writing are small’ – but he promised at least a ‘line now and then’ to let them all know how he as.

[Next letters: 21 July]