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.

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