On 14 December 1916 Sherriff was invited to dinner by Captain G(erald) S(pence) Tetley, Commander of ‘D’ Company. He refers to it in a couple of sentences in a letter home on 16 December, but remembered it well enough that, when he came to write his Memories of Active Service a few years later, he had expanded the account to nine pages.
Captain Tetley was a 29-year old Barrister, who had joined the Royal Fusiliers as a ranker when war broke out, before being commissioned and joining the 9th East Surreys in October 1915. He was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts at Messines, as described to Sherriff by Cowper, one of Tetley’s subalterns:
‘He’s as weak as a flea, but he’s got the heart of a lion. Up at Messines they had a fearful bombardment of gas shells, mixed with shrapnel and God knows what – they blew the parapet down, and Tetley kept building it up. Every time he got going, he and the parapet got blown away again – and every time Tetley kept crawling back, like an earwig you flick away with your finger.’1
After being wounded at Messines, he returned in time to fight at Delville Wood, on the Somme, in September 1916, when the battalion took punishing casualties.
Sherriff first met Tetley just a day or two after arriving at the Battalion in September. He had gone in search of Percy High, and, waiting for him in the garden of the house in which he was billeted, he was suddenly confronted by an officer who commenced talking to him at tremendous speed, telling him to take off his sword-frog2, since they were not worn in France. Here’s how Sherriff described him in his Memoir:
‘[He] was one of the most complex of the many extraordinary people I met in the army. He was a pale, delicate looking man with a long straight nose, a blue chin and very short sight. He was also slightly knock kneed, and most untidily dressed. When he fell down…he always came apart into four pieces – his hat, his stick, himself and his spectacles…He was the quickest tempered man I ever met, flying into a rage in the most childish way on the slightest provocation. ..In the line he was a marvel: naturally high strung and nervous, he was always with his men should there be any danger…He prided himself on being a High Churchman: he was an Oxford man and a barrister, and he had the vilest flow of the most unimaginably profane language that I ever heard.’3
2nd Lt William Henry (Harry) Lindsay was two years older than Sherriff, and, like Tetley, had served in the ranks before being commissioned, in his case in the Rifle Brigade. He joined the 9th East Surreys just before Sherriff, in September 1916, as it was replenishing its ranks after Delville Wood. He had not been awarded the M.C. when he and Tetley had dinner with Sherriff – that would come following his involvement in a daring daytime trench raid, towards the end of January 1917 – the raid which is most likely the model for the one in Journey’s End. Sherriff thought him ‘one of the nicest boys in the Battalion’.4
Tetley and Lindsay (whom Tetley called ‘Lizzie’) were ‘great friends’, and together they gave Sherriff a ‘splendid welcome’, plying him with cherry brandy, and regaling him with their stories, including how each of them had been wounded – Tetley through the leg at Messines, and Lindsay through the neck (which Sherriff thought a ‘beastly place to get it – in the neck, so near the throat – it made me cold to think of it.’) Tetley felt sorry for Sherriff ‘cooped up in that little dugout of yours’, with no-one to talk to, but Sherriff told him that the enjoyed it. Tetley, ebullient as ever, assured Sherriff that the part of the line which they were currently holding was not at all bad (while acknowledging that the centre company, which had to hold a string of crater posts, ‘have an absolutely bloody time some days.’)
Sherriff obviously enjoyed the evening immensely, for he wrote that, after he had left their dugout, ‘…as I walked back in the moonlight down the eerie trenches in Tenth Avenue, with the dark shadow of a rat gliding along in front, I rather wished I was back with the Battalion after all.’
1 Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, p453
2 The open sheath attached to the belt in which a sword would be placed.
3 Memories of Active Service, p43.
4 This quote, and the rest of the account of the evening can be found in Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, p459-457
Some of the information in this post, and in others related to individuals in the 9th East Surreys, is taken from Michael Lucas’s excellent book: