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]